Settlers’ Effects

This is a photo of the immigration document that inspired my memoir piece “Settlers’ Effects.” It appeared in the Canada 150 exhibit at the Art Gallery Northumberland When We Came From Away in November & December 2017.

Now that my husband and I have officially become senior citizens, it’s time to down-size almost fifty years of possessions. So periodically, we dive into the black holes of our house and drag out the contents of dark closets and kitchen shelves, dresser and desk drawers, bins packed away in the basement or garage. Once exposed, we quickly examine, sort, and discard piles of stuff that should have been recycled long ago. But inevitably we find things that bring our let’s-get-it-done frenzy to a full stop – a Polaroid photo, an ancient birthday card, a hand-knit sweater 3 sizes too small. And then there’s that one item that, like a lost puzzle piece, slides the panorama of a lifetime into a clearer and unequivocal focus.

Recently, in the bottom drawer of a rusty filing cabinet, I found a battered accordion file bound by a frayed elastic band. From its compartments, I pulled out an old manila envelope. Inside was a legal-sized, Canadian immigration document – the 1971 blue duplicate of our Settlers’ Effects. It had been filled out forty-five years ago by a customs agent in the hours after we crossed the border from the United States into Canada. In fading ink, its two, type-written pages listed our household possessions and vehicles that accompanied us to this northern border.

Settlers? I asked myself as I unfolded the document and read its title. Weren’t “settlers” people who migrated to rural areas after the pioneers arrived or “settled” the land by establishing farms and small towns? That wasn’t us. When we arrived we did not erect a crude shanty or a log house somewhere in the backwoods. No, we moved into the basement apartment of a brick row house in the middle of busy Toronto where streetcars rumbled past our door on Bathurst Street just south of Bloor.

We were Landed Immigrants, as labelled on the small, oblong, identification cards we received in the mail two months after our applications were finalized. We lived in a neighbourhood of immigrants, many who shopped like us in Kensington Market to the south and Honest Ed’s north of our building. But even if we were not “settlers” by the dictionary definition, that copy of our Settlers’ Effects revealed the beginning of a settlement story, the first chapter of our life in a new country.

In 1971, we had moved to Canada scarcely three months after I graduated from college south of Chicago where we had lived on campus in a student apartment. During the first two years of married life, we had purchased the Settlers’ Effects ticked off on that immigration document. The “living room suite” was an ugly, grey sofa and a solid, mahogany desk, plus a captain’s chair rescued from the furnace room. Our “bedroom suite” was a mattress with a box spring and an antique dresser with a wavy mirror. Our “kitchen set” a small oak table with four matching chairs. Everything had been bought for under $40 at garage sales. Ed had spent hours scraping off paint and refinishing the wooden pieces. As for the electronics, we imported an RCA television with tubes, a Lafayette “hi-fi set”, and my Underwood typewriter. Of course, we also had  bedding, clothing, linens, kitchen utensils, “chinaware” (my everyday Corning ware), glassware, and pots and pans. The “pictures” must have been Ed’s early art pieces. And we had boxes of books, a rug, a lamp, a vacuum cleaner, a sewing machine, and a fan. Plus fishing and camping equipment, which I think was Ed’s pole and tackle box.

That was it! We packed everything next to Ed’s 1967 Honda Motor Bike in a small U-Haul truck we shared with friends also moving north. It followed our 1964 Ford Fairlane across the Blue Water Bridge to a booth at the Sarnia border crossing. There we declared to an inscrutable officer that we wished to immigrate into Canada. He instructed us to pull over, and a polite customs agent ushered us into a stuffy room. In silence, perched nervously on folding chairs, we surrendered our immigration applications, along with notarized copies of birth and marriage certificates, health records, education records, and, most importantly, Ed’s offer of employment. Then we carefully counted out the $1000 cash needed to demonstrate we could support ourselves until our first pay cheques arrived. Without comment, the agent added up our “points” and determined they met the requirement necessary to immigrate.

Two hours later, we were back on the road with our Settlers’ Effects, headed to Toronto. Eight months later, we abandoned that shanty apartment and purchased a small house in Scarborough for $18,500. After four and a half years living by the Bluffs, we moved back to the downtown core and began to renovate a derelict boarding house in Cabbagetown. A dozen years later we pulled up stakes to raise our two young children in a rural setting reminiscent of our New Jersey childhood environments where I had freely roamed the woods by my house and Ed had caught snakes in the fields behind his. A back-to-the-land urge lead us along the 401 to the edge of a town 140 kilometres east of Toronto where fate or foolishness induced us to buy another run-down house on 1.5 acres not far from Lake Ontario. Maybe that’s when we became settlers.

(this piece was originally published in Hill Spirit III)

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