My mother, Paula, has quite a few black-and-white photographs from her childhood hanging up in the spare room of her Bangor home.
My sister, brothers and myself have always seen them, but I don’t think we’ve ever really grasped what they truly mean. We just joke with our mother that the spare room is her “shrine room” and leave it at that.
There is one picture, and forgive me, I don’t even know if it’s hanging up in the shrine, and it is among my mother’s most precious ones. It was taken 50 years ago today.
Standing on steps descending a plane is my mother, at age 16, her two younger sisters and their parents upon landing in Montreal from Maastricht, the Netherlands. They had just emigrated, which is an insensitive term for leaving behind a beloved homeland to find a better life elsewhere. Four of the five are trying to smile while my Aunt Tony is crying and seriously clutching a stuffed toy.
Last week, and I haven’t told my mother this yet, I was looking through a box of mementos that my father, Paul, had put together from my childhood. In there was a small, official-looking piece of paper that I hadn’t even seen before. That my eyes had never glanced at that paper was strange because my mother loves to show off what little she has from Holland.
Holding that paper, I had to catch my breath. I was shaking. It was a true connection between then and now.
The card is a Canadian Immigration Identification Card, stamped twice by officials at Dorval Airport on Aug. 27, 1953. My mother, her full name on the card reading “Moermans, Paulina Henrica Anna Gerarda,” arrived on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.
The Canadian government was kind enough to label my mother – “Status: Immigrant landed” – and inform her of how valuable the card would be to her in the future.
“Duly stamped by an immigration officer, this card is evidence of your status in Canada,” the card says. “It is required for customs clearance and will also prove useful for other purposes.”
Then, in bold letters, are the words “retain it carefully.”
The government didn’t need to tell my mother to “retain” anything. She remembers everything about the day she left Holland and the day she arrived in Canada. She had even considered traveling to Holland on the same airlines today as a way to retrace the flight and relive history, but post-9-11 fears have grounded her.
E-mail and low-cost international telephone rates keep my mother connected to her best friends and family in Holland, but still she misses them. One is dying, and her Aunt Paula has Alzheimer’s. Another friend is offering her a place to stay if she wants to visit them one more time.
My mom, as I’m sure must be the case with most immigrants, struggles with finding her sense of place. Holland produced my mother, the human being she is today, and it is her foundation. But the United States that she also loves is where she resides, and she tells me she doesn’t want to live in Holland anymore. I sometimes wonder about that, especially when after I’ve heard a hundred times, “In Holland, we do this…”
We moved to the United States from Canada when I was six months old. My mother met my father in Ottawa, where her family eventually settled. She fell in love with the dashing dark-haired man in the charcoal-gray suit with a red tie. They married, moved to Montreal so my dad could attend McGill University, and they had their first child. And then they had me. In February 1962, they packed us up and moved to Wisconsin for my dad’s first real job as a paper-company engineer. My two brothers are born-and-bred Americans.
My mother, the “immigrant-landed,” has been called a “displaced person” who should go back home. I once told her to move back, too. So did my brother.
She was homesick and we wanted her to feel better.
In 1967, my mother became an American – not Dutch-American – at a courthouse in Janesville, Wis. I remember how proud she was that day. Two years later, my father, my sister and I became Americans in the same courthouse. We were equally proud afterwards, even though I was focused on the court clerk who wouldn’t give my sister and I a congratulatory American flag. The clerk said we became citizens under my dad’s name and he would get one flag for the three of us. I put up a stink. I had taken the oath, too. The judge overheard me and gave us each a flag. I felt even better then.
Today, my mom’s Dutch spirit outweighs her American pride. She will shed a lot of tears, be quiet at times and probably be angry, too. Maybe she’ll even feel a bit celebratory.
My daughters, MaggieBeth and Lauren, will bring her a “Happy Anniversary” cake decorated with red, white and blue frosting, and Mom will chose which flag those patriotic colors represent, the one for Holland or the one for the United States. Knowing her, she’ll probably pick both.
And today, it will be me handing my mom her immigration card. I’m going to take a picture of her holding it, for her granddaughters, MaggieBeth, Lauren and Emily.
Deborah Turcotte is the Bangor Daily News’s business writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.