Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Whole New World

My mother was christened Vjekoslava Godinic when she was born but the family called her Slavica. Her father, my grandpa Ivan Godinic, left their home in Odra near Zagreb and travelled to Halifax by ship back in 1930. He planned to settle here in Ontario and earn enough money to pay for passage for his wife and daughter to eventually join him. My mother was only 6 months old when he departed. She wasn’t to see him again until she was 10. Times were hard in Canada back then and it was 1939 before he was able to save the money necessary to purchase tickets for his family.

Mom always insisted that she and my grandma, Mariya Godinic travelled to North America on the last voyage that the Queen Mary made before the onset of World War II. If that was the case, she and her mother would have travelled by train from Yugoslavia to the port city of Cherbourg to embark on their long voyage. Neither of them spoke a word of English or French and I can only imagine how stressful it would have been for them trying to make their way in totally unfamiliar territory.

The huge ship was a strange and intimidating world and they spent the first few days hidden away in their cabin subsisting on what was left of the food that her mother had brought along in the capacious bag that she carried with her at all times. Eventually, hunger forced them to venture out and they somehow found their way to the dining room. Mother and daughter sat in uncomfortable silence looking around at what other people were eating and drinking. A waiter brought them a menu but they just stared at the unfamiliar words in helpless indecision. Finally, my grandma, who was only twenty seven years old at the time, simply pointed at random to something on the page and shrugged at her daughter as if to say we’ll hope for the best. It wasn’t long before the waiter returned bearing a tray containing a teapot and cups and saucers along with milk, sugar and a small dish containing freshly cut wedges of lemon. He set it all before them and retreated with the empty tray.

Slavica couldn’t conceal her disappointment. The man hadn’t brought any food other than lemons and he hadn’t even brought any whiskey to flavor the tea. At home they’d always flavored their tea with a splash of whiskey. It was considered normal even for children. She’d never had it any other way. Her mother hushed her with a soft-spoken word and reached into the bag resting at her feet. She pulled out her own bottle of whiskey and proceeded to add a tiny measure to both cups before pouring the tea. She’d just set the bottle on the table when the waiter came hurrying across the room in a state of obvious agitation. He kept pointing at the bottle and shaking his head but she could make nothing of the torrent of words flowing from his mouth. He snatched the offending bottle from the table and Mariya, thinking he was about to make off with it, jumped up and took hold of it herself. For a moment they stood poised, gripping the bottle between them and staring into each other’s eyes in a contest of wills. The waiter glanced nervously at the other diners. He must have been conscious that they were making a scene and he decided on a new tactic. By using hand signals he finally managed to convey the idea that he wanted her to put the bottle away and that she shouldn’t have taken it out in the dining room. Of course she couldn’t understand his objections but she did get the gist of his message. The bottle was returned to the depths of her bag and she and my mother hurriedly finished their tea before making their escape.

They might never have summoned the nerve to return to the dining room if not for the kindness of a stranger. My mother remembers him as a large man in a fur coat. He was Russian but he spoke several languages and he took pity on the two of them. He made it his responsibility to help them and the rest of the voyage passed uneventfully. They would have landed in New York City and then made the rest of the journey into Canada by train.

That trip into Northern Ontario must have felt like an odyssey into the wilderness. The man who met them at the station was a virtual stranger to my mother. He was her father but she had no memory of him and it was as if she was meeting him for the very first time. Everything was strange and different. Children are resilient though. She would have to embrace this new life with all its challenges and make the best of it. She went to school determined to begin by learning a whole new language.  On her very first day one of the other children gave her the English name Gloria when the teacher couldn’t pronounce her name properly. She became Gloria for the rest of her life even though she discovered years later that her name should have been translated to Sylvia. She learned quickly and eventually was able to speak not only English, but French as well. She never did lose her accent though. I recently came across one of her hand written recipes for Mikrovave Chicken and I could almost hear her voice even though she’s been gone for many years. It made me smile. Young Vjekoslava Godinic definitely made her mark in the new world she found herself a part of.

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