MOTHERLANDS: 15. Surviving Canadian Winter and the New Chevrolet (excerpt)


Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver

My country is not a country, it’s the winter

--Gilles Vigneault

Edmonton, Alberta

The car was their symbol of hope, what they’d strived for in the years since they left the rubble that was post-war England. The accident ripped the scab off the past and reminded Margaret how impermanent life could be.

Shafts of wintry sunlight streamed through the window, dust motes dancing in the stillness of the room. Margaret lay on the bed, a blanket pulled up over her head.

‘Here’s a cup of tea, luv. Try to drink it.’ George slipped it onto the bedside table. He sighed, tiptoeing out into the living-room to dismantle the Christmas tree, ornament by ornament, branch by branch. Looking in at their three small children, he stood in suspended animation. Bitter relief flooded his veins.

They’re so quiet, so very quiet…but they’re intact. They’re alive. He shivered.

The young couple had shared their dreams—dreams of flying down the highway together, borne along by rock ‘n’ roll and wide-open plains, the endless horizon and the blue Rockies rising in front of them, their tent and sleeping bags on the roof. In the first years in Canada, the family had thrived. Margaret had found a job and they made English friends—as immigrants do—a way to cobble together the new and the old—a way to find belonging and get on their feet.

A car had meant freedom—it meant good-bye to rain-soaked England, to war and penny-pinching rations. They discussed all the pros and cons of the new Chevrolet late into the night, George wavering between tension and excitement. Hire-purchase, small luxuries and a new-found ease buoyed them along.

Then came the sting: the debt, the relentless interest and the costs of setting up a life and raising children in a new country—all with no family backup and no experience of North American ways. They pulled themselves together once again and worked off the price of the car while Margaret created the comfortable home she had longed for during her disrupted youth in the Liverpool Blitz. Since arriving in Canada, the couple had overcome the fatigue and the stress brought by constant change—with the added expense of the Chevrolet, it had all been harder than expected.

Now in an instant, their driveway lay vacant. On that particular day, the events Margaret met lay upon her like a tombstone. Unable to cry, unable to move, unable to do anything but slide in and out of her dreams…dreams of the frozen North of Canada and her children—slipping out of her outstretched arms—dissolving into the swirling snow. The nightmarish vision bore down upon her.


Winter: Alberta, Canada

When trickles of condensation froze on interior walls or when the inner and outer windows frosted over trapping the air pocket in between---Margaret’s children played at making frost stars, at melting viewing holes on the windowpanes with their warm fingers or at blowing warm breath across its skin of ice. The snap of arctic air, the surreal moonlit glow across the vast sheets of frozen snow or the blizzard-driven snowdrifts---all of these stood in stark contrast to the cocooned nest where they lived out the short days and long nights of endless winter.

For Margaret the crushing realisation dawned: she had chosen this over a British army posting to Singapore. They had transplanted in another far-flung outcrop, far from family and all they had known before.

On milder days, when the thermometer hovered around zero or when the sharp wind from the north dropped, the clack of hockey sticks, the ‘pok’ of the puck, the swishing and scraping of ice skaters echoed through the neighbourhood streets, from the local outdoor ice-rink or from backyard rinks. The frigid air created an echo carrying far afield children’s voices—their shrieks of excitement and howls of pain, as they rattled on their sleds down the icy slipways their fathers had created.

Margaret, like all the other mothers, ran the gauntlet between inside play and outside play, racing up and down the basement stairs sorting out squabbles in the playroom or helping small children peel off woollen hats, mittens, scarves, snowsuits and boots each time they wanted to come in or go out—leaving large puddles of melted ice and snow in the entrance or the mudroom.

At times like these, Margaret’s niggling doubts bubbled up. Mild shock stopped her in her tracks. Her children had become Canadians, their English accent erased and their passions subverted. She watched them float out of reach, as they gained a passion for ice-skating, ice-hockey, popcorn and hotdogs, and the all-important weekly television broadcast, ‘Hockey Night in Canada.’ Without a backward glance, they embraced Canadian life, building snowmen, engaging in snowball fights and making snow angel body-prints, as they traversed the snow-laden field between their home and school.

The glamour of this new life diverted Margaret at first—a round of dinners, balls and sporting events which she attended with her handsome, uniformed husband. After the trauma of her earlier life, she found comfort in these new routines, in stability. It was a time when she allowed herself a few of the luxuries previously denied to her and—for the children, a magical Christmas with mounds of presents, tangerine oranges, cholate coins and real snow.

And they had the car, the shiny new Chevrolet.

Yet her sense of unease persisted. She never got used to what she viewed as excess, and this chafed at her long-held habits of frugality and discipline. On the fateful January day in Edmonton, Alberta, her fitful sleep was overshadowed by the dark clouds of Fate.


The impact exploded against the side of the Chevrolet like a massive wrecking ball. When Margaret’s eyes opened, she looked to her right–-a wall of white metal blocked her view. Head spinning.

Is that snow? No…it’s ice…no…oh God no…it’s the truck…the removals truck…the one coming at us from the intersection. Time dragged. What’s this on my face? Slowly, raising her hand she touched her cheek to discover reddish liquid—stuck to her fingers. The flesh was rough and frayed. Blood?

‘Darling, darling, are you awake? Are you alright? Can you move?’ George touched her shoulder.

‘Are you guys OK?’ Voices came from outside the car.

‘The children! The children!’ Margaret’s voice scratched at the frozen air and she blinked, blinded and rigid in the glare of the shattered windscreen. The months and years of struggle, of loving care, of doing without, their brief period of ease—flashed through her mind and turned sour…their innocence dashed. At that moment, the hard-earned Chevy was nothing more than a relic, a sacrifice to their new gods.

‘There’s three of them. Children.’ Emergency personnel hammered and tugged on the doors—pushing against the window frames. A rush of icy air ushered in large hands—hands that palpated small throats, chests, wrists—hands followed by adult faces.

‘Three live ones.’

Tilted upwards on the back seat, the children whimpered and shivered. Their pink fingers pressed against the steamed-up windows, melting the ice-sheen until the ambulance officers slid them out from the small pockets they had been sealed into. Their mother leaned unsteadily against her husband—both of them mute—while other drivers wrapped the children in jackets and scarves and carried their little bodies to the warmth of neighbouring cars.

The ice-cold shock delivered in that intersection unearthed Margaret's deep-seated anxieties. Down in the recesses of her mind, she had buried the Blitz and the transience, the fragility of life. From that moment, a wall rose up, a barricade to keep her children, her beloved family, her tiny world, safe from this cold new land.


Also...CHECK OUT these talented writers on World Writers' Collective Melbourne:

Peter Wigg

Louise Crossley

Jacqueline Cripps

Angelique Fawns

Amanda Burchell Ravell

David Mckenzie:

Mat Clarke

Écoutez ce beau hymne de Gilles Vigneault: MON PAYS

Listen to Gilles Vigneault's beautiful tribute to his native land: MY HOMELAND

Featured Posts
Recent Posts