After leaving Brooklyn, New York for Levittown, Long Island, my father had his first heart attack at age forty. When he recovered, he went back to teaching high school mathematics and going for his doctorate in education at night. My older brother and I knew none of these details except when my grandmother would come to visit. To keep us in line, she'd come up with these dire warnings, "Don't get your father upset. His heart isn't good." Or "Don't play with sticks, you'll poke someone's eye out and they'll need a glass eye for the rest of their life." There are more, which totally baffled us, being only 6 and 4 years old at the time.
Don't get me wrong,I loved my grandmother immensely and have many fond memories that are part of what makes me who I am today. She also had some very strong opinions on gender specific duties, which looking back, I don't agree with now, but at the time I just did what she said and tried to iron my Dad's work shirts.
This is where Canada comes into the story. It was winter in Long Island; my parents went away for a few days or a week on a plane and my grandmother was taking care of us, my brother, me, and my two younger sisters. For some reason I don't recall, we were obsessed with things Eskimos did, in particular, building igloos. So after a nice big snowfall, we all got bundled into snow suits, boots, and mittens and ventured out into the front yard to build an igloo.
My grandmother said she would watch us from the picture window in the living room while she knitted another baby blanket for my mother.(She didn't tell us what or why she was knitting.) Instead, she cautioned, "Don't fall asleep in the snow because you could all die and it would be bad for your father's heart." By then, I think my brother was 9; I was 7, and my two sisters were barely 4 and 2 years old. I took charge and assured them, "Don't worry, you know how Gram is. She's always saying scary things. Let's build the igloo!"
So we did and when it was done, we took turns curling up inside the igloo of potential death. I was last and by then, chilled to the bone, but as soon as I curled up inside the snowy tomb, I swear an odd peace came over me, a warmth. Like the drowsiness before falling to sleep and then I heard my grandmother calling. Later I learned my siblings had gone inside to get hot chocolate and left me out in the cold.
So this is where Canada really comes into the story. My parents returned home, the igloo had melted, and they told us we were moving to a new house. My father showed us brochures and pictures of British Columbia, Vancouver and said that a school had offered him a better job there. He showed us how far away it was on a globe of Earth. He promised we might meet real Eskimos. As one by one, we started crying (no kids want to move away from home at that age), my mother took over the explaining. I can't remember who of us spoke first, probably me, a small caped crusader, "But what about our cousins? What about our parakeets and our pet turtles? (And then I played the winning card)...What about Grandma? Can she still take the train to visit us?"
Instead of an answer, my father poured himself a glass of Scotch. He may have been smart but he knew little about young children, even his own. My mother, in a rare moment of bravery for those times, got a look on her face that was stone. "Tell the children about the other job offer, Eddie, the one in New Jersey, the one we've decided is a better choice."
Recently I asked my mother about that choice and she explained: "The pay would have been better, but at the time they said we couldn't have dual citizenship. I was expecting another baby and we hoped for more children as well, but they would have been born in Canada." Then she told me what sealed the deal for her was when she and my father visited elementary schools where we would attend. The schools allowed corporal punishment and she drew her line in the snow on that.