Another Holiday Season come and almost gone, just waiting to ring in the New Year. As our four boys have grown into men of 15-20 years of age our lives are a little less chaotic and that includes the holidays. This leaves me with a little more time to reflect on my childhood Christmas memories.
As a seven-year-old in the 1980’s, before technology kept our thumbs busy, I craved staying up late and listening to the adults. Holidays such as Christmas and New Year’s eve in Algeria were no exception and extra special!
This version of a Christmas tree was a branch pilfered off an evergreen somewhere on the outskirts of Setif, Algeria. It was covered with homemade ornaments. I would say this was the first time I realized my mum had artistic abilities. I remember cutting the strips of colored paper and linking the strips with liquid glue squeezed out of the rubber tip whose slit would sometimes close up and had to be pierced with scissors. No gluesticks that changed color for me! The mushroom was my favorite! I marveled at the Santa paper ornament that came from the pages of one of many magazines my mum would import to keep herself busy. Our clothing was also made by my mum most of the time. Her sawing machine and knitting needles were her constant companion. I’m not sure if that was to save money or to keep her sanity, probably both.
I don’t recall snow on Christmas but I do recall some snow in late March, on my birthday. It was a fantastic site! North Africa with palm trees…and snow!
As Christmas gave way to another celebration…the New Year… our small community of Polish people who were brought together by work, celebrated these holidays with table settings as close to Polish tradition as we could.
The oranges were a treat and an anomaly for a Polish anything. Wine acquired by nefarious ways in the Muslim country, crostini sandwiches and makowiec, were consumed. My brother and I were the only kids in this pool of adults. With nothing else to busy us, we hung on every word spoken through the clouds of cigarette smoke. One of the common topics of conversation were politics and dreams. Big American dreams. One of the above grainy photos has a man with a stuffed black garbage bag with a US dollar symbol on it. I didn’t get this at the time, but all the adults found it very amusing. In the Polish communist era that was the dream. To get to America (that was the USA for us not the continent).
At the time I knew America from the words of Walt Disney with Disneyland in the background from the opening credits of black and white mickey mouse shows we watched with French subtitles. I yearned to go to Disneyland.
I also knew where America was from the globe that my brother and I used to spin and play the “where-my-finger-points-when-the-globe-stops-spinning-is-where-I-will-live” game. My father had visited the country several times during his University days on UN scholarships. He practiced his English by reading Time magazine, I remember watching him read it and telling him that English must be such a difficult language to learn, much more difficult than the French we were learning in Algeria.
There are so many stories that are flooding back as I write this, particularly the difficult times my mum had, she wasn’t working, she was taking care of us brats and schooling us which she did out of necessity not desire. She had few friends as she did not venture out culturally and the Polish community was scattered around Setif and not very large. She yearned for her family and friends back in Poland. Then a few years later she had to be uprooted yet again, further away with no going back as we left Poland illegally, and immigrated to Canada..legally (a lot of work!). It would be several years before Poland gained its independence which allowed us to go back to visit family.
Since my brother and I were little and went to an Arabic school to learn French, speaking the language came quite quickly for us. My mum struggled and we helped her with homework, and then again as we moved to an English speaking country. Even after she worked in the accounts payable department she would ask for my help with things she needed to communicate with her coworkers and employer. Ugh! I was such a snarky teen and reluctantly helped her. Yet another apology coming my mum’s way.
I had a wonderful childhood although I felt the pressures of material society. You don’t ask for much when you know there isn’t much to be had. Somehow I survived without those $35 jeans in 1987. My mum worked on a factory line making $2.75/hr to supplement the government stipend, while my father went to community English classes. So those jeans had no part in my life. Within two years my father bought us our first home and two years after that we upgraded to one twice the size. By the time I graduated high school, eight years after landing in Toronto, the mortgage was paid for and so was my and my brother’s University. Although as immigrants to Canada we had financial limitations, my parents made the best of what they had and as many immigrants do, with a vigorous drive we made our American dreams come true.
I had no idea that within three years of the above photos we would make our way to Toronto Canada and within a couple of years in the workforce, a job would bring me to America, to live out my big dreams. I am still living them out as I write this in my beautiful studio.
For my children, who have never needed or wanted for anything, I hope they can appreciate my past and be grateful for their future.