First Day

by - Monday, January 09, 2017

by Jennifer Ellis

I didn’t want to go. My sister and I were sitting on the couch, silent and sullen. I surveyed the aftermath from our Last-Night-in-California-Party as my dad packed his carry-on with our passports.

“Don’t forget to bring your jackets with you on the plane,” he cautioned my sister and I. “It might be cold when we land in Toronto.” I furrowed my brow and sunk deeper into the sofa, hoping that it would swallow me whole.

american immigrates to canada
I hadn’t been on a plane since the summer of 1987. My sister and I went to Ft. Lauderdale to visit my grandparents; my mother’s parents. My mom was still alive. She was deteriorating from Multiple Sclerosis, and my dad was struggling to keep it together. They all thought it would be a good idea to ship us to Florida while he figured out how to make ends meet and take care of my mom’s medical bills. No one ever imagined that she would be dead just before Christmas 1989. On the way to the airport to leave for Florida, I’d puked all over my new tennis shoes, and all over the back seat of Grandpa Arties rental car. Almost three years later, I could still taste the bitter taste of fear and bile, as we drove away from 510 Winchester Ave. on the way to LAX.

I somehow made it on to the plane without a repeat performance of the 1987 throw-up disaster. I looked out the window for virtually the whole flight. Until we crossed the border and started to descend. I turned to my dad in a panic.

“Daddy, where are the mountains?” I questioned.

“There aren’t any mountains in Toronto, Jen,” my dad gently explained. “Canada has beautiful mountains in B.C., But no mountains in Ontario.”

I turned back to the window and stared down at the foreign flat landscape. And I wondered how I could live without the familiar view and protection of the Verdugo hills.

We landed late afternoon. The line for customs stretched all the way back to the end of the room, and my patience from staring at the sterile orange tiled floor was running out. There was no escaping this room until the stone-faced guy sitting behind the partition studied your face and your passport and asked when your last bowel movement was. Then and only and then you were allowed to officially ‘enter Canada.’

Once we reached the terminal (from what felt like escaping the Iran hostage crisis) I asked my dad for some change to get a drink from the vending machine. It cost a dollar ten for a can of Coke that was about the size of a juice box. What a rip off! How dare these Canadians deny my oversized American thirst?! I went into the duty-free to inspect the magazine rack. I picked up the latest Teen Beat. Finally, something familiar. As I admired the latest shot of New Kids on the Block from their Magic Summer tour splashed on the cover, I noticed something under the title: “Canada’s #1 Teen Magazine.” I was officially in the Twilight Zone; and there was no hope of escape. No matter how much my surroundings seemed familiar, it was clear I was no longer in Glendale. I wasn’t even in the United States, for Gods’ sake. I was in Canada. This weird place with small and expensive cans of Coke.

My Auntie Penny greeted my sister and my dad and I with a big smile and even bigger hugs.

“Oh my goodness, it’s so great to see you Jen!” Auntie Penny gushed.

 “Hi,” I said nervously as she squeezed me hello.

I had never met her, and wasn’t sure about getting hugs from people I didn’t know. I couldn’t help but feel a familiar warmth from her greeting, and that somewhat eased my new immigrant anxiety.

We got into a taxi and headed to Scarborough to Grandpa's house. Our new home. The sky was covered in clusters of grey and white clouds as we headed down the freeway. Auntie Penny called it a highway. Highways were what you drove on heading into the dessert, I thought. I wanted to correct her and tell her that we were on a freeway. I decided to keep my mouth shut when I noticed that this freeway contrasted the chaos of L.A traffic, as we moved down the road without stopping even once. This was definitely not a freeway.

As we turned onto my grandpa's street I noticed that the trees had stared to turn colour. Grandpa George lived on a nice suburban street with big houses. No apartment complexes. The houses all had well-manicured, green lawns with perennials in the front gardens. I’d only seen something like that on Who’s the Boss?

As I got out of the car I was assaulted by an unfamiliar wind that seemed to permeate my sweater. I quickly followed Auntie Penny inside and dropped my luggage in the foyer. I was stunned. Grandpa’s house had stairs. I remember I’d always wanted to live in a house with a staircase. I always thought it would make me feel rich. I was trying not to show how impressed I was, but I couldn’t wait to brag about my new staircase to my friend Monica. Then a sinking feeling washed over me. Monica was thousands of miles away. Telling her wouldn’t be the same as showing her. I distracted myself from the reality of my new life by imagining that Tony and Angela lived around the corner.

Grandpa received us with warm greetings and his captivating British accent. He looked like the typical grandpa: bald on the top, white hair on the sides of his head, often donning a driver’s cap and sporting grandpa sweaters. I think he had come to California twice to visit. He bought me a Pound Puppy-which I loved. He had lost his dear Olive, my grandmother, the same year I had lost my mother. It was a hard time for our family. Grandpa wasn’t in good health. He seemed fine, but he had a pace-maker placed in his chest recently and was suffering from heart disease. I wanted to tell him I knew how he felt; that I’m sure I looked fine, but my heart was hurting too.

That night, as my dad was setting the table for dinner, I opened the fridge to look for the milk. At the bottom of the fridge were bags filled with a white milky substance. I was totally grossed out. I was convinced it was some kind of IV medication bag for grandpa. There's no way that was the milk.

“Daddy, I can’t find the milk!” I shouted.

“I told you it’s on the bottom shelf,” he said.

I closed the fridge and stormed into dining room as he was setting the table.

“Daddy,” I huffed. “All I see is bags of white stuff.”

“Yeah that’s the milk. It’s in the bags,” he said casually, as he laid out Grandma Olives’ china.

My universe imploded.

“What is wrong this place?!” I fumed. “How the hell am I going to drink milk from a bag?”

“You’ll get used to it,” he chuckled.

I felt like the Powers That Be were trying to trick me into believing I was still in the United States. People drove in cars, wore blue jeans, spoke English. First with the mini Coke cans and now my milk in bags? What if I got kidnapped? No milk cartons on kitchen tables so people could see my missing chubby twelve-year-old face, while eating their cornflakes.

That night while trying to fall asleep I felt like I had actually been kidnapped. I was in an unfamiliar bedroom, lying in a different bed, with a different blanket. I lay there feeling completely helpless. I turned my head into my first ever down-filled pillow, and cried.

And cried some more.

I wished I could cry enough tears to wash me away back to California, where I was sure I belonged.

Jennifer Ellis was born and raised in Los Angeles, California until the age of twelve when she moved to Toronto with her family. Jennifer studied radio and print journalism and is currently working on her first book. She is an 80’s pop culture fanatic, loves to travel and write about her experiences especially when she finds the perfect apple fritter. She currently lives in Burlington, Ontario with her partner Mike and slightly insane, yet loveable cat Friday.

Want to know more about what it's like for an American immigrant to Canada? Watch for another slice of Jennifer's life in our March 2017 issue - available for pre-order HERE.

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