In 1953 my father left northern Ontario for California, to
find a job and a house for us to live in. A year later my
mother left with me and my two little brothers to join him.
I was almost five, Marc was three and Paul was eighteen
I'd lived with my grandmother and didn't know my mother that
well or my brothers, for that matter. I had been told we
were going on a trip but not that we were moving away and
not that we would probably never return. The train left
early in the morning. I remember sitting in my seat on the
train just before the train left, watching my grandmother
standing on the railroad platform in the snow and smiling,
waving a handkerchief with one hand and blowing us
kisses with the other. She was also crying.
We had to change trains in Chicago. I remember the train
station. It was huge, crowded and noisy. It was the middle
of the afternoon and we were hungry. My mother saw a
restaurant inside the station and headed towards it. I
didn't quite understand all that was going on right then.
It was explained to me later.
We sat down but the waitress didn't come and ask us what we
wanted to eat. My mother took a look around and quickly
realized why we weren't being served. We were sitting in the
black restaurant. She was tired and she didn't want to go
and try to find the restaurant that served white people so
she began to speak to us, in a voice louder than usual, in
French. My mother was bilingual, as fluent in English as she
was in French, but she hoped the waitress would think her an
ignorant foreigner and take pity on us. And she did.
When the waitress came to the table my mother pointed to
pictures of hamburgers and glasses of milk on the menu and
held up her fingers to indicate to the waitress how many she
wanted although, of course, she could easily read the menu.
I didn't understand why she was doing that at the time
because I knew she knew English but I didn't question it. I
do remember people sitting at tables around us staring at
us, some of them looking at us sternly, others looking at us
curiously and a couple who looked angry, but my mother
ignored them and kept speaking to us in French. I remember
looking at these people, noticing that they looked different
but I couldn't quite figure out how so I just followed my
mother's lead and ignored them too and smiled and chattered
with her and my brothers in French, happy that she wasn't
telling me to keep my voice down or to keep quiet. We ate
quickly, my mother paid, leaving a generous tip, and that
was the end of it.
There is no one else left alive who remembers this. My
mother and Marc are both dead now and Paul was too little to
have any memory of it. I think of this today partly because
it's Martin Luther King Day and also today would have been
my mother's 83rd birthday. She died a year ago yesterday.