My father, Leo, turns 80 today. My parents are enjoying their twilight years in style – they are crazy lovebirds who can’t stop fawning over each other. They are happier than they’ve ever been! And I couldn’t be happier for them, because this is a huge change from the difficult journey they experienced, especially my dad.
In his late teens, growing up in Zaragoza, Spain, his family disintegrated following the death of his father and he found himself living on the street. He would sleep under a stairwell and found himself starving most of the time. To eat, he would wait for the street vendors to leave at the end of the day and eat whatever discarded food they left behind.
They married and had a child, my oldest brother, and moved to Canada – with $80 in their pocket – in pursuit of a better life. Unfortunately they quickly learned the streets were not paved with gold, and that life here, for immigrants with little more than a high school education, was a never-ending grind. They had moved to Montreal where you needed to speak both English and French to get by, neither of which they spoke. With a burning desire to make a better life for himself and his family, my father decided to go to university and study engineering, reasoning that science was the only sure fire way to get out of the dire poverty he found himself in.
The hurdles were huge: he was almost thirty, didn’t speak the language and had no science background! Incredibly he persevered, working as a dishwasher and busboy by day and taking classes at night. Against all odds, many years later, he became a civil engineer. I once opened one of his physics text books and was blown away by what I saw. This thick volume had every second word circled with the Spanish translation scribbled next to it or in the margins. It was the first time I truly understood the mountain he had climbed. He had overcome homelessness, and a lack of education, but even more difficult times lay ahead.
He was hired as an engineer and moved to the town of Sorel, 50 miles north of Montreal. Politics in Quebec at the time, especially outside Montreal, were incredibly small minded and created an atmosphere where two things were hated with a passion: immigrants and Anglophones – in other words, us. Sorel had few of both, but was populated instead with what the Québécois called Pure Laine, or pure wool; i.e. French Quebec racial purity. They even hated you if you were from France!
At work he endured first class prejudice, and on the streets, in front of his family, I was often witness to malicious taunts aimed at my dad for being an immigrant with 3 boys in English school. Needless to say, life was not especially easy in Sorel for those 3 boys either. Not a day went by in my 17 years there where I didn’t see anti-english or anti-immigrant graffiti, and I often experienced far worse. My outsider view of the world was imprinted upon me in those years. But Quebec has changed dramatically since the separatist fervor of the 1970’s and 80’s, and the intense bigotry and political hatred has subsided.
Upon retirement, my parents bought a small condo near Malaga, a block from the Mediterranean, where my mom grew up. Today, they split their time between Spain and Montreal, where my two brothers live, along with their four grandchildren. They are truly at peace like I have never seen, and there is a bliss in their hearts that must make them think that, in spite of everything, it was all worth it.