Once Upon a Time: My First Thanksgiving Day in America

fall colorsIt was 1966. After a three-day train ride through the cities and countryside of America, our family arrived in Northern California. As newly arrived immigrants from Ontario, Canada, we didn’t know a soul.

Why we arrived on Thanksgiving day is a long story. My parents were smart, hardworking people, but neither of them had a formal education. They wanted their girls to get a college degree. California seemed like the land of opportunity, especially for my dad the horticulturist. The plan was to finish the school year, sell our house and come to California. The house sold, we said our goodbyes and we gave away most of our worldly possessions. Then we hit a snag. The US government delayed my father’s visa while they continued to research his background. Dad was a British immigrant first, moving from England to Canada where he met and married our mom. Long story short, we were not allowed to immigrate for another five months. We stayed in a hotel at first, then later with a relative. From there we stayed in the home of our former babysitter and finally rented rooms in the home of an abusive man. These were traumatic months for all of us. We were homeless in a way, straddling uncertainty between two countries. Dad took odd jobs while we waited and our savings kept us going during the wait.

Memories are a fascinating thing. Our brains record everything, but our hearts seem to decide what we recall. The highs and the lows often play out, with the minutiae of daily life lost to the ether.  I remember the brief layover in Chicago. Mom bought us a kit of paper chains to keep our hands busy during the wait. We traveled by coach, so no berth for sleeping. We took turns draped across our mother’s lap. Three days on a train is a long journey when you’re seven.

We arrived in Loomis, California on that wet Thanksgiving day in 1966, welcomed into a stranger’s home. The man who would be my father’s co-worker invited us to dinner! Most of the details remain a blur, but I remember sitting on the floor of a small, warmly lit room watching an episode of Star Trek with a large, lumbering dog nearby.

There were many dark days ahead, but in that moment I felt safe and warm and welcomed, one immigrant family to another, in a vast, complex country called America.

The names and faces of our hosts that day are lost to history. But in my heart I’m thankful for that gracious family that opened their doors and hearts to ours.

47 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time: My First Thanksgiving Day in America

    • Thank you, Lisa. It was a wonderful Thanksgiving. My oldest son is home from college and my younger son has the entire week off form school. We hosted our friends from down the street, coincidentally another Canadian family, a tradition we’ve followed for a decade now.

      Were you home with family or did you celebrate with friends nearby?

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  1. What a story, Alys. I understand the roller coaster of emotions. I was 5 when we came by ship first into NY then on to Kansas City. No memory of it whatsoever. But on Thanksgiving would be a very interesting introduction to the US. I can’t imagine the train ride that far. Maybe that’s why I have no memories. I tend to block what doesn’t feel good. Hope this Thanksgiving is much more to your liking. 🙂 Wishing you a happy turkey day. Hugs and love to you all.

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    • Marlene, I didn’t realize you were so young when you came to the States. Somehow I thought you came as an adult. We all have so much to learn about each other. The discovery is wonderful. My sister is just a year younger and remembers none of this, so at five I can see why your memories are absent. It must have been an amazing journey for your family to come so far and then settle in such a different place.

      Sending you love. I hope you’ve had a pleasant Thanksgiving. Hugs to you. xo

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    • Pauline you are a dear. Thank you! I woke up remembering this long-ago day and had the urge to quickly get the words down. I *needed* to write this. Though the day ahead would be busy preparing for our guests, I took the time to express what I was feeling. It wasn’t until the last few sentences that I realized it was 50 years. Kismet. Serendipity? Something like that.

      Big hugs flying your way, Pauline. xo

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  2. What a story Alys 😀 It’s funny how the mind works. I remember things from when I was 18 years old like they happened yesterday but then I look in the mirror and realize I’m an old man. Happy Thanksgiving and Anniversary of your journey to America. I hope you and your family have a wonderful day my friend.

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  3. Hello dearest and Happy Thanksgiving. It’s really lovely that you remember being welcomed to be guests for dinner and that they had a dog. Animals do tend to add comfort to stressful times. It’s surprising to me what a small world it is sometimes. For instance, I met you through blogging and you’re Canadian born. Also, I met Kathryn through her blog, she’s from Alberta but lives in Mexico and her dad was the best man at my girlfriends brother’s wedding (did you follow that? LOL) Anywho, maybe you’ve run across that family somehow but not even realized it. Too bad you don’t know their name, with the net, you could probably track them down. I would think it must have been really cool to see palm trees back then ! I mean, I get totally giddy about them and I’m a grownup. I’m sure you’ve been super busy hosting the boys and planning dinner. Happy ‘Arrival in America’ Anniversary too.

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    • Thank you, Petals/Kelly/Boomdee/Urban Girl. Boy you have a lot of names. 😉
      Some of my best memories in childhood include animals: cats, dogs, mice, someone’s pet hamster or turtle. I love that we met through blogging, such a random and chance encounter that lead to our beautiful friendship. We’re so lucky! I too love your story of meeting Kathryn through her blog all the way in Mexico, yet an Alberta girl. And to think that her dad was best man at your friend’s wedding…and that you found that out through your chance meeting. Honestly, it is all quite amazing.

      I wish I knew that families name. It would be wonderful to connect

      I remember the first place we lived and it was pretty cool. We had a rented house adjacent to the nursery with open fields to play in front and back. I saw my first lizard in a stack of bricks and was sure I had seen a snake. I screamed a blue streak.

      We had a full day, but a happy one, preparing for our guests, then enjoying the meal together and catching up on our lives. xo

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      • Omgosh, living at a nursery in California. That must have been awesome. Animals are my best memories too. I feel so connect to them even those in nature. The other night, I was leaving work and there was a giant jack rabbit on the back lawn under the gazebo. I gasped like a 2 year old seeing a birthday cake filled with candles. “a bunny!!” I whispered and just stayed on the walk to watch him nibble on the still bare lawn. He looked up at me with every mouth full. I remember thinking how social he seemed and hoped he knew when to run away when safety was an issue. Any who, I’m so happy I can share that story and you’ll feel what I felt, because are hearts are connected in that regard. xo K

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        • I did feel what you felt. I must have imagined answering you, as I realize today I never replied. I love you with all my heart, and the bunnies and dogs, cats and squirrels, and even snakes and rats. They’re all part of this beautiful world. xo

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  4. A poignant story and a very significant anniversary in your life. Your folks must have been worried sick as they waited for the paperwork to be sorted, whIle watching their savings dwindle; money meant to start their new life in California. I’m so glad they hung on to their dream in the middle of all the hardship…..it has allowed me to know you….and I am so thankful for you.

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    • Dear Mary Elizabeth, thank you for your understanding words. I know this was hard on my family, and devastating for my dad in many ways. He sold his beloved coin collection to pay for rent and groceries, just before he landed another job. (The man that hired him filed for bankruptcy just before we got here, so didn’t pay my dad for many months.) Mom eventually contacted Action Line for assistance. We were getting on our feet in the summer of 1967. By Christmas of ’68 he was diagnosed with lung cancer and died nine months later. I don’t know how my mom managed to put the pieces together and raise three girls to adults.

      I am thankful to know you and to share a bit of our stories. You are a dear.

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  5. What a moving story Alys, a story that reveals that you were trained to embrace whatever life May throw at you. While it may have been hard for you all the good thing was you all came out of it strong people. It made you the person you are now.
    All the things you are doing helping out in your community e.g. making your garage a polling station is you giving back what you received from strangers.
    Thank you for sharing this post it puts your life in context.
    Happy thanksgiving Alys. ☺☺☺

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    • You are a day-maker! Thank you so much for these lovely thoughts and words. My life experiences have made me strong and independent and at the same time so aware of others needs, wants and desires. I think we all need to look outside of ourselves and to find ways to support and uplift others around us.

      You’ve made my eyes light up with your kind words. Thank you. I hope you’ve had a good Thanksgiving as well.

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  6. Great story! I had no idea you arrived to the U.S. on their Thanksgiving! It makes it that more pleasant that you take in a Canadian family on your Thanksgiving! Your parents were so courageous!

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    • Darlene, I ‘m so glad you went home and read this post. It’s wonderful hosting your family each year, and fun to share our mutual Canadian heritage.

      My parents were courageous moving to a new country and starting over. It’s a shame my dad didn’t get to live long enough to enjoy it. He died less than three years later. What a blow for both my parents.

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    • You’re so right. I too enjoy reading what others share about their life. I think we tend to micro focus on a singular subject or area with our blogs. It’s nice to express a bit more from time to time. Thank you for you well wishes!

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  7. This is a wonderful story Alys – the red tape and inhumanity of bureaucracy is one thing, but then you were welcomed into a stranger’s home in a foreign country. And at Thanksgiving too! 🙂 The 50th anniversary of that day must be quite special.

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    • Thank you, Cathy. It was the strangest thing. I woke up Thanksgiving day, reached for my tablet, and started writing this piece. It just poured out of me. It wasn’t until I was nearly done that I realized it had been 50 years. Funny that. It was a unique and special day, spent with another family who also immigrated from Canada.

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  8. Oh, Alys! What a heartwarming story of Thanksgiving! Your family endured so much during that period of hope and uncertainty. Your strength, kindness, and gentle ways of making our world a better place found their roots in those early years. It’s so important to document our stories… and yours will be forever etched into my heart. So grateful for our blogging friendship, dear Alys! ♡

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    • Dawn, I too am grateful for this friendship, and for the amazing gifts we all discover through blogging. Finding kindred spirits in various parts of the globe is something I never could have imagined, even a decade ago. I’m so glad you’re here. Thank you for your dear comments. xo

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  9. Your words are so descriptive. I was almost able to see the train, you and your siblings taking turns laying across your mother’s lap. I’m thankful the warmth of your arrival was such a positive memory, especially after the hardship, and abuse, of the preceeding 5 months.
    Alys, do your boys know this story?
    This is a story of America, isn’t it?
    People arriving with little, seeking a new life.
    Thank you so much for sharing part of your story.

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  10. Good gracious, Alys. You could not have penned a more perfect story. From the harsh realities of life to the magical warmth of another human being, the tale rings of resounding truth with as strong a current as the best of immigrant cliffhangers. Thank you for sharing this heartwarming reminder of what this holiday means to so many of us, and what it should mean to all.
    xox

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    • Dear Shelley, what a treat to find your comment here. Thank you for your gracious words. If we could all give thanks everyday and reach out to others in need, we would surely smooth out the wrinkles in life and help ease sorrow instead of fanning it. xo

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  11. Very interesting story, Alys!

    It must have been really scary for your parents, having to rely on savings, presumably not knowing if your dad was going to get his visa. I’m surprised the US government was already so strict in 1966.

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