Like many people around the world, I watched the media coverage of migrant children separated from their parents at the United States border with shock and horror. As a mother I can't imagine the pain of having my two little girls taken from me. But, this tragic situation is far from the only time families have been forcibly separated. The news is full of stories of parents sending children on risky asylum missions — heartbreaking photos of overpacked boats holding little ones, with a single parent or relative their only chance of survival. How many teenagers from South America, travel alone to the US border in the desperate hope of securing a future with safety and opportunity?
A few years ago, I was chatting with a woman in my community. I was taken aback when she mentioned how nice it was to have her son living with her. In order to provide for her family, she'd had to leave him in the Philippines with her parents when he was just two months old, to work abroad and send money home. At the age of seven years, he was finally able to join her in Canada.
I was floored. Seven years apart? It's uncomfortable to say, but my first thought was that nothing could separate my daughters from me. I would do anything to keep them. I'd starve, or live on the streets, but nothing would move me to leave them behind. How naive I was.
I thought of this woman frequently, and after some time, I realized that mine were the judgemental thoughts of a person living in safety and comfort, one who has never known despair. A mother who has been able, by virtue of where she was born, to create and foster a strong healthy parent-child bond. It led me to think about my own family's journey to Canada.
This tale is always retold with the quieter emotion that time provides.
My great-grandmother, Mary, came to Canada as an eight-year-old child, in the early part of the 20th century. There was fighting in her village in Ukraine. Her older brothers were hung during the uprisings and a cousin was imprisoned in a work camp.
Mary's much older relative had purchased passage on a ship to Canada that would depart in six months time. When their own daughter, Mary's cousin, passed away during the wait, they offered to take her with them. Her parents agreed and as a consequence of that decision, Mary never saw her family again.
This tale is always retold with the quieter emotion that time provides. We offer lip service as to how hard it must have been arriving in a strange country at such a young age. How sad to leave one's family and the familiar ways of home without being offered a choice in the matter. Mary had a hard childhood growing up in Saskatchewan with her much older cousin. She was never treated as a daughter, but more as an indentured servant. She married Walter Krysowaty in 1923 while still a young teenager, and they both found work in a hotel, Walter doing odd jobs and Mary as a housemaid. In later years, they ran a successful café and general store, the kind with an old-fashioned butcher counter and jars full of candy.
My eldest daughter is eight years old and we're incredibly close. There are hugs and kisses before she gets on her school bus in the morning and snuggles while I read her books before bed. All the little things that children need in order to feel safe and happy. Would I put her on a boat knowing I'd probably never see her again, in order to save her life? In order to prevent her from being taken by cruel people, or assaulted? Yes, you bet I would.
But, here's the thing; I don't have to make that choice. I can push that terrible decision from my mind, because several generations back, a mother made the most difficult choice you can make. She sacrificed a lifetime of love with her little girl, so the next generations wouldn't have to. How did that conversation go? Did this woman know with certainty she would send her daughter away when the choice was offered, or did she struggle with it? Were Mary's parents honest with her? Did they get down on her level, look her in the eyes and say they were sending her away forever in order to save her life? Or, did they try and placate her by saying they would join her shortly. That it wouldn't be long until they were all together again. Perhaps, after the loss of her brothers, she herself felt safer leaving?
Mary and her parent's devastating loss from her immigration to Canada created a cushion of safety and comfort for generations to follow.
I don't think that's true. Many children would choose to live in tough situations just to be with their parents. And Mary herself talked of her heartbreak and bitterness over being sent away. I remember being a little girl listening while my father spoke with her. Even after decades — a lifetime away from her homeland, her accent was still strong. She'd shake her head and wave a hand in the air, as if saying, 'You can't even imagine.' Tears trickled down her cheeks when she told my dad about leaving and her early life in Canada. You couldn't really sense the permanent heartbreak she carried with her, looking at the warm and caring, smartly dressed lady she was.
But, I gather from my conversations with other members of the family that this loss of a mother-daughter relationship had an intergenerational impact. My own grandmother, Ann, the eldest of Mary's five children, would often remark on how she would work in the café while her mother slept in bed above their store during the day. Grandma Ann said it in a bemused way, a little disappointed. "And my dad just let her," she'd add.
Mary probably suffered from depression, not talked about in those days, and who wouldn't in her shoes? Not only did she lose her family, she stopped growing in many ways, and held onto ideas about the world that she'd learned as a child. She never did accept that the world was not flat, and had many superstitions that she might have outgrown had she been allowed to grow up with people who cared for her.
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I watch my daughters playing outside, running, shrieking, and enjoying the freedom of being a child in Canada. I discuss their futures with my husband, our decision to enrol them in French Immersion, did we put them in piano at too young an age? Because of an unthinkable sacrifice generations ago, I can plan their precious futures. I'll watch them grow, fall in love, experience careers and passions and someday, if they choose, they might have children of their own that I can fall in love with all over again. I'll live a life of love and family with my grandchildren.
Mary and her parent's devastating loss from her immigration to Canada created a cushion of safety and comfort for generations to follow. So, to the great, great grandmother whose name I've never known, thank you, from one mother to another.
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