Christmas Day, 1901
Marjory is nearly nine years old.
“You can’t be serious, Peter.” Uncle John glares down the table at Father. He points his fork in the air, his elbows on the table, his white shirt sleeves bright under the gas chandelier.
I’m not supposed to be in the dining room. I’m supposed to be in Aunt Bertha’s kitchen with the rest of the children, finishing up our Christmas dinner.
But I wanted one more slice of goose and a bit of gravy, so now I stand behind my parents’ chairs in the dining room, holding my plate, waiting for a good moment to interrupt. No one pays me any mind though. Father has made his big announcement, the secret we’ve meant to keep quiet, and the aunts and uncles look upset. Forks are down. Lips are bitten. Everyone has stopped eating. Well, everyone except Father. Father calmly forks another bite of Christmas dinner into his mouth, ignoring Mother’s pursed lips and folded hands. Mother sits still, but her calm veneer isn’t playacted like Father’s. Hers will crumble. I don’t know how or when and that worries me a little.
I feel queasy, watching the grown-ups being upset with each other. Heat rushes over me. My face flushes from the fire burning in the dining room fireplace. Encased by a massive, red and grey mottled marble hearth, the fire flickers on the red, wallpapered walls. Over and over, the wallpaper’s spear-shaped pattern repeats, blood-red on brick red, straining the eyes. The mesmerizing design is broken up by paintings—Herefords in a pasture, a bonneted milkmaid peering through a garden gate, snow-capped mountains towering over a fishing pond—all framed in gold, hung high and angled downwards on long wires. I try to focus on the paintings, anything to avoid looking directly at the wallpaper that bounces so mesmerizingly.
“Immigrate to Canada? You cannot be serious, Peter,” Uncle John repeats. His brow is furrowed; his mouth, full of half-forgotten food.
Uncle John is a big man, over six feet tall even without his work boots in which he tramps through his woollen mill. His hair is a little long on the top, combed off to one side in dramatic waves. He has a thick brown beard and a smudge of cream sauce from the peas drips from the bushy hairs. He leans forward on his elbows, his eyebrows high, as if he can’t quite calculate the depths of the stupidity in my father’s outlandish announcement.
Father doesn’t respond, except to say, “Delicious goose, Bertha. What a triumph,” which makes Mother fold her arms and sigh. Father is eating goose as a protest and she’s aggravated that he doesn’t answer her brother. I know what Father is doing though. He is resisting the temptation to argue with Uncle John over Christmas dinner. It can take some resisting. Uncle John loves to argue.
“You just returned to Yorkshire. You have employment in the mill,” Uncle John presses. “And now you want to go farming in Canada? Gracious, Peter. What do you know about farming?”
Father leisurely scrapes his plate, a lovely piece of transferware from France. Red vines and flowers languish under the remains of sauces and scrapings. After a painfully awkward pause, Father takes his last bite, sets down his fork and knife, and finally speaks: “John, I’m grateful for the work you’ve given me, but Canada has opportunities that don’t exist here. Jobs! Land! I don’t have the capital to start my own business. My father, being a minister, bless him, didn’t have anything to pass on. I have to make my own way, but I haven’t got a trade or any real skills that I can put to use here, and I can’t keep taking from my wife’s family…”
“You’re not taking anything,” Uncle John interrupts. “I give you employment and you give your labour. Hiring you was not an act of charity. You put in a good day’s work. And you know, Peter, Beaumonts aren’t farm labourers. We’re in Burkes’ and Debretts’ Peerage, for goodness sakes.”
“Oh, really John!” young Uncle Joshua protests now. Uncle Joshua is the complete opposite of Uncle John. Thin and jovial, he balances out Uncle John’s severity as manager of George Beaumont and Sons, Woolen Merchants. The joke is that Uncle John may keep the woollen mill running but Uncle Joshua keeps the workers coming. He certainly doesn’t mind pulling Uncle John up short on nonsense.
“You exaggerate profoundly,” Uncle Joshua says. “Our Beaumont roots may stretch back to the Norman invasion and there may be an impoverished Baron Beaumont or two about, but really now. Our family branch has been firmly in the trades for generations. So, don’t argue that we’re gentry, John. It won’t stick. Farming is hardly beneath us.”
“And there’s nothing wrong being a tradesman or a farmer, or a labourer, for that matter,” Father argues. “Most of Canada is made up of labourers. I want to build a future for my family. That isn’t a crime to want to earn money!”
Mother lays a hand on Father’s arm. She doesn’t like this kind of conversation at the family Christmas dinner. “It’s all very common, this money talk”—I can hear her saying. Grandfather George would have retorted that that’s what you get with common people like us. Woollen weavers. Cloth dyers. Labourers. Common people talk common talk. But Grandfather is gone now. Dead. And perhaps it’s just as well. Grandfather didn’t get on with Father. He would have demanded to know what my mother thought of this emigration idea and then he would have accused Father of dragging Mother off to the wilderness.
Mother hasn’t offered an opinion since Father started talking about Canada, or at least she hasn’t said anything in front of us children.
I’m only a child, but I can see Uncle John is not pleased with Father’s announcement. Even Aunt Bertha has taken the unusual step of walking from her end of the table to Uncle John at the other end. Her taffeta skirt flows to the floor as she leans against the arm of his chair and wraps an arm around my uncle’s thick shoulders, perhaps to cool his temper.
“Tell us more, Peter,” she asks elegantly, her pearl-drop earrings swaying prettily below her swept-up chignon. “Where in Canada do you plan to go? Ontario?”
“No, no.” Father shakes his head. “All the good farmland in Ontario was gone forty years ago. Even most of Manitoba, along the border with the United States, was settled in the ‘70s. No, I’m looking north of Brandon, in Manitoba. Farmland is still cheap and plentiful there.”
“Cheap,” Uncle John speaks the word with an air of disgust. “Well, that is fortuitous, is it not?
Aunt Bertha gives him a sharp look but it’s no secret, of course, that we are the poor relations. Father worked as a mail manager when he caught Mother’s eye years ago. Mother sang in the Wesleyan Church choir and he played the violin. Making eyes over the anthems, they were soon in love with each other. Grandfather George wasn’t happy though. Mother had been sent to the Belvedere Ladies’ School. Knowing the value of a shilling, Grandfather resented the expense of private school but Grandmother convinced him that a well-educated young lady would attract a prosperous husband. As it turned out, Father may have been well-educated, but he certainly wasn’t prosperous.
“And what do you plan to grow, Peter?” Aunt Bertha sensibly asks.
Father describes cattle pastures, hog pens, and wheat and barley fields stretching as far as the eye can see. Manitoba is flat, apparently, and the grain grows in windy ripples like the gentle waves of the ocean. The soil is fertile and the rains are regular. Supplies are available by trains and towns are springing up all over the place.
The aunts and uncles listen carefully. Threshing machines, granaries, ploughs, and pitchforks—these are not the tools and devices of cloth manufacturers. These things are new to our family. This landscape is as foreign as the darkest jungles of Africa, described to us by the fervent missionaries that visit our Sunday School.
“And are they still fighting the natives, Peter?” asks Uncle Joshua who likes to stir things up with a bit of ill-timed humour. “It would be a shame to have your pretty head of hair decorate a chief’s loincloth, wouldn’t it?”
“Oh, for goodness sakes.” Mother glares at her youngest brother.
“You’ve no cause for concern, Joshua.” Father folds his napkin carefully. “The North-West Rebellion was over fifteen years ago. Louis Riel was hung and the natives placed on reservations. The prairies are safe for homesteading.”
“Oh, excellent, Peter. Hurrah. But if you want some excitement, why don’t you join the army and spare all the fuss and bother of immigration? They are using armoured trains to fight the Boers now. That sounds exciting, doesn’t it?”
“I’m not looking for excitement. I’m looking for opportunity.” Father sounds slightly offended.
“Opportunity to work harder and lose more money than you ever thought possible,” mutters Uncle John, under his breath.
“Opportunities to make a new society.” Father continues. “Schools for all the children of the district. Farms for anyone who wants to work. A society based on equality. You must admit that the concept is appealing. No bowing and scraping to the gentry! Just wide-open spaces and opportunity!”
None of the aunts or uncles responds to his impassioned speech. They just look at their folded hands, their mouths drawn tightly, their eyes red. Unlike Uncle John, they are too polite to say what a terrible idea immigration is, but I know they think it. I’ve heard them talk about people who have left Yorkshire. They think people who immigrate to the New World couldn’t find work in England due to their own fault. But I’m don’t think that’s always true. There must have been many faulty people in Huddersfield because many have left. Hundreds. Thousands. Year after year, generation after generation, ever since the factories sprang up and woollen manufacturing moved from the cottages to the big brick mills, people have been leaving. Up and down the streets of Huddersfield, relatives write letters to faraway places like Hamilton, Ontario, or Queensland, Australia, knowing full well they are slowly being forgotten and the next generation will not bother writing back at all. Why would they? They’ve never seen the rolling hills of Yorkshire, the lions on of the Huddersfield train station, the castle on the top of the hill. But immigration is like that. Families get broken.
I feel utterly sick to my stomach now. Maybe I ate too much or maybe it’s the thought of moving to Canada where you can see for miles and no one lives close to you. Across the ocean. So far away. There are many dangers in the new world, sicknesses and diseases, droughts and floods, poverty and misery.
I close my eyes for a moment but Leah rushes in from the kitchen with a tray in her hands. “Excuse me, Miss Marjory,” she says, brushing past. Leah creates a windstorm; she moves so quickly. Her breeze makes the faded peacock feathers on the mantelpiece dip and sway over silver candlesticks.
Aunt Bertha rises from her perch on Uncle John’s chair arm. “Shall we retire to the drawing room?” she asks graciously while Leah starts clearing the table—platters scraped bare, silverware by the handful, an empty gravy boat. I guess sometime between the discussion of the price of wheat per bushel and the expected yield of an acre, Aunt Bertha gave the signal to Leah: this meal is over. It is time to clean up, time for everyone to stretch their legs and absorb the news without being trapped together at the dining room table.
I relinquish all thoughts of gravy and wander back to the kitchen to eat my goose dry, holding back the tears that burn my eyes. I don’t care that Leah has served dessert to us children. I don’t care about anything. I just want Father to stay here with all of us, where it’s safe.