Growing up in an immigrant Italian family in Montreal was a turbulent experience and a formula for disaster.  I was the eldest of three sisters. By the age of 14, I had done just about every illegal trendy drug available. Before I reached my 17th Birthday I had run away from my family home and was headed across the country to the West Coast. 

By the time I was 19, living on the West Coast of Canada, I’d lost my virginity and been in and out of penitentiary facilities in a very short time span.

The late ’60s and early ’70s were a confusing time to be coming of age. I had totally immersed myself into the North American culture, whereas my parents were not simply lagging behind, they were typically suspicious and not engaging.  

I was not allowed on field trips or school dances, and dates were out of the question.  As much as I was at odds with my parents on the home front, at school it wasn’t any easier.  To say that Canadians, by and large, are comfortable with diversity is not to suggest that problems of discrimination and racism don’t and haven’t existed. During the ’60s and ’70s, in Montreal, I was subjected to a fair share of mobbing for being a WOP. 

Took me a long time to figure out that WOP stood for ‘without papers’.  My parents had immigrated to Canada legally.

Only 18 years difference between myself and my mother and an abyss between her reality as a young woman and mine.  She had to sew her own “trousseau” in preparation for becoming a child bride.  I sewed myself miniskirts, low-cut tops, and hot pants in preparation for losing my virginity to a total stranger.  Not much difference in some respects, but worlds apart nevertheless. The gap was more than a simple generational gap, it was an exponential phenomenon and proved impossible to bridge. 

In North America, women had already burnt their bras and men had finally won the right to sport their hair longer than women, for the first time, since 17th century France, yet young women, such as myself, were being programmed to fit into a reality that was on the verge of becoming obsolete.  

In High school, girls were given courses in cooking, sewing, and typing.  Boys got mechanics and woodwork.  Home Economics, they called it, the sewing and cooking bundle for girls.  I failed both cooking and typing and did ok with the sewing, which came in handy.  At 14 I‘d had it with my mother sewing three identical dresses, for my 2 sisters and me.  We looked like a Russian matryoshka doll that had been taken apart, I have pictures to prove it. 

In private schools for rich kids, girls were getting degrees they would never put to work but would insure them a wealthy husband, in the world of high finance, politics, and so on. 

For kids like myself, from lower-income families, what was the agenda exactly?  Train us girls to be literate housewives, that could hold a job if needed, hence the typing classes?  We could pine for a life of wedlock to a mechanic, welder, or plumber and make more proletariat babies to populate the world and work at bad jobs. 

In 1961, ABC News aired a show entitled, “Is Education a Waste of Time for Married Women?” The video is still available for viewing on YouTube.  The show questioned whether an overeducated woman could thrive in married life since she would be undoubtedly frustrated by the mendacity of domestic chores. This subject caused much controversy in the press back then. 

I didn’t buy into any of it and was planning my escape. 

I left my hometown of Montreal with $50 Canadian dollars and slowly made my way to Vancouver, hitchhiking.  Along the way, I stopped in southern Ontario, for the summer.  In my little girl’s mind, I was heading to Los Angeles.  I was staying out of the cities.  I chose southern Ontario’s clay belt, where the tobacco fields spread as far as the eye can see, as a location to hide for a while.  

I found a job on a tobacco farm and stayed for the harvesting period. My father turned out to be a strict and unforgiving man. He struck me from the family and I was no longer his daughter, or so he said. That was fine with me, or so I thought.

My modem Operandi was, ‘I was not going to end up like my mother or my grandmothers’, that much I had already decided. My life was mine to live and do as I pleased with and not to please anyone else with. 

My maternal grandmother had created eighteen lives, which she expelled from her womb, into this world, while having sex with a single man her entire life.  I dare any man to give that a try.  She deserved a medal for that, and she got one. The Catholic Church awarded her a little gold medal to thank her for her contribution to their tribe.  

Virginity was a hot topic in my family, although no one ever referred to it directly. For example, my aunt Paola, whom I spent most summers with, would sit me down in front of her and she would whisper, very loudly, “that thing between your legs, you keep it tight, you hear me, very very tight.”  I instinctively knew I should agree, although at 7 years of age I had not quite grasped the concept.

At the age of 44, I left Canada. I had lived in Montreal where I grew up, so to speak, fled to Vancouver where I came of age and discovered that being on my own without the support of a family at 17 is brutal. Housing and work were an issue.  Knowing where to sleep and where my next meal came from was the norm for some time.  

I headed to Toronto after 11 years spent in Vancouver, where I turned my desire to work in the Film and TV industry into reality.  During my years spent in Toronto, I made up with my father and finally saw my sisters again, full-blown women on their way to the altar to get married.

Now I live in Italy, where ironically I feel more Canadian than I ever did in Canada.
In Italy, the people I meet won’t let me forget that I am Canadian, not because they want me to feel like an outsider, but because they believe that Canada is the land of wonders, a paradise of democracy, a land of equal opportunities. They can’t imagine anyone aspiring to another nation’s citizenship.

My life has been shaped by 2 entirely different cultures, belonging it seemed, to different timescapes. The one belonging to my parents and the path presented me in the new world I lived in and embraced every day. As a teenager, I felt these two worlds had collided. Now looking back, I know that these two seemingly different worlds converged. 

Published by Maddalena Di Gregorio

“I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in” Robert L. Stevenson

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