RUNAWAY LINES

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 drug available. Before I reached my 17th Birthday I had run away from my family home and was headed across Canada 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 60’s and early 70’s were a confusing time to be coming of age. I had totally immersed myself into 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, 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 60’s and 70’s, in Montreal, I had my fair share of mobbing for being of Italian descent. 

Most of this unpleasantness ended once I entered a Protestant High School in Montreal, where, unlike the French Catholic schools I had attended previously, there were kids from different cultural backgrounds. I could finally stop worrying that I would be singled out for being a WOP, which is what the kids used to call the Italians. Took me a long time to figure out that WOP stood for ‘without papers’.  My parents had immigrated to Canada legally.

I wasn’t born in India, yet it was still expected by the older men in my family, that the firstborn be a boy, in order to carry on the family name.  My maternal grandfather, who had spawned all of 16 sons and 2 daughters, did not care to make my acquaintance when he was informed I was of the female gender. 

Two girls versus 25 boys in the family lineage pointed to a very cockcentric DNA on both sides of the family.  My paternal grandmother gave life to all of nine boys, no girls. No wonder she suffered from depression most of her adult life, raising 9 boys, looking after my grandfather and her size 42 feet. They didn’t make shoes for women with feet that size back then. She had to wear men’s shoes. She was a very tall woman, even in sad, sober, black flat lace up shoes.  

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.   

Luckily I grew up in Canada, where my womb safely spent most of its fertile years.  

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.

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 of becoming a child bride.  I sewed myself miniskirts, low cut tops and hot pants in preparation of  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 phenomena 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 had already been altered.  

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 class 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 I.  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, slowly making my way to Vancouver, hitchhiking. I had officially become a statistic, in the large pool of teenage runaways in Canada.

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.

Along the way I stopped in southern Ontario, for the summer. In my little girl’s mind, I was heading to Los Angeles.  I chose southern Ontario’s clay belt, where the tobacco fields spread as far as your eye can see, as a location to hide out.  It would be a while before they thought of looking for me there, hopefully by then I would be on the move already. 

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.

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.

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 became the norm.  

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, paradise of democracy, a land of equal opportunities. They can’t imagine anyone aspiring to another nation’s citizenship.

My life journey has flowed along 2 distinct and separate paths, fueled by two cultures. I lived between two worlds. The one belonging to my parents and the the new world which I embraced everyday. As a runaway teenager I felt these two worlds had collided. Now looking back, I know that these two seemingly different paths 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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