My earliest mental photograph is one of a grey crowd on the Liverpool quayside. Some people are waving white handkerchiefs. Many are weeping. I am balancing my small self precariously at the rail of the Lake Manitoba as grown-ups mill at my back, pushing against me to look at their loved ones on the shore. For many it will be their last look. A tubby man in a red waistcoat darts in and out of the crowd like a questing robin. The tall, dignified gentleman in the front row is my grandfather. His face is solemn as he stands there with his walking stick in one hand and his top hat raised in silent salute in the other. It is the end of March 1903.
I look up over my shoulder and see my father's face. It is set in unsmiling determination, as he looks shoreward. The realisation that he is irrevocably burning the final bridge of his old life shows boldly in the granite-like cast of his features. No longer a young man, many have been the sleepless nights he has passed in wondering what a new and untried country will hold for him, his wife and their eleven children. Their entire future lies in the less than one hundreds dollars in his pocket, his two strong hands, and the hindsight of a fortune lost when the Corn exchange failed earlier this year. My mother stands beside him, holding her newest babe of six weeks in her arms. She looks up at my father and she smiles.
The grey drizzle wets my face. I put out my tongue to catch a few falling drops, but the rain tastes as smokey as the grey buildings lining the quayside, so I don't do it again. Groups of people stand about the deck. Most are silent. Any last minute words are apt to tremble out, so everyone tries to settle for controlled silence. Even so, handkerchiefs are making frequent trips between spilling eyes, snuffling noses and quivering lips.
I am suddenly frightened. I hold fast to Mabel's hand. Her beautiful face is calm, her grey eyes courageous, and I feel her strength.
"What a pretty wee lass," someone says of me. Pleased, I look up at my sister and then at the speaker - a large-bosomed lady in brown.
But as soon as I look even I realise that her remark is not a 'real' one; it is the sort of thing grown-ups say when they are really thinking of something quite different. Even as I look, she turns back to a young couple that stands nearby, the picture of misery, and she says, "You still have time to change your mind, Dorothy. Come back with me now!" But Dorothy's square jaw sets just a little more firmly and she shakes her head, unable to speak, and moves a little closer to the thin young man with the determined light blue eyes.
Another young man stands apart from the family groups on deck. "Well, young lady," he says to me, "So, you're going to the Colonies too, are you?" But he is really looking at my lovely sister whose cheeks suddenly become pinker as she stoops to straighten my new peaked Dutch bonnet, which matches my velvet-trimmed coat.
Suddenly a colorful figure emerges from the sea of faces on the quayside and pushes purposefully toward a roped off clearing.
The crowd parts to allow him through. A retinue of resplendently uniformed men each follows him carrying a musical instrument. Good! A band is going to play for us. Martial music always makes delicious tingles inside me, so I make myself more comfortable at the ship's rail and wait eagerly for the first rousing air.
The bandmaster raises his baton. The first note is struck and surrounds each of us in funeral reverberation, to be followed in time by another leaden sound a half tone higher. Slowly, tremulous voices join the band. Some break into audible sobs... They are playing 'Nearer My God To Thee'.
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