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The Immigration Story of Myra D. Ennis (Scottish War Bride)

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War Bride Myra D. Ennis

Leaving Home

Late April to May 13th, 1946.

It’s the first thing I see when I walk into the room. The thing that I’ve been waiting for these past few months, wanting it but dreading it. I pick it up from the table and hold it with care, feeling its texture, running my fingers over its smooth brown surface. It seems heavy in my hands. Heavy with the decisions that have brought me to this point in my life. Heavy with trepidation about what lies ahead for me. I know that, from this moment on, everything will change. I turn the large brown envelope over and over anxious to see what is inside but not wanting to open it, not yet. It looks so very official, so completely inevitable.

At last I pick up the letter opener, carefully slit the envelope and pull out a sheaf of papers, documents thick with their own importance. I unfold them very slowly– yes it’s all here, travel warrants, instructions, landed immigrant card. Everything I need. I settle down in the big soft brown leather chair by the fire. The chair where Mother held me and sang me to sleep when I was a baby, the chair where Dad told me his wonderful stories as I cuddled contentedly against him. It has been my place to curl up and dream teenage dreams, my refuge when things went wrong and I fancied that my tender young heart was broken. It has always been my comfort, my safe haven.

My mother is watching me wordlessly, but her expression tells me what she is thinking. I know in her heart she is already saying goodbye to me.

I look over the papers with attention to each detail. I am to proceed (the wording is extremely official) to Waverly Station, Edinburgh on May 13th, 1946. There I will entrain for London at 1300 hours. I will remain in London overnight. On May 14th, at 0800 hours I will be bussed to Southampton where I will board the Aquitania which will sail for the port of Halifax, arriving at Pier 21 on May 20th. I read on and learn that I will entrain from Halifax to Toronto on May 21st, arriving in Union Station, Toronto, on May 23rd where my husband will be instructed to meet me.

May 13th is only a little over three weeks away. I’m going to have to get busy. The official documents announce that I am allowed one large trunk, which is to be labeled“Not wanted on voyage”. The trunk will travel in the ship’s hold. My suitcase, labeled“cabin luggage”, I will carry with me. Labels are provided. Nothing has been overlooked.

Packing in itself will not be a problem. It is what I can’t pack that upsets me a little. Things like my books, I only have room for a few. My keepsakes and treasures, silly sentimental things that have been important to me must be sacrificed for more practical items.

Leaving things behind doesn’t trouble me too much, after all things can be replaced, it is family, friends, all the dear familiar places that have been part of my life for nineteen years. How can I bear to simply turn my back and walk away? But I must bear it for I have chosen to do this, chosen to follow my heart to a new life in a new country with the man I love.

Friends hold farewell parties for me. Some are a little envious of what they consider to be my great adventure. Others shake their heads.

“How can you do it? It’s so far away. Won’t you be lonely?

Oh, if they only knew! Behind my smiles, my air of confidence all sort of strange little doubts are creeping in. Three thousand miles is an awfully long distance. I look at their faces, I am sure that I will make new friends where I am going but oh, how I will miss the ones I have known all of my life.

I fill the days visiting the places I love. Seeing them with my eyes, listening to their sounds, absorbing their smells and feelings through my very skin. With Aunt Liz I walk to Cauldshields Loch, small and perfect, cradled among the hills above Melrose. I listen to the sound the wind makes as it blows through the larch trees by the loch. I will miss Aunt Liz. She has been my friend, my confidante through all of my growing up years.

“Remember all of this”, she says.

“Oh yes, Aunt Liz, I’ll remember”.

With Dad I walk to Whitelee. It is here we have our family picnics on sunny summer days. The river ripples clear as amber over its stony bed, making its own special music. It will still run after I am gone. It will sing to me in my waking and in my dreaming. The grass is soft and springy under our feet as Dad and I stroll along the riverbank.

“You won’t stay away forever, you will come home again.” Dad’s words aren’t a statement or a question, they are a plea.

“Oh Dad” I can’t say anything else. There are not enough words to tell him how I feel. How much I love him. I slip my arm through his and hold on tight. On the walk back home we stop to lean on a rough stonewall and look down over the lovely sweep of Torwoodlee Woods. The trees are scarfed in tender misty green. Beneath the trees drifts of Bluebells reflect the spring sky. I played here as a child. I find myself wondering if the secret treasures, pretty stones and pieces of broken china, that my friends and I buried, are still hidden under the biggest beech trees.

I walk in the garden. The roses will bloom this summer but I won’t be here. I won’t delight in the scent of the lavender bed or take a heady breath of the perfume from the honeysuckle that riots over the garden shed.

I look from the front door down a long length of the valley imprinting the scene on my mind, naming each hill. Meigle lying like a crouching lion at the head of the valley, the low swell of Watt’s Hill, then the higher wooded slopes of Gala Hill. Away at the far end, blue in the distance, stand the triple peaks of Eildons. Behind me lie Bruce’s Hill and Buckholm Hill. Buckholm is“our hill”, the hill our house stands on, the place where we children played our games, running climbing, laughing through our childhood years. I walk along the street, my street, I was born here, grew up here, I know everyone, every house. Neighbours call to me“I hear you are away to Canada. Good Luck. Safe Journey”. Oh how can I leave all of this?

I will miss my mother and my sister. There are so many things I want to say to them but as time grows shorter we become awkward with one another. Our laughter is brittle. We talk too much saying nothing keeping things light. It is as if we are afraid to open the floodgates of emotion that might sweep us away. The things we should say to one another now will be written laterin long, long letters that pour out all the depths of our feelings.

The final day comes, bright, sunny, beautiful as only May mornings can be. Mum and Dad don’t want to say goodbye in public. We do not linger. It has to be over quickly for otherwise we might never be able to let go of one another. One last long look around, one last fierce hug and I’m out of the door. I will never really belong here again. Home is behind me, a new life lies ahead.

My sister, Margaret, Aunt Liz and Cousin Peter are waiting outside. They are coming as far as Edinburgh with me. I wanted to do this on my own but they insist.

“We are coming. Don’t argue”.

We reach the railway station just in time to catch the Edinburgh train. A crowd of friends is waiting to see me off. When the train begins to pull out of the station they sing the old traditional song of parting“Will ye no come back again, will ye no come back again, better loved ye canna be, will ye no come back again.”

I stood on the platform many times singing with the crowd when friends left but this time I’m the one leaving– I think my heart will break.

Peter keeps things lively on the train journey into the city reminding me of all the mischief we got into when we were children. Never once do we mention the fact that I am leaving forever.

We arrive in Waverly Station to find ourselves amidst a huge crowd of young women, from all over Scotland, all obviously embarking on the same journey. I am met by two young Canadian RT Officers, smart in their uniforms, efficient with their clipboards and questions. They find my name on their lists; verify my identity and double check to make sure my papers are in order. Around me other young women are being checked through. In spite of the milling crowd of tearful relatives and nervous War Brides, everything is handled cheerfully and with amazing expediency. Exactly on time, we board the special train that will take us to London. Margaret and Aunt Liz stand very close together as they wave goodbye. Peter runs as far as he can beside the t rain, leaping off the end of the platform and running on the gravel that edges the tracks. I don’t take my eyes off him. He becomes smaller as the train gathers speed. I lean from the window until I can see him no longer. I feel as if something has been wrenched out of me. Everything known and loved is behind me. My journey has begun. I’m trembling inside and out. I won’t look back. I won’t cry. I’ll hold tight to my treasured memories and look forward to my new life.

I find my assigned seat. One of the girls wipes a tear away and looks around the compartment.

“Well we’re off. Anybody here going to Alberta?” We all begin to talk at once.

Chapter 2– May 13th

I don’t remember a lot about the train journey. I don’t remember we told one another where we were going, passed around pictures of our husbands and wondered what this new country was going to be like. How would we fit in– would people like us? What little I knew of Canada came from maps in my school Atlas and wild adventure stories. I had read about the far North and the wide sweeping prairies. None of this pertained in any way to the part of the country that would be my new home. Of course Orwell had told me about the village with the limestone gorge running through it and I had seen some pictures but it all seemed more fantasy than reality. I was a little bit excited and a whole lot scared but I had chosen to do this. I had to keep telling myself it would be all right.

After our first burst of conversation the compartment became very quiet. I think we were all tired, emotionally drained. I looked out of the window as we crossed the border and left Scotland behind: would I ever see this again?“Oh, what have a I done?” My mind ran in crazy circles. I can’t do this, but how can I turn back. I turned my head, feeling the rough scratchiness of the worn and faded red plush seat cover against my cheek. I pretended to be asleep. I needed some solitude for now.

As well as the military personnel, there were several Canadian Red Cross women on the train with us. They were very helpful and tried to make everything as easy and comfortable as they could. They must have been an absolute God sent to the women who were traveling with small children.

This part of our journey ended when we reached London. Again we were met by Canadian officials, again our papers were checked, and again everything was handled with calm, cheerful competence. We boarded busses that would take us to overnight lodgings. As we went to get on to our bus, one of the girls burst into tears.“I can’t do it”, she wept,“I’m going home!” I guess she did because we did not see her after that.

As we drove through the city, we were very aware of the wartime bomb damage. Although the war had been over for a year, piles of rubble and great gaping holes were everywhere. Rebuilding had begun but it would be a long time before all the damage could be repaired and the city would become whole again.

Our bus pulled up in front of an elegant three story town house in a crescent of equally elegant London houses. Once inside, we found that the interior did not match the exterior. The house had obviously been gutted and used for wartime headquarters for one of the branches of the services. I had the feeling that it must have been a hive of activity during the war and I wondered if great decisions had been made here. Now the whole place was a warren of small cubicles and bare cell like offices. The place was rapidly filling up as other war brides were arriving from different parts of Britain. Our group grew larger. It seemed to me all of this was utter confusion. How could anyone keep track of all these people? I needn’t have worried for the young men with their lists and clipboards continued to bring order out of what so easily could have become disaster.

We were ushered into one of the larger rooms for an evening meal. I couldn’t eat, my stomach revolted at the thought of food but I was thankful for the heavy white china mug of strong hot tea that I held tight between my shaking hands. I went to bed in a room with ten other young women, all strangers to me. My cot was hard and narrow and my pillow felt as if it was filled with iron shavings, all the tears I hadn’t shed when I said my goodbyes flowed now. I pulled the covers over my head and wept silently into the hard little pillow.

Chapter 3– May 14th to 19th

Morning came quickly and after breakfast we were again on our busses. The mothers with young children were having a difficult time. Babies and toddlers, taken out of their familiar routines, became hard to handle. The Red Cross women were always there to help but still it wasn’t an easy journey. I remember one little girl sobbing“I want my granny, where is my granny?” I wondered if granny, left behind, was sobbing too.

We drove past Buckingham Palace. I have never been sure if it was truly on our way out of the city or did our driver perhaps think we should have one last look. Our busses took us to Southampton. The dock resembled nothing more than an upturned anthill. Sailors, soldiers and civilians dashed hither and yon reacting to shouted orders. My head reeled, partly from the confusion, partly from sheer tiredness. Amidst all the bustle of activity, luggage was piled in heaps everywhere. Suddenly, all I could think about was my trunk– suppose it got lost in this wild, chaotic melee.“Oh please don’t let it get lost. It’s all I have of home.”

I gasped when I caught my first sight of the Aquitania. She was huge– blocks long. I knew she had been one of the glamour ships of the 1930s. Movie stars and millionaires had traveled in luxury aboard her. She had been commandeered as a troopship during the war and the luxury was stripped away now but some traces of her former glory still showed in elegantly curved staircases and lingering touches of marble and gold.

I was directed to a crowded cabin. There were twenty-seven of us packed into nine sets of bunks three tiers high. Mine was on top. Thank goodness it had a guardrail. At least I knew I would not fall out if the ship rolled. There was a porthole just at the head of my bed. I liked that! It made me feel a lot less claustrophobic. There was not anywhere we could stow our suitcases properly so they sat in a heap in the middle of our quarters and, of course, there was no privacy. In time we became quite used to dressing and undressing in front of one another. Having been in the Air Force and lived in barracks, I knew all the little tricks of getting in and out of my clothes with at last some modicum of modesty. Girls who had never lived away from home before found it all somewhat dismaying to begin with.

We were mostly very young in our group– ages from 18– 21 except for one woman in her thirties. She had lived in Canada for a few years before the war and we all looked on her as a fountain of knowledge about our new country. We got along well together in spite of the crowded conditions.

I am getting a little ahead of myself here and must go back to where the ship finally set sail. It took a long time to get everyone boarded and all the luggage stowed away safely in the hold. We went up on deck in the late afternoon. It was dreary, dull and grey. The clouds hung low and the sea heaved in an oily, sullen swell. Gulls circled and cried around us. Fob was rolling in and the intermittent sound of foghorns through the gloom was the loneliest, saddest sound I have ever heard. I felt cold in the pit of my stomach and found as I stood there, that my fists were tightly clenched and my heart was thudding with an emotion I cannot describe. Some of the war brides had families who had followed them right to dockside to say goodbye. I was glad mine hadn’t– I know I couldn’t have borne it. I think I might have jumped overboard and gone home. I am sure every one of us was struggling with strong conflicting emotions. We stood on deck in huddled little groups, not talking much, just watching.

At last the ship shuddered beneath us and we knew we were under way. It was an ending– it was a beginning.

It came time for dinner. We were told which dining room would be ours for the duration of the voyage. It seemed we walked for miles along endless corridors before we found our dining room, pardon me, salon. Our group was in one of the smaller salons. I think it must have been officer’s quarters when this was a troopship and had therefore kept some of its dignity. It must have been incredibly elegant in its glamour days. Even now it was impressive. Round tables were set with crisp white cloths, sparkling silver and glassware. A menu at each place announced:

Cream of vegetable soup

Roast beef with roast potatoes and cauliflower au gratin

Pear Belle Helene

Tea or coffee.

We gazed in delighted disbelief and it got even better when the stewards placed baskets of crisp, fresh rolls and butter, real butter not greasy wartime margarine in front of us. A concerted, ecstatic murmur echoed around the room“Oh, white bread and butter.” It was the first white bread we had seen in six years. Wartime bread was grey and heavy and tasted like cardboard. Everything here was delicious. The slice of roast beef on my plate looked as big as a whole month’s meat ration.“I’ll never eat all of that”, I thought– but I did. The pear Belle Helene turned out to be a marvelous concoction of fresh pears and chocolate sauce. It was years since we had eaten anything like this. Canadian food, we agreed, was just heavenly. Things were beginning to look a whole lot better. I guess there is nothing like a good meal to cheer you up. All of our meals on board were excellent but that is the one I will always remember. I found as I looked around the ship, that we had been very lucky in our designated dining salon. Most of the other accommodations were large, rather bare mess halls with none of the touches of elegance that we lucky people were enjoying. But the food was excellent everywhere so I guess that was the most important thing.

Except for one violent storm, our voyage was quite calm. Even so, many women and children were terribly seasick. I felt sorry for them. They were given lots of help but the days and nights of feeling deathly ill must have been a nightmare.

By this time I had made friends with a girl named Betsy, who was on her way to Manitoba. Neither of us was every seasick. Luckily no one in our group had any problems and we enjoyed each other every day on board. It was a strange feeling– our old life had been left behind but we were not yet connected to the new life that waited for us. The days at sea were suspended in time as we floated in a world that didn’t seem to belong anywhere.

Betsy and I explored the ship and walked on the deck. It was chilly even though it was May but we reveled in the brisk, tangy salt breezes. We stood in the bow and watched the ocean as it rolled endlessly from horizon to horizon. We hung over the after deck rail and watched the ship’s wake as it creamed out behind us carrying us ever further and further from our old familiar world. And we talked about our expectations, hopes and, yes, fears.

The crowded condition in our cabin didn’t bother us, nor did the fact that we took our baths in cold salt water and we had to line up for them. Even that didn’t dampen the enjoyment Betsy and I found in the whole experience.

One night I woke from a sound sleep to find a sailor leaning across my bed.“It’s O.K. Miss,” he said before I could open my mouth.“There is a storm and I have to make sure that porthole is secure.”

I must have gone right back to sleep because I don’t remember the storm. I don’t think any of us in our cabin woke up. But in the morning we found the waves were rolling in mountainous swells and the ship, huge as it was, seemed to pitch and toss like a cork as it rose high on the waves before dropping into the deep troughs between. It was suggested we didn’t go out on deck, as the wind was still strong so we sat in the lounge. There was a wall of glass between us and the outer deck and as we watched we could see sky and then nothing but water as the ship wallowed downwards. Then as we rose, the sky appeared again. It was a very strange sensation. There were even more miserably seasick people now. I was truly glad that I was not one of them.

The storm blew itself out and our ocean journey passed pleasantly. On the morning of the last day, we sighted land. It is amazing that the ship didn’t keep over as we all crowded on the rails at the landward side. There wasn’t a lot to see, just a low, rocky shoreline with here and there a cluster of small, white houses. It looked foreboding– bleak and lonely. There were sea birds wheeling above us again and we watched as the pilot boat came alongside. I remember how small it looked as it bobbed up and down beside our huge ship. The pilot came on board ready to guide us into Halifax Harbour.

Chapter 4– May 19th– 20th

We docked at Pier 21; a place steeped in history. The piper had seen many waves of immigrants arrive filled with high hopes for life in a new country. It had watched its men go to two world wars and watched again as the fortunate ones returned. Now it welcomed the War Brides. There was a huge sign saying“Welcome to Canada” and a brass band on the dockside played“Here comes the bride”, as Aquitania docked. Betsy and I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry. I think we did a little of both.

We expected to leave the ship right away but that was not to be. Again everything was organized to the‘nth degree. Those who were going to the Maritime Provinces were to be first off the ship. Then it was the turn of the women who were going to British Columbia and the other western provinces and last of all those of us destined for Quebec and Ontario.

From the deck we watched as the first groups disembarked. We saw many joyous dockside reunions and wished our husbands had been near enough to Halifax to meet us at the ship. There was a telegram from Orwell waiting for me.“See you soon”. It said, and a letter from my Aunt and Uncle, who lived in Connecticut, saying that they would drive up to see me later in the summer. I felt great surges of excitement as I began to feel connected to the world again.

Later that night I said goodbye to Betsy. We promised to keep in touch. I watched from the upper deck as the girls going west walked across the pier to their waiting trains. It was dark and I couldn’t pick her out in the crowd.

Feeling a bit lost, I went back to my cabin. It wasn’t as crowded now so I sat on a lower bunk and packed and repacked my suitcase, prepared to spend one more night on board and waited for tomorrow.

It took almost all of the next day before those of us who were left were processed. We had a last meal and our two young stewards, who had become our friends by now, brought us a special treat– bananas! Hey had been ashore and since they knew we had not seen a banana for all the years of the war, they decided to surprise us. Oh my, they were so good!! The stewards wished us luck on the rest of our journey.

“Now remember, I don’t want to find any of you on my ship running back home again”. One of them said.“You make yourselves good lives, you hear me?” We laughed and promised but it did not turn out to be a perfect life for everyone. Some brides did go back home again. Not everyone found a perfect life.

The time came for us to line up on deck and at last I heard my name called and found myself walking down the gangplank and onto dry land. It felt strange to feel the earth solid under my feet after days of constant motion. A smiling young soldier took my suitcase and I followed him across the pier and over some railroad tracks to where our train waited.

Although it was May there were piles of dirty snow alongside the tracks and the wind coming from the sea was chilly. I shivered a little, feeling suddenly tired, a bit grubby (cold salt water doesn’t really make one feel clean) and somehow depressed. Everything around me looked drab and grey.“Is this what Canada is like?” My heart sank.

The train looked huge compared to the trains I had been accustomed to at home. We had to climb up into it instead of walking in from platform level as we did in Britain. Since it was evening our sleeping berths were already made up, mine was n upper, and we went straight to bed. I had never slept on a train before but I found my bed was comfortable. I drew the curtains that afforded me privacy and fell asleep lulled by the rocking rhythm of the wheels clickety clacking through the night. The last part of my journey had begun.

Chapter 5– May 21st– May 23rd

I woke to sunshine pouring through my window. I sat up in my berth and looked out anxious for my first real glimpse of Canada and saw bush, nothing but thick scrub bush. There was no sign of any habitation and no view as the bush hugged each side of the train tracks. It seemed to go on forever. Feeling disappointed I got up and found my way to the washroom. Oh what a joy it was to have a quick sponge bath in warm soapy water. This made me feel so much better. Then came breakfast in the dining car.

“One egg or two, madam?” the smiling steward asked. What luxury– we had been lucky to get one egg a month.

The porter, who took care of our car and made up our berths each night, was black, the first really black man I had ever seen. He showed his marvelous white teeth in wide, friendly smiles. We all thought he was wonderful.“He is just like a character in a Hollywood movie” said one of my fellow travelers.

The world went by outside our windows, bush, bush and more bush. Once in a while we saw a small town or village of small wooden houses nestled beside the tracks. It didn’t look very promising. In one village we saw a large billboard advertising Mother Parker’s Tea.“Well at least we should be able to get a cuppa”, someone laughed.

The train stopped at many small stations to let girls off. Of course we all crowded to the windows to see what was happening. Sometimes the girl getting off was met by a whole family of new relatives, sometimes by just her husband. At one small wayside station we waited and waited– no one came. Phone calls were made, still no one came. The Red Cross women finally took a weeping girl away with them. We didn’t see her again. Our compartment was quiet for a while.

“It couldn’t happen to me, could it?” The words were not said out loud but the feeling was implicit throughout the group.

At yet another stop, there was no one waiting and our hearts sank. Again phone calls were made but this time it had just been a mix-up of dates. A pick-up truck roared up to the station. A young man in work clothes and manure speckled rubber boots raced across the platform and lifted his bride off her feet, swinging her around and kissing her tears away. We breathed a unanimous sigh of relief.

The scenery outside our windows began to change. The towns and villages we passed were prettier. There were farms with lush green fields and wide winding rivers and we could see a long way now that the bush no longer hemmed us in

Our train was a special, which meant we had to be shunted off onto sidings at times to allow regularly scheduled trains to go through. I woke in the night to find the train had stopped. It was around 11 o’clock and we were, I think, somewhere on the outskirts of Montreal. I looked out of my window and saw young people in white tennis outfits playing on a lighted court. I watched with pleasure. It looked so carefree and so carefree and colourful after the darkness that had been wartime.

On the evening of the 22nd, we were told“We will be in Toronto tomorrow”. A ripple of excitement ran through the car. At last our journey was almost over. There was a flurry of pin curling hair, checking what to wear tomorrow– oh tomorrow!

Tomorrow would be May 23rd ; ten days since I had left home and now my journey was almost over. A journey of ups and downs, hopes and fears. I was a welter of emotion– happy, excited and terrified all at once.

The train pulled into Union Station on a glorious sun filled morning. We left the train under escort as always. I thought I would run right into Orwell’s waiting arms but no, again everything was organized. We still belonged to our escorts until properly and officially handed over.

We came out of a narrow corridor into a brightly lighted concourse to find ourselves behind a wooden barrier. I looked around and saw a wide open space and beyond that a huge crowd of people behind yet another barrier. My heart was beating right up in my throat as I saw, crushed up against the barrier, waving wildly…the reason for my journey…Orwell! I had never seen him in anything other than his khaki uniform but now he was wearing a grey tweed suit with a white shirt and he looked different, smaller somehow, but oh, I was so glad to see him.

I was herded along with the rest of the crowd wishing I could get out from behind this obstruction but everything had to be officially correct before this could be allowed to happen to happen. My last papers were checked and Orwell, who could wait no longer, came leaping over the barriers to sweep me up in the most wonderful hug there ever was. My hat flew off; I dropped my purse, which promptly spilled its contents over all the floor. Someone yelled“Good for you guy”, and there was a scattering of laughter. I didn’t care, I was finally exactly where I wanted to be.