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What's In a Name?
I am Alice
Photo by Camille Minoufle
When I turned five, my parents moved into a newly-built bungalow and the first home they owned. It was an exciting day for our family, an upwardly-mobile move to a new subdivision on the edge of town, made possible by my father’s recent promotion at work. It was also a long way from where they started when they arrived in Canada six years earlier.
Their first home, and the one they lived in when I was born, was a tiny two-storey clapboard on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks. It was next door to a foundry where the stacks spewed dark smoke all day and then men with blackened faces and grimy overalls when the three-thirty whistle blew.
As a child, we sometimes drove by that house so my parents could point out where they first lived when they came to Canada. Tiny and slightly rundown, I wondered how anyone could live in such a small house.
I have recently learned they lived in two rooms on the first floor, cooked on a hotplate with two small coils, while the landlord lived upstairs and shared the bathroom.
The day we moved to the new house, my younger sisters and I were packed off to stay with family friends. I knew the day was auspicious because my mother sent us with a package of store-bought chocolate-covered cookies. It was unusual she would buy such a treat (in my mind superior to the “substandard” homemade ones we had otherwise) or send us to stay with friends because I was a clingy child who found it hard to be apart from my mother.
The new neighbourhood came with a newly built public school just down the street from our home. It was a one-storey structure with six classrooms, standing in a dusty field with a swing set and surrounded by a tall chain-link fence. I was called Alice at school, and Alinka at home, a diminutive of my Polish name Alicja.
These days more than ever, I am deeply grateful for the fortunate circumstances of my birth and that my parents made their way to Canada from the wreckage of what was post-World War II Europe. But that’s not how I felt as a kid. Growing up, I was awkwardly aware of being different, the only child in my 1960s elementary school class with immigrant parents.
Around the age of thirteen, I found a photo of my younger self standing in what was likely that dusty schoolyard looking forlorn. I had on a floral dress over loose-fitting plaid flannel pants. For years the photo convinced me that everything wrong with my life was because of the way my mother dressed me. It fuelled my teenage angst until a few years later, in my early twenties, I found another photo, this one of the entire class — all the girls were wearing floral dresses and plaid pants. Those were the days before tights and pantyhose.
My dream as a young school kid was to have spaghetti for dinner or find raisins in my school bag for recess snack instead of the usual slice of leftover babka or apple cake. I wished my mother spoke better English. I wished she could write the notes to my teacher without my help — an enduring task I realize is assigned to the firstborn in every immigrant family, coming before mine and after mine. I wished she was cool like the other mothers.
I am sure my newly-immigrated parents had never considered Alice when they named me. Alicja was the name they chose. While I can no longer ask them why they chose this name, I know it wasn’t after some long-gone relative or childhood friend.
My parents never dwelled on the past. I once asked my father how some of his friends spent the war. I asked in particular about his friend with the numbers tattooed on his arm. “He was in Dachau, but we never talked about the war,” he replied. “We wanted to get on with our lives.”
They built a wonderful life for themselves in their new country. The story has repeated itself millions of times over and over by people arriving in a new land.
My name had nothing to do with the past. I am certain they chose it for this reason and no other.
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