In the summer of 1959, just before my twelfth birthday, I pressed my nose against the rear window of our car and watched my homeland disappear behind me.
The circumstances of my family's relocation from southern Ontario in Canada to the heartland of the United States were kind of complicated. I suspect that the four of us making that journey--my mother, sister, grandmother, and me--probably all had different ideas about what we were doing and why we were doing it.
I knew it had to do, at least in part, with a perceived need for a fresh start for our family after several years of coping with an alcoholic father. It wasn't a flight from him, more like creating a new place for him in the hope he would eventually join us and begin anew. He never did.
I was born in Toronto. Our family situation had caused us to bounce around quite a bit. Prior to our move I completed sixth grade. I think that I matriculated in about seven or eight elementary schools just to get that far. I lived in Guelph and Ottawa but Toronto is the place I consider to be my birthplace and home town.
Our move to the States was probably the best thing for our family. I wasn't so sure at the time. As I was walking to my first day of school in the U.S. I met a kid my age. Upon learning I was new here he offered to answer any questions I might have. I inquired as to whether they played much hockey here. He hesitated a bit, then said, "Yes we play hockey here. You play that on a horse, don't you?" I knew immediately that my hockey cards featuring the likes of Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, and Maurice "Rocket" Richard were going to be under appreciated.
In 1965, shortly before I headed off to college, my mother, sister, and I became naturalized citizens of the United States of America. A strange notion that--to somehow be "naturalized" by court order. Nonetheless, it appeared that we would be here for the duration and if so we might as well lay claim to the rights of citizenship. I don't recall having to renounce other loyalties, foreign or domestic, but it appears we did. Hopefully that doesn't extend to Olympic hockey.
I was in college and graduate school during the Vietnam War. A lot of my friends took much more interest in Canada than I had noticed previously. I suspect Canada will always be thought of here as being a refuge for objectors to the Vietnam War, an image that is warmly received by some and greeted with snarls by others. Mark me down for warmly received.
Once seen by many as almost a subset of the USA, Canada now has fashioned its own identity in the world. Never has that been clearer than in the Olympic Games.
Here in the States these days it is front and center in the debate over health care reform, either derided by Americans as wild-eyed socialism or lifted up as an illustration of how national health care can effectively work for the benefit of the people.
The nature of my career was such that I was able to return to Canada quite a bit on business, and our family made a few trips over the years. I was glad for them to see the Victorian row houses, the streetcars, Eaton's Center, the lakefront, and to experience the cacophony of images, smells, and sounds that pulsated through the remarkable city of Toronto.
One of those trips provided my kids their one and only opportunity to meet my father, a rickety soul by then, his body yielding to years of alcoholism, now cruelly compounded by Parkinson's Disease. "It's the only time anyone has ever called me 'grandpa,'" he said to me with misty eyes, those being among the very last words he would speak to me face to face.
All of this and more ran through my mind as I watched the Canadians host the remarkable Winter Olympics. I felt pride not just for "them" but for me as well. I sensed anew my own Canadian heritage, which I have embraced all of my days. It comes with a flood of memories, some bittersweet, even tragic. It encompasses place and people, life scenes of loss and redemption, times of beauty and meaning.
And most of all, it is nurtured by beloved Canadian friends who always let me know whenever I am there that I am home.