Saturday, 27 August 2022

A Detour on the Great Canadian Road Trip

Some time ago, one of the kids said to me, “Mom, we know quite a bit of your family’s story, but not so much of Dad’s side of the family.”

Well, since our travels have taken us to Woodstock, where much of the Schut family story plays out, and since the Resident Sweetie and I have been poking about the back roads of Oxford County, and since we’ve been hanging out with his brothers a lot and listening to their stories, I figured maybe this blog could begin to remedy that omission – a family story for our children, and a story about a family for the rest of you readers.

It starts with a woman, a strong and determined woman, who lost her husband to encephalitis when she was just about 40, two weeks before her youngest son, my RS, was born. Her husband – the father that Al never knew – owned a shoemaker’s shop in the town of Emmen in the Netherlands. They had been partners in the business, with mom behind the counter and "Pap" making and repairing shoes. Now she was alone

The shoe shop where Al was born. It has since become a cafe.

Al visits his dad's grave and poses with his children and grandchildren in 2015. Such a special moment.

And it starts with her four sons, aged 16 down to newborn at the time: Ralph, Hank, John, and baby Albert. Ralph at the age of 16 had  to take on his father’s role and job. It was a year after the war had ended, and times were tough. There was a shortage of almost everything – supply chain issues, they’d call it now -- and nobody had money to spend. Mother Schut wondered what the future held for “mijn jongens” – my boys. She took in many boarders to make ends meet, and she was tough on her kids – Hank remembers peeling potatoes for all those boarders when he was just ten. But with the support of the extended family around them, they were making a go of it.

And then, in 1954, Ralph fell in love and wanted to get married. Not only that, but he wanted to immigrate with his bride Tina to Canada to seek a better future. My future mother-in-law could not fathom this. Her family had lived in the villages surrounding Emmen since the 1600s. However, if Ralph was going, they would all go. Who knew – perhaps there would be a better future for her boys. She knew nobody in Canada, she could not speak English, she was a 49 year old widow without any marketable skills, but – come hell or high water – the family would stay together. Her brother-in-law, who had been a surrogate dad for the boys, said he and his family would come too.

Ralph and Tina left for Canada right after they were married. Ralph dreamed of starting a business, but in the meantime worked in a brick-manufacturing plant to amass some capital. The shoe shop in Emmen was sold, and Mom Schut and her three boys, aged 18, 14, and 9 got ready to go. Two weeks before they were to leave, the brother-in-law backed out. Mom said, “We’re packed now, we’re going.” 

On April 15, they boarded a turbo prop airplane in Amsterdam. In the photo they are smiling, but on the inside, there was much turmoil. Hank, at 18, was apprenticed to a gardener with the parks department. He loved his job. What would await him in Canada? John, 14, was a scholar; his teacher had begged Mom to leave him in Holland, where he was sure to get into a university. What was there for him in Canada? Al was too young to feel much of anything, but he didn’t like change, and this trip would mean change.

The plane landed in Montreal, and from there they boarded a train that took them to Brantford Ontario. They  arrived at 3 o’clock in the morning. Ralph was waiting with a pick-up truck. And life in Canada, with its many ups and downs and surprises, began.

Mom climbed into the cab of the pick-up, the three boys climbed into the back bed of the truck, the luggage got piled in, and they were off into the frigid Ontario spring air, bouncing over 35 kilometers of dark country roads to arrive at their destination, the village of Drumbo.

The farmhouse in Drumbo is still there.


Within a day or two, Hank and John were sent off to work for farmers, even though they had been city boys all their lives. Hank went to work for a tobacco farmer and came home every day with tobacco tar smeared over his hands and arms. John remembers that year like this: “Imagine: one day I was a 14-year old high school student, and a day or two later I was crouching on a milking stool beside a cow. If I could have, I would have crawled back to the Atlantic Ocean and I would have swum all the way back to Holland.” Albert was sent off to school; it was a mile away, and on the walk there every day, he passed some nasty geese that set his heart to beating anxiously. His teacher gave him an Eaton’s catalogue so he could learn the English words for common household items and clothing. And mom tried to make an old farmhouse into a home. In Holland there’d been indoor plumbing – but not here. In Holland, she knew the names of the milkman and baker but here she hid behind the door and pretended nobody was home when they came calling. In Holland, she’d lived in an urban neighbourhood; now she was by herself all day out in the country, unless she walked into the village and hung out with her daughter-in-law and the new baby. John said, “Mom never told us, but I think there were buckets of tears shed in that lonely farmhouse everyday.”

Was it worth it? Some immigrant stories do not have happy endings. Life is too hard, the high hopes that inspired the move dashed to smithereens. The immigrants either return home with their tails between their legs, or they become hard and bitter as they tough it out. But many stories do have a happy outcome. 

 The first year was hard, but then the family moved into town. Mom Schut watched proudly as her boys fulfilled her hopes for a better life. Ralph began his own side-line business of shoe repair, which became a full time job, with shoe sales as an extra.. Soon he was operating a men’s clothing store in small town Ontario. Hank began working for a bricklayer, which really suited his skills for precision.  John says, “After a year of farming, I was apprenticed to a carpenter. This suited me so much better. I learned the skills, and then began working for a house builder. By the time I was 22, my boss was taking off for Florida for three months and leaving me in charge. A little light went on in my bean: why should I be doing his work, when I could have my own company and get the profit.?” Hank joined him in this, and H&J Schut Construction was born, a company that built about 350 homes and owned numerous apartment buildings.



Two of their own homes that Hank and John built: their own, when they had young families.

 And my RS completed high school and university, and became a computer professional.

Al and his mom when he was a university student.


They all got married.


14 grandchildren graced Mom’s life, with lots of great-grands to follow. 


And we all grew older.


“Her boys” and their children were her life, and she kept a tight hold on them. She was still tough on her boys, expected much from them, until the day she died in June 1999 at the age of 93. On the night that she died a white dove sat out in the courtyard of her nursing home, an angel come to guide her home.

Of course, the story is not over. The oldest, Ralph and his wife, have died. 


Hank’s wife died unexpectedly two years ago. The two older brothers have memory issues now, so all the time spent with them this week, every country drive we take with them, every outing we take them on, every story told, is a precious jewel to add to our memories. One week ago today, despite a bad medical report about Hank's latest blood tests, we had a wonderful road trip to the Farmer’s Market in St. Jacob’s – I shared that experience on FB.


One never knows how much time is left on our life clock, and so it was important that we make this trip sooner rather than later. When we started out, we knew that unexpected things could happen. All our well-laid plans might not work out. And that is what did happen. As I write this, Hank is on life-support in the Woodstock General Hospital as a result of a bad reaction to a blood transfusion, followed by a heart attack. After all the grandkids have had a chance to say goodbye today, the life-support will be removed. 


We have put a hold on our travel plans for now, doing what is important for us and for the rest of the family.

Mom Schut, you were a gutsy lady; because of your move, I’ve become part of the Schut family story, and my children and grandchildren, too. Thanks for raising my RS to be such a special guy. Brothers, you’ve been rocks for your own families, and for us too. It’s an honour to share this story today.

Sunday, 21 August 2022

The Great Canadian Road Trip, part 2

 We’ve been on the road for 19 days and 5500 km. We’ve slept in 10 different beds, crossed several time zones, and done laundry twice. We’ve moved from Lethbridge to Regina, from Regina to Winnipeg.

We picked up Bucky in Regina. He was hitch-hiking. He is posing in Kenora.

Then on and on and on and on to Thunder Bay, after which came Wawa, and Little Current on Manitoulin Island. We stayed two nights in Bothwell (where my sister offered her empty home for a rest – hallelujah!).

 Now we are in Woodstock, where we plan to stay for a week to visit family. Woodstock is where Al and my stories joined up 51 years ago; it deserves a little more time and attention.

Now our friends are asking, “Are you enjoying it?” That’s a valid question. 

 A few days ago, as we were driving along north of Superior, I rhapsodized to the RS, “Oh, I’m just so glad we did this, Al. I’m really enjoying it,” to which he replied, “Yeah, some of it’s okay, but boy, this is a lot of driving.” I think the truth lies somewhere in between. This road journey is like life – there are highlights and wonderful things, and then there are the hard realities and the difficult parts. You’ll read a bit of that in this blog as I share some of the things we've experienced:

1. If Google  tells you that getting from point A to Point B will take 5 hours, don’t believe it. Construction, heavy traffic, and pit stops mean that the 5 hours turn into 7 quite easily. If we decided to spend an hour at a lakeside rest area, it got even longer. As a result, we now sadly realize that all the little byways, unusual sights, and back door experiences we hoped would be part of this trip will not happen, especially not on long driving days. But we are also having some wonderful, serendipity experiences that we had not expected at all. So we are learning to be open, to live more in the moment, and to appreciate what is happening right now, right here – that’s on our good days. But on that long stretch between Winnipeg and Thunder Bay – not so much. That’s just an experience of endurance.

2. Some experiences have strongly impacted our emotions. The Nikkei interpretive center in New Denver, BC, tells the story of the internment of 12,000 Japanese during the 2nd world war. 


How should we react to such a sad story, where the rights of Canadian citizens were trampled, their possessions taken away, and their families often separated? We knew the facts, but seeing how they lived and listening to the stories moved knowledge from head to heart. 


The Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg asked us, “What are universal human rights?” Freedom, dignity, respect? Land, water, clean air? I was moved by the stories of unsung heroes who stood up to fight for these rights, who spoke truth to power and often paid the ultimate price with their lives. How can we make sure their sacrifice is not in vain? 

At Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump, we learned the story of the Plains indigenous people. Buffalo were the center of their lives and well-being. It’s estimated that 100 million buffalo roamed the plains before Europeans colonized the West. In a short space of 100 years, they became almost extinct, many victims of predation by those same colonizers. How easy it is for us to arrogantly assume that we can do as we wish, and how easy it is to trample on the rights of others. We feel sad, mad, humble, guilt-ridden ... and hopefully, more self-aware and open to considering our impact on others.

3. Some days are just plain fun. After that long tiring day from Winnipeg to Thunder Bay, we were expecting more of the same as we set out the next day for Wawa, known as home of the big goose (but not much else.) 



I was driving, and we were looking for a pit stop. Jokingly, I said to Al, “I’m putting this out to the universe. I want a pit stop with flush toilets, a beach, and a nice place to picnic.” Within a few miles, a sign invited us to Terrace Bay Beach and I took a hard right and followed the road down, down, down past a golf course, right down to a wonderful Conservation area with ... yes: flush toilets, a beach, and picnic tables. 


And more! An interpretive center, a boardwalk, a view of a waterfall, trails, a gift shop where we bought another little stuffed beaver to keep Bucky company. Ahhh, bliss! 

Later, after a shorter than normal driving day, we arrived at our motel. It was one of those roadside affairs run by mom and pop (in this case, mom and son). Those motels are often iffy, but not so this one. Our first clue that this would not be a run-of-the-mill place was that the driveway gravel was raked! All the furniture in the lovely rooms matched, and it wasn’t dark-brown arborite! The bathroom had been totally remodelled. There was a gazebo with a barbecue.

Then came the icing on the cake. We’d been looking for a simple restaurant for supper, and were told about a family-owned eatery a mile down the road. “Great,” said Al, “Maybe I can get liver and onions.” The parking lot was full – a good sign. The tables were full. Not so good. But then a table opened up and oh, wow! The menu offerings were amazing. Not a speck of liver and onions, though – more like pan-fried whitefish, spicy Caribbean pork, varied stir-fries. 


I asked the waitress (the "mom" in the operation) about the eclectic menu. “Our Mom was from Trinidad, Pop was from China,” she explained. Okay, then. We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.

It had been a good day, we agreed.

To be continued -- because I haven't told you yet about drawbridges, sandhill cranes, being serenaded at the ferry, the villages on the coast of Lake Erie, and "coming home." And more.

Thursday, 11 August 2022

Great Canadian Road Trip part 1

 The pandemic put the kibosh on a lot of travel plans, including ours. We had wanted to go to Europe one more time, this time to research our family roots. But Covid reared its ugly head in 2019, so we postponed the trip in 2020, then postponed it again in 2021.

In 2022, a lot of people like us are making up for lost time, taking all those postponed trips. But we were discouraged by stories about airport delays, lost luggage, another Covid wave in Europe, the war in Ukraine, rising gas prices etc, etc. so instead, we decided on a two month journey across Canada. Call it The Great Canadian Road Trip.

This would be a nostalgia trip. We had already crossed the country on wheels many times, travelling from the west coast to the east, including Newfoundland. In fact, we’d sworn we’d never do it again in a car. And yet, here we were, pulling out the maps, finding travel guides, booking motels and begging beds from friends and family as we planned our trip from Courtenay, on Vancouver Island, where we now live, to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, which we’d last visit on our honeymoon 51 years ago. And back again. Why do it? Well, why not? Maybe we’re a little bit nuts, but making crazy decisions isn’t only the prerogative of teenagers, is it? We’re not getting any younger; so, do it now or do it never! We would revisit our memories, relive some of the adventures, and in the process say hello to some folks we haven’t seen for a long time.

And along the way, I would revive my blog for a while, sharing my stories and reflections.  

Well, we’ve been on the road for 10 days and covered about 2500 km. We stopped in Abbotsford for one night with our kids, then spent four nights in a cabin in Castlegar, then two nights with a cousin in Lethbridge, one night in Regina, and now we are in Winnipeg. All of it, so far, has been great – well, except for the stone that hit our windshield just outside of Swift Current, Saskatchewan. On the bright side, we now know that there’s a Speedy Auto Glass in Swift Current that does a speedy job, and while we waited we got our walking steps in trekking to Timmie’s for lunch. Here’s some things I have discovered.

1. We are not as young as we used to be. Duh! After sitting in a car all day, you’d think we’d be eager to do something a little more exciting than watching Wheel of Fortune re-runs and taking naps. But getting the luggage out of the car and into the motel is work, after which a cuppa tea and putting your feet up sounds like a good idea. One thing for sure, a day of driving does not leave a lot of time or opportunity to poke about and discover new things. I thought writing a blog to fill up those long evenings in a rented room sounded like a good idea, but here it is, 10 days later, and I’m finally posting!

2. This is a BIG country. In Texas, which is also BIG, there’s a little ditty that goes like this: “The sun has riz, the sun has set, and here we is, in Texas yet.” The same could be said about BC. It’s big. It has BIG mountains, BIG rivers, BIG lakes and glaciers and trees,


BIG valleys and roads that take you way up high and way down low. It’s beautiful, too. When you are in BC, you might think, “Ah yes, this is what Canada is.” But of course, you would only partially be right, because there was a whole lot more to come. You cross the boundary between BC and Alberta, and suddenly the trees are scrubby. You see a whole lot of wheat fields and grain bins, wind turbines and trains loaded with containers as you zip along the four-lane Trans Canada. 


No big hills or valleys, just lot of BIG views. As they say on the prairies, if your dog runs away, just step on a tuna tin and you'll be able to find out where he went. A lot of people think it's boring, but to me, it’s all just amazing and beautiful.

3. It’s the little things that make some of the biggest impressions. I loved watching the flowers in the roadside ditches: Queen Anne’s Lace and yellow Hawkweed on Vancouver Island, the spikes of fuschia fireweed, drifts of mauve knapweed, white yarrow and daisies in the mountains, mini golden sunflowers lining the roads in Alberta and Saskatchewan. 


Birds flit through the shrubbery at the rest stops. Poking along in the Slocan Valley, we passed a homestead that was picture perfect: a glorious flower garden, a huge vegie patch, a flock of brown chickens running about in the yard of  a cozy-looking house and rustic barn, surrounded by a cedar fence. We didn’t stop to take a photo, but the image is lodged firmly in our memories, to be reflected on whenever we need a moment that spells peace.

We sat at a little cafĂ© in an out-of -the-way village; patrons sat at picnic tables in the yard, tossing a frisbee to the resident dog, sipping homemade lemonade and nibbling on fresh-baked cookies. 


We saw a young boy crossing a park on his bicycle, a fishing rod balanced on the handle bars; he was singing a song to himself as he passed us on his way to the lake. It was a picture straight out of a Norman Rockwell calendar. These little moments are just as important to our enjoyment as the grand scenery that surrounds us.

To be continued....