A Rolphton Childhood 1949-1952 by Ann Thompson (nee Jaansula)
The bar of Palmolive soap in its crinkly green wrapper and broad black band sat beside my
plate at the breakfast table. The occasion was my fifth birthday. I suppose I would have
preferred something sweet, but it was March of 1949, soap had been a rare commodity in
the Allied refugee camps in Germany, and here I had been given my very own bar. Special
The five of us - Mother and four children aged 4, 7, 8 and 10 - had arrived in Meilleur's Bay only two weeks before I turned five. We had flown from Germany to Prestwick, then on to Montreal on a 49-passenger TCA flight that cruised low over the Atlantic for a very long time, but did eventually land safely. Mom later recalled that I ran around happily between bouts of violent air-sickness, even after the curtains were drawn to mask the fact that we were flying very close to water.
Our stop in Montreal was memorable only because it was there that I saw my first Black person. He had a red suit and white gloves, and I was rivetted! His face really was all black; darker, in memory, than that of the Jamaican I would marry a quarter of a century later. I continued to stare in open-jawed fascination until Mother yanked me away and pulled me along, informing me that I should close my mouth or (translated from Estonian) "my heart would cool off". Then she added "It's not polite to stare!" One of my few lessons in social etiquette.
We were ushered onto a train that brought us to Moore Lake. Tired. Dad met us with a truck that trundled us off to an un-winterized cottage, just yards from the Ottawa River in Meilleurs Bay. Dad had arrived in Canada the year prior and had lived in a small log cottage on a hillside in Swisha while he earned our passage to Canada. Among the few purchases he had made to welcome us, was a long, heavy, wooden sled that seated three and had separate pivoting runners up front. Also a Brownie box camera that recorded our new life.
We had a wood-burning stove for heat and the river as our source of water. It was my brother's job to go out onto the ice with an axe to chop a hole and dip in the bucket. It was also his duty to chop and bring in wood for the stove. At night he added coal that sustained heat into the night. I don't remember being cold, but I do remember having many blankets. I also remember blankets being hoisted to strange heights in my parents' bed at times, and wondering what on earth they were doing. Somehow, I sensed I shouldn't ask. My younger sister was born in Deep River in November of that same year; dots I connected only decades later…
My three older siblings immediately started to attend the one-room school-house across the highway. In the afternoon, Mom and I would pull the heavy sled up the hill on the snowy track and wait for them on our side. The sparse traffic amused me while we waited. I always thought the Fords were funniest because they were shaped identically, front and back.
Within weeks, we had moved to Rolphton, into what would become our permanent home while the dam was being built. This was a two-room "house" on the south side of Highway 17, opposite The Colony, set back behind other homes, well away from the highway. I have memories of the cut-down fake lamb's fur coat I was wearing the evening we arrived. Our move had had to be orchestrated to happen after the Hydro work day ended so, of course, it was dark by the time we had our first glimpse of Rolphton. There was so much activity around me and I was told to stay out of the way. I remember being cold and hungry and very, very tired. Mother gave me her usual advice: "Go to sleep and you won't feel hungry." I remember having to sleep sitting up on something with my coat still on, leaning against something else. Just like trying to sleep in Prestwick Airport. Eventually someone hauled me off to lie down somewhere. Being dragged about, half asleep, from place to place in Germany and Canada, on trains and planes and buses, along with bags and boxes and suitcases, has left me with a profound understanding of the effectiveness of sleep-deprivation torture.
Here in our new Canadian home we had a kitchen and a bedroom. My parents shared one double bed and, about two feet away, we four shared the other. Our only brother slept across the bed at his sisters' feet. We had limited English. It was a favourite pass-time of my sisters to taunt my brother whenever possible. Once we were all settled more or less comfortably, one of the sisters would start with a word that was new to all of us, in a threateningly low Estonian voice: "Brother, listen, the ONION is coming to get you!" It was a strange new word that frightened me as much as it did him, but I had the security of snuggling down between two bigger sisters while brother howled for mother.
Life was tough for Brother generally. He, at age nine, was the only male offspring and did not bond well with Dad. There were male role expectations. He cut and carried wood, toted water, hauled lumber, and tolerated the ridicule heaped on him by three sisters. But he was the one I emulated. He taught me to build sling-shots and bows and arrows and spears. I followed him through forest trails and rocky cliffs and even into the dump to scavenge and play. With our spears we practiced lobbing skewered grapefruit halves all the way across the refuse into the bushes on the other side. My aim with the bow-and-arrow became so accurate I once managed to hit a neighbours daughter in the back. Much squabbling between mothers and blaming Brother for my violence. But, although my oldest sister had always been my protector and source of solace, Brother remained my idol.
It was while crossing the highway with all three older siblings one afternoon that talk of our "real father" surfaced. This news of "another father" stopped me in my tracks. So I asked and they explained. But "Isa" was the only father I had ever known. Right in front of the swinging metal ESSO sign, I explained to my siblings that if he did come back, well, he could just sleep on the other side of Mom, three to a bed, like we did. They just looked at each other and told me I was stupid. I did not yet understand the resentment my older siblings felt at the intrusion of this "usurper" who had come to replace the other father, the one only they remembered.
Like almost every Finn and Estonian "Displace Person", Dad immediately started to build. I still marvel now at how this man worked all day at the dam site, then came home and sawed and hammered well into the night, often singing the Russian songs he learned as a boy in an Orthodox school close to the Russian border. The hammer would bang, the saw would hum, and his voice would boom above the hiss of the incandescent gas lantern that produced the magically bright white light. How was I to know he was not our "real" father? He was a kind, gentle man who was the only father I had ever known. He was a builder of houses, a digger of gardens, a keeper of bees, and the best story-teller a young child could ask for. On spring mornings in he would hoist me onto his shoulders and walk me through the dewy forest to search for pussy-willows for Easter, or wild flowers to take home for Mother's Day.
He had been a finisher by trade in pre WWII Estonia and never did lose his love of woodworking. With little knowledge of English, he worked as a labourer here in Canada, first to earn the passage for the five of us, later to earn the money to build, and continue to build, for his entire life. Throughout my childhood I remember him heading out to work - often in 20-below temperatures, wrapping his feet, Russian-style, in flannel cloth over his wool socks, before donning his felt liners and big rubber boots.
He had met my mother in the Allied camps in Germany. After a couple of dancing dates, Mom had announced that he had two left feet (although he could perform the Russian Cossack dance to perfection with feet shooting straight out and much leaping about in circles). But, from then on, he remained with us, and told us stories, while Mom went out dancing. I vaguely remember sitting on his shoulders in Germany, too, as we walked through parks and had pictures taken.
In 1949 scrap lumber was readily available from along the Hydro lines and the Colony. It was transported by whichever DP had access to a truck. There was some sharing of workload and much sharing of expertise. We children dismantled boards and planks that had been nailed together, then yanked the nails and straightened them for re-use by hammering out the curves.
Estonian friends who lived just around the corner in an enclave we dubbed "Virula" ("village" in Estonian), built a sauna behind one house when the main lodging was more or less complete. Families took turns preparing this sauna for the Saturday-night onslaught. The sauna became the hub of weekly neighbourhood gatherings; women and children were first into the steam. There were wooden tiers where one could opt for the higher, hotter levels, while someone threw more water onto the sizzling rocks. With dried birch switches - wrinkled green leaves still attached - the adults would flail each other. Children were excused from this healthy treatment, perhaps because naked birch branches traditionally delivered punishment for misdeeds. In the heat of the sauna we often had a basin of cold water and wash cloth to cover our faces when necessary. After "taking the heat", we were thoroughly scrubbed and finally rinsed with clean, cold water. We emerged from the changing room with ruddy red faces and all the new community gossip.
In addition to building, there was digging. I remember clearly digging the pit for our well. It was a family affair and it was the little green frog sitting on a scraped ledge of yellow sand halfway down that etches this occasion into memory. He reminded me of the little goat that was lured down into the well by the clever (and mean) fox in one of Dad's Aesop's tales. I had been un-consolable at the end of that story. I quickly picked up the frog and lifted him to the safety of the grass above.
There was also the pit for our outhouse. When finished, this was a "two-holer", quite grand compared to the dilapidated one we had been using down on the edge of the swamp. Dad always quipped that this was the first and most important structure he built in Canada. The downhill trek in the dead of winter would have been torturous. In winter, being the user with the smallest bum, it was my sensitive hind-quarters that would sense when it was time for Brother and I to remove the convenient back flap and use our garden shovels to whack down the frozen stalagmite that had formed below.
Even at age five I was aware of the social order of Rolphton. Dad and the other DP men all worked on the Hydro dams. My older siblings went to school and were learning English quickly and already showing off a family talent for math. So I knew we were smart. That did a lot to off-set the knowledge that we were "DPs" or "Dirty DPs" or "Damn (Dam?)DPs"; that we lived on the "other side of the highway" along with "those French Canadians". I knew nothing at all about First Nations at the time; they were never mentioned. The "Dirty DP" label confused me somewhat because one of my Mother's more translatable slogans was "Maybe we are forced to be poor, but we don't have to be dirty!"
Keeping us clean was not easy. Washdays were an absolute nightmare with many buckets of water to be hauled from the well and heated on the wood stove. Mom had a galvanized square wash-tub, a scrubbing board, various brushes, and very rough red hands. When not busy with washing and cooking and going to Deep River to bring groceries back in our largest suitcase (boxes were not allowed on the bus), she would either sew clothes on her proud new foot-pedaled Singer sewing-machine, or embroider pastel colours around the endless piles of flannelette diapers for the coming baby.
I have distinct and unnerving memories of Mom having a terrible temper. I was much too young then to understand her original "high society" roots in Estonia, the trauma she must have suffered leaving everything and everyone behind at age 27 with four very young children, to board a vessel that would take us across the Baltic where Russian submarines used refugee convoys for target practice, and then, with her husband returned to the Estonian front - never to be heard from again - to travel across Poland in a convoy of slogging refugees. I was a babe in arms still, my oldest sister was seven, and my mother had no idea where she was headed, except that it was away from the advancing Russians and their unspeakable atrocities. We missed the bombing of Munich by chance because of what Mom calls a premonition - she "just had a bad feeling" about taking the train that went in that direction. When calm, she often spoke of the great good fortune we had in coming through it all alive and unscathed. She was never aware of the toll on her mental health. But her story is a book in itself.
Over that first summer our house expanded. Dad managed to double our living space by completing a single back room as big as the two original ones, in preparation for the arrival of the fifth child. Between the back and front halves of the house he had installed a central "warm wall" that radiated heat from the kitchen fireplace.
On our side of the highway, we never did have electricity. No radio. The milkman brought the news on his hurried rounds. My mother had studied English in her Estonian High School and could converse well enough to understand what was being said - at least in a literal sense. One morning the milkman reported that the King "had kicked the bucket". Mom discussed this message with her daughters because of its absurdity. Why, after all, would anyone give The King a bucket, and why was such a trivial event worthy of mention?
I don't think we ever knew that milkman's name, but he was always cheerful and always very early. On some winter days he had already made his deliveries by the time we got up and we would find our bottles of milk sitting on the doorstep, cream frozen an inch or more above the neck of the bottle, the little cardboard cap sitting at a rakish angle on top. That sight always solicited chuckles and started the day on a merry note.
That first year in Rolphton I kept Mom company at home, not doing much except some fetch-and-carry for her. I was only allowed to dry dishes at first, and never did graduate to being allowed to scrub the floor. Occasionally there would be an exciting outing to Deep River. And it was in Deep River where Tiina was born. I don't remember Mom being pregnant, but I do remember my father having spun me a yarn about my baby sister looking like a dwarf - long black beard and all. Imagine my huge disappointment when the taxi arrived and I clambered into the back seat to witness this little miracle! Mom couldn't understand my anxiety and Dad didn't understand my look of bewilderment until I asked about the beard. My father laughed heartily when he realized the source of my confusion at this naked pink face. His laughter confused me further and I learned not to be quite so trusting of grown-ups and their stories. To add to my disappointment, this useless new being wouldn't even eat the special dinner my sisters had gone to great trouble to prepare for Mom's return. "No teeth" I was told. Not an auspicious beginning for my relationship with this younger, Canadian, addition to our family.
Now it was my job to rock the baby on the bed while Mom did other chores. I feared her most on washdays. But on good days, we would push the baby stroller all the way past the ESSO station, down to Sam's store, and visit friends who lived in the little enclave opposite the dam access road. These were happy times with giggling women who coddled me as much as the baby, and cheered my mother's mood immensely. But, more often, something would have gone wrong for Mom, and I knew exactly who was "in for it" when they got back from school.
Luckily I had a friend and confidant my own age. Shirley lived right next door. But Mom warned me about Shirley. Her family were "Catholics" she explained, and we were Lutherans, so I should avoid her. Now, church was an experience completely out of my range of experience. I had never set foot inside a Church and I didn't know what Lutheran or Protestant or Catholic meant. I only knew that Shirley was my friend. This was the first thing that I can recall Mom saying that made absolutely no sense. (And this may well be at the root of my pervasive distrust of strict adherence to any dogma.) I distinctly remember going out to the swing to wait for Shirley that day, lying across the board on my stomach and rocking back and forth thinking "My Mom's not so smart" over and over again. Shirley was a wonderful playmate and a very convenient one. We had made a pact that she would teach me English and I would teacher her Estonian. She turned out to be the much better teacher.
By winter, our expanding house afforded space for my parents' double bed and the baby's crib in one side of the large new back room. The other half of that room became a dining area. Dad had crafted a large rectangular table, six high-backed chairs, and four square wooden stools - all painted a pale green. That table became the site of evening meals, card games, picture puzzle assembly, and perusing our beautiful new "Books of Knowledge". (The pale green table is under my computer as I write; two stools remain in my laundry room.)
By fall we had also acquired a dog, a tri-coloured part-collie who was to become the hearer of everyone's woes and a much beloved family pet. Often, after all the work was done and the others were busy with homework or reading, I would curl up under that table against "Polla" and fall fast asleep. That was preferable to going to bed alone in the dark.
Our love of Polla was not shared by all. There was a night when a loud bang and a startled yelp awoke us. Someone had fired a rifle at the dog, grazing his right ear slightly. In the morning my father hiked away somewhere and returned with the police. They traced the trajectory of the bullet. It had gone through the outer kitchen wall, through the leg of the table, through the leg of one stool, then through the bedroom wall to put a dent into the iron bed-frame beside my sister's pillow, before it finally dropped onto the floor. The shooter was never identified. We had suspicions, but Dad told us never to accuse anyone openly since we could not be sure; that would only cause more trouble.
In September I had finally started school and had reputations to live up to. Luckily I had been taught to read in Estonian and the transition to English was easy. My only problem was with the sound of "th". Miss Amell took me by the hand one day and led me off to compare the placement of our tongues between our teeth as we said "moTHer" and "faTHer" into the mirror in the girls' washroom. I learned the lesson well and have never forgotten her.
At school I became aware of the differences between "Colony" life and life on our side of the highway. I had a classmate there named Margo who had a house with a basement. I had never experienced a basement, or a tricycle, but Margo had both, and we took turns riding round and round the posts in figure eights. I didn't have a tricycle. My clothes certainly weren't as nice. I had only second-hand skates that hurt my ankles. But I was the best reader in Grade 1, I excelled in arithmetic, and Margo remained my friend.
Every Tuesday after school we could go to the movies in the large Colony community centre. For 10 cents we could see "Road to Morocco" and "Road to Zanzibar" and Shirley Temple films. My clearest movie memory is of rocking with my teeth hooked over the empty folding metal chair ahead of me (children do such silly things!) and having my loose front tooth pop out as someone sat down on it.
Getting 10 cents for the movie was not so easy. It meant finding five empty pop bottles from the side of the highway. By the second year I was receiving a 10 cent weekly allowance, and pop bottle money could go for unheard of luxuries like store-bought candy. If you lucked into a large bottle, it was worth five cents and you had a whole fistful of suckers or a bag of three-for-one-cent blackballs.
There was a season when my sisters would go to the edge of the swamp and pick skunk-cabbages - globular purple blossoms - and sell them in the colony for 10 cents. But mother was the one who must be given the most credit for our financial success. She kept a logbook of every penny in our house. She sewed wallet-sized books by hand and itemized everything. Through all these years she has kept track of every penny and kept every one of these books as well. These small books can tell you what a loaf of bread cost in 1950 and how much we paid for those first bicycles and the fur-trimmed "car-coats" for herself and Dad.
I joined Brownies because my sisters were Guides. I hated it. Chosing to do more organized stuff after school never appealed to me, and I thought the Brown-Owl stuff was, frankly, very asinine. Plus, it was hard for a young child whose life experiences had taught her to lick the plate simply because it had been the expedient thing to do when food was limited. This did not play well in The Colony. But what did they know of refugee camps and hunger? I sensed I was not finishing school material...
But they were kind, these "real" Canadians. From the people who brought us extra blankets in Meilleurs Bay, to the cafeteria staff in the Colony who regularly tucked a wax-papered layer of cake into the food scraps we picked up for our chickens, to those who organized community events that included everyone. One of the only times I have ever seen my Mother cry was a few years later in Niagara when she learned that Mrs. Ferris had died. Mrs. Ferris was a Colony lady who made an extraordinary effort to include those of us from the other side of the highway. Particularly, I remember the skating parties at the outdoor rink. I believe she is even in one of our photos, laughing and clowning with all of us. Me with screaming ankles, suffering the skates and the cold so I could have some hot chocolate and hot dogs!
I do not remember exactly when Dad enveloped our entire house with a second, outer wall, but I do remember that we packed the space between the two walls with sawdust for insulation - a Russian peasant trick, no doubt.
Given the materials used in construction, you can imagine our fright very late one Xmas Eve when we awoke to a fire in Jean-Noel's house across from ours. Reflected pink tongues of flame licked up the inside of our bedroom walls as we rushed to pack our most precious items and hauled them down to the well in the swamp below the hill behind the house. I took the pink plastic doll dishes that had arrived with Santa only a few short hours before, and spent another surreal night perched uncomfortably against someone trying to stay awake and afraid to fall asleep. The fire was quenched, and we returned to our beds at dawn. Once again we had escaped a conflagration. I do not recall anyone being hurt or killed.
Jean-Noel and his sister Marie had also become my friends. Marie was in my class at school and she set my standard for beauty. I was jealous of her dark eyes and long black hair. It was not until I was in my thirties and learned that a friend's daughter had died, that I went back to look at our old photos. Estonian Ellen Riis had been as beautiful as Marie with dark eyes and dark hair. When I gazed at Marie's photo I realized with some shock that she was First Nations Canadian. Of course! As a child I certainly never thought in terms of Indian and White; perhaps we were too pre-occupied with Protestant and Catholic, or Canadian and DP.
Swisha ("Des Joachims") was a mysterious place that we heard the teenagers and adults whisper about. People went there to drink. Sometimes there were road accidents and people were killed. The teens would find a way to get there whenever they could. By the second summer my father had put a porch across the front of our house and my older siblings could quietly remove the screens, crawl out of the top bedroom window and sit on the porch roof to watch what the older kids were doing. Sometimes they even allowed me to join them. Sometimes a car - there weren't any in our neighbourhood - would arrive. We knew they were going to pick up one of the neighbourhood girls and go to Swisha. Or, still worse, they were kissing in that car!
In the summer it was hot. During thunderstorms we would don a pair of grey flannelette underpants and run through the rain shrieking and playing tag. There was also the ice-house where, by August , the shed was dismantled with only bare rafters for us to use as a jungle-gym and drop into the still-wet sawdust below. Or we could hike across the road to the Colony and on to the river for a swim above the dam. A favourite treat for everyone. Summer was the time for berry-picking to make jam and preserves for winter. We hiked through the forest, skirted around the swamp, and headed toward the hydro lines where blueberries and raspberries were plentiful. We took sandwiches and drinks and never returned until our buckets were full. I once had the misfortune of running into a hornet's nest while fighting my way through raspberry canes. My sisters quickly covered my five red welts with wet mud and I managed to survive quite nicely, but I've been suspicious of raspberry canes ever since.
Luckily, we all did well in school. Our parents, especially our mother, was fiercely proud of academic achievement and never ceased to tell us that we were superior to these "Real Canadians". I was to believe that they were lazy and stupid. Clearly, many were neither, but there was an incredible drive for the immigrant to achieve. And in those days it was all possible.
In retrospect, our diet was healthy. By the third year Dad had built a coop for chickens adjoined to the house. That meant eggs and the occasional chicken dinner. Meals were not fancy (except for Tiina's christening). But we always had home-grown potatoes and vegetables from the tiered garden that started behind our house and ended at swamp level. Dessert was for Sundays only and consisted usually of a set of three Estonian sponge cakes that Mom managed to make in her set of nesting cake tins. Real whipping cream was the topping - sometimes with cocoa added. We had some pretty inventive snacks. I remember filling a cup half full with dried peas and adding a teaspoon of sugar before bed. The next day the peas were plump and sweet and made an excellent treat. Another staple was oatmeal. We would simply fill a cup with it, add a spoonful of sugar, and gobble it up, dry. It stuck to the roof of your mouth, but not as much as the dry milk powder we used to receive in CARE packages in Germany.
I remember the grand opening of the dam in 1952. The men rolling logs in the river was a common sight, but this time they would use the log shoot for the first time. The loggers had to be careful not to get sucked into the shoot. High excitement with everyone from both Colony and "Our Side" in attendance. It was also an occasion for a photo. Our family album has a picture taken above the dam with all our family plus Jean-Noel (he was cute!) and his brother Ozias. The picture is of our backs as we look toward the dam. I am represented only by a pair of socks that show through the legs of the others. What is amazing is that the landscape was barren; only a group of Rolphton kids and the dam; not a tree or a blade of grass in sight.
In much later years, having rented farm houses in the Niagara fruit belt and, later still, having settled into a large family-built brick house in Brockville, Mother and I could agree that Rolphton was the most beautiful place we had ever lived. We shared fond memories of the forest with its pine-cones and wild flowers and berries, the swamp with its frogs and snakes and cranberries, our complex little neighbourhood with its gossip and rich mixture of cultures that never did really mingle very well at the adult level. The smell of pine against snow in early spring sunshine. Occasionally the late-summer smell of skunk. One could do worse than be a child of Rolphton.