At the edge of the airbase where I spent my teens in Lahr, Germany, there was a full size mirror just by the gate on which was printed the words:
“The person you see here is a reflection of Canada. Act accordingly.”
Every day I’d walk past that mirror on my way to and from high school and wonder, “What does it mean to act accordingly? Like a Canadian.”
I know that often my friends and I were louder than our German compatriots. Most of us didn’t speak German and would even make fun of those who couldn’t speak English.
I was fortunate. When we’d first moved there, my father was insistent that I attend a German school. I spent my first summer being tutored in German by Frau Klaus.
She and her husband were our landlords. Every afternoon I would walk down the stairs from our house at the top of Am Schiessrain, through our garden into theirs, past the cherry tree that cast its sheltering branches over the grape vines they’d planted in their back yard. I’d knock at the side door of their big stone house and wait for Frau Klaus to answer.
Their home was old. To my teenage mind it was ancient. It was on Friedhof Strasse, the long, winding street that lead up to the cemetery.
Herr Klaus was a stone mason. He made beautiful headstones to mark the graves of those who passed away. I loved to sit on the stone wall beside their house and watch him in his workshop. He’d show me the different marbles. The fillers he used to make the etchings he carved into the rock stand out. He’d talk about why he’d chosen one product over the other. Of the importance of honouring the dead, of always holding their memories close. I liked Herr Klaus. He was always kind and full of laughter and stories.
Frau Klaus scared me. She was stern and critical. If my skirt was too short she’d make me climb the stairs back through the garden and change. I was never allowed to wear jeans in her presence. “That is not how ladies dress,” she told me.
Once I climbed the cherry tree to see the view beyond their garden. She told me to get down. Ladies didn’t climb trees.
Frau Klaus was very particular about how I spoke her language. She would make me repeat, again and again, a certain sound, a gutteral noise so that I got the intonation just right. She taught me how to bow my head when I met my elders and say, Guten Tag, with just the right amount of reverence to demonstrate I deferred to their age.
Frau Klaus was proud of her language. Her heritage. Her home and native land.
She did not like foreigners very much, though ‘we Canadians’ were somewhat more acceptable than ‘those Americans’ or the woman who worked as their housekeeper. She came from the Ukraine. She had walked the thousands of miles after the war to get away from the Russians only to find herself in unwelcome territory years later, shunned for her foreign ways.
Frau Klaus told me it wasn’t ladylike to talk to the help but I loved to listen to the woman’s stories. I was in awe of her courage and bravery. Frau Klaus never spoke of the war, though sometimes her husband, after having had a few too many scotches with my father, would pull out a piece of war memorabilia he had stored in the back room of their house and throw it on the ground and stomp on it. “We were so wrong,” Herr Klaus would state. Frau Klaus would sigh and say, “We did what we had to do. It was the times.”
Frau Klaus liked my father a lot. She thought he was just like her. Stern and set in his ways and insistent we do things the ‘right way’. I think she liked my mother, though she sometimes wondered why my mother let me be the way I was. “It’s not her choice,” I would insist. “She doesn’t control me.”
“Well she should,” Frau Klaus would reply.
Frau Klaus believed I was too wild. Too carefree. Too unpredictable. She would shake her head in a resigned way whenever I’d mispronounce a word or get my tenses wrong and say, “Nein! Nein! Nien! Nochmal!”
And I would do it again and again if only to prove to her the thing she thought was true was false. “You Canadian girls are lazy,” she told me. “You don’t know what hardship is.”
In many ways, she was right.
We are not a land born from war. We are a country risen from an idea that together we are always stronger. We are a nation founded on the vision of creating a land where every language has a voice, where every person has the right to stand free.
We don’t always get it right the first time, but we keep working on it until we do. And while it may take a century to acknowledge our mistakes, when we do, we mean it because doing the right thing is always the right thing to do.
This is My Canada. We act accordingly.