Immigration and beyond

For my inaugural biography, I am pleased to offer you a story that comes from my family tree, and therefore has special meaning to me.  It is the story of my grandmother, Maja Pedersen, a Danish immigrant and mother of eight who, at 83 years of age, is still showing the rest of us a thing or two about how to live.  Here is her story, as she was good enough to relate it to me.

Maja’s Story

I was the born in 1928, the seventh of eight children in a small town in rural Denmark. My father was a kind, clever man, who ran a good farm and loved children. My mother was always busy, and took pride in keeping a lovely house and garden. She always had a hired girl to help look after us younger children and do other housework, which believe me was not a luxury but a necessity, for she had to serve three meals a day, plus three coffee breaks, for our family of ten and two live-in farm workers.

Although this was in the early days of electric light, there was no electric power to run appliances or machinery. Most farmers took their grain to the miller, but my father was fortunate enough to have a huge windmill built into the farm building. On windy days, there was no time to waste, we had to mill as much grain as we could before the wind died down. Even the females in the house had to help out. I remember how proud I was when I was big enough to help too.

Like many children in that time, I went to school from age 7 to 14, learning reading, writing, math, geography, Bible study and Danish history. I enjoyed school, but also liked life around our home, so I did not mind when I finished my seventh grade and schooling ended. After that, I helped out my mother more at home, and sometimes went to work for other families who needed hired girls like my mother did.  I was also able to spend time with my closest sister, Ingeborg, and my brother Vestergaard, who was five years older than me but had contracted polio as a baby, which paralyzed both his legs. Vestergaard went to a school in Copenhagen where he learned business skills, including English, but when the second World War started, he had to come home.

Here’s me, on the right, with Ingeborg.

I married my husband, Carl, in 1948, when I was 20. Carl was a man driven by ideas – about politics and economics, about farming and the banking system – and I think it was his passionate talk, as much as anything else, that attracted me to him. We tried to make our living as organic farmers, particularly of potatoes, which is a staple food in Denmark. We worked hard to grow those crops without artificial fertilizer from bags . I helped Carl with the work in the fields, bringing the children with me in a carriage. By the time we had been married five years, we had four little girls.

But organic produce was not fashionable in those days the way it is now, and within a few years it seemed like we owed money to everyone. And it was getting worse. One day Carl came home with a new cow that he had borrowed money to buy, and then he sold the cow to pay off another debt. I didn’t like the way things were going.  I wondered how we would ever get out of that hole we were in.


That’s when Canada come knocking at our door. The Canadian government was inviting immigration, with a promise of a loan to help us pay our way across the ocean and assistance finding work once we got there. Carl was passionate once again about the prospect of new opportunities, and it seemed exciting to me too. So we sold everything and paid off what we owed. The few essentials that we took with us were packed into two suitcases, and two crates that Carl had made, which were really four bed-frames turned bottoms-up against each other. Then we boarded a ship in Arhus harbour with our four daughters and $100 in our pockets. That was 1957.

We landed at Pier 21 in Halifax, and managed with our little bit of English to pass through immigration and get on a train to Toronto. We did not have a clear destination, but had heard of someone finding work near Niagara Falls, so we thought we should try to go there. But in Toronto, an immigration officer told us to get off the train and directed us to a man waiting with his truck to take us to his farm. So we ended up settling in the rural country north of Toronto, and Carl started work on that farm the very next day.

For the first few years, Carl worked as a farm hand and we lived in small houses on three different farms where he worked. At the first farm, the house had been brought in by truck and dropped into the farmyard.  It had two rooms – one living area and one bedroom – with a woodstove for heating and cooking, a cold cellar dug out underneath, and a cistern to collect water for washing. Drinking water came from the pump in front of the one-room schoolhouse that was just over the fence. Our two oldest girls went to school for the first time (in the Danish system, they were too young), and the two youngest stayed home with me. I pulled them with me in a wagon when I planted and weeded our small garden with vegetables just for ourselves. But I did not have to work in the fields as I had done in Denmark. Carl was paid $125 each month, which we lived on and managed not to run up any debt.

I was happy in our new life. We had been lured to Canada with the promise of a job and a place to live, and we had that right away. Our children picked up English quickly and found friends at school. We had two more children, both boys, during the seven years that we lived on those farms, and although there were hardships (the children suffered with some truly mean and unpleasant teachers; Carl often did not like the dirty, heavy work or agree with the philosophy of those he worked for) everyone was healthy. We even bought our first car, a big black Ford, for $150, with a $60 down payment that came from our first baby bonus cheque three months after we arrived in Canada. In Denmark, we did not get baby bonus, even though we paid plenty of tax.

Our Canadian Homestead

Then in 1964, after Carl had an argument with his boss, we turned a new page and moved to a Canadian homestead of our own. The house sat on two acres of land, part way up a hill in a very small town (we used to say “don’t blink or you’ll miss it”) called Zephyr. We rented it with the option to buy, and did end up buying it about a year later for $10,000 that we scraped together by borrowing from Carl’s brother in Denmark and one or two other friends. It was a big, airy country house, in need of repairs, but all ours.  We moved in at the beginning of July with our six children (ages 15 to 1 year), three Saint-Bernard dogs that Carl had started breeding, and our few belongings.  By the end of the month, we had a seventh child, a girl. Our eighth and last child, a boy, was born two years later.

So many memories are tied to that house in Zephyr. It is where our youngest children spent all their growing up years, and even our oldest children called it home for at least a little while before they married or got jobs.  When we bought it, the land behind the house was just overgrown field, with a few old cars and other junk sitting on it. Over the years, we cleared it and turned most of it into garden (organic, of course), where we grew most of the food that fed our family all year round. For a couple of years, I planted large sections of it full of cucumbers and sold them to Bicks for pickles. We also raised goats and chickens, and Carl built kennels and bred more Saint-Bernards, which he entered in shows, and they won him a few ribbons.

Carl tried a few different lines of work to keep us afloat – first, working shift work at the Deerfield Plastics factory in Newmarket, which he disliked intensely but stuck with for six years, despite how difficult it was for him to sleep during the day with the house full of kids.  Then he tried selling insurance, but quickly found that didn’t agree with him, and luckily he soon came across a job in landscaping. He ended up doing landscaping for the rest of his working life, eventually taking over a small business and running it until he retired.

In Zephyr, our social life also expanded. On the farms, the handful of people we knew, other than the farmers Carl worked for, were mostly other Danish immigrant workers, some single, some with families, who were doing the same thing we were doing .The farms were not very close together, and Carl did not have many days off, so there were not many opportunities to see other people. Our children didn’t know a lot of other kids, and mostly played with each other.

But in Zephyr, for the first time, we had the chance to be part of a Canadian community. The local elementary school was still small, with only three classrooms. But the high school in Uxbridge was much larger, and our kids made many friends there. Even in Zephyr, there was a baseball league in summer and an outdoor skating rink in winter; there was a 4H club, which several of my girls joined, and which I even led for a while. There was a church, which some of us attended more or less regularly. And there were neighbors, living right beside us all up and down the street. I was finally able to really improve my English!

By 1986, though, it was again time for change. All of our children had left our big house on the hill to take flight into their own lives, and Carl’s tired body was ready for a rest. So, with the help of our grown-up children, we packed load after load of our belongings into the back of two pickup trucks and whatever cars our family had, and transported everything, including the piano, over dusty country roads to a three-bedroom, split-level home hidden among the trees in a nearby town called Pefferlaw. We even brought evergreens from our nursery, and roses, and a big pile of our homegrown compost.

Although this was retirement, we still kept active in the garden club and the literary club, and I joined a Tai Chi group. Of course, we kept a garden at the house, which still fed much of our needs for most of the year. And, with several of our children still living within a couple hours’ drive of us, we enjoyed many family occasions and visits with our grand-children (15 of them) and eventually great-grandchildren (eight so far).

Loss and Renewal

Early last summer, my husband Carl died of bone cancer. We did not know about the cancer until just a couple of months before he passed away, but he had been badly arthritic and unwell in one way or another for some time. I took care of him at home, and at the end, he died in a hospital bed set up in our living room with the sunshine coming in through the big front window. His ashes are buried beneath a tree in Zephyr. We had been married for more than 60 years.

So now, at 83 years old, I am in transition again. I am blessed with strength, good health, a large family and enough money that I don’t have to worry. What will I do next? I am waiting for the right direction to present itself to me, as it has always seemed to do in the past. For the moment, I am simply enjoying life. Tai Chi is still keeping me limber, and I still enjoy my garden, and meetings with the garden club and a craft club that I have recently joined. I email regularly with my family everywhere. I have made trips to visit some of my children and grandchildren who live farther away. Soon I will make another trip back to Denmark to visit with my sister Ingeborg and some of the younger generation over there. There is plenty to do.

If I have any advice to offer, I guess it would be to keep things simple.  Enjoy your family, and don’t spend money that you don’t have. Respect nature. Take care of your health. Those things are what’s most important in life.


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