We ran away to freedom

Home was a screaming turmoil. So at 16 I became "mother" to two sisters and a brother, and together we escaped across the continent

MARIA BALENT,Simma Holt March 19 1966

We ran away to freedom

Home was a screaming turmoil. So at 16 I became "mother" to two sisters and a brother, and together we escaped across the continent

MARIA BALENT,Simma Holt March 19 1966

We ran away to freedom

Home was a screaming turmoil. So at 16 I became "mother" to two sisters and a brother, and together we escaped across the continent


Simma Holt

THE TRAIN STARTED slowly from Queen Elizabeth Station. I wished it would move faster and farther from Montreal, before our parents discovered we had run away and call the police to bring us back. The ugly unpainted cottages, wrecked cars, garbage cans, overgrown grass on the outskirts of Montreal seemed endless. 1 hen we neared Dorval Airport. The train slowed and stopped at Dorval Station. A jet airliner screamed overhead. We tensed. 1 felt both fear and excitement — tear that our past would catch up to us here in the shape of a policeman, excitement over the new life that lay ahead for us.

The train then started and speeded and we knew we were on our way.

“This is it," I said to my brother and two sisters. “Good-by, Montreal. Good-by, fighting, screaming parents."

“It is a long time before I will see it again, ’ said Andre. “Everything is beautiful like the pictures in my geography books.”

"Oh look, Mary, look, look at that, and that,” cried little Draga, slurring over my real name, Maria, as both my sisters often do. Draga was actually bouncing in her seat w'ith excitement. This was her first train trip.

“What will happen at home?” asked Milica, always the worrier. “If the police come it will be worse this time. What if someone finds out we are missing from home?”

I reassured her: “Our name is Lewis now. They will be looking for Balent children. And, besides, we have our stories ready.”

1 had some qualms about what we were doing.

I was just sixteen, my seventeenth birthday three months away, leading my brother Andre, only thirteen. Milica, fourteen and Draga, nine, away from our parents. But 1 knew it was right to run away. Our home with its parental battles was destroying us. Milica seemed near to the breaking point. Andre was getting very tense and upset, his skin developing bad pimples. Draga, like the rest of us, had been hurt physically in the fights.

We prepared our llight for a year. On Monday. August 30, we left Montreal on the three-day tripto Vancouver. We had $311 left after we had paid $214 out of our year’s savings — $525 —for the train fare.

NDRE AND i first learned about running to freedom when I was seven and Andre three. We were all born in different towns near the city of Zagreb, Yugoslavia. Our father was a train engineer. Early in 1956 he was in a knife fight in a tavern and fled to Italy to escape prosecution. When Draga was eight months old, my mother followed with Andre and me. leaving Draga and Milica with our grandparents.

A man who knew the border led us across with nine other adults and seven children. We moved stealthily through grass, bushes, forests, then corn fields before coming to a deep ditch, the border

crossing. It was dark and my mother thought the small hand she held was Andre’s. But he was left behind in the ditch. Someone in our group heard his cries. The leader returned for him and was shot at as he carried the baby under his arm. But they escaped. Then my mother noticed Andre’s coat was missing. She made so much noise that the man once more risked his life crossing the border.

We slept in the forest that night. When daybreak came we found we were a few yards from the main highway —in Austria.

Our father followed us to Austria later and then in 1958 the four of us came to Montreal. Draga and Milica followed in 1960. Our father became a construction worker on the skyscrapers being built in Montreal.

MY PARENTS FOUGHT ever since I can remember. But it grew worse the past three years when my mother began drinking as heavily as my father. So often in their fights my father would say he would leave and take Draga and Andre back to Yugoslavia with him. We lived in (ear of separation. Often we got hurt in the fights. One time a bottle cut Draga’s foot. Another time Andre was almost strangled. The social workers knew about us, and one of them warned me, “Stay away from them, even if your mother calls for help.”

“But it is not easy to hear another person, especially your own mother, crying out and not go to her,” I said.

“You stay in your room no matter how hard it is,” I was told.

We used to try but it became so bad that we had to go out to try and keep them apart or bring her to our room to shelter her. In the fights one would grab mother and the other father. Our father is a very small man but quite strong. The fights would last for days, sometimes weeks.

Our plan to run actually started one Sunday in October 1964. We came home from church and found our parents yelling and tearing at each other. Food was smeared on walls, dishes broken. We told them we would run away if they did not stop. About two o’clock we left. We took live dollars, some dry bread, our coats, and made our way to the outskirts of Montreal. We slept first in a field, but dogs’ barking frightened us and we moved to a three-sided shack. People passed the open side but did not stop.

In the morning we decided to go home. The police were there and said they used dogs to search for us. We arrived home at 8.50 a.m. and were only ten minutes late for school.

But we knew that day we would run again. We learned our lesson: we had to plan and prepare the next time. We did our planning in our bedroom or in Mount Royal Park, which was nearby. Draga was lookout for our bedroom meetings. Often the din of fighting hid our voices. Everyone — even Draga — contributed to the plan. We decided to work through the summer to raise money, then leave in time to start school in our new hometown.

I worked as a nurse's aide and saved three

hundred dollars. Andre went into a radio shop at ten dollars a week. He was fired alter three weeks because my mother kept coming there, crying to the owner, “My baby is too young to work.” Milica became “mother’s helper” to an elderly couple in their country home and saved one hundred and thirty dollars. And to that we could add sixty-five dollars in dimes and nickels we had been putting aside for a World's Fair fund. For safe keeping, I always kept the money on me in a red bag. At night I slept on it.

We studied maps, travel brochures, geography books, searching for the place to go. First we thought of Mexico, but we realized we would need passports. We narrowed it down to Winnipeg and Vancouver. Travel to Winnipeg, we decided, would be cheaper.

“But Vancouver is farthest and our parents will not spend the money to bring us back,” I pointed out to them.

“And Vancouver is very beautiful,” said Andre. “They say you can ski on the mountains and swim at the beaches all in the same day there.”

We decided on Vancouver. Three of us also decided to change our ages. I would be twenty; Andre, who looks older than his years, seventeen; and Milica, sixteen. Draga would retain her true age, nine. We tried to anticipate every question that might be asked by people at the station, on the train, and in Vancouver, and we prepared answers. “But remember,” I told them, “if anyone asks questions we did not prepare for, let me take care of answering them.”

Milica and I searched the telephone book for a common name. We had to have one ready to book our train reservations. We considered White, Brown, Green and some French names. Then we saw Lewis. We all love the comedian Jerry Lewis and decided to take his name. I would be Linda Lewis; Milica would be Maureen; Andre, Bill; and Draga, Ellen.

Since Milica would be working out of town, we arranged to discuss plans by letter. But because our mother opened all our mail, we decided Milica would write every word backward—“was” for “saw,” “eht” for “the” and so on. Our mother opened those letters and went to a neighbor for help in deciphering them. They thought at first it was French, then Indian, then gave up.

HE WEEK BEFORE WC left, WC bought tWO SLlitcases on sale for twenty-five dollars. We hid them at the home of a family friend, telling the man they were a gift for our parents. We knew we could not take all our possessions, so we began giving things away gradually. Draga gave away her walking doll, almost as tall as Draga herself, her purse, doll clothes, a toy ironing board and iron, books to her friend Conceiko. Andre gave his best friend. Wieslaw, his favorite books. I owned three medical encyclopedias and was going eventually to buy the full set of sixteen. I read everything I can on medicine — I want to be a doctor. I tried to pack the books but there was no room. I left them behind.

Two nights before we left Andre and I began

packing. My father was out and my mother asleep. Milica was still in the country. She was coming home the next night. Draga was our lookout. We packed one suitcase with clothing, the other with our few remaining treasures — our books, school copybooks, six records, scrapbooks, my statue of the Blessed Virgin, which my brother and sisters gave me on my sixteenth birthday, and one of Draga’s dolls. We packed every picture of ourselves so there would be none left for our parents to give to police or newspapers to be used in attempts to find us.

1 hen our father came home unexpectedly. He was drunk. Andre went quickly to meet him and took him to bed. I hurriedly put the suitcases in our hiding place — a top shelf in my room. Then my mother awakened and started a fight. When my father was drunk she was brave because he was weak. She started hitting him. He turned on her. She ran into our room. We locked the door. He smashed the bottom of the door and the lock with an axe. In the shouting that followed, I told him, "I will be out of here before you ever leave! But he'd heard that before, and I don’t think he realized I really meant it.

About 9 a.m. Monday, August 30, Andre and I started moving the suitcases out of the house. Our parents were asleep. As we reached the hall, Milica s godmother came to the front door. Milica intercepted her and led her into the living room.

We slipped out then and went to Andre's friend’s home, two blocks away. We explained that a man had paid us to take his luggage to the station. We called a taxi from there, went to the station, and checked the bags. One big step was completed. Now all we had to do was to get ourselves out of the house before train time.

We returned home and did everything normally. We cleaned house as usual. I did the ironing and made lunch. Milica and Draga set the table. We ate, even though we were not hungry. After lunch, we washed dishes and dressed in our best clothes.

Our story, if anyone asked, was that we were going to Milica's place in the country. We needed our story shortly after we walked out of the house. Our father's friend stopped us and asked, “And why are you dressed in church clothes and carrying shopping bags?”

E WALKED TO St. Lawrence Street, called a taxi and went to the station. We left the house early because we knew if father came home and the fighting started, we would not escape. We were mixed up on daylight and standard (train) time and arrived there at 1 p.m. The train did not pull out of the station until 4 p.m.

“What if someone comes by and sees us?” Milica asked.

“We are waiting for an aunt and uncle from Toronto,” I said.

“How can we explain the shopping bags?”

“I'll think of an answer when somebody asks,” 1 told her.

We passed the time looking at paintings, novelties. books at the news stand. We watched the people, the soldiers and sailors who filled the waiting room. The last hour we sat on the bench and watched the clock. Time went so slowly.

We saw two policemen and Milica whispered, "What if they are looking for us?"

“No one knows yet we are running away,” I told her.

Finally, they called our train. Our seats were in the third car from the front. We ran all the way, then dropped down in our seats and just laughed with relief. Once the train wheels moved we were sure we would he free.

But suddenly Andre's face clouded. "Oh my goodness, Mary. 1 left one thing — my army belt. 1 left it on the bed. The best thing I wanted.”

"Oh. Andre. 1 begged you to wear it so you wouldn't forget it.” 1 was both sad and annoyed, because to Andre that belt symbolized his first love, the armed services.

1/1 i HENEVER WE TALKED of the helt we were If If sad after that. We talked of our parents, their fights, our mother covered with blood and how we called police as often as twice a week to help us. We remembered, too. that there had been a time when our mother used to want all the good things for us. how she was generous with strangers, how neatly she dressed to go out and complained because our father was so sloppy.

"But lately something bothered mother,” I said.

"She was worried about something.” said Milica.

"It was more than that. Mela. It was as though something was wrong with her. It was so bad lately.”

“Do you think she will commit suicide this time?” Milica asked.

"No,” I said. "We aren’t there to stop her.”

“This time it will be worse with police,” said Andre.

Draga started imitating our mother’s constant pose, hand on outslung hip. We all laughed as she accurately re-enacted the time my mother tried to show police how our dad pulled her hair. My mother pulled off the policeman’s hat, pulled his hair and then all worked up, she hit him on the head with his own hat.

The first night on the train we ordered sandwiches for supper — we didn’t realize that our tickets entitled us to full meals. Draga and Milica went to sleep early, but Andre kept calling me to look out the window at the “beautiful” scenery. Everything to Andre was “beautiful.” We fell asleep at last about 1 a.m.

The first day we did not know we could get off when the train made stops. When we saw others doing it, the next morning Andre and Milica got off at a small town to get a newspaper and see if anyone was searching for us. But, to our relief, there was no word.

We told people who asked why four children were traveling alone that we were returning to our Vancouver home from holidays in Montreal. In Vancouver we planned to tell people we lived with an uncle who traveled a great deal. One couple from Africa asked many questions. I warned the others to be careful. The man had already trapped Andre on his faked age. He came to me and said “Maureen” said "Bill" was seventeen. but “Bill” said he was sixteen. I said, “Bill is sixteen and will be /

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continued from pape 17

“I don’t want any

kids here,” one woman shouted at us

seventeen in a few days." And to halt their questioning, we began flooding them with questions about Africa.

At times Draga became so excited she stumbled over her words: “Maria, oh look. Maria, look."

“Tell her not to call you Maria." whispered Milica. “Someone will find out."

Andre sat alone most of the time, looking out the window, telling us of different places of interest that he learned from his books — Winnipeg is one of the largest railway centres in Canada; Regina has the Mounties’ museum; Mount Robson is the highest peak in the Rockies . . .

The train came very slowly into Vancouver, through an old industrial area, pipes and junkyards.

“Maybe it is not as beautiful as we thought,” said Milica.

“Wait and see,” 1 said.

When we walked out of the station we tfelt no one would ever hurt us again.

We had no time for thought or worry in this strange city. We had to begin immediately to get settled. We asked a taxi driver to take us to a hotel. We did not talk on the ride. He took us to a small rundown place on West Pender Street. Andre and I went out immediately apartment - hunting, while Milica stayed behind in the room with Draga.

We went into every apartment from Pender, along Burrard and Thurlow, to the beach (sixteen blocks), then crossed Burrard Bridge and looked at some apartments on the other side. Wherever we went, children or teenagers were not wanted, or landlords did not like the fact the eldest was only twenty.

“1 don't want any kids here," shouted one woman. "Only men." Several places had vacancy signs but the landlords said, “No vacancy.” to us.

At noon we came home and in the afternoon 1 went searching in vain for a job as nurse's aide. The next morning I found an advertisement in the Vancouver Sun for an aide in a private hospital on West Fifty-Ninth. It cost us $2.25 to go there by taxi. I got the job and started work the next day.

I am still at this job.

Again we began searching for a place to live. We went into so many apartment buildings that they all blur into one in our memories now. We were tired and discouraged. We wondered if we would ever find a home.

1 hen we came to a place where

the manageress looked old and oldfashioned in her long brown suit. (Everyone in Vancouver seemed old to us.) I was a little afraid of her — she looked so stern.

"Would you happen to have an apartment for rent?” I asked.

"Yes. right in here.” And she took us into the front basement suite.

"Are you husband and wife?" she asked.

"No. Brother and sister." Andre replied.

"You want it for just the two of


“No. there are two more."

"Four?" She sounded surprised. We were afraid we would lose it.

“Oh we will manage very well here,” I said.

"All right."

And that settled it. We paid one month's rent, ninety dollars, and went back to tell the others.

"We couldn't find a thing.” I said when we came in.

"Oh no." Milica groaned. “What will we do now, Mary?"

Milica looked so upset. 1 ended the joke there and told her the truth.

We moved in that day. We bought

Would they send us back? We began saving, to run again

four cots, a tabic and chairs at a used-furniture store. The owner wanted one hundred and fifty dollars cash for them. We paid.

The beds were moved in that night. We had no blankets, bedding, not even coats. Wc slept without covers. The next day wc bought four sheets and four blankets. We had to pay forty-one dollars cash. We have fresh sheets each week by washing, drying and re-using them. We have two blankets each now.

We had very little left — fifteen or twenty-five dollars — to live on. It was three weeks before I would receive my first salary cheque. We lived on bread and milk. Then one day Andre and I saw a neglected pear tree. The fruit had fallen on the ground. We went and picked up some. Another time Milica was hungry and asked a woman if she could have a pear from her tree. The woman gave her a whole shopping-bag full.

I walked to and from work. 1 would leave home at six in the morning to be there by eight. Sometimes Andre would walk the six miles to the hospital after school to keep me company on the walk home.

When my first cheque came, I bought a large order of groceries. I do this every payday. I kept some money for extras we might need. But I forgot my bus fare. I had to continue the walk to work. I did it for a month altogether.

Now I get up at 6.30 a.m., make breakfast for the others who get up at 7. I leave for work at 7.15 and return about 5.30 or 6 p.m. Everyone shares in the work. Each makes his own bed. Andre takes care of washing the bathroom and makes my bed if 1 do not have time before work. He takes out garbage, does the shopping and helps clean house. Milica washes dishes and Draga dries. Sometimes, if I am late, Milica will start supper. But she and Andre have their Sun paper routes and we usually all come in about the same time. We live on $240 a month — the $180 I get at my job and $60 from their paper routes.

We watched the newspapers to see if police were looking for us. Not a line appeared. After two weeks we believed we were free, that we would never be found, never be brought back to our parents. We were happy despite early difficulties.

Then one day in late November I came home and found a note under the door asking me to call a Children’s Aid social worker. I phoned her. She asked many questions and said she would have to “turn the whole case” over to Catholic Children’s Aid.

We had been found. We decided then we must once more save money. If we were returned home we would need it to run away again.

The newspapers began calling us. We did not want publicity. But the Sun convinced us that if people knew about us, they would help us if we were forced to return. We talked to reporters then. We have found since that people are very kind and protective. We do not feel alone any more. Many offered us gifts and money, but we asked them to give it to

people in need. All we want is to be self-sufficient — a better job for me and a bigger paper route for Andre. Milica’s route is as big as she can handle.

Christmas and New Year turned out as we used to dream of it, peaceful, full of laughter — and without screaming.

I was able to get a charge account at the Hudson’s Bay Store just before Christmas and could get gifts for the others. We went to midnight mass Christmas Eve and when we came home we opened our presents. Our big gift was for Andre, a ten-speed racing bike: our father had promised him a bike for some time, but he did not get it. It was in the corner covered with a blanket. Andre sat in a chair facing the tree and the bike for about ten minutes. Suddenly he saw it. “What’s this? Oh my goodness! A beautiful, beautiful bike. Oh, a speedometer. Oh my goodness! Oh my!”

First Christmas in freedom

We went to bed so happy that night. The next day we had Christmas dinner about 3 p.m. Andre rode his bike around Stanley Park in the snow. At night we went to see The Sound Of Music.

It was the first Christmas in our lives that there was not a fight. And our apartment, with the tree, streamers, and new furniture in brown and mushroom, looked like a magazine picture to us.

After Christmas the Catholic Children’s Aid sent over about one hundred gifts — slippers, pens, books, records, clothing — all from strangers. Most of it came from Montreal, col-

lected by Pat Burns, the radio broadcaster.

A week later we watched television as the New Year came in across the country. And when it was midnight in Vancouver we pulled down our streamers and threw them about.

We cannot see anything but happiness and peace ahead. Where once we were not allowed to talk in the morning, now we chat freely together. We were never allowed to have friends in our house. Now we can have them whenever we want and often they stay as guests at meals. Now we can go to sleep at night without fear of being awakened by a fight. We know now we will never have to miss school to bail out one of our parents from jail. We can study without always being nagged and criticized for it.

We will all get our education. Milica and Andre are in grade seven and Draga in grade four. I have my grade eight so I can still help them with their studies. We were all behind in school because of language difficulty when we arrived here. I will get the other three through high school and they will go on to university if they wish. Then they will work to help me through. I am going to try to get my matriculation at night school or by going to school days and working nights.

More than anything else I want to become a doctor, specializing in surgery. I would like to go to Africa or India, wherever doctors are scarce and help the people there.

It seems once, not long ago, we had nothing to live for. But now so much waits ahead for us. We are sure of it. ★