My husband (also named Tony) and I were living in Winnipeg, Canada where he was working as a teacher. Our son Jamal was a toddler. Tony and I are from California so we weren’t prepared for the harsh prairie winters of Winnipeg. (When people in the U.S. ask me where Winnipeg is, I tell them it’s north of North Dakota; they immediately understand this means that it gets very very cold!).
The winter we spent in Winnipeg, it snowed from September through May. At one point, a blizzard made transportation of all kinds impossible for two days and people were stuck wherever they happened to be. Downtown department stores were packed with people who had to sleep there for two nights.
And, because there's no mid-winter thaw (common in coastal cities where there's snow buts the climate is more moderate), the snow in Winnipeg piled higher and higher as winter progressed. I remember walking down snow-plowed sidewalks where the “walls” of snow on each side of me were taller than I was. And the color of those walls were a combination of white and yellow, having been decorated by dogs being walked by their owners. They'd stay that way until the spring melt.
Winnipeg is a beautiful city. It’s a cultural oasis—home to the Winnipeg Royal Ballet and several terrific museums. And it has two rivers running through it. There’s so much to love about this city but winter was more than I could handle, especially with a small child. Even though the people were very friendly, I felt isolated and depressed at times.
And so, after that one winter, Tony and I decided to return to California. In Winnipeg, we’d bought a Volvo on credit and had been making monthly payments on it. We bought it because the car we arrived in didn’t keep us remotely warm in winter. The Volvo was the fanciest car we’d ever had, but when we decided to move back to California, we had to sell it because we didn’t own it. In exchange, we bought an old Dodge Dart.
Come summer, we loaded the car with all our earthly goods. It was bulging at the seams. We said goodbye to Winnipeg and began the drive to San Francisco where we’d be staying with Tony’s parents until we decided our next move in life.
When arrived at the border crossing, about 60 miles south of Winnipeg, we got out our U.S. passports and everything seemed in order. But then one of the border guards asked where on the car he could find the emissions-control sticker. “What sticker?” we thought. He said that when people move to the U.S. and bring a car with them, the car has to meet U.S. emission standards. This had never occurred to us, so we had no sticker. He said to us: “You can enter the U.S., but your car can’t.”
So, there we were, sitting in a room at a fairly remote border crossing, all our goods in the car outside, our toddler squirming around impatiently, very little money in our pockets, and no dwelling to return to in Winnipeg. I had no idea what we were going to do. It felt as if my world was falling apart. Suddenly, I began to cry. I wasn't trying to garner sympathy from the guards. I knew they were just doing their jobs. But all I could do was cry at that moment.
Then the guard who'd told us we couldn't cross the border with the car said: “Let me go look at that car again.” Tony and I watched as he went outside and walked around the Dodge Dart three or four times, sometimes crouching down to look underneath. We had no idea why he was doing this. When he returned to the room, he told us that he must have missed the sticker on his first inspection and that we were free to bring the car into the U.S.
I could see by his expression that he knew he was lying about having seen a sticker. It may be the most compassionate lie he ever told.
This was a kindness so special that the memory of it is still vivid in my mind, decades later. (Memory is a funny thing because, once we got to California, we either brought the car up to emission standards or we got rid of it. Honestly, I can't remember!)