From The Simple Things August 2020
I gave the plate on display at a railroad memorabilia show only a casual glance. I took a few steps before turning back, drawn into the vanished world of 1950s train travel. The plate was from the dining service on The Canadian, the train that crossed Canada, from Toronto to Vancouver and back again in style.
My mother was Canadian, and every summer we visited relatives in Quebec and Ontario. The summer I turned 10, we travelled from Toronto to Vancouver on The Canadian – when train travel featured elegant dining cars, glass partitions and seats that turned into curtained sleepers.
As the train pulled out of Union Station, my parents, my younger sister and I settled into our seats and watched the flat farmland of Ontario go by. In the dining car, each table was covered in a white tablecloth with white napkins, silverplated cutlery, and goblets.
Dinner was served on cream-coloured china with a decorative design of maple leaves and wheat sheaves. For dessert, my starwberries came nestled in ice chips on a silverplated server. The dining car set a standard that has never been equalled for me.
We travelled through Canada’s provinces as vast golden fields of wheat and snow-topped mountains slipped past the train’s windows. I was entranced by the names of towns like Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and Medicine Hat, Alberta. Our parents made new friends in the lounge car while my sister and I explored the train, jumping over the scary metal sections between cars and watching the scenery from the dome car. The most beautiful time was at twilight in the Rockies, when purple shadows lengthened over fir trees and the sun set in a blaze of gold and crimson. However, there was a darker side. In the Rockiest here were small white crosses where workers had died building the railroad. In the dome car, I saw faded blue numbers tattooed on the arm of an older woman. I’d read Anne Frank’s diary and understood what the numbers signified.
While my memories of Vancouver are fleeting snapshots in time – the lake in Stanley Park, towering totem poles, and the ferry to Victoria Island – it’s the train trip that I remember in detail, from the farms of Ontario to the wheat fields of Saskatchewan and the mountains of British Columbia.
This Canadian Pacific plate cost too much but I bought it anyway. I bring it out on special occasions, and I am 10 again, the train’s pulling out of Toronto’s Union Station, and I’m embarking on the trip of a lifetime.
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