As an immigrant, I longed for family. Now neighbours have become that kin for me
The kindness of strangers that have become family is a gift I will always cherish
This First Person piece is by Vaidehee Lanke, a University of Saskatchewan graduate living in Saskatoon. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
Growing up, I always longed for more family. My family immigrated from India to Canada when I was four, so the only family members I really knew were my younger sister, mom and dad. While the four of us are a tight unit, sometimes it hasn't felt enough.
During holidays like Diwali and Christmas, our apartment would feel empty. I'd long for the sprawling families my friends at school had — grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, with plenty of family traditions.
In difficult moments, my longing for family was like a hole that would never fill. I'd wish for a support system to lean on, learn from and be reminded we weren't alone in the world.
In the 16 years that my family has lived in Saskatoon, I've learned that emptiness will always be a part of our immigrant experience. However, I've also found that sometimes people walk into your life and become your chosen family.
A warm welcome
My parents were overwhelmed first-time home buyers when we first met Denny and Pat. I was nine at the time.
We pulled up to the house and noticed an elderly man tending his front lawn with great care. After taking a peek inside the house, we were on our way back to the car when the man smiled at us, as if inviting us in for a conversation.
When we asked about the area, he enthusiastically launched into a history of the neighbourhood and his family. Our conversation offered reassurance at a time when we needed it.
A day or two after we moved into the neighbourhood, our doorbell rang. That was how we came to know Denny, the man with a bright smile, and his wife Pat, a woman full of cheer and practical advice.
Denny and Pat always made us feel we belonged in the neighbourhood. Anytime we walked by, Pat would wave to us from their wide living room window and Denny would strike up a friendly conversation.
Together, Denny and Pat helped us navigate life any way they could. Denny enthusiastically offered valuable experience to home renovation projects from lawn care to fencing and roof work. Pat's endless wisdom helped with many of life's moments.
When I got into a specialized science program on the other side of the city as an elementary student, Denny and Pat generously drove me when it was too cold to take a bus. They would even park on our driveway, five minutes early every time, just so I wouldn't have to walk across the street to their home in the freezing weather.
Pat patiently taught my mom how to drive — an essential skill in Saskatoon. When it was my turn to learn, Pat taught me too. Now when one of us drives, I'm reminded of Pat's love.
When I moved for a summer job, I was worried because I didn't know how to cook. Pat gave me a parting gift of a cookbook, full of recipes gathered over the years. Many years later, I still refer to it.
One summer when my bicycle broke down, I asked Denny for help. He took me and my bike to the shop and explained the problem. He could have introduced me as his neighbour, but instead he said, "this is my granddaughter." I will never forget that moment.
Looking back, I realize I had already internalized that Denny and Pat were family. Their friendship has made sure no Christmas — a new tradition for our family — or birthday has felt empty.
I'm proud of many things, but being their granddaughter tops that list.
Sharing our cultures
Our friendship with another family across the street also started with smiles through the window. One day, out of the blue, they generously invited our family to their 25th wedding anniversary celebrations. We showed up not knowing anyone, but they welcomed us into their lives without hesitation.
From there, our friendship blossomed. We've shared many meals together. They've introduced us to the sweetest of jams, Saskatoon berry crisp and the art of making an impeccable salad dressing, and my family has shared our Indian curries and sweets.
They've been the first to celebrate us with all of milestones. Even when we can't celebrate in person, they find a way. When Diwali rolled around in the pandemic, they sent us a box of cookies shaped as diyas — lamps that hold special meaning in our culture.
Through life's challenges — job loss and mental health journeys — they've stood by our side and been the people we could lean on. They still check in on us, reminding us each time that we are not alone.
Now when I think of family, I picture a web with strands connecting all the people that make us feel seen, heard, supported, understood and empowered. The most beautiful part is that this web can keep expanding.
With kindness and open hearts, Denny, Pat and the family across the street chose to embrace our immigrant family. Now they, in turn, have become the family I so deeply cherish.
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