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Khimm Graham: Long-cherished ties to Canada have frayed

Canada never felt like a different country. It was a summer drive over the Peace Bridge where sand flies gathered like Chinese restaurants along the calm, pristine parks lined with weathered benches and sunny marigold gardens. Our family traveled there often, smuggling home firecrackers, Crystal Beach suckers and bricks of sharp cheddar cheese before search and seizure was a homeland security tactic.

As a child, snug between my cousins in the back of Aunt Geri’s Galaxy 500, I held my breath waiting for our cue. Auntie rehearsed us before the border agent poked his head through the window and asked, “Citizenship?”

“USA!” we’d shout in unison to cover Aunt Yvette’s obvious French accent. After many years in the states, her English was still a charming but garbled lexicon of Elvis tunes and sitcom sound bites. Raised in a small town near Montreal where her sister was mayor, her exotic looks and chocolate voice spoke volumes of Canada’s free spirit and Quebec’s nonconformity.

One summer I spent the season there with her niece, Josette, and the rogue clan of bakers and musicians who spoke in tones of endless celebration. Dancing past dawn with music waking the streets, the police who half-heartedly came to arrest the nightly noise couldn’t inhibit the summertime joie de vivre.

I made fast friends with my northern cousins. Lost in adventure, “oui” was the only word I needed to know. It answered to street carnivals, breakfast ice cream and teasing kisses from eager little boys.

But now, beloved Canada is a foreign country increasingly veiled under suspicious screening and technological tension in a valiant effort to protect us from our inhumanity. After years of orange alert, a gross of duct tape and enough plastic sheeting to cover City Hall, I haven’t crossed the border since 9-11. I don’t want to ruin my only innocent fantasy.

HSBC Tower evacuated, canceling our morning floral delivery Steve was determined to make in spite of the attack. We listened to the radio without breathing. I felt vulnerable and nationalistic. “My country is under attack,” I thought, “and this Canadian is oblivious!”

I told him to go home while he could still cross the border. After some coaxing, Steve locked the doors before noon and I walked home down a silent thoroughfare, anxious for the safety of friends and family.

As nations we were simpatico, but on that once-beautiful day in September, something insidious struck more than the Pentagon, the Towers and a lonely field in Pennsylvania. A cold northern wind of hysterical uncertainty blew between two romantic old friends and permanently sealed the maple leaf border sharing one of the world’s seven wonders – peace. In a quintessential moment, the ghost of quasi-McCarthyism rose to spy and question a long-cherished relationship.

We betrayed each other and like lovers desperately vowing to “still be friends” – oh, Canada – so sadly, we will never be the same.