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Snapshot

I read in the obits two weeks ago of the passing of a girl I knew. It seemed to me she was part of a snapshot of my youth.  

There were three girls who lived behind their stores, each adjacent to the other. The fathers’ stores reflected a range of professions: one a pharmacist, the other an upholsterer, and my father, the hi fi guru. People from all over the city came to ask him the really tough tough questions regarding electronics, the next wave of music or particularly to probe the depth of my father’s intellect. Whether Bay Bloor or Clairtone, their head hanchos would make their way to our store on Eglinton. But this tale is not about my father, but the girls who lived on either side of our shop, Tele Sound.

In each of the girls’ families, there were two children, perhaps in accordance with the times and the parents of boomers who having survived the fear of an atomic bomb anticipated better secure days for their families cautiously hoping for safer futures. All were hard working, my mother and the upholsterer’s wife supporting their husbands while. working with customers in their stores. They were intense dedicated women with tall and handsome husbands.

The upholster and pharmacist had each, an older child a son and their daughter who were, closer to my age and these girls played together in the lane behind our stores.

 Three is not a comfortable number, “ a crowd, “ some would say, so my relationship, particularly with H., the pharmacist’s daughter was more of convenience. Living at the very edge of the borough, We walked to school together, and she, of course, had access to great amounts of chocolate bars and comic books sold in her father’s store so with the after school anticipation of candy and reading material just next store, I posed as her friend. Because we lived behind our stores, we were not considered equal to the rich girls who went to posh summer camps or lounged at the pools at their country clubs so we tended to hang together in solidarity.

The daughter of the upholster was a year ahead of us and at school moved in another circle, but after school or early evening when kids played till dusk fell, she and H. could be found bouncing balls, skipping or darkly chatting in the lane. Often I would observe them from my pink bedroom that overlooked the lane, forced to bed early, sometimes before the stars were out twinkling.

Interestingly all three of us became teachers. H ‘s parents being the most traditional felt pharmacy was the right path for their son. So he unwillingly pursued that path- at least until his future wife motivated him to follow his heart into medicine, where he flourished as a cancer doctor. My parents encouraged my brilliant sister into medicine . My friend’ss parents were intent that rather than following her dream of going to university, that she marry young. Someone’s cousin from the States arrived to fill the bill-although I recall H, days before her marriage grieving he was not “ the one”, but the die had been cast and she felt she had no choice but to marry, barely over 21 years of age. I was off traveling the summer she asked would I be a bridesmaid. With no remorse or particular affection, I packed up my bags and headed off for California.

Back in the 60’s, one might take a year to attend Teachers’ College and viola, you were pronounced ready to teach in an elementary classroom. Poor H, not an exemplary student, pined for higher learning. But a mere female and a gentle compliant soul went along with her parents’ plan..

 In the upholsterer’s home,, both daughter and son did go to university, both thriving, although the son veered from his love of athletics to buy a day camp. The daughter became a history teacher, married ,had children and grandchildren. I never saw her again.

I was unsure what path I would follow. Although I had a passion for art. I was never really sufficiently talented to follow that route and my parents had their eyes set on university for me to widen my horizons. I thought I might be a social worker, but took the path of least resistance and also became a teacher. As my interest in art persisted I completed a Masters in Art History. Thinking I might make changes to the educational system if I possessed more degrees, I wrote a doctoral thesis that combined both art and education, believing as I still do: that the visual marries well with all studies, providing a tantalizing perspective to studies that may be dry or heavily pedantic. I married, had three kids and grandkids.

Some time ago through my mother, I heard H and her husband had split up and she had returned to Toronto, to find a way to study teaching at university. We met briefly, and I noted she had gained a great deal of weight, her face looking lost in her body. And years later, my mother received a distraught call from her. Eventually I hear snippets of hormonal imbalance and emotional issues and prolonged stays in mental health facilities. I never saw her again, but I assume she lives- and hopefully well. At heart, she was a good and kind person with lofty aspirations.

From what I surmise , both the upholsterer’s daughter and I have had lead successful lives.

Brought up in a good area by a mother and a father, we fulfilled our roles in society. We went to school, were involved in a helping profession and added to the gene pool. We were typical role models perhaps for our generation. Interestingly, we all considered and engaged in teaching the profession, perhaps unsophisticated enough to veer towards others. We did not live with our spouses before marriage and all were married in a synagogue, although none of us did more than attend high holiday services. As our parents, we were all hard workers, not slackers although the gossip regarding H entwined her with a need for money to subsist as her desire to end the marriage did not provide her with alimony.

Reading the obituary of the upholsterer’s daughter caught me off guard. A small paragraph reduces a life to a handful of sentences that outline 70 or a bit more years.Truly I barely knew those facts , except for my memories that she often was reading, had dark hair and what I considered “airs” back when I was a girl growing up behind a store.

It shook me that people of my generation, ones who had lived closed by, were dying although there had a few surprises earlier – like my first real male friend in high school, Billy Novak , a talented , writer who had gone to New York -along with the names of one or two other classmates. But these moments of epiphany appearing trite ( everyone dies, of course) call into focus the days of our youth, our similarities and our differences, our luck or misfortunes, with those with whom we have shared experiences. They reveal our ordinariness, our conformity ( more perhaps in the post war days), our trajectories, our accomplishments that a demographic alludes to. They are not bad, not good. They just are. That middle class girls of a specific time and place did what unexceptional girls of the time did. In the end, it is the measure of happiness and contentment and even security that speaks to a life fulfilled or not: facts known only to an inner circle of family or friends  who truly knew the deceased.

I cannot say about poor H, whether her life was finally acceptable and pleasing to her. In contrast the sketchy details of he upholsterer’s girl suggests- at least outwardly, that she was. And for me, I too, have few complaints.

Some of us are fortunate to ride the ashes of our parents’ exhausting work, to know the unflinching love of the people who raised and cared for us, dreaming a better world for their offspring. But as a parent and grandparent myself these days, I’ve learned not all of our desires are compatible with our children’s, and there are uncontrollable events that can hinder the course. Our lives, our pursuits, our dearest relationships are fragile, gossamer, at the whim of chance and fortune. Here today and whisked away tomorrow. Rest in peace Faygie. I hope your life was sweet, full of happiness, and rewards…

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My Mother’s Friends

We lived behind our store. My father’s hi fi workshop was the basis upon which he made his living and supported us. When he was out on service calls, my mother tended the shop as well as us. She was at the hub of our lives, rarely complaining. Every day as the store’s bell announced our arrival home from school, we would call out, “Mummy?”Like the genie to be summoned, we imagined our words conjured the smiling spirit of our mother in aprons. And always she would appear. Should she not magically vaporize before our eager eyes, we were crushed, abandoned. But it was in deed a rare occurrence that we would not be welcomed by her loving face.  

My father guarded her presence as well, disparaging any contacts that might remove her from him. Almost openly rude to her friend Mary next door, in spite of his begrudging hello or grumble, Mary continued to visit from time to time. And when our mother was overcome with the burdens of her life, it was not the brief weekend sojourn at my grandparents, but Mary’s wisdom to clean, clean, clean that brought her back to us.

But yesterday as I ran into a former acquaintance , I recalled my mother had been “ friends” with the acquaintance’s mother. And for the first time in my life, I wondered how could my mother’s relationship with Mrs. W have been possible. Although the former neighbour’s sister and mine had been duelling presences at school, each battling for supremacy in the realm of competing high achievers, I pondered how my mother had known Mrs. W. At all. I never observed my mother chat with this woman who lived around the corner in a real house. In fact, as I conjured the W. family, I had no image, just a vague dumpy shape of the woman. in deed, all I knew of this family was that there were three sisters, all apparently brilliant.

How had they become friends? My mother’s only interactions and conversations were extended telephone discussions with family, usually to allay my grandmother’s demands, or arrange times when emphysema plagued my grandmother. And these evening spurts only could take place when my mother had finished with the workload at our house . She might have been an indentured servant, or medieval slave, for the dawn-to-dusk drudgery of chores that necessitated completion: whether bopping into the store to work with a customer; standing for hours ironing our cotton shirts; mangling sheets, deep in the basement; completing the store’s bookkeeping; or preparing us for bedtime with a story. Like a single parent, she saw and oversaw every activity in our home. 

I can never recall a day she took a day off to minister to her own needs or delights. Her only “ outside” activity was to hop a bus one morning a week to pick up a cake or white fish at Avenue Road’s Margo or Penguin stores and immediately return home: likely not incurring a second fare as she moved swiftly from shop to shop. And every other week, a Tuesday as well, she might manage a quick turn about in popping down to Eaton’s College Street and returning with a bright red Girls Annual and Robin Annual, (on sale in the fall and in spring) for my sisterand me; and always in time to prepare my father’s lunch exactly at noon. Her light running steps might have been propelled on wings.  

She always decried, even at 90, not having had an opportunity for more education: as a nurse or designer. But she gleaned much from her in- laws, research and information on child rearing from Maisel or Gesell, but enhanced by her own strong common sense: that allowed her to suppress feelings of depression when in an exhausted state she sank into a chair and contemplated her own mother’s brutal means of upbringing or my father’s debilitating polio. 

Having been forced to relocate from our house after my father’s illness, she helped design our living accommodations, providing her own special touches. In the back lane behind our store, she insisted on a fenced in patio – wisely painted red so as to warn parking cars-with grass and a sandbox for us. Once into our makeshift yard, a tiny not quite completely formed birdling fell from its place under a bedroom air conditioner. We consulted Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedias (reasonably priced with purchases of groceries at the grocery store) and discovered we should feed the fledglings cooked egg yokes and provide sips of water through an eye dropper. This we did, supervised by our mother. We coaxed its transparent body for two days, trying not to transmit our finger smell lest its mother reject it, but on the third day the struggling embryonic creature vanished. 

My mother insisted that we have lessons: the Hebrew ones across the street I dragged myself to. When I complained she explained, she felt ignorant not having known how to read Hebrew herself and did not want us to experience that lack of confidence when the praying voices in synagogue knew the words to chant. I never really heard her, and spent too many years looking out of the classroom window, gnawing on candy and dreaming myself far away. So many years later, I wish I had paid attention so my utterances instead of stuttering could mix and flow with the songs others so strongly sang at holiday prayers. 

Not permitted to take tap lessons because my parents feared we might become showgirls ( I could barely walk without tripping so no need to worry there!), we were allowed ballet classes which I adored, especially the pink tutus and fairy wings for the final performance. There were as well piano lessons at the Conservatory, where my sister excelled and I floundered, never practicing and truly uninterested in the theory behind the music. My mother was so proud of our accomplishments, never bragging, but quietly enfolding her own pride that her girls had opportunities she never could have contemplated.

Before tennis or girls hockey was popular, our school offered a skating rink in the winter. Bundled into bulky grey coats or my cousins’ hand- me- downs, we would haltingly skate forward to the delight of our parents who cheered us on from the car. Sometimes we visited our father’s friend Harry Wines who had not left his house in 20 or so years, having been traumatized by an unfair firing in his workplace. Harry would flood his real backyard for his son Mike and we might be invited to join him for a skate.  They would laugh. “Pat and Mike”, as if we understood the joke. There were public swimming pools accessible by bus and we were encouraged in the summer to make our way there when the weather was muggy and hot in the summer. Summer camp would turn bitter for me when the reality of a summer away finally came my way. And I was required to share all the pistachios my parents brought with the others. However,  most summers we would load into the car, my father driving somewhere, my mother lugging suitcases in and out of motels as my sister and I fought in the back seat.

Although my father loved his work and excelled at his mastery of creating circuits in audio engineering,evidenced on every single cake box in our house, he was happy to divulge his secrets, and cared little for the money that might accompany his genius. Our mouths hung open when we heard that Peter Munk in creating Clairtone had approached our father, hoping to unit my father’s brilliance in sound with smart design. Our father felt anything that jeopardized sound/ music for aesthetics was not worth his consideration. I never heard him regret his decision not to partner with Munk who went on to make millions and billions of dollars. My sense of my father was the watchmaker at his bench, fascinated and brilliant at his profession, only requiring my mother as confidant in his life. 

In all of this was my mother whose life surrounded us, expected and anticipated. Never was there a moment for herself. And never did I consider that she should own a life outside of our family unit. Never did I project my own desire for relationships outside of our doors on her. She was the frame to the stability in our world. Yet beside un welcomed Mary next door, somehow she did know another woman on the street bordering the laneway and again, I never knew of any communication. Perhaps the woman called for a service call and then my mother chatted with her. Her children were not in any of my or my sister’s classes so no home and school meeting contacts. Yet my mother spoke warmly of Anne Ross as if she were a close friend, lightly mesmerized by her good  looks, posture and warm smile. 

We occasionally whispered my mother was martyr , enjoying her life of unending responsibilities and work. But now, of course, I don’t think that was the case at all. We say such things to rationalize our own guilt or ignorance of the complexities of a person’s situation. It’s so much easier to judge and label than scrape beneath the surface. She was a person trapped by her life’s circumstances and she learned to make the best of them. To realize at 68 years of age that my mother may or may not have had friends is shocking. And I write this with a profound sense of embarrassment that I cared little for my mother’s realm beyond our walls.  

But truly, how much do you know about the lives of your parents when you were a child? As children, we are such egocentric beings, caring only for ourselves, infuriated should a parent not immediately visualize to deal with our childish angst. My husband reflects that love flows downward from parent to child. And I know this to be true.. 

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