Although school has been decimated with the arrival of Covid19, schoolwork continues- in spite of my eight year old grandson’s assignment “Have a good weekend!!” However, his 11 year old brother’s homework had something to do with digging out family background.
As I sat painting, gloomy in my kitchen, my husband wandered in to pose a few questions. In response to my daughter in-law’s prompts regarding the homework, he told my grandson that my mother was quote unquote “ a bookkeeper” and I bristled because that single word did not take in the person, personality or any substantiation of ninety two years of living: foremost in my mind , her childhood life as an immigrant chased down the streets and taunted with the slurs “ greenhorn, tinhorn, five cents a piece” for being new to Canada; nor her valiant behaviour when my father succumbed to polio, she and I quarantined, and he isolated at least five bus rides away from our house to his nine month confinement in Riverdale Hospital.
The simple epithet did not take in her fortitude of being isolated by herself, practically ignored by family and dropped like a hot potato by previous clutches of friends who feared contagion. Her demeanour, her control, her transformation into single parent, wage earner, or essential helpmate. She used to quip the story of the The Little Red Hen because she’d had to do it all by herself, a mixture of great pride but also pain in abandonment from her family.
And what of her own mother’s abusive behaviour that tore books from her hands as a young girl anxious to read, learn and demonstrate curiosity? And the destruction of a singing talent, and a thwarted desire to go beyond high school? That she was brave, beautiful, kind, a help to her brothers and parents. Where were the back stories of struggle, overcoming, and enduring love for her husband and daughters?
In truth, all of this information would have likely overwhelmed my grandson whose teacher was primarily interested in ensuring the kid could compose sentences, and perform the essentials of a public school grade five education, fulfilling his own mandate to interact with his students during the pandemic.
As a crafter of words, I felt bereft at her life’s reduction to “ bookkeeper.” I don’t think the description narrowed to three syllables would have pleased her either.
Today, of course, we are more aware of how personal perspective shapes every narrative, yet there are bare isolated independent facts and those are the ones decanted into single descriptive words, that like retorts in our email, demonstrate little. Yet the real and true stories carry so much more, overladen with images, emotions, attempts, successes, inevitable struggles, and pain.
Merely “Bookkeeper .”
Would I like to be remembered as” teacher”, “ mother”, “kitchen table painter”?
As they say, the devil is in the details. The source of that proverb is often attributed to the architect Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, but apparently the expression derives from an earlier German proverb – “Der liebe Gott steckt im detail”, which translates as ‘God is in the detail’.
And truthfully, my mother’s feats in light of first, an abusive mother and only a few years into a young marriage to escape her family, a handicapped husband, were in deed godlike.Thin and fragile maybe 110 pounds, she carried television chassises to his car, with no complaints, watchful and concerned between tending store and worrying that late night service calls might cause her husband’s crutches to loosen their grip and his braces slide perilously into the snow and make him fall.
And those days of no broken down curbs, or even thoughtful relatives pulling out their cars for him at monthly so- called “ Cousins Club” on Saturday nights! I don’t recall her scowling, only occasionally flaring up at my challenging behaviour. Nor he, doomed never to stand freely again, only had this look that showcased his misery at a life that had robbed him of his legs and mobility. He escaped into his passion, his diagnosis and prognosis of all things musical to render sound more perfect, more capable of releasing its qualities of pitch, resonance, beauty.
And so too, it is the single word, not a narrative to refer to my father in a 11 year old year old’s report as an “electrician”. The word does not substantiate that BayBloor Radio, Sol Mandelson, and every person in the field curious to a new age in music and electronics would sit at his feet, garnering, seeking, probing, questioning ,discussing musical developments and improvements to the creation of sound, and my father, the guru, absorbed, happy, engaged. Warm and smiling, not the person I knew, but whose delight extended to my mother , my sister and his brother-in-law band leader and musician all endlessly fascinated by the advent of “stereo”: his relationship with his brother-in-law, not unlike those obsessively mesmerized by sports, dominated by the creation of sound in all of its reverberations, ramifications from intellectual to visceral to footstomping. Ah, diversions of thought that gave meaning to his life. A absorbing commitment of scientific love aimed at the ears and heart.
And stepping beyond my parents, my grandmother Molly’s history too, a story in itself. My husband retorted to our grandson, “ Yah, I think she helped start Mount Sinai Hospital”. Only part of the tale as I recall. Apparently Yorkville Avenue where Chanel now stands was the initial location for the hospital. So many years back then, there were Jewish benevolent societies to aid Jews against discrimination and exclusivity in the city. As in signs posted on Centre or maybe Wards Island up until the 1950’s that proclaimed both Jews and dogs were unwelcome. So burial and places for religious or social gatherings were formed to afford opportunities for those immigrants unwanted and scorned here in Canada.
And our family chortles with the story of a young Peter Munk who sought a partnership with Telesound, my father’s hifi store, for the beginning of one of Munk’s initial ventures, Clairtone. Munk’s aim was to bring fashionable cabinets to every home, but my father weighed in that the quality of sound would not coalesce and refused a partnership. My father, principled and brilliant, rejected the deal and never regretted his decision.A watchmaker in his shop, parsing the elements, the components of resisters, connectors, transmitters, amplifiers… only absorbed by the internal beauties of music, pared back to the essentials, physically ugly but no matter to him. A man consumed by his love, a man often harsh to my lack of interest or faulty comprehension of math, science, dismissive of the visual aesthetics that tickled my soul.
And yet another narrative regarding my father’s mother had to do with the construction of the Western Hospital. Living near or around Kensington, clumps of Jewish families headed by strong but determined matriarchs strove to create safety and health for their children. To fund raise, our Buby Molly went door to door selling bricks to raise money for the construction of the hospital.
So you might add the term “ fundraiser” to a description, but would it substantiate more than a blur of a thought, a stereotype of a short, busty grey haired woman, with asthma, a woman whose husband’s family excluded her from Friday night get togethers, deriding and taunting her as “spendthrift” because she craved those new fangled contraptions of refrigerator and washing machine, those petty jealous Mimas setting their brother into a rage that his wife was destroying his future, spending his money, provoking his firehot temper, the same one that tore the fantastic hat he had courted her with into pieces.
And I, heard these tales passed down, unedited, maybe exaggerated, maybe not.
But my thought here is the same. One simple word or even a slew does not begin to touch the edges of a person, to describe their essence. They are merely containers, not even sideway glances, surely not a penetration. Less than a photo, more than a total lacuna, they are something to be unraveled, perhaps a placeholder for future research. Like the faces omitted or x’ed out in Russian lineups, the words hold a multitude of openings. Or more likely not.