My grandmother – my father’s mother – would never tell anyone her age. According to my mother, who happened to be there when the census taker arrived – apparently they made house calls in those days – she was very reluctant to tell him anything, least of all her age. The conversation went something like this.
“Why do you want to know?” she asked.
“I don’t want to know,” he answered. “Not me, personally. “
“So, why are you asking?”
“It’s the government.”
“Why does the government need to know?”
“Because they’re collecting statistics.”
“They’re collecting, what?”
“Not just you. Everybody.”
“And you are asking everybody how old they are?”
“And they have to tell you? “
“Yes. It’s the law.”
“It’s none of their business”.
“Please, lady, I’m just doing my job.”
“Lady, I agree, but I need it. Please, I have a wife and kids…..
“All right. Just put down “over 60”.
Exit census taker.
Although no information was forthcoming from her, I do know that she was born in Tarnapol, Poland – now part of the Ukraine. It was established in the 1500’s and by 1550 had a sizeable Jewish population. My calculations at this late date lead me to believe she was born in or about 1865 and actually attended a famous school founded by Joseph Perls which – miraculously for the time – had added a girls’ school in 1848. She married, had two children, one of whom died in childhood. Then, in the late 1900’s she divested herself of Husband the First, and with her teen-age son set sail for Montreal, Canada.
In Montreal she had an older sister, and later her two remaining sisters arrived. Why Montreal? Probably because a relative was already there. Looking back, there are roughly a million questions I wish I had asked her, although her response would likely have been: “You don’t need to know.” For instance, how did they make a living? Did they work? Who did they work for and what did they do? Rumour had it that the eldest provided cheer to the neighborhood with her particular brand of ‘bathtub gin”. Unfortunately, the recipe has long disappeared, along with any evidence that the ‘still’ actually existed.
My grandmother and my future father took up residence in the old part of town, unofficially known as the Jewish ‘Ghetto’, where she lived the rest of her long life. She never quite forgave my parents for abandoning the area and taking up residence in the far reaches of Ahuntsic. However, almost every Sunday she made her way “north” by several streetcars, laden with cookies, bagels and a variety of edible treats for the nomads. Occasionally, along for the ride, would be a candidate for the vacant position of “Zaida” – grandfather. Two of them actually made the grade, although they didn’t last long. At the age of 80-something she married for the fourth time, announcing, “I finally got it right.”
However, there was a long span between Husband the Third and the last, best choice. And in that interim she would make her Sunday journey, solo. After due attention had been paid to an exchange of the latest news between her, my parents and other relatives visiting from ‘the city’, I would start pestering her to take me to the Polish Picnic. Sometimes the picnics were Ukrainian, or Hungarian, but to me they were always the Polish Picnics. In the far reaches of the field across the street, now known as Parc Ahuntsic, trucks and cars would arrive, packed with adults, kids, dogs, picnic hampers, musicians and a wooden dance floor. She would say something like, “do you really want to go?” Of course, I did, and I knew she did, too. The music was a magnet, the louder and the livelier the better, and from the minute we arrived, until it was time to leave, she’d be up on the dance floor being swung about by a variety of male partners.
Sometimes I would visit her in her inner-city flat. Luckily, although she had multiple stairs to climb, hers were inside the building, unlike those iconic and much photographed outside staircases, which visitors consider charming, but which can be lethal when covered in layers of ice and snow. One of her neighbours, the Reverend Masters, performed weddings in his front parlor. Somehow she frequently managed to get an invitation to attend, which meant that I did, too: – a nine year old “wedding crasher”. The highlight for me was the cake, but for her it was the dancing.
Somewhere in her mid-80s it must have been, she admitted she just wasn’t what she used to be. Carrying two chickens and ten pounds of potatoes from Rachel Market the five blocks to her flat was becoming a chore, to say nothing of hoisting everything up a long flight of stairs once she got home. And not as enjoyable as dancing.
Not knowing when she was born, I’m not really sure how long she lived. I don’t recall ever celebrating her birthday, although I suspect she would have been happy to join in a toast to the occasion. As far as I can figure she died in her mid 90’s. If I had asked her during those last years, what was it like to leave your home with a child, and come to a strange country, what did it feel like to start your life anew, would she have told me? Somehow, I doubt it. But, all the same, I wish I’d asked.