On the Street Where I Live
MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 31, 1974-75 Season
The one word synonymous with my childhood in the '30s is naïveté. I was told that if I wore flat fleece-lined bloomers till the age of 14, I would be assured of my virginity. I believed it. I was told that a woman's role in society had limitless possibilities. If I sacrificed skating, shack dances, boys, I could have a glorious career, be a Florence Nightingale with divine bedpans; a kindergarten teacher or a typist, like the comic strip "Tillie the Toiler." If I was sensible and gave up the idea of a glorious career I could enjoy without sacrifice or effort the great glory of marriage, preferably before the spinster age of 22. I believed it.
But there were two marks against me. Comparatively independent, I had come into the world without the aid of a midwife, and I was born on February 12th, Abraham Lincoln's birthday. I was a trial to my parents. In small ways 1 showed my independence, ignoring the motto of the '30s, "What will people say?" I hid my fleece-lined bloomers in the summer kitchen when I went skating. I said I was going to the Leland Theatre on Selkirk Avenue to see Roy Rogers; instead I went to the Bijou on Main Street and, like a woman of sin, I enjoyed Joan Crawford in a movie called "Possessed," all about a girl who rose from a paperbox factory to the position of a wealthy jaded divorcee. Of course, I went to confession immediately after. My only fling at real freedom was enjoying the temptations in my father's drugstore.
When my father and mother in a Model T Ford, visited relatives in Lac du Bonnet, the end of the world, I could play the big shot by allowing my girlfriend Magda to help me mind the store. Magda and I are minding the drugstore again, a terrible responsibility for two eleven-year-olds. We looked pretty much alike, Buster Brown haircuts, pimples, ankle length tunics and black stockings covering long bumpy underwear wound around our ankles like puttee Bengal Lancers.
Appearance can be deceiving. Magda isn't anything like me, seething with maturity and savoir faire.
"Have another Baby Ruth," says Magda, her mouth stuffed with candy, "I can't eat them all by myself," she giggles.
"Maybe I can. Seven Baby Ruth chocolate bars and six bottles of cream soda are the most I can manage."
"I'm going to look for the key." The key for the forbidden stuff has got to be in the apothecary jars of the green dispensary. My father isn't too clever about hiding things. The Linseed jar, the jar of Senna pods. There it is, in the Senna pods.
"H ow can we reach up there?" asks Magda, taking a last gurgling gulp of her cream soda.
The cupboard high above the post office wicket almost touches the ceiling.
"It's not as high as it looks," I answer, "I can do it easy standing tiptoe on the wooden cases of empties. Get a case from the back of the soda fountain and take out the bottles."
The glass cupboard door framed with heavy oak, lifts up when I turn the key in the lock. I hand down a magazine to Magda.
"What's in the funny box behind the cigarettes?" she asks. "The box of Desert Sheik propho-laxative or something."
"Oh, that. It's nothing much," I tell her, "just a balloon. I found one in the dispensary and I blew it up. My father says it's a weather balloon to test the desert climate. Okay, I'm coming down." The first woman reporter to land in the Peruvian jungle by parachute.
"Gee, are you brave!" says Magda. "Remember the time the guys wearing white bed sheets jimmied the back door and spooked me out of my mind? You didn't even scream."
"Well, Magda, I can't help being brave. That's how I am. When my father leaves the drugstore in my charge he's not worried. My biggest challenge was Harry the Hugger with his epileptic fit, throwing himself through the plate glass window."
Magda shudders, "I nearly fainted on the spot."
"Not me," I answer, "'Nurse Edith Cavell couldn't have done a better job smearing the iodine on Harry's cuts,' that's what my father said."
"I think I'll have another bag of peanuts," sais Magda already on Page 6 of The Forbidden Street and Smith Love Story Magazine.
Blakely crushed Pamela to his virile chest. His blue eyes smouldering with passion. Pamela fluttered like a captive bird, her senses reeling. "No, no," she moaned faintly.
"Doesn't that give you the shivers?" Magda's choice of reading is too mushy for me. The real people in True Confession are more my style.
"Look at this Magda, `the mad woman's cackling threat filled me with terror.' `Die you must, my darling, at dusk!' `The sworded secret of Merchant Manor revealed."'
"Aren't there any nice pictures of sireens in feather boas?" asks Magda.
"No there aren't any pictures of sireens, I told you this is real life. Listen to this one-'we have a very unusual sex problem till I learnt the special lovemaking my mate craves, Now I'm sure he'll never leave me again."'
"I wouldn't dare to read past the first page of that story," says Magda blowing perfect smoke rings from her unlit cigarette. "It's not like anything Blakely and Pamela would do."
"`A mother's anguished confession. I killed my baby twice.' Magda, are you listening?"
Magda is spitting and choking. "Ugh. I swallowed an end of cigarette." "Maybe the root beer will kill the taste."
"Are they any better when you smoke them, those Camel cigarettes?"
"Not much," I say. "They're not worth trying." The mahogany showcase is filled with forbidden makeup. "Let's try that. Do you think I suit Cupid's bow lips or bee stung lips?"
Magda can't decide.
"I prefer the pointed vampire lips," I answer, "but you look great. Honest. How about me?"
"More powder," says Magda, "we need lots and lots more powder for the pale mysterious look, and black, black eyebrows." We dipped the puff in the box of powder and puffed all over our faces. In the mirror we are Gloria Swanson and Jean Harlowe. If only the guys from the Maple Leaf Rink could see us now!
"Your mother and father, they should be seeing you now!" Standing in front of us is the horrible witch, Mrs. Kolosky, who tells everything. Mrs. Kolosky insists on buying some Lydia Pinkham and I try to sell her Zambuck instead because the Lydia Pinkham boxes are only dummy boxes. Mrs. Kolosky says she doesn't care how dumb the boxes are, she wants the medicine and of course, she leaves and she'll tell my mother and father everything. My punishment is a little more crucial than Magda's. I have to kneel on dried peas for five hours hoisting a 28 ounce tin of tomatoes over my head. Magda only had to listen to a series of lectures for a week, so I gave her some cotton batting from the drug store so she can stuff her ears and not have to listen to her parents. Magda of course admires me greatly and is rather appalled at the thought of dried peas as punishment but I tell her, "Kid stuff. Five hours of kneeling on dried peas holding a 28 ounce tin of tomatoes over my head is nothing. It'll take more than that to break me down."
My mother and father attribute my wild streak to my father whose arrival in Canada at the age of 17 wasn't proper or conventional. Inducted into the army under guard in a railway station he escaped through the window of the men's room and boarded the first train he saw which happened to be going in the direction of Canada. My mother's parents were of the Polish aristocracy. They came to Canada to seek their fortune, earned half a living on a dirt farm, took in boarders and died poor, their holdings sold for taxes. It was only by chance that my father, working on an extra gang with the CNR, found himself at the Chornoby boarding house and there met my mother. The ideal suitor, Michael Leserchko, wore a white shirt at the boarding house table instead of his underwear tops, the usual apparel of men on the railroad sitting down for supper. He spoke many languages, including Polish, and to a household whose Depression mainstay was bread and lard, his gift of a pound of butter when he came courting was enough to secure romantic liaison. My father liked to pretend the bread and lard days were a thing of the past.
"You're lucky you weren't born then," he used to say to me. "Boy, boy, then you'd know the meaning of hard times! I had fourteen cents in my pocket when I graduated from the Brandon Teachers' College and when I worked in the freight yard. At night I worked at Bate and Bate Wholesale Drugs, and I studied by kerosene. Ask mama, she'll tell you what it cost to make her the wife of a professional man."
I knew that speech by heart. Since the time I was six my father delivered the speech a week before° Christmas when money was supposed to be scarce. My mother and I were tired of that game. Whether it was Christmas or any other time, we never seemed to have enough money.
My mother punches down the bread dough with a vengeance. "Your locust relatives are expecting Christmas dinner and I don't have money for a turkey. You'll have to ask Herman, the laughing butcher, for credit."
"Credit?" says my father, "No one respects a man who buys on credit. There's only one way. You have to cut down."
My mother and I know very well what's coming next, the mealtime Inquisition.
"Boy, boy, all this food, wasting, throwing a good slice of bologna, a little bit green on the edges, not touched, a whole meal for a family of six if you know how to manage."
"What can we do?" I ask my mother.
"We can decorate the tree," she answers. "If your father wants to stare at the balogna, let him stare at the bologna. We have better things to do."
My mother clips the metal holders on the Christmas tree boughs and I insert the candles in the centre of the holders, covered with silver paper from candy bars. Hard gingerbread cookies, the size of silver dollars, hang the magic branches of the scrawny evergreen.
My mother sighs, "Somehow it still looks bare. Let's leave it for tonight. Maybe you have something you want to do for yourself."
How did she guess? I have some secret work to do. In my room are the secret gifts. A scrap velvet pin cushion for Auntie Senya, a woolen vest with embroidered buttonholes for Grandma, my father's undershirt with sleeves removed, and a stenciled bookmark cut from the white bark of poplar for my teacher. Suddenly the lights go out. My father has turned off the main switch. I can hear him pacing through the house falling over the crochet-covered footstool.
"Lights, lights, what are you doing with all those lights? Making Hydro rich, sewing, baking in the middle of the night."
I looked out my window. It can't be midnight. The street lamps have just been turned on. My mother goes down the cellar and turns back the switch. "Sewing and baking three days before Christmas," she says. "Are things any different this year than they ever were?"
"I shouldn't have to tell you," my father answers, "Roschko's son wants a slightly overdue rent, three years owing, on the drugstore and he's not like his father-human. This one keeps books like a warden and there's no use asking favors with his B.A. sitting on his head like a halo."
"Two B.A.'s," says my mother, "and if you didn't notice he's got his eye on your daughter."
My father gives me a sneaky look. "You better ask Roschko for Christmas Dinner. He asked me at church did we have any use for a large Christmas ham."
My mother nods approvingly. You see, he was hinting in a nice clean way. The awful feeling that comes with report cards is coming over me. Roschko is antique, at least 30 years old. Besides he's got a wet moustache and bad breath.
"Some things are worse," says father, "like green bologna for Christmas dinner and losing the drugstore. Would it kill you to be polite?"
"Okay," I tell him, "I'll be polite but if I slash my wrists you'll know why."
My mother is practical, "Slash your wrists but first get the ham."
On Christmas Eve Roschko comes to the house with a large ham wrapped in gold paper and a gold card, "To My Soulmate."
Christmas Day I give my mother the secret clothespin apron that she pretends not to know about and my father is pleased but puzzled over his gift, a pair of mitts without thumbs which began as a pair of socks. The locust relatives have finished the ham to the last sliver.
"Leave the parlour to the young people," giggles Auntie Senya.
My mother brings out the silver nutpicks for slow eating and everyone goes into the kitchen to eat walnuts. There's no escape. Politely, it seemed for ever, Roschko and I sit at both ends of the sofa, my mother in the middle. Roschko is telling her how much he likes my elevated poetic soul but his eyes never go higher than my bust line.
"Well," says my mother, when at last he's gone, "was it so terrible?"
I think to myself, "Slashed wrists are too messy. Next time I'll simply lock myself in the bathroom and never come out." My father smiles his "thank God it's over" smile.
"Roschko is forgetting the rent," he says, "and aren't you pleased to get such a lovely Christmas present?"
"There is nothing worse than a present from someone you don't like," I answer. Now, that line has epic possibilities. I think I'll write it down in my Jumbo scribbler. The only time for thinking or writing is 2 o'clock in the morning when my father finally closes the drugstore. Of course, there are always emergencies. Someone pounding the door for medicine, someone else asking to use the phone. Once I had to go through waist high snow to help my father deliver a baby. The last three words of the poem I was writing then floated out of my mind and were lost forever in a snowdrift past the second track. Tonight no one and nothing is going to stop me from finishing my poem. "Prodigal Spring," yes, I think that's what I'll call it.
"Is it a poem or a story this time?" asks my father.
"Don't interrupt," my mother answers. "She's writing a poem for another contest and the deadline is two days away."
"Maybe I could help." says my father.
"You can help by being quiet," says my mother. "When she's writing faster than her pencil can follow any old way across the page she's getting near the end."
My words are running faster than my pencil can follow in crooked lines across the page sprinkling leaves on trees.
"Well," says my father, from the depths of the brown velour armchair, "read it."
My mother puts down her embroidery hoop, "I'm listening."
"M'm," I clear my throat. "Spring, the long awaited prodigal sets in our hearts, the jaying gossips humming, shimmering earth, her warm flesh calls to memory, the sleeping seed the dream that waits her coming and oh, what joy to hark the sight of her. Hair streaming sunlight, skirt above bare knees hopped basket like as she goes dancing down the street sprinkling leaves on trees."
"Beautiful," says my mother, "but it does end rather abruptly. Maybe you could add the two lines from your coronation poem to the last verse. 'Our children's children still shall live to sing, The victory anthem of God Save the King.' It doesn't hurt to show that our loyalty is just as good as the English." "I think it needs something between the verses," suggests my father, "like Ukraine shall break her chain, Ukraine will rise again."' I make their changes in the poem and send it out. Three weeks go by and nothing happens. The fourth week on a Monday the mailman arrives as usual. Impatiently my father shuffles through the letters. At least twelve have out-of-town postmarks.
"Boy, boy, isn't business picking up?" he says, "The first sniff of spring, people go crazy, peeling off their underwear, running wild, their overcoats unbuttoned and, whoomb, they're in bed with a lovely cough or a chest cold. Thank God for crazy people."
He feels an envelope and lays it aside. The letters marked "White Cross Laboratory" he opens right away.
"Please send three bottles of Mizar chest liniment quick, I am dying. I didn't use up all the cough medicine so I'm sending you what's left. You owe me twenty cents."
"Is there a nice stiff money order in the letter?" asks my father, hopefully. "Maara, you can open the lumpy ones but watch out, it's got to be silver wrapped in a piece of toilet paper."
My father considers the rest of the mail, "Commercial samples of patent medicine, in the garbage; tax bill overdue, garbage; a petition from City Hall, sign here, to pave the street. More taxes. What's wrong with a mud street? Garbage. What's this? It looks like a bill for a flying horse. Mama, are you buying knickknacks again?" The newest style in dining room furniture is my mother's knickknack corner cabinet without glass doors where anything useless but pretty to look at collects dust, like copper chamber pots the size of a thimble, and the ivory handled prong for picking seeds out of grapes.
"A winged horse?" says my mother. "No, I didn't buy a winged horse lately. Let me see the letter."
The letter is a heavy cream colored envelope, a winged horse stenciled in purple ink on the upper left hand corner. I recognize the horse immediately, Pegasus, the winged horse of poetry, and the envelope's addressed to Miss Lazpoeski. It must be the results of the poetry contest. My mother reads over the shoulder.
"Dear Miss Lazpoeski have the honour - your poem "Prodigal Spring," first prize winner in the Dominion Poetry contest reading of the poem and the presentation of $5.00 - March 11th - President, Miss Dorothea Critchley-Jones, the Maiden Branch of the Pegasonian Poetry Society, Royal Order of the Queen's Garter, in affiliation with the Sisters of Evangeline. P.S. In so much as you are the first foreigner to win this award it would please our members immensely to meet you in person."
"Oh dear," says my mother, "I hope they don't expect us to come in felt boots and kerchiefs."
Miss Dorothea Critchley-Jones receives us in the vestibule of Robert Browning Clubrooms. "It is so appropriate to hold a poetry meeting in the visitation of the dead poet don't you think? They say that Robert Browning touched the banister of this carved oak staircase."
She raises her lorgnette and peers at me through one eye, "How disappointing, we did so hope to see our budding poetess in native costume, felt boots and a kerchief."
If you walk down the street where I live, in my stories, in my memories, you will recognize it by the narrow lots, the houses with false modern faces, and the fences dividing the houses, or the marks in the hard earth where fences and barriers have been partly pulled down. On the corner of Boyd and Arlington the red brick building with the Spanish roof of corrugated metal, once the White Cross Drug Store, is a beauty shop and next to it where my bedroom window overlooked Billinkoff's junk yard is a parking lot. Mrs. Kolosky's sideways maple showed five fingers at Mrs. Weinstein as it came up through her radishes still growing sideways into someone's backyard, and on a sunny day, pushing a baby carriage down Selkirk Avenue, not too far from the drugstore, maybe the ghost of Mrs. Vloshkin passing the ghost of Orris, the undertaker, will stop to say, "And how is business? Dead as usual?"
If any ghosts are walking around in the avenues of my childhood, and I believe they are, the ghost of the rabbi, my dear friend, will be sitting on a curb waiting for a child to share his Challah with him as once I did. Monday is my day for taking a walk with the rabbi. It's a perfect day for walking, warm enough and dry enough for the rabbi to wear his other shoes. There he is at the gate in front of his house waiting for me. On special occasions like today he combs his beard with water and it hasn't dried yet. In the sunlight the tiny beads of water glisten in his beard like the clear glass beads of my rosary. I look to see if he is wearing felt boots. No, he's got his other shoes, the Oiving Monohan bedroom slippers, brown scorched plaid, a furry bumble on each toe. Nothing else about him is different, the black skull cap sitting on his black hair looks as if it grew there, a natural part of his head. The rusty black coat is the same coat with the shiny patch in the seat from all the sitting and studying he does.
"No," says the rabbi, "are you again ready for questions and answers?" The way he says questions and answers is the way I say Challah. To the rabbi every "What?" is a bite of delicious Shabbes bread.
"I'm ready to ask questions. Did you remember to bring the Challah? Can I have the answer to the riddle, `What hangs on the wall is green, wet and whistles?' What's in the brown paper bag?"
The rabbi strokes his beard pensively, "What's in the brown paper bag, she wants to know? Now it could be two slices of Challah, and on the other hand maybe it could be the answer to the riddle is in the paper bag?"
He latches the iron gate behind him and hooks his umbrella over his arm. Attending a sick bed, performing the ceremonials of birth, confirmation, death, marriage, going back and forth daily from his house to the synagogue, the rabbi is never without his umbrella. I have to know the answer to the riddle.
"Please, Rabbi can I have the answer to the riddle? I thought about it the whole week and I can't figure it out."
The rabbi is happy that I'm so anxious, so we start from the beginning. "What hangs on the wall is green, wet and whistles?" "The answer is herring."
"How could it be herring? A herring doesn't hang on the wall." "So, hang it there," says the rabbi.
"Herrings aren't green."
"And they aren't wet."
"If a herring is just painted it's still wet."
"Whatever it is, a herring doesn't whistle."
"You're right Bubele," says the rabbi. "I just put that in to make the riddle harder."
The rabbi sits down on the curb of the sidewalk and opens the brown paper bag. He nods sympathetically, "Now, it's a riddle to plague the wisdom of Solomon but in solving the riddle of the herring we likewise find the answer to a second riddle, 'What is in the brown paper bag?' Since it can't be the herring is in the paper bag it must be the Challah is in the paper bag. If we pursue it with logic and wisdom the mystery of the universe we could find in a brown paper bag. Such is the reward of a scholar and thinker."
I sat down on the curb beside the rabbi to eat my share of Challah. A cake like bread, the crisp flaky crust is glazed with egg whites, the inside soft as heaven.
"And where do we find the two loaves of Challah?" asks the rabbi. I know the answer to that one.
"On the Sabbath Eve table but be sure not to cut the loaves until the blessing is said."
"You're right, Bubele, and now I pose for you the four questions the youngest child at the table will answer in Passover. Why do we eat unleavened bread?"
"Because the Israelites left Egypt in a hurry and didn't wait for the bread to rise."
"Now, why do we eat bitter herbs?"
"To remind us of the bitterness of slavery."
"Uh, huh, you're right. And why do we dip the herbs in salt water?" "Uh'hm, because celery tastes better with salt? I like lots of salt on my celery."
The rabbi corrects me, "The herbs are not celery, the herbs are parsley and the salt water is the tears shed by the mothers in Egypt when their kinder were torn from their breasts and the miracle of the Red Sea. Is something coming back to you?"
"Yes, the miracle of the Red Sea and the Seder opens with a prayer and three munches on a tray. This is the bread of ahh, of ahh-affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. All that were hungry, let them come and eat. All that were needy let them come and celebrate Passover with us. Now we are here, next year we may be in Israel. Now we are slaves, in the year ahead may we be free men."
The rabbi knows what is going on. "Bubele, the answer to the fourth question you are not answering. Why do we recline on the table?"
"Because the Passover is eight days long and everyone is tired?"
"Oy," cries the rabbi jumping to his feet and clapping his hand to his forehead. "Too soon I gave the reward of the Challah. You should live to be a hundred and twenty in a locked room not eating just to sit and study."
The rabbi spends any free moments of his time studying in the synagogue or in the dining room of his house that he uses for his study. Being with the rabbi is like being in a beautifully quiet room with a clock ticking. I think my separate thoughts silently aware of the clock, the way I'm aware of the rabbi's voice ticking in the back of my mind. After awhile the clock becomes my own heartbeat just as the rabbi's thoughts and my thoughts echo one another. No matter how much he scolds me I know we have a kind of friendship that only true scholars can share. Walking or just standing, the rabbi keeps his eyes lowered to the ground in the deep humility fitting a scholar of the Talmud and the Torah. I'm surprised how different things look as I walk beside him studying the earth at my feet.
"Can the weight of a raindrop move a stone to loosen a plant for growing?" I ask him.
"No," answers the rabbi.
"The weight of a raindrop carries the weight of God's hand which for moving a stone takes him less than a sneeze."
In the back lane, always a part of my walk with the rabbi, Mr. Skrypnyk is standing at a woodpile, axe in his hand, doing nothing.
"To chop wood," says the rabbi, "three people are needed for the job. One are for using the axe, two for grunting."
"So why are we here?"
I grunt with the effort of chopping wood that I'm not chopping. The rabbi, a more experienced grunter, grunts like a man heaving a boulder up the side of a mountain.
"Thanks for the help," says Mr. Skrypnyk, chopping furiously.
When I get home from my walk, my mother and father are at the door. "Well," says my mother, "what hangs on the wall, is green, wet and whistles? Tell me quick."
My father looks at me curiously. "Boy, boy, I never would have guessed it. Did you know the answer?"
"Not really," I answer smugly, "but I had my suspicions. The rabbi says I have a Yiddish heart."
Thank you for listening.
Page revised: 22 May 2010