AN OLD COUNTRY ROMANCE
by Gadi Bossin
© 2014, Gadi Bossin
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This book contains material protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author.
Carol and I and our two-year-old son Raviv drive from Chicago to Toronto and Montreal to say goodbye to my relatives. It’s a few weeks prior to our making aliyah to Israel.
In Toronto, of my father and his eight siblings, only Auntie Sarah, Uncle Abe and Uncle Shimmy are still alive.
Auntie Sarah lives with her daughter, my cousin Celia, and Celia’s husband, Frankie Grossinger, in their home in the Bathurst Manor neighborhood of North York. She’s sunning on the back porch when we arrive.
She stands to greet us. “Thank you, Geddy-Carol, for coming,” she says. She always makes a point of addressing us that way. “You are one, aren’t you?” she’s explained before. Her voice is even raspier and more high-pitched than usual. “You know this is the last time I will see you. I’m so glad you came.”
“Don’t say that, Auntie Sarah. That can’t be true. We’ll see you again,” I say. Carol says, “Of course we will.”
“No, Geddy-Carol. You won’t. I’m 80 years old. I know I haven’t got long to live. I know.”
There’s nothing for it. We just kiss her hello and hug her. We all sit down.
“I want to tell you a story from the Old Country,” she says.
I’ve always loved to hear her tell her Old Country stories. She remembers those early years. The way she used to sleep next to the oven on cold nights. When her mother hid her from the rioters behind that same oven during the big pogrom just before the family left the shtetl near Kiev for Canada.
Raviv climbs down off the porch and starts kicking a beach ball around the yard.
“It’s about my mother, your grandmother, Bubbeh Shayndel,” she says. “You don’t remember her, do you?”
“No,” I say. I was just over a year old when she died.
“You and your family still lived in Montreal then,” Auntie Sarah goes on. “I don’t remember if you visited Toronto when you were a baby.” She pauses. “She didn’t have an easy life.”
Auntie Sarah looks away, remembering. I ponder what I know about my grandmother. She lost two small children in a 1912 epidemic and suffered from diabetes and a heart condition for many years. Eventually she had to have a leg amputated. She was in a wheelchair for the last ten years of her life.
“Everyone in the family knows about her health problems,” Auntie Sarah says. “But there was something else she never spoke about.” She falls silent for a moment. Carol and I lean forward.
“My mother had a romance in the Old Country.”
“Oh,” I say. “Oh, my,” Carol says. We look at each other.
Auntie Sarah clears her throat. “It was with Lazer Zilberfarb. You remember him?”
“You mean Mr. Zilberfarb from 35 Montrose Avenue?” I flash on an image of an old man with thinning white hair who carried a cane. My father and sister Shevvy and I lived at number 37 for almost five years after moving from Montreal to Toronto following my mother’s death. Numbers 35 and 37 were joined by a common wall and had mirror image floor plans. I’d been in the Zilberfarbs’ home. As a boy I’d thought, “It’s just like ours, only backwards.”
Auntie Sarah nods her head and says, “Yes, Lazer Zilberfarb from number 35.”
“What kind of romance?” I ask.
Auntie Sarah looks back at us and says, “It meant a lot to her. I know that.”
We wait for her to go on.
“When your Bubbeh was a girl in her teens back in the Old Country, Lazer Zilberfarb noticed her and began to court her. They didn’t go out the way young people do today. But on Shabbes and holidays and at weddings, with lots of friends and relatives all around, they would find ways to talk.”
“How do you know about this, Auntie Sarah?”
“Never mind. I know. Anyway, after a while, Lazer told her he wanted to marry her. Then he went to his parents and asked them to arrange the marriage. They were against the marriage and forbid him to speak of it ever again.”
“Her family was poor. They had no yiches and no dowry to offer. There was no honor or prestige to be gained by marrying into my mother’s family.”
Auntie Sarah breaks off right there and sighs. She points at Raviv, running around the yard. “He’s a sturdy little fellow,” she remarks. She sighs again and gets back to the story.
“Lazer Zilberfarb wouldn’t disobey his parents. So my mother had her heart broken. I don’t think she ever got over it.”
“How was it they ended up living next door to each other on Montrose Avenue?” I ask.
“I asked myself that question, too. Many times. But I never could answer it. It was probably something very innocent. My father and Mr. Zilberfarb belonged to the same shul. They knew each other in the Old Country.”
Auntie Sarah shakes her head and laughs.
“I imagine they heard about the new houses available on Montrose Avenue from other members of the shul and they made up their minds to buy at the same time. But who knows? There’s no one to ask. They all died so long ago.”
I imagine my Bubbeh’s eyes shining whenever she spoke with Lazer Zilberfarb, her next door neighbor.
It’s strange to think of her as a girl in love.
And even stranger to contemplate her being a woman in love with a man other than my Zayde Mendel.
She was my grandmother.
And, yes, Auntie Sarah was right.
After that visit with her on the sun porch, we never did see her again.
She passed away three months after we arrived in Israel.