The Only Photo of the Four of Us
© 2014, Gadi Bossin
P.O. Box 20
Kiryat Bialik, Israel
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.
THE ONLY PHOTO OF THE FOUR OF US
My parents, your grandparents, died decades ago. My mother succumbed to myasthenia gravis—a rare disease—at age 31 in 1949 and my father to intestinal cancer when he was 63 in 1978. My sister, your Auntie Sharma, passed away in 2002 at age 62, also a cancer victim. I’m now 67 years old and the lone survivor of our nuclear family of four. All I have left of my parents and sister are memories and a family photo album I put together sometime just before I left Toronto in 1965.
For years now this family photo album—it’s the one with the red and yellow flower design on its front and back covers—has literally been coming unglued at the top and the bottom of its spine while the middle somehow has continued to adhere and has maintained its integrity.
It’s not as if the album has been overused. I’ve opened it rarely over the years. There have probably been years when I didn’t look at it even once.
Sometimes the album has had a place of honor in our home in easily accessible drawers or cabinets. Sometimes it’s been relegated to a box in the storage area over our rooms, requiring that I pull out the ladder and boost myself into the crawl space in order to contemplate the photos in it.
It has traveled with me from Canada to Israel and back and then to Texas and back to Canada and then to Israel again and then to Ohio and Illinois and finally back here to Israel one last time.
The final photo in the album is one of me and Cousin Larry. We’re descending the steps from the front porch of the house at 126 Anthony Road in Downsview where Uncle Aubie, Auntie Pearl and Cousins Larry, Gwen and Michael had lived since the early 1950’s. There is no inscription on the back of the photo, but I’m quite certain it was taken during my final year in Toronto.
The album’s first page displays eight photos. All told, there are 78 photos on the fronts and backs of the ten leaves throughout the album. I counted them.
The first two photos on the first page are two head shots of my father. One is from when he was about 15 years old. He’s not smiling, but his features are even and it’s easy to see he was very handsome as a youth. When I look at that photo, I wonder what he was thinking when it was shot. Was he apprehensive about what life had in store for him? Was he upset that he knew he would have to leave school the following year and go out and get a job to earn some money to help his parents?
The second head shot was taken maybe 20 years later. My mother is already gone. Dad is wearing a windbreaker. I think I remember it. It was tan-colored with a dark brown collar. Here, once again, he’s not smiling. Despite his somewhat receding hairline, he’s still handsome. But his eyes are sad. He looks broken, world-weary and tired, emotionally and in every other way.
The rest of the page features shots of Dad and my mother. Two are from one of those machines where you can draw a curtain and sit together and get four snapshots. Dad has a tough-guy look on his face. Mummy smiles softly, without showing her teeth. She’s early-twenties lovely. In the second photo she smiles again, opening her mouth part way this time. One of the other photos is of my mother sitting on a swing in a municipal park playground with my father standing behind her. Here she’s smiling broadly. He’s smiling, too, but without opening his mouth. They look happy. There’s an inscription in my mother’s handwriting: “Bob and Mae, 1940.” It’s summertime, so it’s already a few months after my sister Sharma was born in April.
The other photographs on the page are all from that same day in the park. My father stands alone next to a slide. My parents sit together on a carousel, my mother on my father’s knee. And in the most dramatic photo, the two of them are posed in each other’s arms, my mother on my father’s right knee, his other knee on the ground, and they gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes. This is two years after their wedding on the 12th of June 1938.
Not to worry, I’m not going to tell the stories of all the photos in the album. I couldn’t do that if I tried. They are all shots of family—aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents—and of a few friends as well. I can identify all the members of the family, but I never knew the names of the friends. Most of the photos are groupings of three or four or more people, some are of two people at a time, and there are a few of individuals, including pictures of me standing up in my playpen, during the summer of my first year. I know because it’s outside and I’m wearing shorts with an overall-style front with straps and my upper body, apart from the straps, is bare.
But I brought this album to your attention now to describe and reflect upon the photo that for me is the one around which all the other photos in the album revolve, as the Earth and the other planets in our solar system revolve around the Sun. It’s a photograph of your grandparents and your aunt and me, the only one in my possession and the only one I’ve ever discovered of the four of us. Over the years, whenever I’ve contemplated this photograph, I’ve wondered if another was ever taken by someone, somewhere, at anytime.
This black-and-white photograph is from my first summer, the summer of 1947. My parents and sister and I were at the cottage in the Laurentian Mountains, north of Montreal, with my grandparents—Pa and Bubbe Gitl—and my aunts and uncles and cousins.
Dad is sitting in a lawn chair. Sharma is on his right knee. I’m sitting with my legs astraddle Dad’s neck. Mummy is standing behind the lawn chair, holding on to me with both hands. I’ve got a fistful of Dad’s hair. Dad’s right arm is bent at the elbow and he’s got a hold of me, too, supporting my back. His left hand circles Sharma’s left arm above her elbow.
Mummy and Dad and Sharma are smiling squinty-eyed at the camera. I’m smiling, too, but looking down at the handful of Dad’s hair I’m wrestling with. It looks like I’m amused and laughing.
Sharma’s wearing a lightweight summer dress. It’s sleeveless and has a thin, dark-colored ribbon just under the neckline. It ends above her knees. She has on buckled shoes with white socks that rise to two or three inches above her ankles.
Dad is wearing slacks and a striped short-sleeved polo shirt. I remember that polo shirt from later years. It was beige with blue stripes. He’s wearing a wristwatch on his left wrist. The watch is blurred in the picture, but I know that watch, too. When I was a boy, I used to play with it. Over and over, I would reread the flowing, scrolled inscription: From Mae, Sharma & Gary to Bob with all our love.
I used to marvel at how the engraver got all of those words on the back of the watch. But most important to me was that all of us were there on that small surface: Mummy and Sharma and me and Dad, together, just like in the photo.
You can’t really see what I’m wearing. I’m hidden behind Sharma’s head and Dad’s, too. But you can see my chubby baby fat arms and my hair with wavy bangs almost over my eyes, flowing down to the nape of my neck.
Mummy has on a loose-fitting cotton blouse with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. She looks so beautifully comfortable, standing there with her family, the one she had always dreamed of and longed for: her husband, her daughter, her baby son.
She’s hunched over just a bit, protectively grasping me from both sides, stomach high. Despite her squinting, she’s smiling broadly as she did in that playground picture in 1940 on the swing with my father behind her. The smile lines on her face are clear, even in the blurred photograph. You can see her cheeks, round and prominent, her full parted lips, her teeth flashing white, her joy in the moment, her radiance, her warmth.
I have had this family picture in my possession all my life. But it was only after I was grown and on my own that Sharma put another album together for me—she was the keeper of the family photo archives—and it was then I understood that what I had suspected was true was indeed true: This photograph from the summer of 1947, from my first summer, was and would forever be the only photo of the four of us.
MOVING DAY, OCTOBER 1949
I was both confused and excited the day we moved from Montreal to Toronto. At a month short of my third birthday, I was too young to understand the significance of the day, but I was influenced by my father’s moods and by those of my older sister.
I felt deep sadness in the leave‑taking. I was saying goodbye to Pa and Bubbe Gitl and Uncle Harry and Auntie Minnie and to Sheila and Lorraine, and to all the other aunts and uncles and cousins who had taken care of me in the long months since my mother had gone away to the hospital from which she never returned. But at the same time the early morning air promised something new and an adventure. So this moving day, I sensed, would be a beginning.
The relatives gathered on the sidewalk outside Uncle Harry and Auntie Minnie’s door. The door opened to a flight of stairs that led up to their apartment. Family legend has it that once I rode my tricycle off the landing and tumbled down the stairs head over heels, tricycle and all. Only the door stopped me from rolling out onto Park Avenue. I have a misty memory of that misadventure, but I don’t know if it is the legend that has fed the memory or if it really happened. I was told I survived the fall with a few bruises and a broken pedal and gained a reputation among the relatives for daring and sturdiness. Even though they all scolded me roundly for my carelessness, they also hugged me and held me and kissed away my tears.
Despite missing my mother, I had always felt loved and special in Montreal. I had been a prince on Park Avenue and at Pa and Bubbe Gitl’s place on Clark Street, too. And now I was leaving my domain.
The aunts were plying my father with paper bags filled with more sandwiches and fruit and cookies and cake than we could possibly eat on our drive. It would be an all-day journey, they knew.
“Oy, Mammele, Mammele,” they wailed as they hugged and kissed us goodbye.
I remember very little of the trip itself, but I do have a very vivid memory of the inside of the car. It was an early Forties Dodge, I think, black on the outside, gray upholstery on the inside. Sharma and I took turns sitting in the front seat with my father and sleeping sprawled out across the back seat. I can still conjure up the great high gray expanse of the back of the front seat as I scaled it each time after my turn in the back.
Sharma tells me we had several flat tires that day during the long drive along old Highway 2. The 401 (“the four‑oh‑one”) was still a few years from being paved and cutting the Montreal‑Toronto drive from all day to about five or six hours. I don’t remember the flat tires and suspect my sister is confusing them with other flat tires on other trips taken before I was born or when I was an infant to visit the relatives in Toronto. This is only speculation on my part, of course, but I base it on stories my father told me about the many flat tires on trips he and my mother took to Toronto and back. But really I don’t know.
We arrived in Toronto late afternoon, early evening. The light was just beginning to change. Broad bright orange‑yellow beams slanted onto the street from over the rooftops and through the branches of the tall, solid‑trunked trees as we drove up and parked in front of 37 Montrose Avenue.
Auntie Pearl and Uncle Aubie and Larry and Gwenny came out to greet us. They had been waiting for us on the covered veranda that ran along the front of the house. I don’t mean to suggest that either the house or the veranda were large. In fact, they were very compact. I discovered that many years later when I revisited the old neighborhood. But the house seemed big to me when I first saw it and it remained big for me during the next almost five years that I would live there.
A great deal would change for me during those five years on Montrose Avenue and the sixteen years I lived in Toronto before making my first foray into life in Israel. I’m sure I became a very different person than I would have been had we never left Montreal, had my mother not fallen ill and died.
Roni, it’s odd what our minds select and store in our memories. I remember that confusion of emotions upon our departure from Montreal, the dingy gray upholstery of our old black Dodge as we made our way across the Quebec and Ontario landscapes and our fabled arrival in Toronto.
I was a well‑mannered, polite little boy: a pint‑sized gentleman. Perhaps this was so because back in Montreal my cousin Sheila always fussed over me and coached me in the rudiments of male chivalry. Only moments after we arrived at 37 Montrose, somebody—I’m not sure who it was, but most likely it was Auntie Pearl—called on me to demonstrate my gentlemanliness. “Gary,” she said, “be a gentleman and bring up your cousin Gwenny’s tricycle from the sidewalk.” I suppose she wanted to “break the ice” between me and my cousin. I was six weeks older than her and we would have to get to know each other and get along. After all, we’d be living in the same house, at the very least for the coming year or so. I brought the tricycle up onto the veranda.
37 MONTROSE AVENUE
37 Montrose Avenue was a Bossin family institution. The family had been living there since the 1920’s. Zayde and Bubbe brought up the younger half of their nine surviving children there. Two of the children, Abe and Jenny, died in early childhood, during an epidemic. My dad told me the story on more than one occasion, but it remains shrouded in mystery, unclear to me. He said something about the older one of the two children falling ill and my grandmother, Bubbe Malka, worrying over him/her (check out the family tree and you’ll see who was older, Jenny or Abe) and her becoming sick from worry and the terror of losing a child and her milk turning bad, so when she nursed the second child, still a baby, the baby died too. All this happened before Montrose Avenue, when the Bossins still lived on DeGrassy Street or Queen Street or some other place in Toronto’s Jewish ghetto of the early years of the century, very soon after they emigrated from the Czarist-controlled Ukraine in the area of Kiev to Canada.
37 Montrose Avenue was the scene of huge, raucous family gatherings. The Bossin girls, Gertie (I was named in her memory), Ethel, and Faye, were either already married or married soon after Bubbe and Zayde moved to Montrose Avenue, as were Uncle Barney and Uncle Issie.
The remaining Bossin boys, Uncle Percy, Uncle Sid, Bob (my father and your Zayde), and Uncle Aubie, together with the growing ranks of the Bossin grandchildren who visited regularly on weekends and holidays, spent their formative years on Montrose Avenue. The house was, in the 1920’s and 1930’s, always filled with rollicking, roughhousing kids who felt absolutely at home there. The renowned warmth of Bubbe Malka also drew representatives of the other Toronto Bossin clan, the children and grandchildren of my Zayde’s brother Zussie, to 37 Montrose. Cousin Shayndel, one of Zussie’s grandchildren, was often there and remembers it well.
The first big, family Seders were held there. And to 37 Montrose, the Bossin boys brought their football and hockey and baseball trophies home and also their bruises, there to be coated with sharp‑smelling liniments. Prospective brides and bridegrooms were brought there too, to meet the family. In short, 37 Montrose Avenue belonged to everyone in the family. 37 Montrose Avenue meant Bossin to two generations of Bossins. 37 Montrose was Bossin.
If you were a Bossin, everything seemed to begin at 37 Montrose. And for me, a Bossin who had already had a sad but powerful beginning in Montreal, 37 Montrose Avenue symbolized—no, was!—a second beginning.
How did my father and Sharma and I come to live together with Uncle Aubie and Auntie Pearl, Larry and Gwenny? After Bubbe Malka died in 1948, Zayde moved to Uncle Barney and Auntie Dora’s place. 37 Montrose Avenue became available to Uncle Aubie and Auntie Pearl and their two small children and would now serve to help the young family establish itself.
But the house remained the property of the family. So when my mother died and my father chose to leave Montreal and return to Toronto, it was decided that we would live in a room on the second floor while Uncle Aubie and Auntie Pearl and my cousins would occupy the other two second floor bedrooms. We shared the rest of the house.
I remember that period as a time when we were one unified family group. This memory‑impression is to Auntie Pearl’s everlasting credit. She was a young wife and mother, not yet thirty years old. Our coming to live with them, despite the sad circumstances, was most certainly a disruption of their family life. Another adult, especially a melancholy one like my father in the first months and years following my mother’s passing, along with two additional children in the house could not be anything but disruptive. But I never felt resentment from her.
You could ask, “What would a three or four year old know? Would he recognize resentment?” My response: I just knew. Of course, intuition and feeling guided me, not analytical thinking. And later, when Gloria, my father’s second wife, came into the family, when I was still four years old, I knew that despite her declarations that she would be a mother to me and to Sharma and that we should call her “Mummy,” she did not love us and could not mother us. She was simply incapable of giving us mother love. But Auntie Pearl, whether she wanted to or not, could not help but give us mother love, despite the disruption, despite the hardships. She was incapable of not giving us that love and concern that mothers cannot help but give to their children.
What stands out in my mind from those sixteen or seventeen months from October 1949 to January or February 1951 when we all lived together is the closeness that developed between me and Larry and me and Gwenny. We did everything together. And I suppose we all paid a price for our shared intimacy, imagination and playfulness.
How did Larry pay his price? It was clear to all of us then. Because he was older than Gwenny and me by three-and-a-half years, he was always held responsible for our mischief. Gwenny paid in other ways, as the youngest of the three of us and as the girl. I’ll tell you more about that in the coming pages. As for me, well, it would take years before I understood how I paid.
Our adventures included sneaking stealthily around the house when we were all supposed to be upstairs in bed and the grownups were still downstairs. That included Sharma, too. She was around ten and eleven years old during that time. We would rendezvous in the upstairs hallway and then formulate our plan. Usually it was to spy on Sharma as she did the dishes or to peek at Uncle Aubie and Auntie Pearl and my father as they read the evening paper or listened to the large, old‑fashioned radio set in the living room.
The kitchen sink was directly below a metal grate in the floor in the bedroom I shared with Sharma and my father. I remember it was painted red but the paint was chipped and the metallic gray under the red was a surprise to me. Clumps of fluff collected on this red and gray floor grate. The purpose of the grate was to allow air to circulate from the ground floor to the second floor. But for Larry and Gwenny and me it served another purpose: It allowed us to watch Sharma’s every move as she washed the supper dishes.
Sometimes she sang along with the radio hit parade and danced to the music and the soap suds would fly. The grate in the floor also allowed us to float down pieces of fluff into the kitchen. We aimed for Sharma’s head with the hope that the fluff would catch in her hair. She never knew what “hit” her because the fluff was virtually weightless. And she would dance and sing on, not knowing that three intrepid fluffball bombardiers were smothering giggles and holding their sides as they laughed and celebrated their bull’s‑eye a few feet above her head.
We would also creep down the back stairs which led from the upstairs porch adjacent to our bedroom to the downstairs porch just outside the kitchen. The trick was to move on tiptoes so as not to make a sound that would give us away. This was an extraordinarily difficult task as the whole house creaked. It was old and the floors were either wooden or linoleum. Each time we made a sound, we would freeze in mid‑move until the “danger” of being discovered passed or we would beat a hasty retreat back up the stairs if we heard Sharma or someone else moving across the kitchen in the direction of the porch.
It was much more difficult to spy on the folks in the living room. The front stairs were in the heart of the house. They were built alongside the dining room which was between the living room and the downstairs bathroom, with the kitchen back of them. Anyone who walked down the stairs normally—that is, not creeping and crawling down one step at a time, as we did on our nighttime sorties—could be heard in the living room, the dining room and the kitchen.
The front stairs themselves climbed up from a door at the end of a hallway that ran from the front door of the house past an entrance to the living room on the left. At the foot of the stairs and also to the left was an open doorway from the hall into the dining room. You turned left from the hall into the dining room and then right along a strip rug which took you on toward the kitchen at the back of the house. The second entrance to the living room was through two wide parlor doors that separated or, when open, joined the living and dining rooms.
Directly opposite the top of the front stairs was our room. If you turned to the left after climbing the stairs you’d find the main bathroom. Also to the left, but back parallel to the stairs was the room shared by Larry and Gwenny. Auntie Pearl and Uncle Aubie had the bedroom beyond Larry and Gwenny’s at the end of the upstairs hallway. This room was at the front of the house looking out on Montrose Avenue.
To spy on the grownups in the living room, we would crawl carefully down the front stairs, trying not to make a sound. If the door at the bottom of the stairs was closed we could go no farther since it squeaked as it was being opened. If it was open, and it usually was, we would dash past the doorway to the dining room and, hearts beating rapidly, we would listen to the grownup talk on the other side of the wall in the living room. At a signal from Larry we would retrace our path back upstairs and to our respective bedrooms, another nighttime mission accomplished.
We were not violent children. We merely sought adventure. But as adventurers and explorers we sometimes bloodied ourselves. I remember distinctly three separate incidents in which blood flowed copiously.
The first began as an innocent game of ring‑around‑the‑rosey. Soon we were hurtling round and round, faster and faster, more and more wildly. And then Larry let go of my hand and I went crashing into the metal pipe railing in the front yard, bloodying my nose and smashing my two front teeth. Auntie Pearl told me I was very brave at the dentist’s office. I remember vaguely how the dentist told me to spit into the dental bowl with the swirling water and how the bowl reddened with my blood. I didn’t get my new and permanent front teeth for a few years after that. There was a popular song back then with a line that said, “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth,” and though we didn’t celebrate Christmas, I could certainly identify with the child singer’s wish and sing along: “All I want for Christhmasth isth my two front teeth.”
The second bloodletting was a result of curiosity. Gwenny and I opened the medicine cabinet in the bathroom and removed two double‑edged razor blades from their packages. Then we began tracing the lines in the palms of our hands with the razor blades. Apart from wanting to see what would happen, I have no idea why we wanted to trace these lines with the blades.
I remember the shrieking when we were discovered, hands covered in blood, blood in the sink and on the green linoleum floor. Until that shrieking began, Gwenny and I were perfectly calm. We only began to cry when our discoverer—it must have been Sharma or Auntie Pearl—became hysterical. I still sometimes wonder if Gwenny and I have more lines in our hands than other people, if we traced permanent lines into our hands.
The third time blood flowed during our adventures at 37 Montrose Avenue was during a game of cowboys and Indians. I was the cowboy and carried a toy six‑shooter pistol. Gwenny was the Indian because as a girl she had long hair like the Indians in the Saturday morning movie serials which we’d been following at the local movie houses. (We didn’t yet have a television.) At one point in the game I hid from Gwenny. She looked all over the house for me.
I was hiding behind the door at the foot of the front stairs. When she walked past I sprang out from my ambush and hit her over the head with the butt of my gun, just like I’d seen done in the movies. In those movies, there was never any blood when someone got hit over the head with a gun butt. Imagine my surprise when my cousin started howling and bleeding. That must have been the first time in my life that I wished I could undo something I’d done. But life doesn’t work that way. What’s done is done. Gwenny had to have stitches to sew up her wound.
We had other adventures that in some magical way remained bloodless. One of our favorite games was playing Superman and “flying” from the top of a high chest of drawers across a three or four foot gap onto the upper bunkbed in our room. I don’t recall whether I slept in the upper bed or if Sharma did, but I remember the Superman game as if it were yesterday.
The most challenging part of the game was climbing up to the top of the high dresser. We used chairs and boosted each other up and used the knobs of the drawers as footholds. Once on top we unfurled our capes. These were bath towels tied around our necks. Larry yelled “Geronimo!” I don’t think Superman ever yelled “Geronimo!” but that’s what Larry said we had to do, so that’s what we did. And then we “flew” across the void, coming to a squeaking landing with sound effects supplied by the straining bedsprings of the bunkbed. As I look back, I wonder how it was that we didn’t destroy the bed and I’m amazed that we never got hurt while playing this game of ours. Today, the thought of our flying across those three or four feet of space and falling short, smashing into one of the bedposts and crash-landing on the floor fills me with retrospective dread.
I don’t see myself permitting this sort of daring‑do by my four‑year‑olds. But who knows what four‑year‑olds are doing every minute of the day unless you watch them all the time or lock them up? Roni, did you have adventures that would make my hair stand on end when you were four? Did Rinat? And what’s Keren up to? She’s four as I write these lines?
Back then we were given considerable independence for little children. One day Gwenny and I went hand‑in‑hand to nursery school. Remember, I was older by six weeks, so I was the boss. To get to the nursery school, we had to cross to the other side of Montrose Avenue. Auntie Pearl made sure we crossed safely. And then we continued on our own. First, we walked up the street. Everyone said it was “up the street” because it was north and also because there was a slight incline. At the short street that ran parallel to Dundas and College Streets and served no other purpose from our point of view other than to join Montrose Avenue and Crawford Street, we turned left. The nursery school was on Crawford. At Crawford, we turned left again, back south. Soon we came to the door of the nursery school.
We tried to open the door to go inside, but the door was locked. We were too short to reach the bell to summon the nursery school teachers from upstairs. We shouted our teachers’ names, but no one came. Then we both realized we had to go to the bathroom. We shouted some more. Still no one came. Our need to use the toilet grew more intense, more urgent.
I took command. “We’re going home,” I told Gwenny.
We began to walk back home. As we walked, the urgency “to go” increased. We walked faster and faster and then we began to run.
“Hold it!” I urged Gwenny. Still the gentleman, I was concerned for my younger girl cousin. I was conscious of my responsibility to help her and take care of her.
At last we were running up the steps of the veranda, opening the screen door of 37 Montrose and turning the handle of the door to the house. Like the door of the nursery school, it wouldn’t open! We panicked! We banged on the door and shouted, “Auntie Pearl!” “Mummy!” “Auntie Pearl!” Mummy!” Again and again we called out, but she didn’t come. We were desperate, holding back with all our might what we needed to do.
Then, like a fairy godmother, white‑haired, bespectacled and sweetly grandmotherly, our neighbor from number 35, Mrs. Bolasny, appeared on the other side of the partition between our two verandas. “Your Auntie took Larry to the dentist,” she said to me. “What are you two doing home?”
Then, recognizing the source of our desperation, Mrs. Bolasny made a motion, inviting us into her house. That was all we needed. We stampeded past our kindly neighbor and raced up the stairs toward the bathroom. Throwing all gentlemanliness, male chivalry and older cousin’s responsibility aside, I outraced Gwenny to the bathroom, closed the door, pulled down my pants and did my thing as I was in the act of sitting down on the toilet!
Outside the door, Gwenny was crying. Frustrated at the closed door, she didn’t think to go back down to the downstairs bathroom, and when she heard me relieving myself, she let go and soiled herself. So much for four‑year‑old knights!
Roni, I’m going to tell you now about the family councils we had and how decisions about the children’s allowances were made. I don’t remember these meetings and deliberations at all, but Larry loves to recount them, and when he tells his story and says “Uncle Bobby,” referring to my father, I get an indication of his love for my father and understand how it came to pass that his youngest child, your cousin Robbie Bossin, was named for your Zayde.
Larry tells us that we all received some sort of allowance. As the only one of us with real chores around the house, Sharma received the most. Then Larry received the next highest amount. And finally, Gwenny and I received a few pennies for sweets.
But to get our allowances we had to be “good” children. If we misbehaved we would be penalized through fines that would reduce our allowances by the amounts of the fines. The system was based on the power of the purse to influence behavior.
Larry says that by the time Uncle Bobby finished enumerating our transgressions we always ended up owing him money. Of course, this is an exaggeration, but the idea is that the meetings were run by my father with a sense of humor.
If I was cited for anything in these family councils, it was probably for talking too much, or singing at the dinner table, or worse still, not finishing my meal.
We had to clean our plates and leave nothing on them. You may have noticed that to this day I never leave anything on my plate at a meal. When there was something I didn’t like and it remained conspicuously on my plate, Auntie Pearl would insist that I remain at the table until I finished it all.
Sometimes it would take me an hour or more after everyone had left the table to clean my plate. Sharma was already done with the dishes. The others were in the front room listening to the radio and reading the paper. And still I sat, nauseated by the rice and raisin pudding, plodding my way along, spoonful by tasteless spoonful, through this gruel, until at last I was set free.
My father began to go out with women. I’m not sure how much time had passed since my mother’s death. But for Sharma and me, it wasn’t enough time. He thought he was doing it for us. He believed if he married again there would be someone to take care of us.
I liked a few of these women. They were the ones who reminded me of my mother because of their hairstyles or the way they dressed. I think I still remembered those external details about my mother back then. Or perhaps it was something less tangible about them that reminded me of her and that won my affection.
But Dad didn’t marry any of the ones I liked. He married Gloria. That was in March 1951. By then Larry and Gwenny, Uncle Aubie and Auntie Pearl had moved to the suburbs, Michael had been born, and Dad had grown desperate to find someone to take care of us. And he made a big, big mistake. For us. For himself.
All this happened too, too rapidly for me. And from then on, throughout my childhood and even during my years as a young adult right up until the time I married your mother, I never had a happy, warm family home life. I experienced life as someone always on the outside looking in.
And even though I spent a lot of time with Uncle Aubie, Auntie Pearl, Larry and Gwenny in their home after we moved two streets away from them three years later and though I often accompanied them on weekend day trips, I was, from then on, a guest in their midst. We would always be close, but never again would we be as we’d been at 37 Montrose Avenue. That was the price I paid for the closeness and the intimacy and the love that was ours in that year and a few months of sharing on Montrose Avenue.
It was during those three years that we continued living at 37 Montrose Avenue that my struggle with what it meant to be a motherless child began in earnest.
Many a night I cried myself to sleep brokenheartedly, feeling the acute need I had for my mother to be there for me. It was a bit spooky, but I did think she was with me, just as I now know Sharma felt our mother’s presence, too. We didn’t discuss this until just a few years ago. Each of us suffered alone and silently, not recognizing the other’s deep wound. And anyway, what could we have done for each other as children? But even though I felt my mother was with me, I missed her arms about me, her body warmth, her physical presence. And that, I knew, even as a toddler of two and three and four years old, was gone forever.
Once in outrage at something Gloria did or said, I don’t remember what it was, I screamed at her: “I wish you were dead!” I knew what “dead” meant, despite being only five years old.
But what I said didn’t really mean I wished Gloria were dead. Implicit in my outraged scream was a more plaintive wish: I wished my mother were alive and with me, for I knew I was lost without her and would remain lost for a long, long time.
WHITE HATS, BLACK HATS
Though lost in a profound sense, I was nonetheless very much at home in my immediate surroundings, and at age five I began to explore farther afield. Little by little over the next two or three years, I extended my knowledge of the neighborhood and its streets to include an area encompassed by College Street to the north, Ossington Avenue to the west, Dundas Street and Bellwoods Park directly opposite Montrose Avenue to the south, and Bathurst Street to the east.
I knew my way through the alleyways that ran parallel to and between the north‑south streets and was familiar with all the shortcuts through backyards and over fences of houses without dogs that barked and nipped at you or cranky old people who yelled and screamed at you. I knew all the neighborhood candy and toy stores and delicatessens and their proprietors. I knew all of the children and most of the families and what houses they lived in on Montrose.
And I also knew the routes of the milkman and the iceman and the coalman. The milkman would sometimes let me come along for a ride in his wagon and I got to snap the reins and call out “giddy‑yup” to his horse. The iceman would give me icicles to lick from ice splinters that cracked off of the big blocks of ice he delivered to the houses. And the coalman—you could get sooty just from watching him work—slid coal through the sidewalk-level window into our coalbin in the cellar.
I made friends with the elderly Chinese gentleman who lived next door at number 39. He spent hours puttering about in his garden, bringing beautiful brightly colored flowers out of the small patch of urban soil.
I’ve already mentioned Mrs. Bolasny, our white-haired, bespectacled, grandmotherly neighbor from number 35. Sometimes her grandson Rory would come to visit her and we would play together. He was my age. Many years later, my Auntie Ethel told me that Bubbe Malka and Mr. Bolasny were in love when they were teenagers back in the Old Country. His parents wouldn’t allow him to marry her. They said she didn’t have yiches—her family wasn’t connected—her pedigree wasn’t worthy of their son marrying her. But years later, they were neighbors on Montrose Avenue. It makes me smile to contemplate my grandmother as a romantic.
Old Mr. Caplan, who lived a few doors up the street, was a hunchback. He walked all bent over, supported by a cane. As short as I was, he would have to look sideways and a little up when he spoke to me. I was always intimidated by his twisted appearance and yellow‑toothed smile. But I liked him nevertheless and years later when my father looked up from reading the obituaries and said, “Old Mr. Caplan from Montrose Avenue died yesterday,” I felt sorrow and thought about how his son must be feeling that day.
I also made friends with Eddie and Georgie and Harvey and Cookie. Cookie was my first secret love in the second grade. I only had one enemy: that was Norman. Roni, I know I’ve told you about Norman before, but I’ll recount the story again a bit later for posterity’s sake, so you won’t forget.
Eddie was a little Jewish boy with blondish‑red hair, a pink complexion, a winning, squinty‑eyed smile, and a perpetually scratchy‑hoarse voice. He was about a year younger than I was and liked to tag along with me and Georgie.
Georgie was Italian and my age. He had no accent in English even though he was an immigrant and his mother couldn’t speak English at all. He was good‑looking with dark brown hair, tousled curls on his forehead and a deep tan complexion with reddish highlights on his upper cheekbones. He was quick and sturdy and could keep up with me when we went backyard fence climbing.
Georgie’s mother was tall and statuesque of figure. She wore her hair combed back off her face with a part in the middle and two small waves on either side. The hair on top was also combed back and down and tied into a low shoulder length bun. She was not pretty. Her teeth were large and too many and some were gold. Her high cheekbones seemed to push her deeply set eyes even deeper into her head, accenting a hollow, skull‑like appearance. She wore cheap flower‑printed dresses, the same wine‑colored cardigan (unbuttoned) all year round, and black laced shoes with bobby socks like Sharma’s. When she wanted to say something to me, Georgie would have to translate. When I addressed her directly, I would say, “Georgie’s mother.”
There was a period of time when Harvey was my best friend. I think it was when we were between five and six years old. He lived for a few months with his parents in Mrs. Bolasny’s house. They rented an upstairs room like the one my father and Sharma and I had when Auntie Pearl and Uncle Aubie and Larry and Gwenny were still with us. Harvey’s family had “cooking privileges” in that room.
Harvey was an only child, spoiled by his overindulgent parents, and he was very stubborn. His mother and father were concentration camp survivors and Harvey had been born in Poland immediately after the war. He and his parents had arrived in Canada two or three years earlier and were building a future for their family. They didn’t mind the crowded upstairs room. They were looking ahead.
How it is that I knew they were survivors, I’m not sure. It was a fact that everyone seemed to know. So I knew it, too. It was in the air. People said they were DP’s.
A DP was a Displaced Person. The term “Displaced Person” was at once euphemistic and true. It was true in that they were indeed in a place far removed from where they had planned originally to live out their lives. It was also euphemistic: They had been displaced against their will, abused and tortured physically and mentally, by a horrifyingly cruel reign of terror, by the Nazi beast‑monster, for long, brutal years during the European Hitlerian nightmare. And it was not merely that they had been displaced. But their minds and psyches and their once-upon-a-time-agreed-upon-by-consensus illusions and assumptions and certainties had been displaced by a chaos of disillusions and uncertainties.
Those days when Harvey and I were best friends, he and his parents shared one guiding assumption: life would be better in Canada. And so they lived in a single room with “cooking privileges” and shared the upstairs bathroom with the Bolasnys at 35 Montrose.
I was drawn by involuntary reflex to the mystery of Harvey’s dark European past. It was clear to me that what had befallen his parents had befallen him, too. And it was also clear to me that somehow I was involved in and connected to this past in Europe, that though I knew intuitively that the reason and the logic that arrived at this conclusion were far beyond me, I also intuited that this conclusion was inescapable, indelibly printed on the pages of the preface to my autobiography.
My father had said to me the same thing his father had always said to him: “Schwer zu sein a Yid.” “It’s hard to be a Jew.” Perhaps Dad had connected what he said about the DP’s and the Holocaust to his pride in Israel when he told me at age three or four that now at last after two thousand years there was a Jewish state, the State of Israel, so we Jews could hold our heads high once more, which I understood from him we couldn’t do before.
All this, this past, this heavy history, this destination Israel, were mine by legacy, by indisputable birthright. And I accepted it all as axiomatic to my own existence.
I said that Harvey was very stubborn. He was at least as stubborn as I was. As playmates and best friends we constantly fought. He had a strong, dominant personality, and so did I. I was used to my friends agreeing to my playtime suggestions—”I’ll be the policeman. You be the robber.”—and so was he. Inevitably and very, very frequently, we clashed.
The grownups used to tell us not to worry when we fought at four in the afternoon and swore never to speak to each other again and cried at the prospect. They would say, and they were right, that by seven in the evening we’d make up and we’d be out playing together as usual in the morning.
Carolyn, nicknamed Cookie, was my first secret love. We were classmates in Miss Evanshen’s grade two at Grace Street Public School back in the 1953‑54 school year. There had been a girl with pigtails I liked to pull in Miss Ingham’s grade one the year before. But I never pined away for her as I did for Cookie. And I didn’t suffer when our paths separated as I did when Cookie’s and mine did at the end of the second grade when we moved to the suburbs and Cookie’s family remained on Montrose Avenue.
In retrospect, I can’t say for sure what attracted me to Cookie. She was a diminutive blonde with a face at once serious and funny. Perhaps I was infatuated with her because of her brightness and intelligence. Later on she skipped the third or fourth grade. Or possibly it was that something or other in her expression declared a certain worldweariness and made her face, for just a flash at a time, into the face of a little old woman.
Cookie was from a Jewish family, and it seemed right if I were to be in love that I would be in love with a Jewish girl. In the early Fifties Jews were moving out of our neighborhood and it was no longer mainly Jewish. The Grace Street Public School had a pupil population that was roughly one‑third Jewish, one‑third Protestant and one‑third Catholic. The percentages would change radically in the ensuing five years with almost all the Jews moving out to the suburbs and the Catholics growing in number with the great influx of Italian immigrants.
Some years after my family moved to Downsview in North York Township, Cookie’s family moved to the same new neighborhood. Since she had skipped a year in school we were no longer in the same grade. In the intervening two or three years I had gotten over my broken heart and had found other secret loves and infatuations.
But I always had a soft spot in my heart for Cookie. Back on Montrose Avenue she would see me eating bananas on the steps of the veranda as she walked home from school and would call out and tease me, “You love bananas so much. You look like a monkey.”
In Downsview, we lived on Lady York Avenue and she and her parents and her older sister lived around the corner from us on Whitley Avenue. When we were still kids, in junior high school I think it was, her father was found dead in a ditch on their street. He had had a massive heart attack. Cookie never knew because I never said anything to her, but I felt for her and shared in her grief and sorrow. I knew what it was like to lose a parent.
Norman was probably my first personal enemy. Like Harvey he came from a family of Holocaust survivors. He was a bully. Picking on the little kids on the street was a habit with Norman. One day he made a mistake: He picked on my friend Eddie. I found Eddie crying, tears running down his pinkish cheeks, his squinty smile twisted into a pained frown, underlip protruding.
“Norman pushed me down,” he sobbed.
“I’ll take care of him,” I assured Eddie.
Right away, I went looking for Norman, with Eddie in tow. When we found him, I confronted him with an ultimatum modeled on what I’d seen in the cowboy movie serials: “Norman, this is my friend Eddie. You ought to pick on someone your own size. Next time you lay a hand on him, I’m gonna come lookin’ for you.”
I liked to model myself on the heroes in the serials. Cousin Larry had had a lot to do with that and so had my father. When he realized that fighting was still a way of life on Montrose Avenue even in the 1950’s, Dad told me: “Never start a fight. But always be sure you’re the one who finishes it.” This was my credo. And if Norman started a fight by bothering Eddie again, I was going to finish it.
The next day I was coming home from someplace and saw a crowd of kids on the sidewalk near Eddie’s house. I also saw Norman’s back disappearing rapidly up the street. In the center of the crowd of kids was Eddie, sitting down on the sidewalk, fuming and shaking his fists in frustration.
“Norman knocked Eddie down and punched him in the face,” the kids chorused.
“He said I shouldna told you he pushed me yesterday. Then he shoved me and punched me,” Eddie screeched in hoarse indignation.
I started running after Norman and caught up to him just before he turned into the sidewalk leading to his veranda. He started to swing his fists at me. I ducked and got under his punches and knocked him down with a tackle. We began to wrestle on the ground and I outmaneuvered him and was soon sitting on his chest and pinning his arms and shoulders. All the kids were gathered around, shouting encouragement.
It was just like in the movies. Norman and I were “on the screen” and the others were the spectators. For me, Norman had a black hat and a black stubbly beard. I wore a white hat. Norman was the villain. I was the hero. All that was missing was the popcorn.
Norman was blubbering in his humiliation. “Lemme up. Lemme up.”
“I’ll let you up if you promise never to bully anyone else ever again,” I declared triumphantly. “Say ‘Give,'” I ordered.
Norman squirmed under me, struggled a bit more and then realized he’d been beaten. “Give,” he grunted. I let him up and he darted into his house.
But the next day Norman caught me unawares on the street with a barrage of pebbles he’d gathered. His aim was poor and I managed to retreat into the narrow walkway between our house and number 39 without getting hit. There I took shelter as Norman continued to pelt his stones at me each time I peeked out from the walkway.
The space between the two houses was barely wide enough for a broadshouldered man to walk through. Norman would not storm my hiding place because anyone who came into that space presented a target you couldn’t miss. From behind the wide black trunk of the maple tree in our front yard Norman just kept whipping stones at me every time I poked my head out to see if he was still there. When I first ran into the walkway I had no pebbles to throw back, but soon I collected all the ammunition I needed from the stones Norman had thrown at me. After missing their mark, his stones had ricocheted from number 39 to number 37 and back, from side to side of the walkway, until their momentum was spent.
Now I was ready to fight back. I peeked out two or three times more, timing Norman’s response as he came out from behind the tree in order to rifle his stones at me. I selected a good flat pebble with just the right heft and weight to it to hurl back at Norman. The next time I looked out from the narrow walkway, I stepped out and was well into my throwing motion as Norman exposed himself to throw at me. I pitched a perfect strike, hitting Norman squarely in the middle of the forehead before he even released his stone.
Norman dropped his stone and his remaining ammunition as well and set up a howling that brought the neighbors outside, asking, “Hey, what happened?” Norman fled home, defeated again.
But this was not the end of the Norman story. Later that afternoon, Georgie came running to me and, out of breath, gasped: “Norman’s got a knife. He’s coming after you. He said he’s gonna kill you.”
Just then I saw Norman on the other side of the street brandishing his knife. I went directly into my house to tell Gloria. I understood that this knife business had put the Norman episode beyond me. This was the time to involve the grownups. Gloria immediately called the police who said they’d be right over. She and I went out onto the porch to wait. Norman watched from across the street.
Georgie showed up just as we came outside. He’d brought along a kitchen knife to fight alongside me. Gloria sent him home to put the knife away. “Georgie, the police are coming,” I told him excitedly and loud enough for Norman to hear.
Georgie made his way home, hopping over the low front yard fences between our house and his. He didn’t want to waste any time in getting home and then coming back to watch what would happen next. And he wanted to keep as far away from Norman as possible.
The police arrived within five minutes. Two tall uniformed Metropolitan Toronto police constables got out of their car and came up the walk. On the other side of the street, Norman was pushing his two‑wheeled scooter and whistling, pretending innocence. The policemen asked Gloria what Norman’s address was. She told them and they turned and called over to Norman, “Come with us, Son.” They took the knife from him and then went directly to his house to talk to his mother. Norman followed them, his head down.
We heard later that Norman received a beating from his father for causing the police to come to their home. Norman never bothered me or Eddie or Georgie again and that was the end of the Norman story. Well, not exactly.
When my father arrived home that evening and heard what had happened, he was furious. He blamed Norman’s father for encouraging his son to fight with a knife and said, “I’m going to have a word with that bastard!”
My father, eyes burning and fists clenched, strode over to Norman’s house. I followed along but waited on the sidewalk as he went up to ring the doorbell. When Norman’s father came to the door my Dad spoke to him for a minute, looking very vehement and gesturing aggressively. That was the end of the incident.
Years later, when the Norman story came up in conversation, I asked Dad what he’d said to Norman’s father.
This is what he told me: “I told that sonofabitch that if he ever again set his son loose with a knife against my son I would break every bone in his body. I told him this was Canada and if he wanted to behave like a Nazi he could go back to where he came from.”
Roni, your Zayde was no diplomat. He was a tough guy who came from a tough neighborhood and he knew how to talk tough.
Today, when I think about this story I see it as one loaded with drama and pathos. It was only a few years after the Second World War and the Jews, both those who had been in Europe and suffered through the horrors of the war years and those who had observed the Nazi anti‑Semitic brutalities from afar, had been scarred. And here was a violent incident, involving Jews on both sides in which serious injury had been possible.
What possessed Norman’s father to teach his son violence and what perhaps turned Norman into a neighborhood bully was profound frustration. But was that an excuse for his behavior?
And, for our part, we expected this family of survivors to play by the rules. I did and my father did. And Gloria had sent uniformed police officers to their door. It was little known then that many Holocaust survivors were terrified of men in uniform. That was something we discovered over the coming decade. I had a friend whose father never had a driver’s license. He wouldn’t take the driving test with a uniformed examiner in the car.
Our ignorance and naivete prevented us from being sensitive. But was this ignorance an excuse? I’m not blaming my father or Gloria or myself. I’m simply describing for you the times we lived in, the atmosphere in which I grew up.
In a sense, the Holocaust, with all its profound implications for life in the second half of the 20th century, was confronting us all, but we were unable to confront it. It would take another twenty to twenty‑five years until ordinary Jews—those who had been in Europe and those who had not—could face the Holocaust. Until then, most Jews would flee from this necessary confrontation. Even in the Seventies and Eighties and Nineties we’ve continued to run away from facing the enormity of the Holocaust, all of us for our own reasons, out of our own weaknesses and fears.
Roni, if you think about it—and I hope you will think about it, if not now, then at some time later in your life when you reread these pages—you will understand that far-off events, both historical and current, influenced our lives, impinged upon them, sometimes subtly and sometimes crudely and brutally, right there on Montrose Avenue.
In the soft years of my childhood the great big world came home to us on Montrose Avenue, bringing with it the aftermath of World War Two and the mid‑20th century flux and flotsam of millions of people set adrift by events and movements unimaginable in their magnitude, with post-Holocaust Jewish DP’s and Italian and Chinese immigrants, and immigrants from scores of other peoples, too, making their way to the Western nations, and with the inevitable socio‑psychological traumas and the unsettling culture clash and clang to which we were all heir.
Not everyone was aware of what was happening. Certainly as a small boy I could have no conception of the significance of the era. But I lived it and I breathed it and one day I would come to understand it, at least in part. As for back then, we were all busy just surviving.