I have more years behind me than most of you. I remember what seems to me all the big events. While prominent in my mind, I do try to pay more attention to the daily round. Today, for example, I bought some plants to fill spaces in my garden in the sky, seeking yellows and oranges to harmonize with the bountiful presence of the red geraniums, fully in their flowering. We ate breaded chicken for breakfast, a gift of our Jimmy, Cookie’s son, while watching the Tokyo Olympics results – Canada is doing great! I spent Saturday morning at the community centre, playing with clay, creating fantastical faces I would not hope to meet on my street.
I think it’s important that we pay lots of attention to the minutiae of daily life, glorying in the simple things that fill our present, appreciating how they add to the pleasure of living. But I also worry about losing the detail about my life in the past, the bits and pieces that brought elements of that life into the now. It takes some work to ferret things out. I’m rummaging about in the closets of memory, poking into the corners to see what I can find.
Can I remember what it was like when I was a kid? I was the only boy, being raised with sisters. Didn’t I get the feeling that I was favoured as the male, as my older sister was called upon to help my mother with the housekeeping? My youngest sister was nevertheless the spoiled one, being considered the most vulnerable to mistreatment. I recall how I tried to keep my room neat and tidy, so that was where we had our family meetings. All this might be a figment of my egomaniac’s self-image, and the facts would have to be checked with living witnesses.
Can I remember what it was like to be the only Jewish kid in the neighbourhood when the family moved to Jarvis Avenue in Winnipeg? The kids next door tried to make our lives miserable by throwing stones at our windows, and parading in front of our house with catcalls deriding my mother’s Jewish names for us. How many times did I fight with Mikey, down and dirty in the mud? And Tony and Danny, from three houses over, scrapping in the schoolyard? And Eddie, who knocked me unconscious in front of a crowd, in Grade 7? I survived the blemish on my brain, and Eddie, too. Didn’t my tiny sister protect me when Big Harry on Dufferin was going to beat me up on our way to school? What did it smell like outside our house, with the coal yard in front and the junkyard at the back?
And yet, it felt like we, my family, lived a totally peaceful, private life inside our home there. Dad had his job shoveling coal at the Cold Storage Co. down the street. (He would end up a graduate engineer after years of home study.) We ate our three squares a day in our rented home, and went the four blocks to Aberdeen school each day. We celebrated the Sabbath every Friday with a special bread and the best meal of the week. I frequented the library every chance I could – maybe escaping the then-current world – and often spent the night reading by flashlight under my covers. We went to the neighbourhood synagogue for the High Holidays. I remember eating chicken in the back lobby on fast days. And, there, I had my bar mitzvah, wearing a suit and with a fedora on my head.
Somehow, I don’t remember much about greenery, though Winnipeg had a reputation for trees. I do remember holding my arms round the trunk of one when we played Buck, Buck, How Many Fingers Up? I remember sucking the honeysuckles I gathered off the hedges for their sweetness, and holding dandelions, which were so plentiful, under our chins to see the yellow there. I remember we liked blowing the dandelions’ heads off when they were ripe. And collecting bulrushes from the ditches, where they grew in the gathered water. Winnipeg had some of the deepest ditches. Winnipeg was famous for its lilac bushes, I remember their heavenly scent.
In the summer, gangs of kids used to gather on the street corner, I think it was Powers Street, and play road games far into the night. Sometimes, we’d end the night raiding summer vegetable gardens and have fights with the tomatoes we stole. And, yes, I do remember the mosquitoes.
Winnipeg was a city with a diverse population. There seemed to be large communities of people from a dozen different origins, from Iceland to the Ukraine, from France and, of course, England; Russia, Germany, the Middle East and Asia were all represented. While city government was initially in “English” hands, it changed over time to represent other ethnic communities.
What I remember above all was how active the Jewish community was, and how every political viewpoint and every internal community need was represented by some Jewish organization. I got the feeling that, although I lived in Canada, I could in some way be living within a totally Jewish environment if I so desired. It dispelled the feeling of isolation that I felt in my younger years. And, when I launched myself into the wider world, when I left Winnipeg, I felt totally at home in my Canadian persona. I really only appreciate that now in retrospect.
Digging into the roots of memory and coming up golden!
Max Roytenberg is a Vancouver-based poet, writer and blogger. His book Hero in My Own Eyes: Tripping a Life Fantastic is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.