My Mother Frayda Laya

by Bubby/Auntie Bessie


My mother's name was Frayda Laya, but everyone called her Fannie. She was a small person, not even five feet tall and she weighed one hundred pounds at most. I remember hearing her telling one of her sisters that she was getting fat. She weighed one hundred and two pounds that day.

Mama was very pretty. She had delicate features, light brown curly hair and brown eyes. She had a good sense of humour, was never at a loss for words and was not afraid of anyone or anything.

Growing up I heard many heated arguments and discussions concerning unions and politics - I didn't understand what they were arguing about but the words UNIE and REGEERING I knew meant the labour union in the workplace and the government of the country -- any country where there was injustice or oppression. My mother was a socialist.

When I was in my teens, my mother introduced me to the owner of a corner store on La Gauchetiere Street as the little girl who came for two newspapers "Dertoog" and "The Forwards." These newspapers were in Yiddish and were printed in the United States. Many times, letters that my mother had written to the editors appeared in their columns.

My mother could fix anything and she could solve all my problems. When I was about five years old I came crying to her that a little girl down the street wouldn't play with me. She left everything, took me by the hand and we went to that little girl's house. After my mother spoke to her, Annie and I became best friends.

Whenever anything in the house needed repairing or painting and my father kept putting off doing it, my mother could use a hammer and a paintbrush and she did the job - nothing was too complicated.

My mother was a perfectionist and everything had to be clean, and just so. She once got up on a ladder to clean the windows of the skylight in the hall on Greene Avenue. I was watching her and was very worried that she might fall.

My brothers and sisters paired off -- Howard with Hilda and Irving with Helen. I complained to my mother that I didn't have a friend so she said that she and I would be friends. At a very young age I became her assistant and I did everything I could to help her and to please her. I was told that since I was the oldest I had to set an example for the others and so I became "Goody Two Shoes" and a target for my brother Howard's mean tricks.

Mama didn't tell us stories about the "old country". She read stories written in Yiddish by Shalom Alechem. I could never get enough of these stories. One of them "The Passover Immigration" reminded me of what went on when our house was being made ready for Passover. Furniture, curtains and carpets were removed from the room to be cleaned, and whoever was in that room had to go into another room until that room had to be cleaned.
The curtains were washed and starched and stretched on wooden frames, with small nails at intervals. Every picot on the curtain was put on a nail. The carpets were put on the clothesline in the back yard and beaten with a bamboo carpet beater. The cupboards for dishes were emptied and the corners were cleaned with a tip of a goose feather and then washed and lined. The two sets of Passover dishes, for milk and meat, were put into the cupboards. They were much nicer than our everyday dishes.

She told us a story about a girl called Clara. Clara was a bad girl and got into all kinds of trouble by doing the things we were warned not to do. Perhaps it was her way of showing us what the consequences would be. She would only tell us these stories when it was time to have our hair washed - since we hated to have our hair washed and made a big fuss, complaining about soap getting into our eyes and squirming. The Clara stories almost made us look forward to hair-washing time. My sister carried on the Clara tradition by telling her children Clara stories. My niece Joy, Helen's daughter, often mentions Clara.

With a family of five active children, a dog and a cat in a small flat, my mother had to work very hard. She cooked a great deal, always full course meals for dinner. I didn't eat in a restaurant until I was working. Mama shopped, did all the housework herself, washed clothes in a tub, using a washboard to scrub. Sometimes she would boil clothes in a tub on the gas stove. She sewed her own clothes and some of ours too. She taught me how to darn socks and to make a patch, but not to sew on the machine. She said she didn't want me to know how, so that I would go out and buy clothes. She didn't want me to be a slave to the sewing machine, as she was.

My father always worked and we were never deprived but there wasn't any money for extras. However, my mother was very ambitious for us. She bought a piano from a relative who was going back to England. This was an apartment size upright. It was the colour of rosewood, with a panel above the pedals and a painting of water lilies and leaves. It was beautiful. There were brackets for candles on each side of the music rack.

For three years my sister Hilda and I took piano lessons. I couldn't get my fingers to work properly and hated practicing. Finally, to our relief, Hilda and I were allowed to give it up. It was a big disappointment for our mother that we were not musical.

My sister Helen chose to take elocution lessons and she did very well. She had a charming personality and she had talent. At every family get together she performed and made my mother very proud of her.
The money for these lessons was earned by my mother. My father didn't think it was important.

There was a dress shop on the street level in the building we lived in and my mother did any alterations needed for the customers of that shop. Soon the ladies she sewed for brought material and asked my mother to make dresses and suits for them.

There was a dressmaker's form in a corner of our living room. My mother called it "The figure". I remember watching the progress on the garment which was on that figure.

In her late thirties, mama became very ill. She had a lot of pain and her problem was diagnosed as an ulcer of the duodenum. After many months of treatment with medication it was decided that she be operated upon. This operation was done in the Royal Victoria Hospital. When I came to visit her, I was shocked, she was skinny and frail and I realized that I might lose my mother. The ulcer was a cancer now so they just closed the cut and my mother came home. She had to have care in bed and nurses came from the Victorian Order of Nurses ("V.O.N.") to bathe her and change the bed. They only came for a short time.

I was working and so were Howard and Hilda. Helen and Irving were still in school. We all tried to make her as comfortable as we could. Before long, her pain became very severe and constant, and she was getting more and more injections of medication to ease her. The burden of her care fell mostly on my sister Helen.

As time went on, she needed her family more and more. We moved to a flat on Henri Julien near St. Louis Square. One of my mother's sisters lived in the flat below ours and my grandparents and the rest of her sisters lived close by. Someone was with at all times. She passed away in February of 1930, aged 41.

Even though we had our differences and disagreements, I loved my mother. I remember how proud she was when she came to my High School graduation. I wore a dress that she had made for the occasion. It was white satin and I didn't think the style suited me. We had quite an argument at the time, but I'm glad I decided to wear the dress after all.


Painting by Bessie Sager
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