My Father (Letter to Sharon)
by Bubby/Auntie Bessie
I hardly know where to begin the story you asked me to tell you -- the story about my father. Looking back, away, away back, I see a grown-up person lying on the floor of the parlour in the house on Guilbault Street and my brother Howard, my sister Hilda and I, tumbling over and rolling around him, trying to avoid being caught, laughing and shouting. It was great fun. This was our "Papa".
At bedtime he would line us up according to height and say, "Rahz, Dvah, Tarec, Marche". We were soldiers in the Russian army and we went marching off to our beds to sleep. When papa wasn't home at bedtime, we would sometimes stay up until we couldn't keep our eyes open. If he arrived while we were carrying on, he would give a Russian army command and we would immediately fall into line and march off to bed.
He would threaten to strap us when we were misbehaving, pointing to a thick leather "strop" that he used to hone his straight razor or to his leather belt. He would say, "bear in your mind, the strop sticks behind". He never did use the strop nor hit the girls, but the boys felt the back of his hand often while my mother screamed, "not in the head".
My mother reasoned with us. We called it "giving us a lecture" and sometimes it would get to us so much that we begged her to hit us and get it over with. She never did hit us.
Now, I'll tell you how he looked. He was tall, well-built, brown eyes and black hair and resembled Burt Reynolds.
Papa told us stories about his life in the old country. One story in particular led me to believe that he was a frustrated actor. When he was a teenager, he had planned to run away from home to join a circus which had come to perform and which was camped outside his town. He was either just hanging around or was part of an act. One day someone recognized him and told his father, who came and dragged him home by the ears. Whenever he told us this story, he had a faraway look in his eyed.
Papa had a deep voice and sang Russian songs all the time. He tried to teach us to sing with him. We learned the words, but not one of us could carry a tune. He finally gave up trying and sang Russian love songs when he was cooking Borscht on Sunday mornings. Sometimes my mother would join him and we would hear a beautiful concert.
When they first came to Montreal, my parents and other newcomers formed an amateur actors' group and performed dramas, comedies and musicals. These acts took place at the Monument National Theatre on St. Lawrence Boulevard. I was taken there several times and I thought that it was so very beautiful - high ceiling, ornate balconies, and wine-coloured velvet curtains tied back with gold ropes.
After nine years of marriage, my mother at twenty-seven and my father at thirty years of age had five children. I was the oldest, aged eight years. They had their hands full and no time for acting or any other hobbies.
It wouldn't surprise me if my parents learned to read and write by doing our homework with us when we were learning.
My father was a quiet man, even-tempered and very tolerant. He had a good sense of humour and never swore or used bad language in front of us. He avoided confrontation unless he thought it really mattered. He was always ready to help when anyone needed him.
By trade, he was a house painter and paper-hanger and an expert in his field. He was never out of work, even in the worst of the depression years. I remember the huge sample books of wallpaper he had at home. I loved to look at the colours and patterns when I could get someone to drag them out of the cupboard.
Once he painted a border on a wooden floor around a carpet to look like a parquet floor. I didn't know then that it had a name, but I liked it and I can still remember how nice it looked.
He loved animals. We always had a cat and a dog. He had a canary at one time, which he had trained to come and perch on his finger when he whistled. Once he brought a puppy home in his pocket and surprised us by putting it into our bedroom.
In those days, no one walked dogs. You simply opened the door and the dog went out. Feeding them was not a big problem either. They ate leftovers, of which there were many in our house. Also, the butcher gave bones and scraps for the pups.
Pa once tried to make his life easier and he became the proud owner of a restaurant "BORODOFF'S DELICATESSEN". It was situated on St. Lawrence Boulevard between Roy and Duluth Streets. He was not a business man and the work and hours were different but not easier. He lost whatever he had invested and it was back to his work as a painter.
Now, I'll tell you what his theory was about nutrition and about his eating habits. "Garlic and onions kill disease and chocolate and candy is full of disease." He took a drink of gin with his lunch and supper. He ate slowly, relishing every mouthful. One got an appetite watching him enjoy his meals. He ate vegetables, calling lettuce "grass" and when he wasn't too hungry and ate something light, such as corn flakes and milk. He said he was eating feathers. He drank a lot of tea, but no coffee. I remember that the tea was always served in a very thin glass. The tea was very hot, never served with milk. Pa poured some into a saucer, broke off a piece of lump sugar and put it between his front teeth. He put the saucer on the fingertips of his upturned, cupped hand and sipped the tea from the saucer.
At forty-one years of age, my mother died. She had suffered for three years with cancer of the stomach. My father owed a lot of money, having had to pay doctors, hospitals and nurses for home care. In order to be able to repay the loans, he moved the family to a smaller, unheated house on Clark Street near St. Viateur. It was to this house that your dad and I came to live after his father died. We were never cold. Once again we were together and they helped me face my problems and I was able to go on with my life. Your dad was three months old and everyone loved and looked after him.
Pa met Mary and decided to get married. He made me promise not to leave, but I didn't keep that promise. Mary had two daughters still living with her and finding an apartment which he could afford, big enough for the blended family, was almost impossible. So when Nanny and Uncle Sam asked me to come live with them, I accepted.
Pa and Mary were married and happy together for many years. When Mary died, Pa tried to live alone, but not for too long. He developed gout and couldn't walk. He needed bed care.
My brother Howard and I took him to the Mount Sinai hospital in Prefontaine. On the ride going up, I could see him wiping his eyes now and then. I cried too.
I was living in Ste. Agathe at that time and could visit with him very often. In a very short time, he adjusted to life in that hospital and said that the doctors and staff were all angels.
He died in February, 1974, at the age of ninety-six.
I think I have given you a good idea of what kind of person my father was. He helped me in many ways, many more times, but I will leave that for another story.
Now, I'll quote him and say "Mind Yourself".
I love you, Sharon.
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