Grandmother Dialogues

Calla Lily ProfileArleen Solomon Rotchin10 Comments
Grandma Fanny Solomon and me, 1942

Grandma Fanny Solomon and me, 1942

I was three years old in this photo, Grandma Fanny was in her 50s.  

She was a handsome woman although it was the era when all grandmothers looked like Gertrude Stein in photos unless they were Greta Garbo in the movies.

I had two grandmothers when I was a little girl but I don’t remember my mother’s mother at all.  Her name was Dora and she stuffed tissue paper that oranges came wrapped in from the grocery store into the holes of her shoes to protect her feet from getting wet. She was extremely poor.  She had five daughters; Ida, Bessie, Rose, my mother Betty and Tillie. 

When I was in my fifties, I found out that Grandmother Dora had a sixth child.  His name was Nathan and he had intellectual disabilities.

My mother was always hush-hush about her family.  I don’t have any photographs of her parents or her siblings.

I regret not being more inquisitive about Dora.  Knowing my mother’s history, I would have understood her better and the reasons for our challenging relationship.  

Grandmother Dora died of a stroke when she was in her 50s. 

Fanny and Ben Solomon, my Russian immigrant paternal grandparents, came to Canada in the early 1900s and settled in Englehart, Ontario.  Englehart is situated halfway between James Bay and Toronto.

They had one cow, a smelly outhouse, a player piano that my grandfather Ben won in a raffle, and seven children.  Grandfather Ben worked as a labourer on the Temiscamingue Ontario Northland Railway.  He was happy, happy.  He was happy with his cow, his outhouse, his piano and his job on the TNO.  He loved sweet, sleepy Englehart.

My grandmother Fanny was not. She did not like anything about Englehart.  A few years after she sent her two eldest children, Ida and my father Sam, to live with relatives in Montreal and find work, she made a decision.   She was certain there was no future for her and the family in the tiny village of Englehart and decided that they too, must leave.

She approached her husband and said, ‘Ben, I am taking the other children and moving to Montreal.  There is no future for us in this town.  Are you coming?’ My Grandfather was not interested in what his wife had to say about leaving Englehart.  So she collected the kids, 13-year old Annie, 12-year old Sadie, and the 3 younger ones, Sophie, Sydney and Pearl, and trotted off to start a new life in the big city without him.  Not a peck on the cheek, no hugs, not a postcard and she never saw him again.

My courageous Grandma Fanny was not exactly typical for a woman of her time.

 Grandma’s decision to move from Englehart, Ontario, to Montreal was not in vain.  Although my family were non-practising Jews who believed in tradition more than religion, Grandma’s wish came true.  Her daughters married Jewish boys, her sons married Jewish girls.  My father was the first to get married. 

 All my aunts took after their mother except for Ida, the eldest. They were smart, independent and talented. They cooked and baked, built furniture, crocheted and knit, sewed, raised money for Israel and were passionate gardeners.  Annie, Pearl and my father Sam were talented artists.   My father became a clothing designer and had his own company when he was in his twenties.  That’s how my mother and he met.  A friend had taken her up to his factory to buy wholesale.  She was pretty and very flirty.  My father was smitten.

Grandma Fanny had fifteen grandchildren: twelve grandsons, three granddaughters.  I was the firstborn.    

Grandma Fanny, my mother and me, Woodlands, 1940

Grandma Fanny, my mother and me, Woodlands, 1940

Grandma and I spent quite a bit of time together.  We always slept in the same room when we went on a family vacation.  At night, she kept her teeth in a glass of water on the nightstand beside her bed and she snored.

My Grandmother lived in a multiplex with an outside stairway in east-end Montreal.  Her son Sydney lived with her.  

The Cantor family lived on the ground floor.  Mr. Cantor was a violinist and Mrs. Cantor had a passion for cooking and baking, she was never without her apron.  Fanny lived up all those stairs plunk in the middle and above her lived a family with a little boy named Bernie who was always sick.  According to my mother, Bernie gave me whooping- cough.  My mother talked about it until she herself became a grandmother. She never forgave her mother-in-law. 

A special memory was when my Grandmother took me to her neighbourhood chicken store.  The cages were stacked from floor-to-ceiling packed with live squawking chickens.  Feathers flew everywhere, there was sawdust covering the sloping wooden floor. The butchers wore black fedoras on their heads and blood stained white coats. They knew all their customers by name.  

‘How can I help you today, Mrs. Solomon?’

Grandma Fanny wasn’t there to browse.  She was there to buy. She was a no-nonsense independent woman who didn’t suffer from indecision. She pointed to a chicken she wanted for dinner, the butcher opened the cage, and in one fell swoop, with his enormous dirty hands, he grabbed my Grandmother’s bird by its wings and turned it upside.  I remember not knowing whether to giggle or cry. 

The frenzied bird wriggled and squawked while the butcher blew on the feathers to show Grandma how plump the tochus was.   

‘A beauty, Mrs. Solomon.  And at a special price today.  Be well.  A be gezant’ 

During the 1950s, the village of Cote St. Luc experienced an explosion in population.  The area changed from farms to residential as thousands of homes and apartments were built.  Jewish folks did a mass exodus from the east-end of the city and moved west. The largest Jewish population in the Montreal Census Metropolitan Area is Cote St. Luc.  More than 1/3 of the Jewish elderly reside in Cote St. Luc. 

Grandma Fanny lived on the first floor in a one-bedroom at the Americana Towers on Cote St. Luc Road with her beloved canary Petey. She was independent and kept to herself, busy with her plants, her cooking, baking and sewing.  

My sons were her great-grandchildren.  They went to Jewish Peoples School and knew how to write and speak Hebrew and Yiddish.  She got the biggest thrill when we visited and the boys read the Keneder Adler Yiddish newspaper out loud to her.  They got a kick watching her working on her old Singer Treadle sewing machine.  

The baking and cooking smells coming from Grandma’s apartment permeated down the entire first floor corridor.  

Her specialties were gefilte fish, which is made from deboned chopped white fish, carp and pike, and gribenes.  Gribenes, which means scraps in Yiddish, was made from chicken skin, and onions fried in schmaltz-chicken fat.  She prepared her delicious and deadly gribenes once a week and shared it with the family.

She also made a superb mandelbroit, a biscotti-like hard biscuit sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.  All her daughters were excellent bakers and just recently, my cousin Merle, Aunt Sadie’s daughter, brought me her home-made mandelbroit just like our Grandmother used to make. 

My wonderful Grandmother Fanny died of a heart attack at 86 years old.  

I think of her often and regret not recording her stories and photographing her.

I am a grandmother now. I have seven granddaughters and two grandsons.  My sons are their fathers.