My grandfather was born in 1900 on this date, which of course means if he were still alive he would be 106. Unfortunately for me he died in 1985, which still means he had a good run for his money. He was pretty much ready to go; he had blacked out one night getting out of bed and had fallen and broken his arm. He never came home from the hospital, dying a few days after being admitted.
People can say all they want about his blood pressure and strokes etc. but as far as I’m concerned he went because he’d had enough. His body was betraying him; my grandmother was in remission from Leukemia and I know he didn’t want to be left alone; and he was tired.
Eighty-five years is a long time for anyone to hang around in this world, and it’s even longer when you’ve spent a lot of your life struggling in poverty. Narciss (Arthur) Marcus was the son of Romanian Jewish immigrants and was born in Montreal. He grew up in the Jewish ghetto on St. Urbain St. like so many other more famous compatriots.
Supposedly his grandfather had been an ultra religious rabbi, but somewhere along the line the family seems to have stepped back from their faith. Even as a child it appears my grandfather spent very little time in the synagogue. The family’s life in Europe seems to change according to what version of the story the person your talking to knows.
But some of the more consistent facts are that my mother’s grandfather spent time in Paris in the 1800s, which is where he learnt French. He had also been a lamp lighter in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, before coming to North America, and they had had to flee Europe because he had stabbed a Cossack during a pogrom. (My mother claims that this story is questionable because she was never told it, but both my brother and I heard it, so that’s good enough for us.)
However it happened, the Marcus family ended up in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Montreal was a common destination for Jews from Romania. They differed from a lot of the other Jewish immigrants in that they were usually more educated, urban instead of rural, and inclined to politics. Like so many other immigrant groups there was a hierarchy among Jews that was invisible to outsiders.
One of my grandfather’s favourite stories, which he loved to repeat in front of my grandmother while holding her hand and beaming, was to recall what his family had said when he announced his intentions of marrying her: ” Remember to hold your head high, you are a Romanian, they’re just Pollacks” At which my grandmother would chime in and add: “The only thing lower than a Pollack was a Litvack.” (Lithuanian Jew)
My grandfather had been thirty-one when he married Bertha Banks, which in those days was quite late in life, and had until that time led, judging by his descriptions, an eventful life. Supposedly it started when he was two years old, which was his age the day he wandered away from home to go to the fish market.
He stayed fairly close to home after that until he was sixteen and he tried to enlist in the army underage. He was actually in the army for one night, until his mother found out what had happened and went down and hauled him home. Although at the time he must have been disappointed and embarrassed, I’m fairly sure that in later years he probably didn’t regret missing out on the horrors of the trenches too much.
He always used to joke about helping the Bronfmans make their first million (Seagram’s Whisky) during the twenties. He never gave out too many details, but from what he did tell us it was obvious that he and his brother Dave would fill the trunk of Dave’s car with whisky and drive it through the Quebec back roads and over into Vermont during prohibition in the States.
I still remember him making comments about actually preferring the bathtub gin that people were making to the bottled whisky he was carrying down to sell to them. I don’t think they were part of anything larger than just bootlegging the whisky out of their car’s trunk, although he did have a couple of stories he used to tell us that were based out of Chicago. Just makes me wonder what he was doing there in the twenties.
When he married he immediately settled down in an effort to support his wife and the two girls who would be born in the first four years of their marriage. But this was the Depression of the 1930′s and jobs were scarce. In 1933, when my mother was born, they were living in downtown Toronto, in one room with a bathroom down the hall.
During the thirties the family moved from Windsor to Montreal and back to Toronto again as my grandfather hunted for work. Like so many others they were saved by the war and the need for people to work in the factories who weren’t able to fight for one reason or another.
It was after the war that my grandfather started the career that would see him through to the end of his working days; working in men’s clothing. He was never part of the shmutah (rag trade, or cheap clothing manufacture) business like so many of his brothers-in-law, nor made the money they did. He climbed the ladder from shop assistant to finally owning his own franchise. He must have owned the last Dunn’s Tailor shop in Eastern Canada. Many years latter I remember being astounded to see a Dunn’s tailor store in downtown Vancouver.
It was around the time that he was just taking over his franchise in the west end of Toronto that I entered the picture. Since I was born in Ottawa, and my grandfather worked six days a week, I have no memories of him until my family moved to Toronto in 1966 when I was five.
It’s funny how you associate certain people and certain stages of your life; with my grandfather the association is divided into childhood when he and my grandmother were living in a two-bedroom apartment in the Jewish neighbourhood of Bathurst and Eglington in Toronto, and adolescence when they bought a condominium out in the far suburbs.
I’ll always remember the smells from that first building, the combinations of a variety of things being cooked, as the smells of comfort. They were big solid apartments that I remember as being as fascinating. Whenever I read a story that takes place in an older apartment, it’s this apartment that I visualize in my minds eye.
The L-shaped hall way that led off the living room down to the bedroom and the bathroom; the square kitchen where the smells of baked chicken, kugel, chopped liver, and matzah ball soup always hung in the air; the living room/dining room which could feel vast when I was alone, but small and cramped on Sunday nights when we were crammed in their with my aunt an uncle for dinner.
I remember a conversation I had with my brother a number of years back. I had just told him about how really rotten my childhood had been. He had taken a couple of weeks to absorb it, but when he did, he phoned me back and we talked about things. One thing he brought up was that apartment.
He asked me if I remembered spending our summers there. I had replied of course, and he talked about how it always felt like such a relief to be there and to get away from our parents. Thinking back on it, I realize it was one of the few places I felt safe during my childhood.
I knew my grandparents loved me, you never doubted that with them. It wasn’t anything they said, but the way they treated us. They didn’t spoil us, nor did they let us get away with murder, but I was never afraid of my grandfather even when he’d get angry about something.
Perhaps that’s what grandparents the world over do for their grandchildren, make them feel special, but for me it was that neither of them scared me. I don’t think I realized until recently how significantly my father had terrified me as a child.
Thinking about the times as a teenager when I would visit him after my parents had separated, and realizing that even as a young adult I was terrified of being alone with him. If it was that bad then, I must have spent my childhood in a permanent state of fear.
It’s no wonder that staying with my grandparents was looked on with such relief. Of course there were other benefits as well; not the least being the wealth of expertise and experience my grandfather had in subjects not taught in schools.
We learned how to shoot craps, and notice if the dice were “loaded”, weighted to fall in certain way; the variety of ways in which poker could be played and how cards could be marked; the intricacies of shooting pool (it’s very embarrassing to be beaten by a man who can barely see to the end of his pool cue, but can get around a table through memory and feel).
But what sticks out most in my mind were the family outings to the racetrack. My grandfather loved horses, not just betting on them. He thought they were the most marvellous animals in the world. He loved to go down to the paddock before each race and look at the horses.
That’s not to say he didn’t know how to bet on them, because he did. He probably had just as good an eye for a winner as any professional trainer. That was the other reason for going to see the horses parade before being led out onto the track. I asked him once what he was looking for but he couldn’t really say. It was just the eye of experience, and knowing what had gone into making a winner in the past that allowed him insight into what he was looking at.
Of course he didn’t pick winners every time, no one does. There are so many variables that come into play; track conditions, will the horse get blocked by another, and a thousand other little details which the better has no control over. What he could do was see the horse with the best chance of winning based on the horses in that particular race on that particular day.
When he was no longer able to see the odds board in the infield he stopped going to the races. We should have known that was the beginning of the end. When he was eighty and his appendix ruptured he almost died, and even though he recovered he was never the same afterwards.
But what really destroyed him was when my grandmother got Leukemia. He would spend his nights at my mother’s apartment downtown, and then go to sit in the hospital for the day, only leaving when visiting hours ended. When they filled her body with radiation in an attempt to kill the cancerous cells and almost killed her, he turned into an old man in front of our eyes.
She survived to have a remission but he never recovered, and it was only a year later that he died. By the time he died his hearing was almost gone, he could barely see in spite of the numerous lens implant surgeries he’d had, and his body wouldn’t allow him to walk with comfort anymore.
If one were to measure his life in terms of finances and other material means, it was one just like millions of other people. I’m also certain that there are lots of people whose grandfather meant a lot of the same things to them that mine did to me. My grandfather would have been 106 today and has been dead for twenty-one years. I still miss him.