Burning Questions for My Grandma
BY MIRIAM CLAVIR
“What’s the difference between boys and girls?” I asked my grandma when I was six. This was in the early 1950s, and we were walking to her small store below the second-floor lobby of a bowling alley on Toronto’s Bloor Street. In the Adele Hat Shoppe I hardly noticed the background noise of balls and pins; the store and ladies’ hats, to my young self, embodied elegance and insider knowledge. The curved walls and display alcoves mirrored grandma physically, too: neat, wide, round, and everything (except the hats) in pastel colours or grey. I could play in the hidden, narrow space behind one curved wall that served as the hat-making workroom and lunchroom (my favourite: the “chicken paprikash” I was often sent to fetch from the Hungarian restaurant down the block).
I remember exactly where I asked my burning question, the memory is so strong: right after we had rounded the church at Lowther and Walmer. Grandma’s answer was brief and clear. I remember thinking how unfair it was that if you came out of your mother with a penis attached, you got to play hockey, you got to run around, and you never had to wear skirts to school where your panties might show. No white garter belts and thick stockings when it turned cold.
It was a long time ago when that particular list of injustices made me cry. Now girls play superb hockey, and it’s fine for them to leap, jump and be wild. Girls can wear jeans and dress pants, even when they’re running for President of the United States. But a woman is not President, we aren’t paid the same wages as men; a different but still resentful list goes on. Even if, with the web and electronic devices, today and yesterday are as different as the dinosaurs disappearing and it’s the Paleocene now.
My question to grandma today, if I could ask it? It wouldn’t be, “why did you work and not grandpa.” I learned that answer later, but as a child, Grandpa was the old man sitting silently in his kitchen listening to the radio. He’d only ever loved one job, managing a country store, and, even in its friendly environment that he so enjoyed, Grandma wouldn’t move with their three young daughters to a rural place in which urban Jews like herself and her relatives had no familiarity or connections. Grandpa came back to the city, tried selling sheet music, and gave up.
But the family was lucky in other ways. Grandma and her husband’s forebears came from Europe early, so we lost no known relatives during the Holocaust. What disappeared, though, was a religious outlook and attachment to a synagogue.
Another example: Grandma would prepare a family supper on Sunday, not a Friday night Sabbath dinner. To acquaintances she might explain she had, after all, to run her hat store on Fridays and Saturdays. True, and also, this was her choice. During her lifetime anti-Semitism certainly existed in Canada, overtly and at times politely. One example: no Toronto hospital would grant Grandma’s eldest brother, a doctor, hospital privileges.
I treasure the “judy” I’ve kept from the Adele Hat Shoppe. For me, this wooden head reflects more than memories. It’s a work of art despite being simply an armature on which hats sat while they were being decorated or adjusted. Yes, the nose is flat—but for hats this was in any case irrelevant—and its age-darkened surface shows a multitude of pale, tiny holes from so many pins throughout the years. But now, it rests as a sculpture.
My burning question to grandma today—but am I asking it as a six-year-old or the over-sixty-year-old I’ve become? If it’s as a kid, I think my question would be along the lines of, “what’s the best fun you’ve ever had?” Even as an adult I’ve wondered what Grandma did for fun in her hard life, always working at the hat store or cooking on Sundays for the extended family living in the house: upstairs, herself and her depressed, feeling-useless husband; in the ground floor flat, a combative near-alcoholic daughter and family (that would be us); and her last remaining daughter in the basement flat, with her beloved husband, a man who committed suicide in his company’s parking lot after he was fired from his job as he grew close to pensionable age. Her middle daughter had died in her thirties of brain cancer. What did my Grandma enjoy, and when?
Maybe “fun” is not the right question; it’s expected more in my era than it was in hers, I think, at least by women in her situation. Yet Grandma worked until she was eighty. I am certain the Adele Hat Shoppe gave her real pleasure. She took pride in her work, her hats, and her “room of one’s own.”
The judy, beautiful but worn, like my Grandma. My adult question might be, “What’s important to you?” I imagine her looking at me over her ceaseless knitting and saying, “My family, my six siblings, the hat store, my best friend …” Or she might say to me, explicitly out loud for the first time, qualities such as hard work and supporting a family. Or she might point to an oil painting by her sister Lila and tell a lively anecdote about visiting her in New York City.
What tales could the judy tell me if she could speak? Even better, what burning question would the judy ask Grandma? I think I know. She wouldn’t. She would accept her lot even as her outer surface became increasingly abraded, and know that she remained significant in her milieu, the needed centrepiece of the noisy, elegant Adele Hat Shoppe.
Miriam Clavir has published short stories and personal essays in literary magazines, a mystery novel, Insinuendo: Murder in the Museum, and a scholarly book, Preserving What is Valued: Museums, Conservation and First Nations. She currently divides her time between Vancouver and a writing retreat in rural Ontario.