HOLIDAY NOTES FROM AN OLD FRIEND
by Harvy Simkovits
The Montreal Review, November 2010
"Welcome to Mimi's Kitchen!" she said with a big chuckle and a glint in her eye as my family entered her and her husband's modest row house in Montreal's north end. "Hope you all are coming with a good appetite."
Double or triple kisses are passed around (one on each cheek for everybody, and a smooch on the mouth between the moms and dads) along with a chorus of hefty hellos. We then sit down on living room chesterfield and chairs draped in a thick, coarse cover. The cloth, decorated in a mosaic of muted reds and browns, was woven in Mimi and George's homeland of Romania. Soon we have drinks in our hands-scotch and soda for the dads, Dubonnet for the moms, and Coke for the kids. As Mom retires into the kitchen to help Mimi with her lunchtime feast, my brother follows Tony-Mimi and George's son-into his room to check out his latest Dinky Toy sports cars. As the youngest kid, I stay in the living room, sitting up straight with the other men.
Leaning forward and lighting a cigarette with his Dunhill lighter, Dad says, "I can tell winter is coming," referring to the recent early-fall cold snap. After taking another long puff, he adds, "Winters were never cold like this back home." George follows with a playful, "Let's all drive to 'Flor-Ida' again for Christmas and New Years. Mimi and me are already looking in Lauderdale for places." My ears perk up and I jump in: "Yes, Dad; can we do it again?"
"We'll see, son; there's still lots of time to decide," Dad replies with a smile. He then switches topics, asking, "George, have you seen the latest American cars? Anything special on your shopping list?" Every two or three years, Dad bought a new Oldsmobile, and George a new Buick or Pontiac.
In short order, we are all summoned to Mimi's table with an "Okay everybody; it's time to get down to business," coming from the hostess in her penetrating, heavy Yiddish-accented, Rumanian voice. "I expect every growing boy to eat their hearts out," she adds with a small wink and a nod as she looked at me.
The smells of bean soup, stuffed cabbage, potato polentas, and cucumber and onion salad with vinegar dressing slip in from the kitchen. In no time I will feel like a stuffed cabbage myself, yet still have room left over for Rumanian baklava and a small cheese danish.
Mimi and George had befriended my parents in 1950, soon after both couples had debarked in Canada from the "old country." My parents had fled the former Czechoslovakia at the onset of Communism, and Mimi and George had escaped to Palestine from the Nazi invasion in northern Romania (now part of the Ukraine). As Palestine became Israel via war, George one day said to Mimi, "There will never be peace here," and they soon left their newly adopted homeland to take their aspirations across the ocean to Canada.
In summing up our family's ties decades later, Mimi told me, "When we both came to Canada, we had no other family here in Montreal, and your parents were among the first we met here from the old country. We understood each other, what we went through during and after the war, and how hard life was in Europe. Your father and George hit it off with their talk about cars and business. They both worked like crazy-your Dad in the factory, and George on the road for six days a week-to make it in Canada."
Mimi continued, "Since George was ten years older and had more business experience from back home, he was a big help to your father when he started his company in the '50s. They spent many Saturday mornings together in your father's office talking over how to get more business from customers. George was always the first one your father called if he had a big problem-our phone rang sometimes two in the morning after your Dad had a spat with your mother. George had lost a younger brother in the war, and your Dad never had a big brother, so they became like brothers in Canada. Also, your mother, Anna, and I liked to cook dishes from back home, and both George and Johnny liked to eat, so we got together a lot, especially in those early days when we had little money for restaurants, night clubs, or fancy suits and dresses."
Since both my dad and George enjoyed driving, my young life was sprinkled with annual winter holiday weeks to sunny Florida, long summer weekends to the cool Laurentian lakes and mountains, and spring Sunday lunches at countryside maple-sugaring restaurants off the Island of Montreal. When we all drove together in Dad's Olds 98, I squeezed in between Dad and George in the front bench seat, and listened to them kibitz about the latest or upcoming car upgrades. They were curious about the new ABS breaking systems and front-wheel drives that will change the way everyone maneuvers their car, and excited about turbo diesel engines that will offer more engine power and gas savings, as well as peeved about catalytic converters that will make cars more expensive though they create less emissions.
After a time of back-seat chatter between Mimi and my mom, Mimi half-jokingly yelled up to the front seat, "You guys are driving me crazy with your talk, talk, talk about nothing but cars and money." With mock anger in his shaking voice, and pointing an index finger up into the air, George responded, "Hah! So, you women have something better to talk about?" Mimi quickly retorted, "How about vimen and sex?" after which Dad slid in an "I'll drink to that." Mimi then turned to Mom and said with a smile, "Men! You can't live with them, and you can't live without them." George then got in the last word, "You vimen always make me noi-vous." We all laughed, and they all continued their separate conversations as if nothing had been said.
During their Canadian lives, my Dad made it big in console stereo manufacturing, becoming "a giant," as some friends called him in his Slovak-Canadian business community. Conversely, George had more modest success as a career-long, road-warrior salesman-traveling by car for weeks at a time to every town in eastern Canada to sell home appliances wholesale. When his hands started to shake from age, George relinquished the life of an itinerant peddler behind a steering wheel, and he bought into a stock car race track outside of Montreal. After that business faltered, George and Mimi retired for good, and took what they had left to Toronto where they could be closer to their son and his young family.
Now into her 90s, bereft of her beloved George, who passed away nearly a decade ago, Mimi mostly sits and reminisces in her one-bedroom North York apartment. Here are excerpts from her weekly letters to me dated from December 2009.
You did not hear from me lately because Bell Canada is at war with me.
Recently I didn't pay them enough, so no long-distance for me right now.
Otherwise, I am still around, not departed yet.
I am so much staying at home, like never before.
But you know me by now; I take life as it is.
Whatever comes, that's the day for me.
I'm still ok, yet locked in the house with too much snow outside and no one cleaning it.
I can't walk with the grocery cart in that, so I take a taxi to go to the super market in the mall.
I have the taxi wait, and then he takes me home for $10. How's that for "rich bitch" behaviour?
It's Xmas time with all the decorations up.
Not one nice green Xmas tree around; just ones that look more like a cemetery.
So you need to have Xmas in your heart, not on the tree.
The Jews, like me, are having their eight days of Chanukah.
It's really a children's holiday, and you eat a lot of latkes.
They're tasty, but not diet by far. Viva the holidays!
We are deep into it here. The music and songs go on and on until midnight after Xmas day.
It then changes to New Years music.
Every year since I can remember, it's the same old story.
If you can't adjust to how things and people change, then you sure are in trouble.
As they say, 'If you can't have what you like, then like what you have.'
It's a very good way of life.
My body says "Florida"; but I say "no-no".
For years, your dad followed his Montreal accountant down to Miami and then Fort Lauderdale.
George and I followed your dad, staying at Petit's in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea-it was more affordable.
Those were the days, I tell you; we really had good times together, we laughed until we cried.
Sometimes I cooked breakfast or lunch for us; we called it "Mimi's kitchen."
So memories again are what keep me going. My head still is a great computer; it stores it all well!
The body says "Florida", but the cash flow says "no-no!"
And the temperature here now is Alaska!
And so it goes.
More and more, it's "home sweet home" for me.
Yet I don't just sit there; I cook and clean my apartment, and my son comes over every Friday for lunch.
And I write to you and some friends who are not yet on the graveyard.
I lost a Hungarian cousin recently; he was 90 years old.
And the old woman down the hall just died too. She and I talked every day.
I have less and less people to talk to. They move from my phone book into the cemetery; and that's it!
I hope you are not tired of my long letters.
It's only because I'm so much at home, too often alone, making myself "nervous".
Sometimes I really cannot stand my company, but that's the only one I keep right now.
Yet I still write to some people in Europe, Israel and USA, and I support Canada Post by buying stamps.
They know me at the post office in the mall for all the 20 years that I am here in Toronto.
When I'm waiting there in line, they sometimes tease me, "Another letter to your sweetheart?"
Conversations in a few other stores keep me going.
Otherwise, with my George long gone, I often talk only to the walls.
They don't answer, which I guess means I'm still okay in the head. Ha! Ha!
I hope you got all your Xmas stuff together, all the presents, the food and the rest.
It's really a family get together..if you enjoy family.
If not, then you just invite good friends over to celebrate with you.
Have a great time and visit with your loved ones; that's what it's all about!
And be sure to have many presents for the kids.
That's what parents are there for..
Take care and keep in touch.
Lots of love,
Postscript: On October 15, 2010, Mimi passed away after a couple of months living in a Toronto acute care facility. Losing her freedom after becoming hospitalized with an infection, it seemed she willed herself into joining her lifetime partner in eternal sleep. She was 91 years old.
Harvy Simkovits is a Canadian living in the US. He is writing a memoir about his Eastern European family who immigrated to Canada after WWII. One of his stories is published in Canadian Stories Magazine.
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