THE CANADIAN JEWISH NEWS
April 10, 2014
FIONA GOLD KROLL
The market is buzzing with people. I stop for a moment gazing at pickled cucumbers floating in wooden barrels filled with brine. Sellers beckon customers to their stalls overflowing with plump red tomatoes, onions and mushrooms, “Sixpence a pound,” they yell. Mom shops at her favourite greengrocer and packs paper bags bursting with fruits and vegetables in her mesh shopping bag. I feel my mother’s warm hand searching for mine and together we walk hand in hand through Ridley Road.
The butcher’s shop is down the street and I run along the sidewalk until I reach the door. Mom’s friend is already there and they hug as soon as they see each other. Then Esther makes a beeline for me and I cringe when she plants a large wet kiss on my cheek. The shop is humming as shoppers examine chickens and meat, grumbling about the price to whomever will listen. Then in a quiet voice, Esther speaks to my mother in Yiddish assuming I don’t understand what she is saying, but I do. I’ve been listening to the same words as far back as I can remember. This one’s getting a divorce, and that one’s moving to Australia. I’m bored with the conversation and begin scraping sawdust into neat piles with the edge of my shoe.
I was born at the Bearsted Memorial Hospital in London, England, across the road from Hampton Court Palace. The hospital was an outgrowth of the Jewish Maternity Hospital in Whitechapel where my parents were born and raised. At the turn of the 20th century, the East End of London became home to thousands of poor Jewish immigrants fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe. Some went on to America but many stayed in Britain including
my Orthodox grandparents. I am two when my parents move to suburban London, and I spend the next eight years of my life living in what I consider sublime paradise. The house is large with three levels of gardens at the back and I play outside for hours, immersed in my
imaginary world of witches, fairies and goblins.
Every Shabbat, my family attends services at our local shul. I sit beside my father braiding the fringes on his tallit while dad dozes through the sermon. We walk home after kiddush and the aroma of soup and roasted chicken welcomes me as I run up the path towards our house.
The pièce de résistance will be lokshen pudding for dessert.
My father passes his driving test and purchases his first car, a used three-wheel enclosed bakers van. My brother and I sit on a blanket in the back, our eyes wide open in wonder and fear as we hold on to each side for dear life. “Lean in everyone!” my father shouts, hoping the van won’t tip over when we go around street corners. Within a few months mom presents dad with one of two options; the bakers van or divorce. The van is immediately replaced with a four-wheel car.
During the summer, Saturday afternoons are spent in the garden with family and friends. Adults sit on canvas chairs drinking tea between muffled conversations and fits of laughter. The children play hide and seek behind our large fruit trees with branches heavy with ripening plums and pears. Later in the day, we visit my grandfather. I sniff his silver spice box before he lifts me up on a chair. Then, with his calloused fingers wrapped around mine, we light the braided havdalah candle. My grandfather makes the blessings and blows out the candle. Shabbat is over.
Mom spends the entire month before Pesach cleaning our house. Drapes are removed, washed and rehung; floors and silver are polished. The chimney sweep cleans fireplaces that are not used again until the following winter. Kitchen cupboards are emptied and scrubbed; dad carries musty cardboard boxes containing Passover dishes into the house. Pots and pans are washed and placed on paper-lined shelves for the next eight days. Then “The Order” arrives; large boxes brimming with matzot, dozens of eggs, and an assortment of Passover foods including pickled cucumbers. Dad moves the living room sofa making room for the extended dining room table that mom covers with a fresh white cloth. With borrowed chairs, we somehow squeeze 25 people around a table meant for 12. But, what seders we have, and no one cares about the mismatched plates and cutlery; after all it’s Pesach.
My perfect childhood unravels the year before my brother’s bar mitzvah. He has a serious accident and doctors are uncertain if he will walk again let alone stand at the bimah singing his parashah. He does, albeit on crutches and yes, he walks again. My grandfather dies soon after and I’m old enough to feel the loss of his warm smile and comforting hugs. Then my uncle dies and I feel the emotional safety net of our tight knit family slipping away sooner than it should. All I can remember is my father saying Kaddish over the next few months. There is no music in our house for almost a year and my parents’ pain is palpable.
We move to the other side of London the following year and join a new shul. It is Shabbat as usual. I am 12 and no longer play in the garden; my imaginary games turn into mere memories. My friends are now in walking distance and we listen to pop music at one another’s houses, dancing to The Twist by Chubby Checker. My 13th birthday party is exciting in more ways than one. Boys and girls dance the evening away under the watchful eyes of my parents. I’m allowed to wear stockings and kitten heel shoes for the very first time.
Five years later, my father announces we are immigrating to Canada. Actually my parents are also considering America. My father’s eldest brother lives in Los Angeles and for me it is a no- brainer; we should go to California. But it’s 1966, the war in Vietnam is in full swing and my parents aren’t willing to risk my brother being drafted into the U.S. army. I help my mother pack up our personal effects. The Pesach dishes are stored with my uncle in London and never make it to Canada.
We spend the first winter in Montreal and move to Toronto within a few months. My mother continues to make Pesach with new mismatched dishes. Her shining candlesticks are still placed on the dining room table, though some of the luster is gone. The table is much smaller and family and friends who once sat with us at seders in London are now ghosts from the past.
I reach for my mother’s hand; it’s not there. Dad, grandpa, where are you? They’re all gone now. Am I dreaming?
It’s Friday night. I throw a fresh white tablecloth over the dining room table, shaking it once or twice until the cloth settles down. Finally, I run my hand across the top until every last wrinkle is gone. I set the table and call out to my children and grandchildren, “come, help me light the candles.”
© Fiona Gold Kroll