Gram died last night.
This is a painting of my Gram when she was a teenager working crazy hours with her sister at her brothers’ first store.
A customer came in one day and gave it to her. It shocked her that someone thought of her. She also never saw herself as attractive, even though she really was a beauty in her day.
We were talking the other night about what Gram liked to do. What movies, what books, what songs? Gram liked business.
She loved flea markets as long as she could go. She read the paper to see what the prices were and how people were merchandising.
She had been an entrepreneur growing a series of small convenience stores in Niagara Falls after the hat store and the men’s goods and the bowling alley all didn’t work.
Gram is the last of her 4 siblings who had a hell of a life and an incredible bond and love for one another. They lost their mum to an institution when Gram was very young and it seems their father didn’t want her around. Her father was “wonderful to me” she’d say but not to her siblings.
She spent the rest of her life holding onto family, connecting with every relative, even staying close with the stepmother who’d hit her and she and her siblings and run away from. We had Shabbes supper (Friday night dinner) every week till I left for college and the US. All 16 of us. All the cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents.
She married young, had three children who each had three children themselves and took care of her mother and father-in-law who’d escaped the shtetl and lived with her. She was a huge part of the Niagara Falls Jewish community. She loved her family, a good joke, food and chocolate. It’s hard to really describe just how much she loved chocolate. One of the places she and her siblings lived, after then left, was with a relative who owned a candy store. All four of them were chocolate maniacs. It’s reliable.
Would she have called herself a feminist? I don’t know but she worked and entrepreneured her whole life.
She was not fancy but she appreciated beauty and quality. She wouldn’t waste a thing.
I know this isn’t the best edited blog post, but I wanted to share some things now. There’s a snow storm coming. There’s a lot to do. I wonder how you shovel dirt into the grave in the snow? It’s a Jewish custom I appreciate. It makes it real.
I’ll post more from An Honest Living: My Search for Meaning through Work in the future. Here’s some bits about Gram.
Grandpa Sam is always in the tiny office up the stairs at the back of #1. It’s clubhouse sized, with rec room fake-wood paneling, a little safe and lots of piles of papers. Grandma Mary is always walking around the store in her orthopaedic dancing shoes and big, mustard jacket with pockets full of gum and stim-u-dents. Whenever I come in to work, she takes me aside. I get a stim-u-dent, clean my teeth, and she teaches me.
“Make sure that when you are putting fresh chocolate bars on the shelves, that you put them at the back of the pile and move the older ones to the front.”
This is wisdom that makes a real impression on an 11 year old: If what you get is consistently stale, you’ll never expect fresh.
There seems to be a lesson lurking everywhere. One day Grandma catches me crouched by the magazine stand, reading an Archie comic book. She firmly leads me to the drugstore aisle and admonishes me to “never sit still. There’s always something to do.” And she puts me to work, neatening up the greeting cards.
I don’t see the employees “always doing something,” but I understand that it is different for me, because my grandparents owned the stores. Everyone is watching us, so we have to do it perfectly.
They grew up shuffling from one house to the next, trying to stay connected with each other after they ran away from wicked stepmother as children. It was hard for Jewish people to get jobs in Toronto in those days. So Uncle Jack and Uncle Carl borrowed money from family and friends and opened a book store. But they did things differently. Books were highbrow stuff back then. But they sold books the way other people this years ladies’ fashions, or meat. They sold books by the pound. They advertised “Algebra on Ice” and put the books in a refrigerator. Grandma Mary tells me: “I remember when it was Easter, we had about 30 little chicks in the window. That created quite a stir I tell you.”
Gram and her sister worked in the bookstore too when they were young. They all worked crazy hours and didn’t get paid much or at all. No one called it a “startup” or got stock options. They sold real tangible books and school supplies, and sold them cheaper than their competitors.
Uncle Jack and Uncle Carl used the name their father took because his employer Ford hated Jews: Cole. They opened more bookstores and grew and grew. They sold a kind of cheat sheet to the books you had to read for school and called it Coles Notes. These became known in the United States later as Cliff’s Notes. And they eventually built one of the largest chains of book stores in the world. They even built a store called “The World’s Biggest Bookstore” in Toronto. And they sent people to England to measure the last big one to make sure theirs was the biggest. And it was too. Until many years and several careers of mine later, when Amazon.com came along.
When everything’s stripped away
The smallest thing becomes huge.
I want to put chocolate of Grama’s tongue
just for the taste
but they are starving her.
She can’t swallow.
for 2 days now.
She is shutting down.
Her blood visits fewer places.
Her eyes started moving around.
I laid my head next to hers on the pillow
Like a lovers.
Did she ever have a real lover?
I see you Grama. I see you.
That is what lovers really do.
I forgot that it’s fun to write.
I missed some days this week.
And Egypt is telling Pharaoh to fuck off.
All those Passovers
I’ve heard about Pharaoh a million times
It never occurred to me that he was probably
An asshole to his own people too.
No one needs that.
There will be more.
2012 is coming.
The rest of the Arab nations are facing their own.
Nothing changes more
than facing yourself.
The Internet is still down.
How will we reach each other?
they’re still in the streets.
What are my streets?
Who will I fight with?
Who will I join arms with
To make a world of just us.
Us people. Hi there.
Just what are we willing to put up with?
“I still love you Pie,” I sobbed
But I know as well as she that she can’t rescue me from sadness
And I know that I can’t take another Pharaoh.
Not her, nor me nor any other
Freedom is frightening
Freedom cannot last without love
Freedom erases your map
Grama is regressing
Minute by minute
The legs went first
then they were wounded
then the talking
Just grabbing your hand
and putting it in her mouth
like a baby
then she stopped eating
And you can see what there is
Before you were born.
The eyes aren’t certain.
There’s more to move
and maybe something on the tongue
Then the tongue stuck out
it stopped moving
Who needs hair
Before you’re a baby
Then sometimes there isn’t
Why are you there?
Why not be
Life only wants more of itself
that is all
To only be
is a powerful life
To look at see
the chattering of small talk around the dinner table
always sitting around a table and eating
that’s how we knew we were here
Gram was alway so proud
here was her family
They sure as hell weren’t going anywhere this time
not like when she was a kid
But Sarah and Carl and Jackie
Where did they go?
The same place as time
All that fun
all that life made
when there were rules for how to have a life
after there weren’t
a their mum wandering in a park
to get some peace from what was there
Oh you 20th century
how to buy a suit
what kind of proper stitching
for Ladies Wear
and a Bowling Alley
and maybe even how to put
the stale chocolate bars in the front of the row
There’s always something to do
in her mustard colored jacket for work
that smock covering the other jacket
shiny dollar store clip on earrings
Work to do
All those cigarettes to smoke
and Friday night dinners to make
And grandchildren to watch
Jump in the pool
And it all made so much sense
Just like the 20th century
Vanished into the sand it was built on
Those desert people know about building there
so they’re preparing the way
to build again
first you take it down
you rip it apart
with Pyramid magic
and what comes next?
Nothing like we’ve seen.
There’s no shelves to stack things on
It’s just you and me baby
You and me.