by Carol Katz (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)
I loved Ma’s father, Zaidie Gedalia. He and Bubby Bobtze lived on City Hall Street near Mount Royal Ave. This was Montreal in the 1940s, the era and area of Mordecai Richler, Baron Byng High School, and Wilensky’s juicy smoked meat sandwiches on rye, served with a generous portion of greasy, salty French fries. But the unique geography of Montreal is its high mountain in the middle of the city. I also remember the marble grey statue of Jacques Cartier, the bandstand, and Beaver Lake. Zaidie and I spent hours together each summer watching the katchkes (ducks) and walking in the woods. What I cherished most were the horse and buggy rides.
I lived with Ma, Daddy and my younger sister Rona on Park Avenue between Bernard and Saint Viateur Streets. Our tiny one-bedroom apartment was situated above Duskes’ Hardware Store. Ma and Daddy slept in the living room. Rona and I shared the one bedroom. Park Avenue in the 40s and 50s was primarily Jewish. I remember Ben’s Delicatessen across the street and Pascal’s Hardware Store at the corner. I took ballet and tap dance lessons at Rialto Hall, now a movie theatre. Since Park Avenue was a main thoroughfare, the rumble of the streetcars often disturbed my sleep.
Passover Seders at my grandparents’ home were the highlights of each year. The number nine streetcar on Park Avenue took us to Mount Royal Avenue. We walked four blocks on Mount Royal Avenue, passing the Y.M.H.A, and the Jewish Public Library. As soon as I arrived at Bubby’s and Zaidie’s, I jumped onto Zaidie’s lap and showered him with hugs and kisses. His white, wispy hair blew from side to side as he shook his head and his large, dark-framed glasses fell onto the bridge of his nose.
His face lit up when I bit into those sweet, soft, half-moon Passover candies. He didn’t mind my sticky, sugary fingers on his cheeks. Then I went into the warm cozy kitchen to kiss my Bubby’s red cheeks and greasy hands. She was at the stove with its black, thick, iron-stove pipe reaching up to the ceiling. I still taste her succulent roast chicken and potato knishes, filled with onions and pepper.
At every Seder, I was chosen to recite the Four Questions from the Haggadah. I began with the first one: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” But, each year, I added a fifth and sixth question: “Zaidie, what was life like for you in the old country? Why did you leave?”
Zaidie’s answer was the same: “Meydele, (little girl) I already told you my story last year.” I would laugh and pretend that I did not remember.
Then he began: “I was born in a shtetl (small Jewish town) called Kamenetz-Podolsk in the Ukraine, which was part of Russia. I worked in a shop that made iron for stoves. One day, I noticed a young woman who had entered the shop. I immediately knew that I was going marry her. I fell in love with her beauty and gracefulness. Sarah and I were married within six months.”
“Your aunt Jenny was born in the first year of our marriage. Five years later your mother, Libby, came into this world. We spoke Yiddish and Russian. I read the Haggadah in Hebrew, which I learned in cheder” (Jewish elementary school).
“One morning, as I was about to leave for the iron shop, we heard a loud knock on the front door. I answered. A gun was pointing at my nose. Two burly, moustached Russian soldiers forced me backwards into the living room. Bubby was sitting on the couch, knitting a sweater. Jennie and Libby were in school. Bubby began to scream. I begged them to let us go. The younger one stared at us with piercing eyes and hesitated. Without warning they both walked out.”
We all knew the rest of the story—how Bubby Bobtze, Auntie Jenny and Ma came first, the long, tiring, ride on the ship, the seasickness, and the arrival in a strange country, not knowing the language. They stayed with Zaidie’s brother Berel on St. Urbain Street.
Zaidie found work as a scrap peddler soon after he arrived in Montreal. In the 1950s, horse-drawn wagons still plied the streets of Montreal. Zaidie owned a horse that he called “Ferdele” (small horse). Ferdele had a light brown sheen with a silky, long black mane, a white, furry face and pink nose. The fur on her long white legs covered her hoofs. She gazed at me with such intelligence and understanding. Ferdele looked enormous beside Zaidie’s small stature and thin body. However, she neighed with pleasure whenever Gedalia stroked or fed her. I became attached to Ferdele. The stable was in back of his house on City Hall Street.
I begged Zaidie to let me accompany him on his selling jaunts. But his answer was always the same: “You are too young, maydele, and you are too small to reach the reins.” I put my wish aside and concentrated on my schoolwork.
But one day he changed his mind and called me. Zaidie had decided that 12 was old enough to hold the reins. I ran all the way to his house, my heart skipping a beat, my hands trembling and my legs weak. Hand in hand, we walked towards the stable. There was Ferdele, standing tall in all her majesty.
The wagon with its rickety wheels stumbled along slowly. Ferdele seemed to know when to adjust her pace. As we passed the houses, we shouted: “Bottles, Rags, Clothes.” People would come to us, pick some items and give us a few cents. I felt a sense of wonder at a world so different from the classroom.
Suddenly I wasn’t a poor school girl anymore. I was a princess riding in my gold coach with Zaidie the King. I held the reins in my royal hands and led Ferdele, our royal steed. On and on we journeyed down the avenue towards the palace. I began to relax the reins. Without warning, the wagon jerked, the wheels started grinding and the horse began to speed up. Before I knew it, we were in the air, soaring like a kite. I grabbed the reins and held on tight. Zaidie was laughing, saliva streaming down his long greyish-white beard blowing in the wind. His kipa (skullcap) slid off his head and whirled downward. Ferdele began climbing higher and higher, her black, silky mane drinking in the air. The whitish-grey clouds enveloped us in a soft, cotton blanket. My cheeks were flushed. I closed my eyes.
I heard a strange sound. I opened my eyes. Zaidie was shouting: “Bottles, Rags, Clothes.” A woman came out of her house and picked an old, long, flowery red skirt, a nickel in her hand.
Ferdele obeyed Zaidie’s commands most of the time. However, this horse had a stubborn streak in her. One day, as Zaidie sat in the wagon, pulling on the reins as he did every other day, Ferdele came to a sudden stop. Zaidie was jerked back in his seat. In an instant, glass bottles rolled out of the wagon, miraculously not smashing into smithereens when they hit the road. Dresses in all shapes and colours flew out of the wagon, helter-skelter. Cars honked. Drivers yelled. Some got out of their cars. People ran out of their houses and jumped into the pile of clothing, retrieving whatever they could. Two ladies were seen fighting over the high-necked, silky green dress.
But Zaidie remained calm, sitting in his seat, staring at the mess. After all he was King of the road. He was clothed in a red, velvet cape with white fur trimming, a golden, shiny sceptre in his hand. A silver crown, studded with diamonds, adorned his head.
Zaidie gazed at Ferdele. He was looking at a magnificent mare. Her white, furry face appeared majestic. Her brown sheen turned into white, silky fur, adorned with a long, silvery mane stretching across her back. Zaidie’s face shone like the crown on his head as Ferdele pranced gracefully on her golden, dainty feet along the red-carpeted road. She was no longer just a small horse from the shtetl. She was Zaidie’s royal princess. Without warning, Zaidie dropped his sceptre and climbed onto princess. They soared and soared, cape and mane flying in the wind.
The commotion on the street pierced Zaidie’s ears. His eyes looked down at his hands. With a quick tug on the reins, Ferdele began to move again.
“Bottles, Rags, Clothes.”
Carol Katz has worked as a teacher, librarian, archivist and administrative assistant, and her short stories, poems, articles, and book reviews have appeared in various anthologies and journals. Her most recent story, “Zaidie and Ferdele,” was published in Living Legacies: A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, Volume 2. Edited by Liz Pearl. Toronto: P.K. Press, 2010, and it’s reprinted here with permission of the author.
She lives in Montreal, Quebec, with her husband, Sol, a bibliophile, and has two wonderful children. She can be reached at: email@example.com
For more information about Living Legacies: A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, visit: http://at.yorku.ca/pk/ll.htm