Memories of an unconventional childhood

The people who lived in our house

From the start, Meir was louder and made me smile more often than the previous two borders had. Edmund, the first tenant we ever had, was an young (barely 20) asian student. Quiet as a mouse, memorable mostly for his small, tight baby blue shorts.

Dahlia was our second. A thin black woman with slicked back hair, somewhere in her 30s, with a stellar arsenal of nail care products. It was Dahlia who introduced me to quick-dry aerosol spray for nails. I got my first manicure in her room, and the accompanying feeling of pampered womanly bliss, all while the wheel of fortune spun on her TV in the corner.

I was about 15.

It was Meir though who put his own phone line in the living room. And proceeded to have high-pitch, high-voltage Hebrew conversations daily. Not angry or anything, he just talked like that, like a screeching car.

And it was Meir who invited his whole Israeli family to visit right out of the gate, first one sister then the other, then mom and sisters. Cooking, taking up residence for a while, getting the Canadian experience from our little government-subsidized neighborhood in the rich suburb of Thornhill.

It was Meir who was willful and bull-headed enough for my mother. The rest of her boyfriends – before and since – were pretty lame.

Living with Meir was like breathing enriched hyper-Israeli-Jewish air vs the lazy North American just-born-that-way Jewish air that we’d always breathed. Their traditions were cooler and more colourful than ours, their Jewishness far Jewier than ours, with their late-night dinners, honey-drenched desserts, and a language that lived in the back of the throat and sounded better in every register.

Meir was a skinny man, with sparse black hair. Attractive and charming, often laughing. I don’t often admit it, but I’m pretty sure my love of Al Pacino was a direct result of his influence.

His renovation business probably started around the time he moved in with us, which wasn’t long after he’d arrived in Canada. And it must have been not long after that that my mom, who at that time was a legal secretary for real estate lawyers, got Meir a job renovating foreclosed houses. Actually, as I recall it, it was less renovating and more just cleaning them out.

So some time after that – I got offered $100 every now and then, to help him out on a Saturday.  That was a pleasant sum of money for a day’s work, when minimum wage was about $6.00.

We’d drive to the house in his burgundy Honda. A cigarette infused, paint-fumed, wreck of a vehicle, but still a relief from my mom’s car’s steady stream of Emmylou Harris and Dan Folgelberg. I shudder to think of it.

Drinking Irish Cream at the Madison Centre

My mom had big hair back then. My childish memory of her was as a powerful power woman with an power job. In actuality, she was a secretary. But she was an eighties secretary. The kind with brightly coloured dresses and shoulder pads, and bangles and turquoise pumps. Her friend Roz worked with her but wasn’t quite as flamboyant. It was through Roz that my mom had met Howie, her boyfriend before this one.

I can still remember the wonder I felt when she picked me up from school. She was just as pretty and colourful as could be. It wasn’t a feeling of pride as much as astonishment. Perhaps because I always identified more as a tomboy, and to me this looked like something of an intricate costume. Complete with the dangly earrings. Maybe I did feel proud as well.

She worked at The Madison Centre. It always had an impressive ring to me, still does. A fancy high rise with lots of law offices, and the very place where I, helping out at the office at sixteen, started drinking Irish Cream like the other secretaries. With lots of milk and sugar. I remember one of the lawyers in her office once said I was precocious – or promiscuous? I remember not knowing what it meant, or if it was good or bad. I did wear a lot of short shorts to the office though.

When I helped my mom with administration, I made $10 an hour. But I was a horrible, horrible administrative assistant. I remember it taking me hours to file a handful of things. So that’s probably why I ended up getting the offer to clean houses.

Our first gig together was a bungalow in North York. I remember the drive at the crack of dawn, about 7 am that Saturday. We picked up Tim Hortons. When we got to the house it looked like a normal brown brick house, but on the inside – but when we actually went into it, it was dirty. Really dirty. There were flies on the carpet. There was inch thick grease in the oven. The bathrooms were stained with rust and dust and dirt. The basement was nasty. And we had to clean it. I was about to earn every dollar of that 100.

Meir put the ghetto blaster on and we each took a floor. I didn’t mind it actually – it was mindless.

We did about six houses that summer. As long as the music was playing, I liked cleaning a lot better than filing papers in the office. I probably thought about boys a lot.

I don’t remember them falling in love or kissing or flirting. But I don’t remember that about any of my mom’s boyfriends. They would always just show up and then suddenly we lived with them. Or, in Meir’s case, we lived with him already. Her second-to-last last boyfriend (2 prior) had had two kids, and I was really close with them. But they moved out. Probably the reason why we started having borders again was that they had moved out.

News of the wedding came as a surprise. It was one-part business decision for him to get his papers, I knew that much. I wasn’t too sure about the rest of it. My mom was not the type to sit me down for a talk about two people falling in love. Maybe that wasn’t in fashion.

I wasn’t pleased about the wedding and I wasn’t impressed by mom’s socially unacceptable decisions. Meir was 24. She was 40. But I was too young to put up much of a fight, and by then the circumstances of my life had dampened my emotions to such an extent that I barely knew how to really feel anything at all, let alone stand up for myself or voice an opinion. I had two modes: dreamy idealism (boys fit in this category) and flat-lined withdrawal.

My best friend Angel came to the wedding.

I picked out a short, fitted leopard-print dress that buttoned all the way up to the neck. Describing it, it sounds beyond trashy, but somehow in pictures the dress appears demure and appropriate. I remember it being a difficult day and in the photographs I look sullen. Maybe confused. I was partaking in a factual ceremony as if it had no bearing on my life. When it fact it very much did.

Angel had worn a white sweater and a skirt. She always looked pretty.

My mom had braces then. (She was like that – she also took dance classes at my dance studio, which irked me to no end.) For some reason that made the whole thing even more embarrassing. The marrying-for-papers also bothered me a lot. Even though they were a couple, they were not a proper adult couple that had fallen in love the right way. He was young and illegal. She was old and should have known better. I think it further destroyed my belief in redemptive romantic love.

I judged them silently, and the judgement was nothing to do with Meir really. I liked him a lot. I was used to being embarrassed by my jazz-dancing, braces wearing mother. In my mind, this would be no different. An antic, showing poor judgement.

As it turned out, Meir’s best friend, another Israeli bachelor, would also marry an ‘older lady’. It was like a fad. His friend’s wife was a smoker. Tanned, tight-panted, and ready to party.

I always wanted a sister – suddenly I had two. Sort of. For now. 

With the adoption of Meir into our family, suddenly, I had older sisters, but not sisters, actually very young aunts.

Yael came first, and she was a female version of Meir. Just as a boisterous, smiling, and jovial, direct as a hammer, but with wild curly hair. Yael and I quickly developed the “older sister that went off to college while I was still a kid” relationship. She was not quite a compatible personality with me, but she was great.

Every Israeli-born child enters the army at 18, so Yael, in her early twenties had already served her time. Her role had not been combative – I don’t know if she had even carried a gun – but she had a huge indented scar on her leg that looked about the size of a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup. It was deep, and wide.

She seemed tougher to me than any female I had ever known.

Yael stayed for a few months. Then left.

Sigal came second. She was younger than Yael by a few years, and seemed – but was closer to me in both age and spirit. Quick to shrug of what didn’t matter, quick to crack a smile. Pretty, and feminine, but not girly. Not a gossip or a flake. She liked to rock the boat for fun. She stood up for herself. She had long, straight black hair, a feisty mouth and the same no-nonsense attitude as her siblings.

We shared quickly started sharing everything – stories, clothing, perfume.

I never wanted her to leave.

Since Meir and his sister were both in their twenties, and I was still in my teens, there was a whole adult night life world that they were in and I was not.

I remember when the night life came home, once. Meir’s friend, Simon, I learned, was a heroin addict, but was quitting heroin. And for this quitting process, he took up residence in our middle bedroom. My first glimpses were of him writhing and sweating. I just walked by in horror and said nothing. Similar to when I went with my mom to a home birth and watched the baby come out, placenta guts and all. Just more disturbing things that I could never unsee. Maybe it doesn’t matter anymore. Maybe it didn’t effect me. My lingering wish is that I had been sheltered just a little bit more from the grittier aspects of life. I was not doted on, or very protected. I think I still kind of like the little feelings of that when it happens.

But that’s a different story.

So gentle Simon did his detox. The event came and went like any other in our house – no story came with it, no specific meaning was applied to it, it was just something that was happening. Most of Meir’s friends were good guys, and not druggies. It wasn’t like this was normal. Or maybe it was – how would I ever know? By the end of the week, I had walked by his room enough times that my heart hurt, knowing that someone was in so much pain but that there was nothing I could say or do. I could only witness. A lot of the time I felt like I was the border renting a room.

I never called Meir Dad or thought of him as any sort of father figure, but he did come to be known by my friends as my stepdad. Kids like to label things.

But he never ever tried to parent me. Why would he, at 24? Maybe his role was more of the protective big brother; he was always encouraging my mom to give me spending money for the mall. And he didn’t like when boys screwed with me.

Meir was solace for me. Maybe because I was a bit of a tomboy – I just liked hanging out with him. It was simple, and pleasant.

In him I had found a loyal, adult friend. Someone who had my back.

And at a time in my life when I generally lacked in confidence, Meir made me feel like I was ok just as me, myself.

When boys came around the house, he was protective. The story of legend was the time when two of my male friends had come over when I was alone at home, and decided to take my mom’s car for a joyride. I’m still not sure how they got the keys and made their escape without me seeing – and I’m still not sure what made them do it, besides the seventeen year old hunger for mischief that all of us neglected, under-performing teenagers had. But somewhere in the 10 minutes that they had left our house, and driven down York Hill Boulevard, Meir found them on the road. And he gave them hell. Enough that they were scared of him for the remainder of my high school years. Legend has it that he threatened to cut of their hands if they ever tried it again.

Unfortunately, the relationship between him and my mom seemed to decline pretty quickly. It had either deteriorated or not flourished, such a short time after I had made peace with the idea of having a big Israeli family to go through life with.

I’m not sure how much time passed, maybe a year, but Meir announced that he would be moving out.

I never saw them kiss, aside from the wedding. I guess I kind of wish, also, that my mom was more affectionate in general.

There was a twist though. Sigal wanted to stay with us. “You go” she said to her brother, stubborn as ever “I’m not going anywhere.” So Meir moved out, and we got to keep his sister.

Perhaps this was the exact moment where she steered her fate in the wrong direction.

Perhaps this is the exact moment where we ask what would have happened if Meir had not left or if Sigal had not stayed. Would it have made a difference?