One summer morning in 1959, Mom announced that we were going to see the Queen of England.
“How are we going to get to England?”
“We don’t have to go to England. She will be coming here today.”
“The Queen of England is coming to our house?”
“Of course not. She will be in a royal carriage and we will be able to see her on the corner of the street.”
I didn’t believe her. Why would the Queen be coming to our poor neighbourhood? It all sounded very far-fetched to me. Mom however seemed very gung-ho. She was getting dressed up in her favorite black skirt and a crisp white blouse. She said she was all excited to see the Queen, I was convinced that Queen of England was back in her palace and that Mom would be terribly disappointed.
From our house on Clark Street, we could already see a crowd standing on the corner. St. Joseph Boulevard was lined with people on both sides. As we approached, I saw police cars driving along and people starting to cheer. Suddenly a beautiful black and gold carriage came into view.
“Look, Tomika, look! There’s the Queen with Prince Philip!”
The Queen was on the other side of the carriage and Prince Philip was on our side. Mom waved at him. I saw him look directly at her, smile and wave back.
“Anyu, do you know Prince Philip?”
“Of course not, Tomika.”
“Then why was he looking right at you?”
“Because he is very polite.”
“Why wasn’t he polite to the old lady standing next to you? I think he liked you. Maybe he wants to marry you.”
‘Don’t be ridiculous. He is already married.”
I was impressed. I thought Mom was very beautiful. And so did Prince Philip. Watching royalty was fun. Going to gym was not.
To this day, I recall the humiliation of my first day at gym when we were all lined up on one side of the auditorium. First we all had to walk quickly to the other side one at a time. That was fine. No problem.
Then we had to run across. I was not the fastest kid, but I was not the one who finished dead last either. But then Miss Wadman asked us to skip across. Everyone else could do it. I simply could not. I was the only one who could not get the hang of it no matter how hard I tried.
I could not skip. I just hopped dragging one leg behind the other as the other kids roared with laughter. Miss Wadman felt so sorry for me because she suddenly said we could all go out for early recess.
When I went to Northmount High, we had gym class every Thursday. The first class consisted of a weigh-in and some exercise but then came the dreaded number soccer.
About 40 kids were divided into two teams, one on either side of the auditorium. We were each given a number.
When there were many numbers called all at the same, it was easy. I just hung around as far away from the ball as possible and let the other kids fight it out. When there were only three called, that was more difficult and I had to pretend I was trying to score while praying for any of the others to score so my anguish would be over.
Then the gym teacher called my number. I was terrified. My opposite number happened to be one of the best athletes in the school. I figured it would take him only a second to score. But my adrenalin was pumping so hard I managed somehow to stop him every time he tried.
Score already, you bastard, I kept telling him in my mind so I can get this over with. But he kept fumbling about to prolong my agony. Finally I became so livid I kicked the ball as hard as I could. Then I heard the kids cheering for me. I had actually scored a goal!
Later on that day, I was talking with my friend Howard.
“You see, you’re not that bad. You scored a goal. You should play soccer.”
“I will not play soccer. Not today. Not ever.”
There were two gym teachers in the school and I was not sure which one I would get. That is why I insisted my parents give me two personal notes, stipulating I had a heart condition that did not allow me to participate in any gym class.
“But you don’t have any heart condition.”
“Anyu, this is not an idle request. Unless you hand me those two notes, you are looking at a high school drop out.”
I never took gym again. In high school, I had dreaded Thursday because of gym. In elementary school I had dreaded Thursdays because that was the day the principal of the school, Rabbi Rabinowitz would test us on the Gemara, a component of the Talmud, the main source of Jewish religious law and theology.
To say that’s difficult to study is an understatement, At the start, one is expected to keep two similar concepts in mind. Easy enough. However this keeps expanding and soon one is expected to juggle five or six concepts at the same time, all of them differing only slightly from one another.
If one can master the Gemara, one can master anything. I was not very adept at it and often seemed to develop headaches and stomach aches on Thursdays.
“I can’t go to school, Anyu. My stomach hurts.”
“No it doesn’t. You don’t want to go to school because it’s Thursday and you don’t want to get tested on the Germara.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because mothers know everything, that’s why. If you don’t want to go, you don’t have to go. I want to go shopping at Eaton’s anyway and you can come with me.”
I could never understand teachers who would tell kids they would have to get a note from their parents as if that were a difficult thing to do. Mom would always sign whatever note I wanted. On occasion, she would even offer to sign notes for kids whose parents were too strict.
She was never very strict. And neither was my father. He was the epitome of kindness and compassion. As far as I’m concerned, he invented an early form of the credit card. It happened soon after I enrolled in elementary school. He took me to the convenience store next door to introduce me to the owner Mr. Heiman to whom he handed a ten dollar bill.
“This is my son, Tommy. If he ever comes in and wants to buys something and does not have money, give him whatever he wants and subtract the amount it costs from this deposit. When the ten dollars runs out, call me and I will bring you another ten dollars.”
He repeated this at nearby Kiszner’s butcher shop on Fairmount which sold cooked hot dogs and soft drinks to kids at lunchtime.
My father was also the one to accompany me to a city-wide spelling bee at the Young Israel synagogue.
Spelling was my favorite subject primarily because I did not see it as a subject. I could not understand how you could study spelling. Once I looked at a word once, I would know how to spell it.
That may explain why I was one of the two people chosen to represent my school at the spelling bee. A member of the administration however did not think a refugee child like me could possibly spell well enough to represent the school. She would prefer the school sent two students who were born in Canada.
She successfully lobbied for a school-wide spelling competition. She is the one who would choose the words. Anyone who made a mistake would be eliminated until there were only two students left. Those two would be the ones to represent the school.
Much to her chagrin, I was one of the two. The other one was my friend Jacob who had also come to Montreal from Europe. My school would be represented not by one refugee, but by two.
How did I do? Very well until it came to the word “occasion” which spelled occasion.” I was sorry about losing but did not feel nearly as bad as my Dad. He felt bad that I felt bad.
Dad was also the one who bought me a bicycle with training wheels. I had just about mastered riding the bike when Mom started crying and saying it was far too dangerous for me to ride without training wheels because I could easily fall and break both legs.
I told Dad I no longer wanted the bike.
That winter all my friends went skating at Kent Park and I wanted to go with them. My father bought me a pair of skates and just as we were heading for the park, Mom had something to say.
“I don’t think Tomi should go skating,” she told my father. “But don’t let me stop you. Take him with you if you like. But if he falls and cracks his head open and his brains spill with all the blood gushing and soaking the ice, it’s going to be your fault. Not mine.”
And that was the end of my skating career. That’s also when I figured out that the safest place for me would be the Jewish Public Library where getting hurt by a falling book would be the worst that could happen.