It’s hard to lose a mother. But I lost three “mothers” and mourned for each one. I am an only child, and my birth mother died when I was seven months old. Many good people looked after me over the years; I “inherited” mothers by necessity, choice, or simply because they stepped into the role.
My father and I arrived in Toronto in August 1942 shortly before my tenth birthday. We stayed with my father’s niece, but out of respect I called her Aunt Rose. She was my first “mother.” We stayed there only a short time because he and Aunt Rose did not get along. He rented a place for us a few blocks away, but I spent a great deal of time at her house.
Aunt Rose was an energetic woman whose features and personality seemed cut from granite. She walked with a definite purpose, her stride speaking in no uncertain terms of her status as “boss.”
Many feared her, but from the day I met her, I admired her. She did a man’s work and was very efficient when it came to household chores—cooking, sewing, ironing, and other tasks. Frugality was her guideline; her motto was “Save your pennies and watch them grow.” I heeded that advice, and it saved me many times over later on.
Her home was a beehive of activity. Many people lived there, including Aunt Rose’s husband, Uncle Sam, his brother Charlie, their mother, Baba Faiga Baila, and Rose and Sam’s three children—Alvin, Malcolm, and Ivy, who I was thrilled to have as my siblings. I loved them immediately, and we became inseparable. There were also boarders at the table…and, by the way, only one washroom.
They had a piano to which I was immediately drawn. All of Rose’s children took piano lessons. When my father and I moved to the rented apartment, I walked to Rose’s house every day after school and tried my hand at the piano. Finally, she announced to my father that I needed lessons.
“Who has money for such nonsense?” he asked, but Aunt Rose convinced him that it was necessary, so he coughed up 50 cents a week. My father was never able to stand up to her; she always had the last word. So I continued to walk to her house every day, and I became more integrated with her family.
Aunt Rose owned a bookbinding business with two partners. When I worked for her as a teenager, I learned how to do binding and how to take care of the machines. First I started round-cornering the leather binders, cookbooks and other volumes by hand. Then I worked on the acetate gluing machine (which had an obnoxious smell), then the perforator, then the sewing machine, and finally the gold-stamping machine.
I admired Rose and overlooked many of her imperfections. She was one of the best teachers I had, preparing me for the challenges I would face in life. After graduating from high school, I moved into her house and shared a bedroom with her daughter, paying $10 a week for room and board.
When I became engaged, Aunt Rose made a shower for me and invited all of her friends. I only knew a few of them. I remember some of the gifts that made a strong impression on me, and that’s because I was starting from scratch. There was a rolling pin (which I still use), Pyrex baking dishes, and a pair of pink double sheets that I later turned into a window treatment.
I was so overwhelmed by these strangers who had brought such beautiful and useful gifts that I overlooked the obvious way they stood together with my aunt, lowered their voices, and remarked how happy they were for me, the lovely orphan.
At another bridal shower for me that my aunt attended, her gift was the most memorable one. Inside the maroon-and-gold teapot she had given me was all of the money I had given her for room and board. I was deeply touched.
Looking back now, I feel sad at the thought that perhaps she gave me some attention that rightfully belonged to her children. I certainly hope not, because I love them dearly.