My mother and father lived most of their lives in the small city of
Chatham, Ontario, Canada. Chatham was 50 miles from London, Ontario
and 50 miles from Detroit, Michigan in the breadbasket of southern Ontario.
The Chatham-Kent area was famous for growing corn and peas and tobacco.
Chatham was the hometown of Fergie Jenkins, baseball player, D'Arcy
McKeough, a man of politics and Sylvia Tyson, well known Canadian singer.
I had moved to New York City after living in Detroit, Michigan. I ended
up on the Lower East Side which was a poor neighbourhood at that time.
I lived there with my young daughter and my common-law husband in an
apartment that nowadays rents for a phenomenal amount back then it was
then under rent control which made it a highly desirable location.
My mother wanted to see the Statue of Liberty, so we went down to the
tip of Manhattan Island. I'd been covering the expenses up until then
but when we got the Staten Island Ferry docs she said she wanted to
pay for the ride on the Ferry Boat that rode you around and past the
Statue of Liberty to Staten Island and back.
I said, "Sure, mother, you can cover this! No problem." Then she found
out that the fare, through tradition, was a nickel. That was a humorous
moment. She's sooner have gone to the island the statue is
on and climbed up the steps and looked out the hat and so forth but
she had some arthritis in her spine and I didn't think that was a good
Now my dad, he was what he was; he had prejudices but he tried mightily
to overcome them in my presence. I flourished best in a culturally diverse
environment of immigrants and people of colour and what have you. I
was with my dad and we were walking down the street and there was a
typical New York street hustler going into a phone booth, probably to
make some call about numbers running or dope or something like that.
My dad spotted a quarter on the sidewalk outside this phone booth and
he was on best behavior. He retrieved the quarter and knocked on the
door of the phone booth. The hustler looked around and opened the door.
My dad said to him "I found this quarter on the sidewalk. Could it be
The look of astonishment of this fellows face when this old white man
offered him a quarter..I wish I'd had a camera ...it was priceless.
This was a man who thought he had seen everything was very surprised.
Now the big deal with my mother was shopping but I wasn't going to
take her down to 5th Avenue or places like that where she'd spend much
too much money. I was living on the Lower East Side. I decided to take
her on a tour. So, she saw Orchard Street, the pushcarts and all the
little stores with the handbags and things hanging like ripe fruit from
their racks. We went into Katz's delicatessen where you could read the
slogan in the window "Buy a Salami for your boy in the Army". Katz's
had many salamis hanging up over the counter. It prided itself on rude
waiters and free seltzer water. We had a corn beef sandwich there.
We ambled over towards Delancey Street and ended up in a shop that
specialized in women's hosiery. The lady there was trying to sell my
mother these sparkly, gold, almost lamé stockings that the proprietor
thought were very glamorous and would really suit my mother. My mother
thought otherwise. She was trying to find an excuse not to buy these
things and said, "Oh, Customs will never allow me to take them across
the Border." The shopkeeper replied, "No problem. You just roll them
up and stuff them in your brassiere. They'll never know!"
I went with my Mum to some other places that were, perhaps, more of
interest to me than to her. I felt they were of significant cultural
importance, such as the site to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. This fire
occurred where Jewish immigrant girls on an upper floor were slaving
over sewing machines and the lint built up. The fire escapes were locked
shut. There was a great fire and it claimed the lives of 146 young women.
Some were the main support of their families, so it was very tragic.
This was back in the early 1900s.
This was the 60s so we were able to go to Washington Square Park to
hear the folksingers around the fountain circle there and I explained
to her that this was important cultural phenomenon, or something like
that. We went to some Museums - the Metropolitan Museum of Art and so
forth. My mother was a painter.
I think my folks had a good time and they certainly had something to
talk about when they went back to Chatham. Not sure they understood
my chosen lifestyle but they tried. Parents do.
© Sonia Brock 2006