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, DArcy
McKeough, a man of politics, and Sylvia Tyson, well-known Canadian singer.
I had moved to New York City after living in Detroit, Michigan. We
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 but back
then it was under rent control and relatively cheap.
My mother wanted to see the Statue of Liberty, so we went down to the
tip of Manhattan Island. Id been covering the expenses up until
then but when we got the Staten Island Ferry docks mother 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. She
found out that the fare, through tradition, was a nickel. That was a
humorous moment. Shes 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 didnt think that was
a good idea.
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 a typical New
York street hustler was 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 yours?
I wish Id had a camera. The look of astonishment of this fellows
face when this old white man offered him a quarter, it was priceless.
This hustler thought he had seen everything. He was astounded.
Now the big deal with my mother was shopping but I wasnt going
to take her down to 5th Avenue or places like that where shed
spend much too much money. Since 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 overhead racks. We went into Katzs delicatessen
where you could read the slogan in the window Buy a Salami for
your boy in the Army. Katzs 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 womens 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 baubles. She 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. Theyll
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. That was the beginning of the International
Ladies Garment Workers Union.
This was the 60s so we were able to go to Washington Square Park to
hear the folksingers around the fountain circle there. 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, so she enjoyed that.
I think my folks had a good time. and They certainly had something
to talk about when they got back to Chatham. Not sure they understood
my chosen lifestyle but they tried. Parents do.
© Sonia Brock 2006