Today is my mother’s 96th birthday. This post a tribute to her and her life.
My mother, Jennie, was born October 23, 1913, the fourth child but second girl of 8 children to John and Maria Zarecki. Her Ukrainian parents and two older siblings had emigrated from Repuzhintsy, Bukovina (then part of Romania, Austria) in 1910-11.
Jennie loved school and was very quick but left after grade 6, despite her teacher’s pleading with her father to allow her to attend high school. He was flattered to have a smart daughter but couldn’t afford to send her to high school in Ethelbert, just 20 miles away.
My maternal grandmother could neither read nor write and relied on old proverbs, folk tales and sayings, along with the teachings of the Orthodox Church, to explain her universe. My grandfather was literate and taught Mom the Cyrillic alphabet, read to her and encouraged her to read. Both parents went to church when the itinerant Orthodox Priest was there, but her mother attended even if it was the Catholic Priest or just the local people themselves.
The family of ten lived in a two-room plastered log house built by my grandfather on a homestead situated by what came to be Highway 10, connecting Winnipeg to the south and Swan River to the north. Jennie often sat on the step outside their crowded house and watched cars going by. She wondered where they were going, what they were doing and how their lives were different from hers. She longed to find out what lay beyond the confines of Sclater, Manitoba.
Her older sister Helen married at 15 and had six children in rapid succession. Mom was determined to escape such a fate. She wanted to find something beyond the limited horizons of many of her school friends. Although she was attractive and several local men wanted to marry her, she wasn’t at all interested. She wanted to see other places, experience more than this tiny village offered.
In the one-room school house Jennie attended there were 8 grades and teachers, often only a few years older than some of the students, taught on a permit. Being smart in school had worked against her. Frequently kept at home to help her mother against all tears and protests, she was consistently promoted, and skipped ahead when there was no other student in a grade. She started school, as was the custom, at age eight. By the time she was 12 she found herself in grade 6. She had missed a lot of background in subjects like history and science. That summer she decided, under pressure from her mother, to quit school and work to support the family. She helped her mother carrying water up the hill from the spring for wash day, baking 15 loaves at a time in the outdoor clay oven and looking after her four younger siblings. Sometimes she would work out for another family in the summer for short periods until she finally left home for good at 15. She sent money home and later helped her younger sister to go on and become a teacher. In spite of long hours, low pay, and sometimes tricky situations with her employers, she persevered toward her goal of bettering herself.
Like many young immigrant girls, my mother found work with what she knew: housekeeping. There was a shortage of domestics for upper middle class English speaking people who were accustomed to servants, and had the means to support them. After a few such positions around Manitoba and one in Cranberry Portage with an Icelandic family who ran a café, she found herself working for the Mason family in Regina. She liked them and they were good to her. The Masons had no children for her to manage, only a handicapped adult. After a year the Masons drove back to Ontario and took my mother with them. First stop was their summer home in Muskoka on Driftwood Island, then on to a large house in a neighbourhood of Toronto known as Rosedale. Here she cooked, cleaned and absorbed the values of a class beyond her roots. She learned to polish silver and set a large formal table. She learned that individual bedrooms were the norm. She learned that men treated their women with reserved respect. There was no going home now.
In 1936, while working in The Pas, Manitoba, she had met the man who was to become my father five years later. At first she was only amused that he had the same last name as her and her friends teased her that they must be cousins. He followed her to Toronto and pursued her until she changed her mind. She was nearly 26 when she married my Dad and decided to run a rooming house in downtown Toronto. I was born 2 years later.
Jennie gave way to Jean as she matured. Jean was a tall slim young woman with high cheekbones like her Dad. Her fine white-blond hair as a child was a soft light brown now. She had clear blue eyes and a pleasing smile. She was more confident after learning how the upper classes lived and got along with all types of people. In photographs of her from my childhood in the 1940s, my mother appears as a stylishly dressed attractive young woman.
“The cheap clothes just didn’t fit me properly and your Dad thought I should always buy what looked the best”.
She never skimped on quality.
My mother had no experience with a rooming house but at the suggestion of her friends saw it as an opportunity to improve their lot. She quickly answered an ad in the newspaper to rent a house. Rooming houses had to have rules. And rules had to be enforced. There were curfews. Women could not have male visitors overnight. There was one bathroom for the entire house, though the bathtub was in a separate room. No alcohol was permitted. She learned quickly how to judge people and take action. Roomers who broke the rules were out by the next week.
Four months after I was born, my father announced that he’d got a job working on the Alaska Highway building project. He left my mother with a new baby and a three-storey rooming house to look after. At that time my parents lived in two rooms and rented the other 7 rooms to single men and women for between $5 and $7 dollars a week. She did all the cleaning herself and only sent out the sheets to Home Laundry on Harbord Street. My father said he knew she could manage. She knew she could too, but maybe she didn’t want to. A year later he returned for a month’s holiday. When I was 15 months old, he took the train from Union Station to return to his job in Alaska for another 5 months. The family story is that I screamed and held onto him. I didn’t want him to go. Neither did my mother but I don't think she ever said so.
She continued to work hard after my Dad permanently returned to Toronto from Alaska. Instead of putting his money toward a new house, he announced he was going into partnership on a garage business. My mother thought this was a mistake not only because she wanted a new house, but also because Dad didn’t really trust the guy he was going into business with.
"How can you be partners with someone you don’t trust?"
He thought you could and lost about $30,000, not a small amount at the time. She continued working on depositing five, seven or ten dollars at a time into her Dominion Bank account at Yonge and Hayden Streets all through one pregnancy, a miscarriage, then another pregnancy and several surgeries. She was determined to achieve her goal of raising her family in a nice house.
Living on Charles Street was always a temporary arrangement for my mother, a way of moving towards her dream. She never wanted to raise her family there, only earn enough money to be able to buy a nice house in the suburbs. Nice meant new and clean. My father, who had been born in Europe, didn’t really understand. A house was a house. And what was wrong with living in a neighbourhood with others from the old country or other recent immigrants like himself? Mom quietly persisted until she brought him around to her way of thinking.
My mother’s best qualities are that she is always interested in people and positive. She never sees the glass as half empty, has a sympathetic ear for others and always looks on the bright side of life. She had seen the bad and the ugly in her childhood and chose not to dwell on it. She married a man who was essentially good and would never strike her. He took a drink sometimes with friends but never had ‘a drinking problem’. They both wanted a nice family and got it.
Her worst faults? This list changed as I matured and began to view her through different lenses. As a child I thought she didn’t understand me. That was probably true. I was bright, energetic and precocious and she was worn out with two, then three younger siblings and a miscarriage in between the boys. As I grew up, I realized she probably did understand me, but didn’t know how to communicate that to me in a way that I would be open to. As a young woman struggling to be independent, I thought she was self-sacrificing, too anxious to please men, too deferring to Dad. Later I realized it was her coping strategy to keep things running smoothly, especially as Dad aged and developed Alzheimer’s disease.
After my Dad died, Mom and I became friends in a way that we couldn’t as long as she had her role to play. What makes her happiest is being alive to see her family grow up, to have an open relationship with her grandchildren, to meet her 2 great-grandsons in 2005 and this, her 96th, year to greet her first great-granddaughter. She enjoys most being a part of their lives and offering, if asked, the wisdom of a life well-lived. It makes her sad when there’s conflict in the family: between her sister and her children, between her niece and nephew. She rarely expresses anger though I noticed impatience with a doctor who failed to recognize her intelligence and alertness in explaining her health problems a few years ago. She loves most visiting with her family and then thinking about it all later. What she hates most is snobbery, condescension, aggressiveness and the loud expression of anger. Jean, in her childhood, learned to value the quiet depressed demeanor in her father as opposed to his manic violent opposite. She is most proud of her family and their accomplishments and most ashamed of her own father and his abuse of his wife and children. Her secret ambition was to have finished high school and to have worked in a bank. She chose instead to work as a housekeeper and send money home to her sister Anne to help her to finish high school and become a teacher. I don’t think she has any deep dark secrets or, if there are, she has buried them so far back in the recesses of her mind that she’s forgotten and they can’t haunt her.