31 May Gayle Swain’s story of Minnie
Minnie Zelda Izen, was born in Vancouver on June 8, 1916. She was the first of three children from my grandmother, Mary, who had been orphaned as the result of the pogroms in Lithuania. Mary was sponsored by an aunt to come to Vancouver at the age of 15. She was subsequently married off to the first man who came knocking, William Izen, who had been born in Poland. Mary didn’t love him. Her heart was set for a cousin in Seattle but that was not approved.
William owned a second-hand store on Main Street and he would go down the lanes with a horse and cart to collect things that he would sell. Apparently, he and Mary fought a lot. She was frequently out at luncheons and teas. Sometimes, my aunt would have to wait on the steps for her to return home. Mary was fanatically religious, which drove my mother crazy. For example, Mary recruited a neighbour to light the wood stove on the Sabbath. Her three children would stay in bed until the house was warm.
My mother had a sister, Sara, six years younger and a brother, Ben, nine years younger. They lived in a house on East Georgia. Mom went to Seymour Elementary School, then Templeton High School. She was very pretty and had many boys wanting to date her. She met my dad, Solomon Pelman, when they were in high school. My Mom says that one day a friend told her there was a boy who wanted to meet her and that she should wait at a fence to which my dad came. Mom said it was love at first sight for her. He lived across the lane on Keefer Street. He would come to her house and ask her to call her girlfriends so he could talk with them. One day, she asked who he wanted to call and he said, “I am here for you”. That was it. Both sets of parents wanted a different match but they had fallen in love and so they eloped at age 18. They consummated their marriage at the Hastings Steam Baths and then went back to their separate homes. Six months later, their parents relented and they had a religious wedding.
My parents’ first apartment was on 16th Avenue off Heather Street. They then bought a house on 19th Avenue, across from Douglas Park where my oldest brother, Neil, was born. When Mom became pregnant with my older sister, Barbara, they had a house built at 20th and Cambie, where I grew up with my siblings, including younger brother, Steve. My dad, nicknamed “Pucky”, owned a men’s wear shop on Robson Street called Sam’s Shirt Shop.
Mom was the typical 50’s housewife. She wore an apron and had a cocktail and newspaper ready in the den for my dad when he came home from work. Because my grandmother had been such a religious fanatic, my mom kept a more traditional Jewish home. We celebrated Hanukah and Passover and Mom had a separate set of dishes for Passover and all the food with flour was put into the basement. We regularly had a Friday night Sabbath dinner where we said the prayers over the wine and challah. My dad sang the prayers and we were all in awe of his voice, so full of feeling. We then went to the services at Beth Israel synagogue and after, we would go for Chinese spareribs at the Bamboo Terrace on Pender Street.
As an aside, for sixty-two years, my dad conducted and sang in the synagogue choir. He had an amazing voice and for several years my mom also sang in the choir. In the old Beth Israel, the choir sang upstairs, hidden by lattice work and you could look down over the congregation. From a young age, I sat on the laps of choir members and drank it all in. After he left the job of conductor, my dad and I sang together with the “Shiron Singers” choir.
Mom always wanted to be a nurse but her mother wouldn’t allow it. Before she had children, she was a secretary at Vancouver City Hall. Once we kids were out on our own, she got a job as a unit clerk in the neonatal unit at Vancouver General Hospital. She told them she was ten years younger than her actual age and so, she worked until she was 75 years old. The nurses loved her. She loved to cook and bake and made the best chicken soup. She also made cookies called ‘nothings’, ‘sandies’ (shortbread fingers) and ‘mandelbroit’ (Jewish biscotti). Mom would make the best dill pickles, homemade chicken liver, gefilte fish, and brisket, along with preserves of plums and pears from our garden.
Mom and Dad golfed. They were members of Gleneagles Golf and Country Club and later, the Richmond Golf and Country Club where we had many family brunches. They also loved to dance. They had two sets of friends with whom they celebrated every anniversary, dancing at the ‘Roof’ at the Hotel Vancouver or later in the ‘Copper Room’ at Harrison Hot Springs. There were many parties in the wonderful recreation room in our basement which had a bar and a stage. The bench on the stage had a big “P” in studs on the leather. I have a vivid memory of Mum and her mah jong group with their clicking porcelain tiles. She also had a bridge group. We kids always snuck in for the snacks left over from these gatherings. The whole family played a lot of Rummy-Q, a game she still plays to this day and claims that it keeps her sharp.
Birthdays were big events with gifts and cake for family and a second celebration with friends. We had family holidays at Soap Lake, Washington in the summer and Harrison Hot Springs at Christmas. The latter was to reduce our envy of the neighbours’ Christmas tree and celebrations. At Harrison, we also enjoyed sleigh rides in winter and hayrides in summer, along with visits to horses, goats, and rabbits. We had a cute little Maltese dog named ‘Casper”. As a youngster, I went to a horse camp called “Trail’s End” in Olympia, Washington, and was sent to Jewish camps in Washington and California. We would often go to drive in movies. Mom and Dad would cuddle in the front seat and we kids were in jammies with pillows and blankets in the back. On Sundays, we would pick up Chinese food or Whitespot chicken pickins or burgers and return home to eat on t.v. trays in the den, watching Disney and “Father Knows Best”. A special treat was to go to the Whitespot on Cambie and 25th to have the food trays slide through the windows so that we could eat in the car. Every year, Mom and Dad went to Hawaii or Palms Springs, leaving us in the care of ‘Nana’, a very proper English widow who made the best biscuits and pancakes. Her actual name was Laura Radcliffe. She came whenever Mom had a new child and lived with us for six months to a year, Sadly, she died just before my first wedding.
My mother loved my dad so much. They were so good together. When he died, they had been married sixty-nine years, but they had been together even longer than that. During his death at home, where I nursed him – yes, I became the nurse my mother had wanted to be – she looked to be in shock. My sister, Barbara, and I later took her on a cruise to Alaska and on the Rocky Mountaineer train to Banff. Those were her last trips other than a big weekend gathering of nearly thirty extended family members at Harrison Hot Springs to celebrate her 100th birthday.
About the time she gave up her driver’s licence at age 94, she sent herself off to Emergency with stomach pain. I received a 7:00 a.m. phone call that she was going into surgery for a bowel resection and we couldn’t see her. We just had to wait, knowing that at her age, she might not make it through. While in hospital, she had an attack of atrial fibrillation and a bout of aspiration pneumonia. She then spent about two months in rehab at Purdy’s Memorial wing of the University of British Columbia Hospital. She has been a going concern since then.
She doesn’t consider herself elderly and takes great offence at being placed in an “Elderly” ward. She’s had homecare workers in three times a day to give her pills, help with a shower and make her meals. One even learned how to play Rummy Q with her. The people at the bank know her and are supportive, as are the people at the pharmacy/grocer. They keep an eye on her and have called me a few times. Once, she thought the pharmacy was the bank and tried to pay a bill. She takes herself for walks with a walker twice a day, is in good health, but has no short-term memory.
Her memory issues have contributed to some challenging and interesting times. She was 95 when she first called me to say, “Gayle, I don’t want you to be mad at me, but I think it’s my time; I’m ‘passing’. If you come tomorrow and there is a funny smell, that’s why.” I rushed over, took her pulse and blood pressure; all perfect. There have since been hundreds of ‘I’m passing’ calls, sometimes ten to twenty a day at three minute intervals, all with “goodbye” messages. She doesn’t remember that she’s already called or what I said. I used to argue that she was fine but now, I just say “Okay”.
About that same time Mom began calling 911 as well, seeking care at the hospital. At first, I would go and pick her up at the hospital and take her home. Nothing was ever wrong, except once. On that occasion, she was out for her daily walk and fell. Someone called 911 and she was transported to the hospital which then called me. There were no significant injuries beyond two black eyes. The next morning, she looked in the mirror and thinking her black eyes had just happened called 911. The paramedics and I laughed about that. She likes the hospital. It is interesting, full of action, and she gets lots of attention. She used to watch the soap “General Hospital” a lot when I was young. And she loves to be the center of attention.
My Mom’s diet has become, well, hysterical. Apparently, the taste buds for sweet are the first to go in the elderly. When I take her for coffee, she adds four to five packets of sugar. She says that she doesn’t eat sweets but I have found her eating ice cream out of the bin. She loves chicken wings and deli ‘mac and cheese’ for dinner. I joke that it’s the preservatives that keep her going!
Mom is feisty. Her maiden name, Izen, means iron. She is certainly made of that. She is very independent and still lives on her own in the condominium she bought with Dad. She’s 104.