Photography

St. John's Park

LIBBY SIMON

This photo was taken in Winnipeg’s North End at St. John’s Park on Main Street, in 1940 or so. I was about five years old and the only girl in the family. An accident, my parents told me. A happy accident. They had given up on having a girl when I appeared unexpectedly. And yes, I was spoiled by my four older brothers, who are so perfectly arranged in the photo, in descending order from sixteen to seven years. The image of me with a ribbon in my hair, wearing a dress and holding a doll, is misleading: by this time my brothers had taught me to stop sizzling hockey pucks in my role as goalie when they played street hockey. As I grew older I could more often be found pitching a softball or playing hockey than pushing a doll carriage. This was the last time, however, that our family was photographed intact.

Judging by our squinting eyes and rolled-up sleeves, and the trees in full green dress, it was a bright, warm summer day in Winnipeg. What cannot be seen in the picture is the playground where I used to sit on the baby swings and, later, the “big” swings, and play in the sandbox and on the teeter-totter. No one had an air-conditioned home to escape to in the hot, muggy Winnipeg summers, so my mother would pack a blanket to sit on, load up sandwiches and drinks, and we would picnic in the park. As we spread out on the lush green grass and ate, she often pulled stems of the sweet-smelling white clover that flourished around us, wove them into a garland and wound it into my hair like a crown.

At that time, the North End was a community of immigrants like my parents, Aaron and Fanny. They had arrived from Poland with their two boys, Bernie and Max, about ten years earlier as the first alarm bells of anti-Semitism began to toll. All immigrants to Canada required a sponsor and the guarantee of a job, and there was a quota on the number of Jews that could enter the country. My father was fortunate enough through the contacts of his father, a world-travelled rabbi, to have both, thus ensuring his family’s safety from the Holocaust, and my existence.

Not long after my parents’ arrival, however, the ugly head of the Great Depression devoured people’s jobs and pride, including my father’s. The fact that we all appear relatively well dressed in the photo belies the poverty that pervaded the community during that era. In spite of the hardships, the family grew: Jack, Matty and I were born in Winnipeg. Women didn’t work outside the home in those times, not that my mother could with five children to care for, and my father, a teacher in a private Hebrew school, struggled to support a family of seven. For several years my parents suffered the humiliation of having to ask for credit for basic food at the local butcher and grocery store. My father’s face is the only one in the picture that shows the worry and stress.

The Depression ended when Canada became embroiled in World War II. My father returned to work, Bernie joined the Air Force and left home for training, and Max lied about his age and joined the Army Reserves. The war ended before either could be shipped overseas, but as young men they soon moved away to build their own lives.

Then tragedy struck. My mother left the house one Sunday morning to attend a wedding shower and never returned. She died that night of a cerebral hemorrhage. This happy photograph got buried amid the chaos and confusion that followed.

In time, Jack and Matty did what grown children do: they left home to follow their own pursuits. Only I remained in Winnipeg to care for my aging father before he too passed on. Eventually, I married and had a family of my own.

I recovered this photograph from among the scattered memorabilia left by my parents. The picture captures the many happy times of my childhood. It conjures up memories that can never be taken away in spite of a depression, a war and personal loss.

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LIBBY SIMON

Libby Simon’s work has appeard in Homemaker’s magazine, Canadian Living Online, the Winnipeg Free Press, and Canadian and US anthologies, as well as on CBC radio and at imfcanada.org (Institute of Marriage and Family Canada).


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