Aunts and Uncles Day? Who knew such a day even existed? I certainly didn’t, until the good people at Anansi and Groundwood asked me if I might write something about it. And given that my picture book, Oy, Feh, So? (with illustrations by Gary Clement) is no less than an homage to my own aunts and uncles, how could I resist?
I grew up on Betty Anne Drive, a street near Bathurst and Sheppard in North Toronto. My parents were the first in my family to buy a house in the neighbourhood (behind it there were still farmers’ fields) but it soon became a landing strip for both the Fagenbaums and Menkeses. Before long, my mother’s oldest sister Anne (the only one of four born in the old country) and her husband, Jack, were also living on Betty Anne, just a few blocks west. Further down the street, another sister, Aunt Toby, settled down, along with Uncle Nat (Nutsy, as his own family called him). My paternal grandparents, Max and Adele, landed somewhere in the middle, along with my Uncle Henry, who looked enough like my father that people often mistook the two.
Just on the other side of Bathurst Street was my maternal grandmother, Bubby Sylvia. It was a little farther to reach Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Bernie, Aunt Adeline and Uncle Sam, and also my great Aunt Fanny and my great Uncles Lepa and Itcha.
My mother’s parents arrived in the 1920s, but all the others came later, fleeing or somehow surviving the Nazis. All of my family embraced this new, happy life in Canada, where a living could be made and children offered a better life, but still there was a dark shadow that sometimes fell over them, the terrible memory of relatives who did not survive. We of the younger generation only heard much later about those who were lost, usually during some family event, such as a wedding or a funeral where the high emotions and perhaps a schnapps or two would loosen somebody’s tongue. And, thinking back, I wonder if it was this shadow that kept our family so close, that meant my only real friends growing up were my cousins, and that on weekends and holidays our house would fill up with my boisterous aunts and uncles. Those times were among the best of my early years — when I felt safe and loved, surrounded by voices and laughter as familiar to me as my own.