The Early Years
My first school friend, or friend period, was Watson Woo; we met in kindergarten while both of us were playing with blocks; it was September 1963. It was not surprising, since our family resided in a neighbourhood that, as my Mom often said, was “a League of Nations.” There was Nina the dressmaker next door to the left of us, and Waxman’s formal rental next door to the right. Nuns in full habit were often see walking the street in front of us; we were close to a Catholic order of nuns. Across the street was a Ukrainian woman who always wore on her head a babushka and had a few gold teeth; for reasons that I now do not recall, my brothers and I were convinced that she was a “witch.” My mother’s arguments to the contrary were ineffective in convincing us otherwise.
A block north of us was Hutchison Avenue, the southern boundary of the leafy borough of Outremont; there resided the various sects of Hasidic Jews, whose distinctive ways and dress were as foreign to me as those of other religions. We shared a common religion, no doubt, but our understanding of it and the application of its laws did not generally find agreement between us, or so it seemed at the time. The restrictions seemed too great; the requirements too burdensome; the benefits too meagre. It takes a great distance for two almost-parallel lines to intersect.
Watson and I remained friends at Bancroft Elementary School until Grade 6, when our family was forced to move after a fire made our house inhabitable. More on this later. (The school was founded in 1915, and currently remains open.) Watson lived one block from me, I on Park Avenue; he on Jeanne Mance—both of us living within a block of Mont-Royal, which Montrealers refer to as “the mountain.” Our houses backed on to an adjoining lane-way. We walked to school and back home together, and we talked. mostly about school and the kind of things that kids then talked about.
I was at Watson’s house only once; I remember that there was a rather large photo in the living room of Chairman Mao, hung prominently in the same way that Chabad-Lubavitch families have a picture of the last Rebbe on their walls.
Watson introduced me to many things Chinese, including dry ginger, rice and noodles and other Oriental delicacies. I introduced him to Jewish foods. Such was our simple friendship. We shared a love for learning and for doing well in school. We often walked together to the local library and discovered many new things in science, including the latest discoveries in paleontology. The idea that large dinosaurs walked the earth proved fascinating to young curious minds. How excited we both were when a school trip took us to McGill University’s Redpath Museum. It was understood that we would both end up studying science at some level. I didn’t get as far as I had originally thought in the pursuit of pure sciences; and I am not sure how far Watson got.
In February 1970, our family home had a fire, and it was no longer suitable for habitation. After spending a few weeks at an emergency family shelter, my father announced that we were moving to a new neighbourhood, which meant a new school. I was heart-broken; Watson and I made heartfelt promises to keep in touch, and we did meet once afterward, but such promises are, as is often the case, defeated by geography and the making of new friends. Our bond was based, to a large degree, on the school that we both attended; and the new school meant the forming of new bonds.
The new neighbourhood had many more Jews (like me) than the old one I left, and in many ways I found this both comforting and reassuring. Still, Watson Woo will always remain my first friend.
Next week, Part 2: “Our Family Home Catches Fire”