A Jewish Christmas

Posted 12.23.08

Salt of the earth, that's what they were -- Laurie and Shirley Gonich and their daughter Gerry. They operated a little hole-in-the wall diner on Russell Street, in downtown Toronto, not far from the Island on Spadina where the Connaught Laboratories were isolated. Their diner dispensed coffee, bagels, knish, assorted sandwiches, advice and lessons in how to lose at cribbage. The last one is the easiest to explain; all you had to do was sit down at any table in the restaurant with Shirley and cut the deck of cards. I'm not kidding! That's how good she was.

The place had a maximum capacity of thirty-two seats -- eight at the counter and twenty-four chairs set up at tables of four in the centre of the room and sets of two against the wall. Of course, being right across the street from Borden's Dairy, complete with a huge portrait of Elsie the Cow, gave them a pretty good draw.

The place was never empty, from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. They must have done all right with the place because they made enough for their daughter, Gerry, to get a degree from the University of Toronto just down at the other end of Russell Street where it greeted St. George.

Gerry earned an Honours degree; I think it was in Management. She compensated for her weight problem with a quick acerbic wit and keen intellect. I wondered, on occasion, if she would have been so bright and witty if her gland problems had not caused her to tend to obesity. But, regardless of her problems with pounds, she managed to land a job as the Executive Assistant to Air Marshall Roy Slemon. Any doubters had only to watch the sleek, black Military staff car that arrived twice a day, as regular as clock-work, to pick her up and deliver her home. The car was always spotless.

And me! Hey, I was just a young goy, a runaway, a long way from home, just trying to get through most days. But, having accessed Laurie's considerable store of business savvy, I was now working for one of Canada's chartered banks down on Spadina in the shmatteh section.

I was astounded to find out how much money changed hands in that business on a daily basis. Occasionally, a customer would invite me over to his factory where I could get a deal on some article of clothing. This was a good thing to know when Christmas rolled around as it did one particular year. When I had arrived in Toronto in mid-August, Laurie and Shirley had hired me as a dishwasher so I could have enough to eat and have a little jingle in my jeans while I looked for more meaningful work. There were a lot of low-level jobs available as Shippers and Receivers and it didn't take me long to land one. Laurie, however, was not satisfied with that.

"You got a Grade eleven education. You can do better than that! " he said to me imperiously and with a touch of finality on more than one occasion. With not-so-gentle prodding and under his direct supervision, I scanned the newspaper 'Help Wanted' ads at least a couple of times a week. It paid off.

One particular week, there were two companies listed who were looking for a Junior Clerk -- a plumbing supply company and a chartered bank. They both insisted on a Grade Eleven education. But which one to choose? I was obviously not familiar with the labour market. "You apply for both of them, of course," Laurie replied to my query. "Do you think you are the only one in Toronto looking for work? I'll ask Gerry to help you with an application letter." He did and she did and I did.

Much to my surprise, I received two positive responses, a subsequent interview for both jobs and, miracle of miracles, two formal job offers in mid-September. Which one to chose? Once more, Laurie's fountain of advice spewed forth knowledge.

"Go with the money, Bobby, always go with the money!"

That was how I ended up at the bank and, shortly after, with my own room on the fifth floor of a five storey, brownstone walk-up on Harbord Street near the corner of St, George. Unlike my memories, that whole corner is now empty, awaiting future expansion of the University of Toronto.

So, you can see how much of an influence Laurie was in my life, a positive influence to counter-balance some of the other influences that were around. I had been raised as a Catholic and knew that those of the Jewish faith didn't celebrate Christmas as Christians did but Hey! It's the thought that counts, isn't it?

Besides, I figured that I owed each of the Gonichs more than I could afford to spend but Christmas was for giving and sharing. Even though the Gonichs were not Christians, they treated me just like family so I looked forward to surprising them with a few gifts on Christmas Eve.

Because of my runaway status, and for whatever reasons made sense to me at the time, I wasn't going to be going back to the family home in Northern Ontario for Christmas even though my older brother was. But, from the vantage point of hindsight, I can say with complete honesty and candor that Christmas in the city, without family or close friends, is an experience not to be sought after. I don't recommend it to anyone.

The chartered banks used to have peculiar hours on Fridays during that era. They would open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., close until 4:30 p.m., and then remain open until 6 p.m. The transactions that took place in the late afternoon were actually counted as transactions for the following Monday. However, because December 24 was Christmas Eve, the branch closed at 3 p.m.

At 3:30 p.m. I had collected my presents from my locker and was on my way to Laurie's diner, relishing, by anticipation, the smiles and good feelings that would soon appear on the faces of the family at the diner.

Imagine my surprise when I rounded the corner of Spadina onto Russell Street to find the diner in total darkness. Not a single light on, not even the pink neon sign proclaiming "Laurie's". I stopped in my tracks.

They weren't Christians so they hadn't closed for Christmas. There hadn't been any signs posted that I recalled stating that they were going to be closed. My memory could also not dredge up any previous conversations in which there had been mention of the Gonichs going away for Christmas.

Suddenly, I noticed that there were lights on in their apartment over the diner. "Aha! They must have had unexpected company drop in for a visit." I thought. "Good! All the more faces to share my surprises with."

I opened the door to the stairwell and, two-at-a-time, flew up the stairs with my bag of gifts. I knocked on the door with the well-known 'Shave and a haircut' rap and gathered my breath to shout 'Merry Christmas' to the footsteps that shuffled slowly toward the door. It was Gerry who came to the door, sobbing, her eyes red from crying.

"Laurie's dead, Bobby. He died this afternoon."

I don't know where the air goes when it leaves a punctured balloon but everything inside me went to the same place . Unbelieving. Appalled. Astonished. Empty. Even now, all these years later, I can't find the words to say how I felt.

I mumbled something about condolences and how sorry I was, inquired about the funeral service and clunked aimlessly down the stairs. When I got outside, I stood in front of the diner and then I saw the hand-made sign in the window: "Closed due to death in the family"

A light had gone out of my life. I remember getting very angry at God. How could he do this to me? How could he take away my strongest support? Was this some sort of cosmic joke, perhaps a swap program? I'll take an old one and give you a new one?

I vaguely remember tears frozen on my face as I made my way back to my room. I sat on the edge of the bed in my room and cried a lot. I was sorry that my friend was gone and I was sorry for not having said to Laurie how much he meant to me, how much I loved him. And I would not get to see the surprised smile on his face after all.

Not a year goes by that I don't think of a kind old Jewish man when the new kid arrives in the stable to renew my faith in everything that God has promised. A very merry Jewish Christmas to you, Laurie. I'll see you when I see you.

Bob Gervais writes in London, Ontario

Copyright © 2008 Robert Gervais/Log Cabin Chronicles/12.08