The Bells That Still Can Ring

On seasons of grief and change, in Montreal and everywhere else.

Caitlin Stall-Paquet is a Montreal-based writer whose work has appeared in Maisonneuve Magazine, Vice and Matrix. She’s the associate editor...

 

PLATEAUS

When I heard that Leonard Cohen had died, the first person I thought of was my mom. There were a few tapes you could reliably find in her car when I was little: Rain Dogs by Tom Waits, The Very Best of Nina Simone, Highway 61 by Bob Dylan, and Songs of Leonard Cohen. She’d speak-sing tunes, tapping on the steering wheel, I’d sigh audibly, and she’d claim I’d love them too one day. It’s rarely easy to like something you’ve been ordained to enjoy, especially if the order comes from your mother as she’s giving you knowing looks at each cultural reference throughout all 11 minutes and 21 seconds of “Desolation Row” or struggling to hit the low notes of Cohen’s baritone. Twenty years later, Dylan’s supposedly inarguable greatness continues to irk me and Cohen’s womanizing and use of synths remain unfortunate, but she was otherwise mostly right. No matter how cheesy and hoplessly sincere Cohen could be, I inherited some of her love for him.

She passed on other things to me, too: a shameful sense of humour, nail biting, disproportionately small feet and an ardent love for Montreal and what’s now the Portuguese Plateau—her favourite neighbourhood, and the place where Cohen also once lived. Long before the Plateau as I know it (cafés on every corner, clothing shops and a club district I either avoid or enjoy gawking at on Friday nights) got its name, the area was defined by St-Laurent Boulevard, its east and west divider, which everyone called the Main. I moved here in my early twenties, like she did, and have lived here for the better part of a decade. I remember being in awe of these streets as a kid, amazed by punk teens, bookstores and fruit stalls on Mont-Royal Avenue’s sidewalks, my eyes used to forest and open sky.

When I was little, growing up in the Eastern Townships southeast of Montreal, we’d come into the city every month to visit my Jewish grandparents on Pine Avenue, a downtown area they returned to once their four kids had left home. Crossing the Champlain Bridge, we’d drive over the freighter-dotted St. Lawrence, the river from “Suzanne,” Cohen’s song about his “half-crazy” manic pixie dream girl par excellence. Listening to Cohen on our way back to the country, passing cornfields in the dark, his low voice, my mom’s humming and the car’s soft vibration were a lullaby. Long before Cohen’s schmaltz became a selling point, before I would get defensive about others’ criticisms of him as if he were a family member only I was allowed to mock, this was how I first grew to appreciate him: the voice of this Jewish Montrealer sounded like going home, songs I didn’t understand rocking me to sleep before my parents carried me inside to bed.

Home was a house built by my father, a six-foot-five Franco Québécois man, in Frelighsburg, an hour and a half from Montreal. My room looked out onto the woods full of trees we climbed, one of which held our treehouse amid its thick branches. I could see the arch covered in vines where I married my husband Aaron in 2015 and the lawn where my father rolled out sleeping bags for us to look up at the stars, tracing Cassiopeia’s W in the air with a giant finger. Behind the woods was an orchard I used to bike through to get to my best friend Catherine’s house. Back then, her family owned a half-dilapidated defunct schoolhouse packed with old desks, globes, worn out toys and musty couches. There was nobody in sight and our imaginations ran wild—we ruled like queens, our kingdom the woods all around us our fathers had mapped for decades. It was the kind of childhood magic that, now, can make nostalgia grow thick and constrictive as a noose.

In the days following Cohen’s death, flowers piled up on his old doorstep—two blocks from my place, off a small leafy square tiled with Portuguese ceramic azulejos, bordered by Marie-Anne Street on its northern edge. Someone had added “So long” and “and Leonard” to the Marie-Anne street sign, quoting one of his famous ballads. The noose of nostalgia tightened hard then, but what I yearned for was hard to pinpoint—the memories triggered weren’t mine alone. This was the area Mordecai Richler mapped out in Saint Urbain’s Horseman, where poor Jews were pushcart peddlers. It was where my zaida grew up in the 1920s and 1930s and couldn’t wait to get away from; moving his family just east of the Decarie Expressway in the late 1940s and then suburban Ville Saint-Laurent in the ’50s—then still a separate municipality before merging with Montreal in 2001—was a sign of prosperity. Each kilometer he put between himself and the Main’s deli windows lined with hanging karnatzel (dried sausage) was a sign of success. It’s the neighbourhood that my mom, to her parents’ dismay, moved back to in the late 1960s as new Portuguese immigrants were opening roast chicken joints next to schmata shops and Schwartz’s smoked meat. It’s the hood that provokes my mom’s easily mockable habit to, when she’s in town, suddenly point at a building and say, “Heyyyy, I used to live here!” before nodding knowingly and mumbling the street name of a former residence, half lost in memory—“Mhmm… St-Cuthbert.” For her parents, moving out of the neighbourhood meant getting away from their Depression-era childhoods, moving past what once seemed like inescapable fate. My mom remembers Ville Saint-Laurent as countryside, surrounded by fields with maple trees behind their house, not unlike the one I used to swing from in my own backyard in the Eastern Townships.

I wandered around my neighbourhood that November, day-dreaming about a break in the time-space continuum where my mom and I cross paths on St-Laurent, the two of us the same age with the same wavy brown hair. I’d recognize her and she’d be confused about why a young woman with oddly high-waisted jeans was staring at her so excitedly. I often look down at the pavement and think of that Jewish girl growing up in Montreal in the ’60s, swooning over Cohen’s monotone voice, walking these streets. She lived here just one generation after her father was rejected from McGill for being Jewish, she and her peers distancing themselves from religion. Still, it must have felt like a big deal for a young Jewish boy’s speak-singing voice to be heard on the radio as memories of the Second World War had just started to loosen their grip. Even just a bit farther back, the area was a hub for poor Eastern European Jews where my zaida ran along the Main in his pageboy cap, the first Stall born outside of Poland. His school, Baron Byng, would have been just a couple blocks west of my apartment—a Jewish institution that has A.M. Klein, Irving Layton and Mordecai Richler on its alumni list.

The neighbourhood is now home to Fletcher’s Café, which, since opening in 2016, has doubled as The Museum of Jewish Montreal. Zev Moses, a former city planning student and the space’s director, said he wanted the museum to function as a living entity—an ever-growing intangible constellation of stories. In addition to hosting Yiddish reading nights and the historical and cultural tours they run in the Mile End, Plateau and Côtes-des-Neiges neighbourhoods, the museum’s website features an oral history section full of recorded accounts from local Jews.

On December 1, my mom’s sixty-sixth birthday, a good forty years after she left, I thought she could contribute her own story. I made gravlax that we ate with cream cheese on St-Viateur bagels, then recorded her as she told me about the neighbourhood that was the setting of some of her first memories. She remembers eating thick slices of chocolate cake at her baba Mary’s house up on Hutchinson Street. Both her parents’ families lived in the area, all Polish Jews who spoke Yiddish, not much English and certainly no French.

As my mom and her siblings grew up, they moved back to the Main one by one. What my grandparents had worked hard to achieve was, to their children, suburbia. She’d go on to live in apartments all over the neighbourhood, namely one right on St-Laurent in a diagonal from Warshaw’s—Jewish K-mart, as she called it. Warshaw’s sold produce, meat and cheese, but also carpets, cheap clothes, whatever the owner could find. (Their motto: “Warshaws has it all, from croutons to futons.”) Across the street from her two-story apartment, where rent was $250 a month for a four-bedroom shared by six people, the neon sign out front of Dave’s fish market flashed into my mom’s window. This was before the language laws came into effect in 1977, when a David could go ahead and put that English apostrophe in neon and the neighbourhood was sorting out its new shifting identity. If you walked a block east of St-Laurent, you hit St-Dominique—the Main’s bowels, as my mom liked to call it. In the back alleys, she could smell barrels of cucumbers becoming pickles and the carcasses of rotisserie chicken from the first Portuguese restaurants. She also sometimes heard sheep being slaughtered illegally. Her group of friends mocked the first boutique that opened, an omen of things to come. I can easily picture her sitting next to the neon-flooded window with a joint and blowing smoke into the street, a strip that now gets overrun with bros and stumbling high-heeled women on Saturday nights. In 1976, she left Montreal for the Eastern Townships to get away from the city, which is where she met my father. She never moved back, the Main inevitably changed without her: crumbling walk-ups were renovated into sleeker apartments, hip hangouts started popping up and rents tripled.

The neighbourhood she described that day as winter was coming on, that was her Montreal—not the suburbs of her childhood that the city would eventually encroach on, but the ever-changing place her father thought he was escaping (though he moved back, just a few blocks up the hill in his retirement). It’s the place she chose and that still makes her pause in reverie at red lights. My grandparents thought her moving here was a rebellion, but she was just looking for a life without sidewalk-less streets and huge supermarkets where everything is wrapped in plastic. She shopped at Waldman’s for fish and Old Europe for cheese; still two of my go-tos, though Old Europe became Vielle Europe somewhere down the line and Waldman’s is now run by a South Asian family though their sign hasn’t changed. When I moved to the area, unlike her parents, my mom wasn’t horrified—it was a homecoming tradition. Sometimes I see my childhood on the Main too, as I’m waiting at a red light, and I feel the tug of the noose. I remember being ten years old and running around the Boulevard with my cousins after the unveiling of my zaida’s tombstone a year after his death, as per Jewish tradition. Our own tradition: we went to Schwartz’s for smoked meat sandwiches ordered fatty, with a pickle on the side and a cherry soda: salt, fat, sugar and sun tinged with my first taste of grief.

The neighbourhood’s last hundred years of cyclical gentrification lie on top of each other like stratified rock, like concrete poured over and over for decades. This fact was recently brought to my attention during dinner at Chez Doval, a Portuguese rotisserie down the street from my apartment that opened while my mom still lived here. The restaurant set up shop as the neighbourhood’s demographic shifted when Portuguese immigrants fled Salazar’s authoritarianism to Canada, braved our winters and tiled park walls white and blue. At that time, my grandparents had only their youngest son, John, still living in their suburban house. My mom was enjoying the Plateau’s morphing, interstitial state, while starting to feel the pull towards the countryside’s forests and open skies. As I ate charred chicken and sardines, the establishment’s guitar player, dressed like an aging cowboy, moved smoothly from mournful fado to a cover of “Despasito” to “Hava Nagila.”

Nowadays, there are plaques built into the sidewalks to mark the age of historical buildings. I pass by the little bronze rectangles, frozen in stone when walking the five minutes to Hof Kelsten for shakshuka or to Fletcher’s for a Moroccan-style bagel and schmear—spots that are building a New Wave Jewish Montreal. I’ve always found comfort in feeling my roots on these streets, and I like seeing my family’s heritage revived in its Canadian point of origin. But after living in my mom’s old stomping grounds for nearly a decade, the fact that I could map these streets blindfolded stopped being enough. Familiarity didn’t exactly breed contempt, but it lost its comfort. It seemed time to enact the other part of the family tradition: leaving.

SILENCES

Sometimes change is slow, like gradually outgrowing a neighbourhood. Sometimes it’s so swift that the wind gets knocked out of your lungs, and you suddenly find yourself in the “after.”

Five and a half months after Cohen’s death, my father died of cancer. It was just under a year and a half after a diagnosis he was delusionally optimistic about. I’d adopted his attitude whole-heartedly, because the alternative—that my giant woodsman of a father, who had a six-pack in his sixties, could die—was impossible. He fittingly figured out something was wrong when he was chopping wood and hit himself with the butt of his ax in the area of his liver, the pain lasting longer than it should have. It was the site of a tumour the size of a fist.

I was in Vancouver in mid-April of 2017 with Aaron to get away from the last year of disappointing diagnoses, about to head down to San Francisco for a friend’s thirtieth birthday, when my mom called. My dad’s state was worsening quickly. I could have seen it coming earlier: in his thinned face, in my increasingly frequent dreams about his death, in the call he made a few days before I left to tell me how happy he was that I was traveling and that he loved me. But we both clung to his denial like a life raft. We were good at silence together: it was a practice we’d cultivated since my mom had moved out of the house nearly twenty years earlier. As the youngest of three, I spent a lot of time alone with my parents, getting to know them after my brothers had gone off to school. I lived half of the time with my dad, both of us going through separate trials in each other’s orbit (loneliness for him, awkward hormones for me). A comfortable silence developed between us; though that layer could be broken by jokes or frustrations or conversations about mountain ranges, my dad’s atlas at the ready. We learned to read each other’s habits and body language. Though I often disliked the silence, it could also be meditative, nearly monastic—a contrast to my mom’s house, where we talked about everything and either raged or laughed until tears streamed down our faces.

My grandmother used to say that she forgot about my father when he was a baby because he never cried. I was unsurprised when he, a man who’d been a Catholic altar boy in the 1960s, told me he’d considered becoming a priest. Following my parents’ divorce, he got into making stained glass. I could often follow the sound of his glass grinder to his basement workshop, dark as a monk cell, where he cut, smoothed, taped and soldered together hundreds of delicate pieces of brightly coloured glass that looked tiny in his huge hands. He created beautiful secular patterns full of flowers, trees and birds.

After my mom’s call, my dad and I skyped, and I saw how sunken his face had become, how laboured his breath was. He told me he didn’t want me to cut my trip short. I spoke to one of my brothers and changed my tickets. When I finally got back to the house he built, a week ahead of schedule, he was asleep in a hospital bed, the wooshing sound of an oxygen machine constant around him. When we turned him slowly so he could change positions, I finally saw his emaciated legs, how much of him was already gone. I made him fricassee, a comforting and soft dish of ground beef and vegetables from his single-dad-dinner days. He said that I was strong like him, and that he’d never said je t’aime enough. I’d always heard those words so loudly in our silences, in the stained glass he made me for my birthday, in how hard he laughed at my jokes, in how excited he was when I got anything published, how he still introduced me to people as mon bébé even though I was in my late twenties. When I was in the throes of a typical post-undergad existential crisis, freaking out about not becoming something, he soothed me by telling me I’d already become everything he’d hoped for as we cross-country skiied through the quiet woods.

I kissed his forehead, held his hand, said je t’aime aussi.

We got one last night of silence in our house. I stayed awake as his girlfriend of ten years tried to sleep in the basement and Aaron slept in my childhood bedroom. I had a book on my lap that I couldn’t bring myself to open, instead just listened to him breathing, the oxygen machine’s wooshing, as rain fell on the metal roof outside his room. The next day, he was worsening fast, talking about cherry trees that didn’t exist down by a sidewalk that wasn’t there—our dirt road had always been flanked by deep ditches. It was clear that we couldn’t take care of him anymore. As a nurse sat at our dining room table explaining that an ambulance would come to get him, I mistook the sound of the oxygen machine for his footsteps down the hall.

Paramedics had to strap him to a chair so they could move him. I didn’t think I could stand seeing him leave, so I asked Aaron to drive to the hospice ahead of the ambulance. Half way down our street, I made him stop and turn back, deciding it would be worse for nobody to witness his departure. We sat in the parked van and cried as two gentle ambulance workers carried my father out of his house for the last time, his body long and straight, a skeletal king in a metal throne.

On April 22, I left the hospice knowing it was goodbye, I whispered je t’aime in his ear and told him I’d see him in my dreams. When his nurse called after midnight to tell me he was gone, it felt as if my whole life had sat itself down on my chest. Just like that, we were in the after.

When my brothers and I got to his room early in the morning, the nurses had covered my dad’s body with the blanket I’d crocheted him for Christmas, put a daffodil in his hands. When the others cleared out of the room, I sat on the couch next to the bed and told him I was mad at him for letting me believe him. I asked my brothers to keep the blanket for me and left.

Back at the house, there was the deepest silence I’ve ever heard.

Over the next few months, I became obsessed with gathering my dad’s things I knew he’d touched, spending hours drapped in his blanket. There was a period when I hoped the house would be a shared weekend home for my brothers and I, in honour of our father who’d spent his life building it. I sunk my claws into objects in an effort to process, as if it would help the words “he’s dead” feel real, or would keep my body from jumping with a start during that cloudy stage between waking and sleep. It eventually became clear, though, that my brothers had no desire to have the house and that I couldn’t do it alone. I thought up unfeasible schemes of keeping a part of the land and building a yurt in the woods, before realizing it wasn’t something I actually wanted—my claws were just in too deep. The house had become another thing that felt like it was being ripped away without warning. Until my brothers and I put it up for sale, it had always been a wordless way of explaining “this is me,” all I needed to do was point. With my father gone though, the silence between those walls was maddening. This was our kingdom, the only place we reigned supreme, and now I was leaving it behind.

GHOSTS

Aaron and I are looking to buy our own apartment a few neighbourhoods north, partially thanks to the money from selling my childhood home. Though the fact that taxes soar for property owners in the Plateau, it’s not the only reason to leave. I’d like to choose a definitive change—I think I could use some fresh concrete.

Even amidst Jewish renewal, our neighbourhood has been changing again too. In 2015, after over ninety years of being on the Main, the gravestone merchant L. Berson & Fils packed up its slabs and moved west to Hampstead where many of their clients live. They famously survived the language laws and won a fight to keep Hebrew on their sign (though they were originally L. Berson & Sons), but gentrification, two years of street construction and the borough’s new parking regulation eventually won for real. In part, the neighbourhood is changing because of evolving demographics of Jewish Montrealers moving here, with North African and Middle Eastern immigrants settling in more affordable neighbourhoods. When I step out of Vielle Europe with my cheese haul, there are sometimes tour groups learning about the old Warshaw’s building that’s now a pharmacy, in an open-air museum, as the reality of contemporary Montreal Judaism happens in farther-flung areas outside of this historical frame packed with stories.

A couple springs back, I spoke to Sigal Samuel, the Washington, D.C.–based author of The Mystics of Mile End, a book about Montreal’s changing Jewish landscape. She’s a former Montrealer herself, of Moroccan and Indian Jewish descent, and she told me about how her predominantly Ashkenazi Anglophone neighbourhood of Côte-St-Luc became increasingly Sephardic and Francophone during her high school years. Throughout our conversation, a word she used over and over stuck with me: “we.” After more than seven years of living in D.C. and New York, she still considered herself a Montrealer. This is a city artists love to leave, without being able to shake completely. Cohen, who lived in L.A. for decades, put it best: “Some say that no one ever leaves Montreal, for that city, like Canada itself, is designed to preserve the past, a past that happened somewhere else.”

There’s a subgenre of stories about leaving New York after being chewed up and spit out, but for Montreal Anglophones, it’s different. They leave to seek their fortune, but the city sticks to their imagination, like Frelighsburg’s woods and open sky sticks to mine. It soothes me that Samuel still thought of herself as part of our “we.” Maybe you can’t ever fully leave a place if some of it is only there because you were, too. My mother’s voice lives out there on the Internet in the neighbourhood’s ether; there are sizeable scratches on my apartment’s hardwood floors; there’s a faint scar on my left knee from falling off my bike in the orchard after playing with Catherine; part of my father’s house was built to make room for me, son bébé. In January, we left that house for good. We emptied out the last boxes and packed up a van full of furniture that barely fits in my current life. I said goodbye to the house before turning off the light and looked up at the bright winter stars through tears: Cassiopeia was putting on a show.

A week later, I went to Montreal’s contemporary art museum to see the Leonard Cohen exhibit A Crack in Everything, in which forty artists used him as inspiration to create homage pieces. My favourite was a montage of video interviews filmed over decades, where you can see how little Cohen’s face changed and hear how deep his voice dropped. It includes an interview with him in Parc du Portugal, where his memorial piled up, a few minutes from my door. The French-speaking interviewer asked him why he chose to move to the Portuguese neighbourhood, oblivious to the Main’s Jewish roots. If she’d turned around, she could have seen the distinctly Semitic name Schreter’s scrawled across windows, or gone down the block to Schwartz’s to order smoked meat, kosher pickles and cherry soda.

The exhibit made me wish I could build a museum for my father, too; he’d built his own and we’d sold it. Now, I’m trying to redefine what it means for things to be in pieces. I sit on a huge maple-wood chair that originally belonged to my paternal grandparents and drink coffee from my father’s mug. His atlas lives on the shelf under my livingroom table, his stained glass turns sunlight technicolor in the Eastern Townships, his cactus grows in a kitchen a few kilometers north of me, his mushroom-picking basket lives in a yurt in Vermont, his tiny bone-handled knife is tucked away in San Francisco and a dainty tea cup made it all the way to London. His museum spans thousands of kilometers.

I’ve grown to hate the term “ghosting,” not because people being shitty by unexpectedly cutting off contact doesn’t deserve a description, but because it’s disrespectful to ghosts. I’m not talking about translucent spectres that go bump in the night: my ghosts live in the dining room chair at the head of the table where he sat, the pages where his thick fingers traced rivers and fault lines, the skin around my shoulders where he hugged me. Now, when I see my father in my dreams, I don’t turn away, there’s no pretending—we talk with the urgency of people aware of time. We often find each other at our house—sometimes the rooms are half empty with leaving, sometimes we’re in the yard with the sun shining, but I always hug him and feel his arms around my shoulders. Instead of those moments being ripped away, they dissolve as I open my eyes.

With “You Want It Darker,” the title track on his final album, Cohen wrote an apt goodbye. He speak-sings about killing the flame, backed by a Jewish choir and a rabbi from an Outremont synagogue chanting “hineni, hineni,” Hebrew for “here I am.” He follows it with, “I’m ready, my lord,” his voice so low only underground animals should be able to hear him. Now, after so many farewells, hineni, here I am, ready to leave and build a different silence between my own walls. I haven’t been back to our house yet, but I know that on a sunny day in the near future, I’ll drive up the dirt road, through a tunnel of maple trees and pull into the driveway. Maybe I’ll find the courage to knock on the door and see how much the new owners have changed it. Maybe I’ll see bright light filtering through my father’s stained glass, the one he built into the wall, permanently.

Though I don’t really want kids, there’s still a part of me that daydreams about one day having a daughter and that, through some twist of fate, she’ll move to the Main in her early twenties and wonder if my feet touched her sidewalks. I hope the City of Montreal hasn’t removed the words “So long” and “Leonard” from the Marie-Anne street sign on the corner of the Portuguese-tiled park. After taking said hypothetical child for an obligatory sandwich at Schwartz’s or Fletcher’s or whatever futuristic Jewish food joint we’ll be eating at then, I’ll stand at that park’s corner, pointing, the noose of nostalgia so tight around my throat that all I’ll be able to choke out to my mocking daughter will be, “I used to live here.”

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