We celebrated our 70th birthdays in Victoria, B.C. in May. We had grown up together in Edmonton, Alberta and attended Talmud Torah, the only Jewish school in the city, then with 5,000 Jews, from Grades 1 to 6.
Mona Herring (Kagna), invited us to explore her city, and Joanne Berger (Cohen) and Thyrza Cohen came from Edmonton and White Rock, BC for the occasion. I was happy to make it a foursome and fly across the country to complete the BJMT club, circa 1958, where we engaged in arts and crafts while pining over Arnie Silverman, a boy in our class we secretly admired. I guess it’s not a secret anymore, Arnie.
Mona reserved a fabulous two-bedroom suite at the Victoria Regent hotel downtown facing the Inner Harbour, with living room, full kitchen and two bedrooms with baths, not to mention the groovy balcony where we drank wine and reminisced about our years at Talmud Torah. The suite, at $500 a night, was ideally located, a short walk to Victoria’s scenic and historic downtown.
Our first dinner was at Fish Hook at Mermaid Wharf. We began to wax nostalgic over our youth in Edmonton, sharing lots of photos (circa 1955-64) and our autograph books. Later, in our suite, we had dessert — a keto blueberry crumble Mona and I had lovingly prepared at her condo where I’d stayed the first three days before the others arrived.
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That first morning that we were all together, Thyrza and I took a taxi boat to Fisherman’s Wharf and walked around the houseboats, brightly-coloured and beautifully maintained. In the afternoon we drove to Mona’s town, Oak Bay. (There are some 13 towns in Victoria each with a different mayor). We lunched on sable fish at The Snug in the Oak Bay Beach Hotel and then spent the rest of the afternoon visiting the Winchester Gallery featuring Canadian art, browsing the shops on the main street of Oak Bay and stopping for cheese and olives along the way at Ottavio’s.
Before Thyrza and Joanne arrived, Mona and I had a chance to tour the organic farms on the way to her house from the airport and stock up on cherry tomatoes, fresh herbs, and greens, not to mention asparagus from a farm selling only asparagus and trusting us to put our $5-a-bunch through a slot. It’s a first for me. We also toured the Victoria Art Gallery, which houses my favourite artist, Emily Carr, and as I marveled at her trees, I remembered that she was my inspiration when I began painting at the Edmonton Art Gallery at 11.
Back to Oakville, it’s a lovely place to live and visit. Mona’s condo has a close-up view of the bay and the many families of Canada geese washing themselves off by the shore. She claims they can be a nuisance when they get into the greenery but hey, Canada geese have to eat and feed their babies, right?
Of the restaurants, two stand out: The vegetarian-Chinese Lotus Garden downtown — there is nothing like this in Montreal — perfect for vegans who love Chinese flavours. The other is the Zanata winery, where we lunched on the way to Duncan, 61 km from Victoria, to visit Sue and Rick whose second home is the Amblecote Holly Farm. We stopped off at Cowichan Bay, 55 k. from Victoria. Duncan is the city in the Cowichan Valley. The picture, taken on our third day, on the front page is of Cowichan Bay and the picture of us is at Sue and Rick’s farmhouse.
Sue and Rick have filled their 1880s second home with Canadiana, Parisian antiques and posters, and gorgeous BC paintings, and remodeled the house to preserve its authenticity.
The view from the house is spectacular. The holly trees are no longer farmed because it’s simply too much work, but for 200 years one family managed a Christmas business supplying holly all over Western Canada, which Sue and Rick took over for a few years.
We spent much of our time remembering our years at Talmud Torah. Every teacher was discussed. We remembered our principal Mr. Chetner, taunting us with his strap, Mrs. Eilie rapping our knuckles when we didn’t perform in Grade 1, Mrs. Katzer reading Winnie the Pooh aloud to us in Grade 2, the infernal tense exercises (see, saw, seen) Miss Hutt made us copy from the board in Grade 3, and square dancing in the gym with Mrs. Walker, in Grade 6.
Thyrza remembers me sticking up for her at recess in Grade 1 when another girl picked on her. Folding my arms across my chest I told Thyrza: “Tell the teacher on her!” She did and the harassment stopped. I could see my personality being formed in that story.
We remembered our teen years at Ross Sheppard High, along with first dates, football games, and Young Judaea (a Zionist youth group), where we would sit around a make-believe camp fire singing “We shall overcome” and “Hiroshima.” We remembered Bobby Landa driving us to the first A & W in Edmonton at lunch time and the Chinese restaurant at the Woodsworth outdoor mall, where we would meet for lunch running back just in time for class.
I remembered the “Morality Squad” searching for teens in cars, checking to make sure we had all our clothes on. Now why do I remember that? No one else did. We didn’t know at the time that this was a police unit. Even though it was the dawn of the hippie era, let’s not forget this was also Alberta, known then as the Bible Belt.
As our time together came to a close, we shed tears of gratitude for the mere fact that we were all reasonably healthy and would all turn 70 in the next two months and had come together to celebrate. We remembered two friends, Elaine Winicure and Sharon Bleviss, who are no longer with us and are still in our hearts.
We decided we might do it again next year in Montreal, the BJMT club as we were known to each other back in the late 1950s, because every year is worth celebrating, isn’t it? Maybe the girls in Toronto will join us, including Trudy and Rachel and maybe even Honey and Esi from Edmonton will come.
Thank you Thyrza, Mona, and Joanne for making this reunion so lovely, for not changing all that much, and for reminding me of our childhoods in Edmonton. Next year in Montreal!