When I was growing up, we had an old piano in our living room. It was a full upright, with dark brown wood, ivory keys, and a loose, full sound. The middle C was chipped, which made it easy to find when I was learning to play.
It was a player piano, and when I was little it still worked. I loved to watch the keys go up and down. I’d open up the front panels to see the scroll turning, with the little holes punched out in patterns. It worked with compressed air: two foot pedals folded out from a sliding panel in the base; you had to pump them to keep the piano going.
When my Dad and my step-mom sold their house, my childhood home, I made some enquiries about getting the piano restored and moving it to my place. Because it was a player piano, it weighed a ton. I was living in a small apartment at the time. So when my Dad mentioned he’d had to reinforce the floor to support the piano’s weight, I gave up. My parents sold it.
If I’d known what I know now, I would never have let it go.
I’m sitting on a sofa in my uncle David’s bungalow in Saint-Lazare. My uncle settles his 6-foot plus frame comfortably onto the other side. Now in his early seventies, his movements are slow, deliberate, unhurried. Perhaps he has always moved that way: always in control, always gentle, speaking in a measured voice with a laugh coming right from his belly.
On the floor before us lies the reason for my visit: two large cardboard boxes, containing old family photographs and newspaper clippings chronicling my grandfather’s involvement in the Jewish community when he was young.
My uncle takes the items out one by one, studying them under his glasses, his dark bushy eyebrows furrowing as he tries to figure out who is who, what is what. There are stacks of pictures, black and white, various sizes. A few are in cardboard frames: my mother as a little girl; my grandparents on their wedding day; my grandfather in his late twenties. In one picture he leans proudly against a car, a Model T Ford, from his job as a travelling salesman.
David hands me a copy of The Canadian Jewish Chronicle from November 7, 1930. It’s in tabloid format with the tag-line “The first and foremost Anglo-Jewish Weekly in Canada—Successor to the Canadian Jewish Times, Founded in 1897.” On page ten is my grandparents’ engagement announcement. On page three, an article by Winston Churchill about Palestine.
When I first called David to tell him I wanted to write a story about my grandfather, about his and my late mother’s father, I expected enthusiasm. Ever since I was a kid, he was always asking me about my writing and encouraging me to keep it up. I thought he’d be thrilled. But he wasn’t.
“We were never close,” he explained, in his distinctive deep voice. His father was 44 when he was born. It was too big a gap. “My father didn’t understand the life of a Canadian teenager. We came from different worlds...Society changed. He never adapted.”
Now, photos and newspaper clippings spread before us, David tells me what he knows.
Abraham Aube Katz was born in 1897 in Dinivitz, in the region of Kamenetz-Podolsk, Russia. The area, which later became part of the Ukraine, was in the “Pale of Settlement,” the territory where Russian Jews were forced to live.
In 1907, when Abe was ten, his family fled the pogroms, bringing him and his three sisters to Montreal. His father opened a butcher shop on Roy Street. Around age 13, Abe left school to work in the shop and help his father deliver the packages of meat by horse-driven wagon.
At some point, he lived in St. John, New Brunswick, working as an insurance salesman; he returned to Montreal a few years later. He got a job with the Premier Brand Clothing Company, travelling to small towns in western Quebec and Ontario selling men’s clothing.
Then he met Chaim Korenberg, father of Clara Korenberg, his wife-to-be. “Clara was pushed into the marriage,” David explains, his tone becoming bitter. “I think her father wanted to go into business with Abe… I don’t know.” He hands me the wedding invitation, dated January 17, 1932.
“Did they love each other?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Love didn’t enter into it in those days.”
We look at the wedding photos, large black and white prints of the bride and groom in classic poses. Young Clara holds a bouquet of roses, her head slightly tilted, looking to the side of the camera with a closed-mouth half-smile. To me it’s a classic wedding pose, but David comments, “She was not a happy bride.”
And that’s when he reveals a piece of information which seems to belong to someone else’s family.
“You see, my mother, your grandmother, wanted to be a concert pianist,” he says. “She even attended the McGill Conservatory for a year.”
I look up at him. “Really?”
He nods, staring at the photo. “The piano your mother and I grew up with—it was Clara’s. Years later I met one of her friends, a music teacher. She said Clara could have been one of the greats.”
I think of the piano that I played as a child. I had known it was my mother’s, but I hadn’t realized it had been her mother’s, too. “What happened?”
“Her father pulled her out. Said he needed the money to educate the boys.” He emphasizes the last two words with sarcasm, almost disdain. “Her life ended there.”
I am still trying to absorb this information when he says, “But you want to know about my father.” He puts the photo aside and goes back to the chronology of my grandfather.
All week, this new fact about my grandmother nags at me, like a puzzle piece in search of a puzzle. I question my sisters and my father; it’s news to them too. I begin to have doubts. I decide to call Lela.
Lela is my late mother’s cousin in Toronto. Lela’s father, Morton Korenberg, was one of Clara’s three brothers—the “boys” her father needed the money for.
I don’t actually remember Lela. The last time I saw or spoke to her was… probably when I was ten, at my mother’s funeral. Will she even want to talk to me? I take a deep breath and pick up the phone.
Of course she remembers me. Of course she can tell me about her aunt Clara.
“David mentioned she had wanted to be a pianist?” I venture.
“Oh yes, she was very talented,” Lela says. “When her father pulled her out of the Conservatory, Mort was furious! He felt she had a gift. As a musician himself, he could appreciate it.”
That’s when Lela tells me that all the Korenbergs were musical. Once again I feel like I’m hearing about someone else’s family—not my own great-uncles.
But Lela doesn’t think Clara’s father was trying to be cruel. “That’s just the way women were treated then,” she explains.
“It must have been very hard for Clara,” Lela reflects. “She was a smart woman, but she wasn’t expected to do anything special other than get married.”
I decide to ask David more about his mother. On this visit, we sit on his back patio, admiring a small grove of maple trees separating his house from the neighbour’s.
“My parents led a hard life,” David explains. As a travelling salesman, his father was away a lot. That was hard on Clara, who was left to manage on her own, without much money, raising two kids in their dark, second-floor flat on Hutchison Street.
Clara’s mother had died young. “My mother never learned how to cope,” David reflects. As Clara grew older, she became bitter and paranoid. She thought her husband’s family disliked her, and she kept to herself. She grew suspicious of her husband when he was on the road. They fought. “I was the peacemaker, the glue holding the family together,” David says. “Your mother stayed away as much as possible. She blamed her mother for causing all these problems.”
I ask David if he ever heard Clara play. No. She refused. “That was a part of her life she couldn’t have, so she wanted nothing more to do with it.” But she encouraged her children to take lessons. Sally, my mother, did, but David didn’t want to, said it was “for girls.” He regrets that now.
He does remember, once or twice, his mother showing Sally how to do something on the piano. His eyes take on a faraway look. “She didn’t touch the piano—she caressed it.” Whereas Sally banged away, Clara’s touch was “magic, like an angel.” He makes a delicate movement with his own hand, curving his wrist, remembering.
And he remembers the piano. His face becomes animated. “I couldn’t play, but I could put in a scroll and pump the pedals and watch it play,” he laughs. He takes off his glasses to wipe them. “You know, it could probably still be restored—” he begins, and I realize, with dread, that he doesn’t know.
“We don’t have the piano anymore,” I say.
Oh. He pauses in wiping his glasses. It’s a fraction of a second but I catch a glimpse of something in those blue eyes, or maybe it’s my imagination. Something changes in his face, like a smile fading, like a last piece of his mother’s dream dying. I rush to explain how I had wanted to keep it, but it wasn’t feasible at the time. Of course not, he says, regaining his characteristic composure.
Driving home, it hits me. Why, ever since I was little, my uncle has always made a point of encouraging me in my writing, in my own artistic pursuits: his mother never had the chance to develop her talents, but I do. He does not want me to neglect that opportunity.
I don’t remember my grandmother much at all; I was nine years old when she died of colon cancer. I remember she wore square glasses, looked a lot like my mother, and was always shaking. Nervous. But nice to me.
I email my step-mom to ask what became of the piano. She says they sold it to a young man from B.C. who was studying at McGill. They ran into him two years later in Pointe-Claire; he had moved and left it with a friend.
“I wish I could track it down,” I say.
She asks, “What would you do if you found it?”
I’m not really sure.
First I’ll write about the piano. Then I’ll look for it.
A longer version of this story first appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Quebec Heritage News magazine.