My eldest aunt had been, in the womb, a twin: I wonder if she was seeking her other, vanished, half, all through her 90 years and more and beyond. Minnie first appeared in Providence when she was – oh, my! –fifty! She stood on our front steps for a photograph, proudly posing upon platform high heel sandals, with rhinestones glittering all around, as though she were on stage, or following the fad created by Joan Crawford.
As the first-born, she did her share of bossing her sisters and her baby brother, but without much real authority. They were somehow more savvy, more with-it, than she was. Her intelligence had everything to do with her fashion sense. That was her highest personal attainment and claim to fame. She not only purchased a truly fine wardrobe, but she could also design and sew like a Canadian, a Montreal version of Edith Head in Hollywood. She made a grand entrance at fancy affairs among the boulevard hotels like our own Duchess of Windsor.
Minnie had one daughter, a quiet, serene, elegant, delicate beauty! My mother kept a snapshot of her niece in her purse, proud of the Cohen tradition of chic and of grace.
Once, indeed, my aunt Minnie caught me by surprise. I was a student in France, in a university town called “Tours,” where the chateaux were lit up in the evenings to show off the romantic Loire valley of love among the aristocracy. Well, I was just riding my bicycle among my humble errands, when I got a telegram … or was it a “pneumatique”? It was an invitation from Minnie and her husband Izzy to meet them at a first-class hotel on the right bank in Paris and from there to join them for a gala dinner evening at the renowned Moulin Rouge in Pigalle!
How could I refuse? I took a train, and then the subway, and smiled at the incongruity of we three making our way among the naughty cobbled alleyways to the notorious – but by now touristy – Moulin Rouge. It was a luxurious strip club that brought me back to the old bars of Central Falls – the F.E.I. club and the Blue Moon: our mini- Las Vegas of the 1940s.
As I dimly recall in a blur, there were nude dances in the show, but our table was at a respectable distance, and I had to squint to see the stage spectacle.
Whew! Back in Montreal in the years that followed, we always brought up that absurd evening, at which I could show off my good, non-Quebec, French accent, while Minnie could show off her expensive outfits. We had that in common, our pride and taste for bits of glittery ostentation. Give us our moment!
Of the family past, Minnie had more information than anyone up over the Canadian border but I got only a few quick hints. I knew we had relatives in Toronto. There were a few cousins in Israel. Her father had been a manager on a farm in Rumania, but her mother from Bucharest had inspired their daughters to look into the mirror both literally and figuratively, and to listen deeply to classical music. Vague, spotty references, mostly.
I think Minnie actually liked my architect brother Chick more than she appreciated me. He at least built something, instead of just talking big words and nice phrases. Also, he was the age of Minnie’s pretty daughter – how about a match, eh? Nevertheless, Minnie opened her door and table to me, my friends and fellow travelers, always with warm hospitality, hoping that Montreal might hold some memorable cafes or boutiques. Upon her final days in the hospital, my brother and I visited her, and he spoke to her admiringly, flatteringly, and aptly, giving her full credit for adding a dimension of class and charm to our clan. He spoke softly and gently to our mother’s oldest sibling. I was touched by his tact.
I have a postscript about my light sketch of Minnie. Her youngest sibling and the only boy was Moe, whose special gift lay in telling a good joke. He would lead up to the punchline slowly, with an artist’s patient pace, delaying with delicious malice the guffaw, which he could deliver with great accents, French, or Yiddish, or British. “He would wake up in the middle of the night, laughing at his own latest story,” boasted his wife, my aunt Florence. (Which is the name of my mother-in-law and my first granddaughter.)
I file these footnotes to point out how a family album can be stopped from the flow of time and change and arranged like a collage within a frame. Minnie, who believed in putting a good face upon everything; Moe, who preferred to laugh at the time to come or the time passed, and we American nephews who took it all in. Minnie’s charming daughter – her name is Rhoda – had a daughter who graduated from Brown University and sent her own son and daughter to her alma mater. So Minnie – by no means an “intellectual” in any sense –created and founded a line of scholars, writers and doctors, who have lived in Providence, served on the board of trustees of the Brown Medical School, and tied a bow or a knot between the branches and among the roots of our family.
My father’s name was Moe, like my uncle’s. Once his generation of peers had passed, uncle Moe changed his name from Moe to “Henry,” abandoned Canada altogether, moved to Florida, where he invited everyone to visit and celebrate with him. L’chaim to life in the future but Zachor to the realms of memory! Our Providence university seems to have taken in and absorbed the clan from Canada: it’s part of the mystical, the magical, the Hasidic, transcendence of our landscape.
Mike Fink (Mfink33@aol.com) teaches at RISD.