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Max Roytenberg

Max Roytenberg: Visiting Uncle Barney

Max Roytenberg, Dublin, June 2013

Everybody should have an Uncle Barney!

Especially if you are a kid growing up in a world of adults who don’t really notice you. Oh, they notice you, but not really. Sure, there may be a chair at the table for you when it’s time to eat. There may be a place in the car when it’s time to go somewhere. You are shepherded along with the family crowd. They would probably notice if you weren’t there. But you are not noticed, really.

Uncle Barney was married to Auntie Bayla, my mother’s sister. Auntie Bayla brought my mother from their home in Gomel, Bielloerussia, (Moldova, today) to help her in the house. It could have been there that my mother may have developed her aversion to doing housework.  When she had her own household, it was my oldest sister who had to absorb such tasks as soon as advancing age made it feasible. I know that I learned how to live with a chaotic environment. If I am a messy person, I came by it rightly.

Still, if Auntie hadn’t brought my mother over, she would likely have died in the Holocaust like her seven brothers and their families.

Uncle Barney had taken my Aunt for a second wife. I knew there was another family of in-laws somewhere in the background. Barney and Bayla lived a lifetime together and had four children. Uncle Barney was full of fun and had a great sense of humour. Auntie Bayla, on the other hand, could turn a sunny day into rain. The expression permanently on her face did not indicate that it had been much fun for my mother to have worked for her. My mother must have been very happy to take up with my father to establish her own household. But Barney would as soon smile at you as look at you. How did he do it?

Regardless, when we were children, a holiday would not pass without our being invited to sup at my Aunt’s table. During wartime, the older children were long gone, but my cousin Jerry was still around. Growing up, and in high school, my cousin Jerry was my God. A few years my senior, he was a big man on campus. Handsome, and surrounded always by the girls, he was my idol. What a beautiful athletic body he had. Did I envy him-not much!

But the best part was, Uncle Barney OWNED A GROCERY STORE. It was located on Bannerman and Andrews. Yes, it really existed. Perhaps, today, one can’t imagine what that could mean. Where we lived, when we wanted something we needed groceries in our house, I would have to run to the little corner grocery store, called Goody’s, down at the end of the block on Jarvis street, under the Salter bridge. My mother would give me paper money, little strips of paper imprinted as five, ten or fifteen cents. Usually we would be buying staples only. A rare piece of fruit would be cut many ways. We would eat every scrap of bread. I remember one of the first things I did when I was older and travelling in Europe on my own was to buy a melon and devour the whole thing myself.

What one would never do was waste food. If something went bad in our ice-box (literally, a box containing ice), it would be a disaster. We bought our ice from a man who came to the door, or we salvaged chunks of ice found on the railway tracks, dumped from a train as excess. That was where we got some of our coal for our furnace (before oil) as well, dropped from the cabins of railway engines. In those days, groups of us ranged like Dickensian child-gangs, raiding the railway ice-house in summer and canvassing railway coal-stores, or miles of track for fallen jewels, sometimes through the ice and   snow during the winter.

On occasion we would buy a favourite treat like salami at Goody’s. Then we would buy, perhaps, ten slices, sliced very thin. Everything was carefully counted. Mama could cook, but she was never one of those who could create banquets out of nothing. She was not a baker of many things from scratch. Mama was an entrepreneur, she would buy things on sale at the department stores and peddle them to the neighbours for a profit. My nostalgia for Mama’s cooking was limited to a very few items. The things in my growing-up diet that I avoided the rest of my life were much more numerous. The fire in my belly did finally go out when I left home.

So, being invited to Uncle Barney’s, we could always expect a wonderful meal, with as many helpings as we wished. Uncle Barney would pay close attention and speak individually with each one of us children, and ask about our lives. He would invite us to go into the store and pick out a candy. I would get a chance to visit the grocery store. It would be closed in the evening and I could stand in the store and stare at all the plenty around me, the shelves full of all the good things of life. I was Alice in Wonderland.

And the salami and corned beef! They were there, great chunks of beef, and many long beautiful stalks of “voorsht” of varying kinds. And sometimes, in an afternoon, we would have sandwiches. Often they would be made with thick slices of our favourite salami.  And sometimes my cousin Jerry and I would just have CHUNKS of the stuff on a plate. Can you even imagine it? One could faint.

Uncle Barney made us feel welcome. We were family. We weren’t poor relatives sponging off him. We had a right to be there. He always appeared pleased to see us, and made us feel he was so happy we were there at the table. There were smiles and there was laughter in that house. When we went home, we always went with arms laden with goodies. 

The aura that my Uncle broadcast, the memories of him I carried in my mind, sustained me through many of my years. It was not just the material benefits we derived, which were indeed so valuable to us during those straightened times. It was the spirit of generosity he projected, a spirit I saw in my cousin, Jerry, as well. I saw it later in Barney’s daughter, Doreen. I did not really know the other boys.

Uncle Barney, has always been in my mind the prototype of the generous host I should be-everybody should be-spreading cheer and warm feelings to all who might be honouring your home with their presence. Done well, the messages sent, telegraph to your guests a feeling of the worth they have in your eyes that may help sustain them in some small way through less promising times. What a difference having someone like a Barney can make in a young person’s life, another personage out of Dickens.

May his life, as always, be recalled as a blessed memory. Oh yes, Auntie, too.


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