All grandmothers are sweet little old ladies whose memory everyone cherishes, right?
Not necessarily. Carol Katz is 76 and she still harbours resentment against her “overbearing Jewish grandmother.” But after much reflection, she is prepared to try to understand why the woman was the way she was.
Katz, a retired librarian and archivist (she worked for many years at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal), has written and illustrated Mad or Bad? The Story of My Grandmother. She likes to call it a graphic novel, rather than a comic book, because although the tone is light and humorous, it has a serious narrative about family relationships and the Jewish immigrant experience.
Bubbie Anita, Katz’s paternal grandmother, came to live with the family when Katz was a baby and stayed for years.
The Goldenbergs – a traditional, Yiddish-speaking family – lived in a tiny apartment at 5681-A Park Ave., a building that still exists near Bernard Avenue in Montreal. Katz shared a bedroom with Bubbie Anita, while her parents, and eventually her younger sister, slept in the living room.
The book grew from a story Katz wrote during a creative non-fiction course given by author Elaine Kalman Naves, who has written about her own family’s background.
Mad or Bad? is being published by Montreal-based Paper Dog Press, which specializes in young adult graphic novels. Founder Kate Lavut is interested in “quirky” books that speak to all ages, which she believes Katz’s unconventional tale does.
Bubbie Anita was very secretive about her past, but Katz pieced it together. The turmoil she lived through may explain her domineering, insensitive behaviour, Katz now realizes.
Bubbie Anita’s first husband died, and she remarried and had three children in what is now Belarus. The family fled pogroms there and ended up in China.
Then things get a little mysterious. Bubbie Anita left her husband and went with the children to New York. Soon after, she left her youngest son with her sister and her sister’s husband, who had no kids of their own, and came to Montreal to raise her other two children.
Bubbie Anita was still relatively young when Katz was born, and was still attractive, well dressed and on the lookout for another man. She was also independent and ambitious, and opened Anita’s Toy Store on Park Avenue.
Bubbie Anita was very possessive of her son and competed with her daughter-in-law in running the household.
It appears to have been no contest – Katz’s uncomplaining mother acquiesced, ceding the kitchen and even the children’s care to Bubbie Anita.
Katz still remembers how hurt her mother was by the insults.
To this day, Katz bitterly recalls how her grandmother failed to show up for her ballet recital – which was a very big deal for her – at Rialto Hall. She was the only girl with no family in the audience.
As the girls grew up, Bubbie Anita interfered more and more in their lives, trying to set them up with boys she approved of. But like all good stories, this one has a happy ending of sorts.
Every page is filled with whimsical drawings in watercolours, acrylics and ink. Katz thanks Oleg Dergachov, who helped her develop her latent artistic talent in his cartooning class.
Family photos from the era were incorporated into the art. And nearly every frame has a cat making wry observations about the domestic troubles (Katz was, and is, an unapologetic feline fancier).
Katz concedes that her grandmother didn’t have it easy. “Her life was totally torn apart. She was wandering with three kids, not knowing where to go,” said Katz.
“She was really mean, but now that I think about it, maybe this was the only way she could show love.” Although the book is called Mad or Bad?, Katz now wonders if her bubbie was just sad.
Producing her debut book was therapeutic for Katz (who has two children, but is not a grandmother) and she hopes it can be for others, as well. She wants people who have unresolved pain stemming from family relationships to realize that they are not alone.
Lavut agrees. “People like to hold onto the image of the perfect family, but family life is not always idyllic. It’s better to talk about that than let it haunt you for decades,” she said.
“That’s why Mad or Bad? hit a chord with me and I think it will with a lot of other people.”