I don’t know why but to his day I still remember the numbers, an interview with: my dad’s mom and dad
Norm and Irene hop on the mic
My grandpa, Norman Wexelman, is 90 years old. My grandma, Irene Wexelman (nee Debrovsky)(I’m not sure I spelled that correctly) is 87. Norm’s gotten quiet over the years but they both have excellent memories and are with it. Irene usually FaceTimes me once a week to ask me a series of questions (her favorite, “How are you on a scale of 1-10?”) and hops off the call swiftly after just a little talk about the weather and the news. My favorite part of this interview is how Norm paints his own Montreal, dropping addresses as Joyce does for Dublin in his works. I won’t say much more because what is there to say about one’s grandparents apart from "I love them very much”? They’ve said it all for themselves so without further ado…
Me: What year were you born?
Norm: I was born March 27, 1931.
Me: What do you remember about your childhood?
Norm: What do I remember about my childhood? I remember certain little things: I was brought up by my grandmother until I was five. We lived across the road from each other on Cartier Street in the area called Papineau [in Montreal, Quebec]. All our family lived within the houses in the area. My mother worked and my father worked. I spoke Yiddish before I spoke English.
Me: I didn’t know that
Norm: Well, you know it now.
Me: And why did your grandmother raise you for those years?
Norm: My mother worked. In those days, if you got a job, you didn’t earn big salaries.
Me: What did they do?
Norm: My mother worked in a cigar factory. She made cigars. And my father worked in a millinery—ladies hats. And when I was five years old we moved to deBouillon between Mount Royal and Villeneuve. I can even tell you the address.
Irene: That’s near Moishes [Steakhouse], Alex. I want him to get his bearings.
Norm: 4581 deBuillon. And in that area, there were Jewish people and French people. And the French people were anti-Semites. To get to school sometimes we had to fight our way through the area. If we were more than two Jews, and they were four-five French people, we still could get by because they wouldn’t start up with us. But if there was one, they would try to start up with you. I went to school. Bancroft School that was on Saint-Urbain between Marie-Anne and Mount Royal. It was where most of the Jewish kids went and we had some gentiles too, but most of the people in the area were Jewish.
Me: What do you remember about what was going on at the time? Did you have any idea about the war?
Norm: The war just started. I was born in ‘31 and I started in Bancfrot School 5-6 years old so the war was just starting. Canada didn’t get into the war yet.
Me: What about when you were eight years old or 10 years old?
Norm: There was no TV and things like that. You didn’t hear much about it. If you didn’t read the newspaper or listen to the radio, you didn’t too much about the war.
Me: And you didn’t listen to the radio?
Norm: Oh, I listened to the radio but eight-nine year old kids just pass it by.
Me: OK. So, you only went through 8th Grade, right?
Norm: I went to Bancroft School till 7th Grade. Eighth Grade I went to Baron Byng High School. Baron Byng High School was between Saint-Urbain and Clark on Rachel and Marie-Anne. It was a big Jewish high school. Most of the Jewish kids went to Baron Byng.
Me: And you graduated high school?
Norm: No, no. I went till 9th Grade.
Me: And then what happened?
Norm: I went to work.
Me: What were you doing?
Norm: When I was young, I had a lot of jobs. I had about three-four jobs. I brought home more money than my father did when I was about 14-15. My main job was I worked in the Montreal Forum where the [Montreal] Canadians played hockey—the Canadians and the American League, also. The Forum had about 200-250 events a year, mainly hockey, and then they had the circus and other special things. I sold programs, souvenirs, things like that. And I did quite well. Even when I worked there, I worked at a grocery store on Bernard between Park Avenue and Hutchinson called Royal George Grocery. And I also delivered prescriptions and medicines on weekends at a drugstore called Macy’s. Also, I spotted pins in a bowling alley. I worked two lanes. It was all done by hand. You didn’t have machines yet. I think my father earned $22 and I earned maybe $40-50.
Me: Was he jealous?
Norm: No, I gave my mother money. I used to give money to the house.
Me: And what about your brother? What was he doing?
Norm: My brother was younger. My brother didn’t work.
Me: You lived in a room with him?
Norm: Yeah. In deBouillon, we lived there till I was 13. At 13, we moved to Saint Urban between Fairmont and Laurier into a triplex and we had the top floor. We had one room. In the back of the room, we had a nail and that was our cupboard. We’d hang up a shirt, a pair of pants. He didn’t have any clothes. Whatever we had hung up behind the door. Then I went to high school, to Baron Byng, when I was probably 13-14.
Me: You said you didn’t finish, you went to work…
Norm: I went to work in a place that made lady’s sportswear. A place called Eddie Singer. I was 15 and I worked there till I was about 21. It was right near the house. On Saint Laurence between Laruier and Fairmont. I could walk home and walk to work. It took less than five minutes. And then we moved down to Saint Laurence between Pine Avenue and Prince Arthur. And I even remember the address of the apartment we lived in: 5139. I remember the numbers. I don’t know why but to his day I still remember the numbers.
Me: Play them in the lottery.
Me: At what point did you meet Grammy?
Norm: Well, Grammy lived on Jeanne-Mance between
Irene: Laurier and Fairmont
Norm: And I lived on Saint Urban between Laurier and Fairmont. It was only three blocks away. And the kids that hung around, she was one of them. I was with the boys and she was with the girls and we used to socialize a little together. So actually, I met her when she was 15.
Me: How old were you?
Norm: I’m three years older so I was 18, she was 15.
Me: OK. They wouldn’t go for that these days.
Norm: Probably not. Then we went out. I was the host at her “Sweet 16” and we went out socially for about two years in groups. Probably the same thing you do today but mainly in groups. There were four-five girls, four-five boys and it was in groups.
Me: Were you going with her? Were you going steady?
Norm: Mainly. She went out with one other boy in the interim but that was it. We were going steady, yes.
Me: Did Grammy’s parents like you?
Norm: I think so. I had no problem with them. They weren’t happy that a 15-16-year-old was going with an 18-year-old probably but there was no problem.
Me: And she had money and you didn’t, right?
Norm: Well, I made money. But her parents had money and mine didn’t.
Me: That didn’t bother them?
Norm: I don’t think so. Maybe it did but I didn’t need to live off their help. Whatever I earned, we were able to live. We got married. In fact, tomorrow is our 69th wedding anniversary. November 30th.
Norm: Before we got married, we bought a house in Saint-Laurent: 304 Tate Street. And we paid $12,500 for the house. I had a car that I sold for $800-900 and Grammy had a savings bond for $2,000 and we needed $2,900 as a downpayment and we bought the house before we even got married.
Me: What year was this?
Norm: What year was the house?
Me: What were you doing when you bought the house?
Norm: I was still working for Eddie Singer
Me: OK, what was your next job?
Norm: I had a cousin called Morty Wexler and my next job wasn’t a job; we founded a company called Crown Brush, in the brush business. He said, “I’m going to buy this brush business. Why don’t you come and be a partner with me?” So I said, “Fine.” We each had to put in $2,500. I borrowed $2,500 from the bank. Shiah, mummy’s father [Irene’s dad], had to sign for me and he had $2,500 and we worked together for a year. But it wasn’t enough for one year. A friend of mine who also grew up in the area, and worked for Eddie Singer, too, said, “Why don’t we go into business?” So I said, “Fine.” So I sold my shares back to Morty for the same $2,500 that I put in and we each put in $5,000 each. I had to borrow another $2,500 and we went into business.
Me: Hold on, the dog is freaking out because her ball is in the pool. C’mon, you know how to get it. Don’t let it go in again. Ok, so what was that business?
Norm: We went into the same business that we were in with Eddie Singer. It was called Skirtogs. And we did very well.
Me: OK, what was the business?
Norm: We made skirts and blouses and ladies’ pants. And from there we opened up other divisions with other partners. We grew to a company that in the lady’s industry was the third biggest company in the eastern part of Canada.
Me: And what happened?
Norm: Well, from 1954 until 1982 we had 10-12 different companies. We made dresses and coats and sweaters, different things, with partners.
Me: And you guys would do ripoffs of the popular styles, right?
Norm: We’d copy expensive styles into cheaper versions and we’d sell them to the chain stores and department stores at lower prices.
Me: Who were your big customers?
Norm: Our big customers were Reitmans, a chain of lady’s stores. At the time, they had 500-600 stores. It grew to about 1,200 stores. Sears was a big company, Eaton’s, Hudson Bay Company, all the big companies were customers of ours.
Me: What was your life like at that point?
Norm: Well, we had three children and we went through our life. We moved from Tate Street to Bertron Circle and then from Bertron Circle to downtown 1333 Red Path Crescent and then we bought a house in the country. We used to go up every weekend. And during the summer, I’d commute from Montreal on Thursdays till Monday morning. And we had a good life and we did everything. We skied, we played golf with the kids, played tennis, and that’s where we are now.
Me: That’s all that happened in your life? You worked some jobs and now you’re here?
Norm: What else? I didn’t do anything else really.
Me: What about the stuff in Antigua?
Norm: Oh well, this is all part of what we went through. In 1976, we were looking for a place because that’s when the separatist movement came in. And we were looking for a place to make goods out of the country ‘cause we weren’t importers but we wanted to start. We went to Haiti first because Haiti was a French-speaking country and we didn’t like Haiti. And on Nov the 12th 1976 when Quebec turned separatist, I went to Antigua. Grammy didn’t even know where Antigua was. Neither did I. It’s in the Caribbean. We were introduced to some people. They were building a whole area where they wanted people to come and employ some local people and we ended up being partners with Vidal Sassoon who was a very big hairstylist. He made shampoos and stuff like that. And we made the jeans called Sassoon and we shipped them all over the United States and Canada and some even to Europe and we had a big company there and employed almost 450 people. And then Vidal Sassoon sold his company to Richardson-Vicks—they’re the people that make Vicks VapoRub, they’re a big company—and they didn’t want to be in the jean business. So we sold them back the name and we sold the company to another jean manufacturer. Because we didn't have the name anymore, we wouldn’t be able to keep the employees. And they operated the company for quite a while.
And while I was there, in the interim, I became very friendly with the government. At the time, the prime ministers’ son, the deputy prime minister, he came to Montreal to see what we had, our factory there, they built us a big factory there, 40,000 square feet, we employed all these people. And then it was over. We always had a house there. We bought a house and we built some houses there. For about a year we did nothing. Just went down there for the winter. We didn’t go to Florida at that time. We went from Montreal to Antigua. I said to the deputy prime minister, “Lessie, you know you have a piece of land over here and I want to build some stores and sell them as condos. Twenty-four stores and we sell them to the people who want to come in and operate the stores and buy them and get a monthly fee.” He said, “No, I have a bigger job for you. I want you to build a duty-free section where cruise ships are going to start wanting to come in—there weren’t many cruise ships then—and we have to build a pier to get the cruise ships. So the first pier we built was for two cruise ships. I handled it all. In fact, I think at that time it was 1987-1988 and while we were building all that stuff and building stores I became partners with the government in the company that owned part of the shopping center. The government had to get $15 million U.S. dollars to build the pier. They had $10 million. I arranged a loan with some people who built the pier and low and behold it was built. Today, I’m still in Antigua. I’m still partners with the government in the stores. And there’s five piers now. And some days, when there wasn’t Covid-19, we would get about four or five ships in and the town was buzzing with about a thousand passengers. In the interim we wanted to open up a casino, so I tried to rent one of the areas as a casino because the government wanted a casino there, which was very important. Nobody wanted it. They said it wouldn’t work downtown because who would come downtown to a casino. And one person told us, “Go, try whatever you can to open a casino. Try to go yourself. Elliott worked with me in those days—Elliott is my eldest son—and he worked with me in Antigua. At the beginning, we spent six months there together with Grammy and we didn’t even come back to Montreal to get the place running. And Elliott went to find a company that would sponsor us or sell us machines and lo and behold, to make a long story short, they liked the idea very much and they became 50 percent partners. They build everything. The company was called International Game Technology. It became a very big company selling slot machines to all the casinos and after about a year or two they said they had to get out of the business because their customers who they sold machines to weren’t happy that they were in the casino business because they opened up some in Las Vegas and Reno. They had to sell out to somebody, but Elliott bought the casino called King’s Casino and it’s still running. And it did very well. And we built some homes. We built the first condominium homes called Antigua Village. We built about 35-40 homes originally. Today, there’s about 100 condos and we’ve been staying in Antigua for quite some time. We opened up two Burger King restaurants, which aren’t doing so well right now but at the beginning they were OK. That’s what we’re doing right now. We want to sell some land and build some more homes. Howard, Stuart, and Elliott are all involved in Antigua. I became a citizen of Antigua and so did Stuart and so did Howard and so did Elliott. Even though we’re citizens of Canada and the United States—the boys are United States [Ed: Norm is not a U.S. citizen]—we all have citizenship in Antigua.
Me: Anything else you want to say about your life?
Norm: As I said, we’re going to be married 69 years. And we have three sons, five grandchildren. And I think we have, and had, a good life together. There are everyday problems that you try to take care of and go through life with. But it’s a marriage and that’s it. What do you want to ask?
Me: Idk. Did you have a happy life?
Norm: Yeah, sure. Hey, 69 years of marriage—not every day was happy but most of them were.
Me: What about your life outside of your marriage. Do you have friends?
Norm: Oh, I have a lot of friends. I still have some friends that I grew up with since we were five years old. They’re still around. Two of them are in Florida. We did a lot of things when we were young. We had a club called the Talmuds, which was part of B’nai Brith so we had about 35 members. I was the president of the thing so I was quite active in social life in Canada with all these people. I’m 90. Socially, we were doing a lot of things together. We went on cruises, we went to Mexico, we traveled. You should have the same good life that we’ve had.
Me: I hope so. I don’t know what else to ask right now so we’ll go to Grammy.
Me: OK, Grammy, what year were you born?
Me: And what are your early memories?
Irene: My early memories: I was a very quiet, obedient child. I tried not to cause my mother anguish so whatever she said I should do—of course, this is very generational, Alex—but we, as children, always listened to our parents. I don’t remember very much until I started school. I went to Bancroft then to Fairmount School. I was always a top student. I did my homework. I listened to what the teacher had to say. I paid attention. And I was quite popular. I had girlfriends up until the age when I realized there were also boys that came around and life at home, my sister was almost four years older than I am who I loved dearly and was very close and attached to. My brother who is seven years younger who I still speak to at least once a day. We always went out as a family. My father came from Russia as did my mother. When he came here, he never worked for anybody. He bought a truck and with the truck he made a living. In the wintertime, he cleaned the streets with the snow; in the summertime, he moved people, he delivered parcels, whatever he had to do. Whatever one can imagine, he did. It was a seven-day-a-week venture to keep us going, be he did, and later on in life, of course, he was very successful.
Me: Doing what?
Irene: My father was the second Jewish new car dealer in Quebec. He sold Dodge DeSoto on Park Avenue between Fairmont and Saint Viator and then he moved to Bernard in Outremont. He had a very nice, Jewish clientele, but then when he moved to Outremont he had a very nice, French clientele. He was a very warm, kind, generous man. People gravitated to him and he did business very well and they all liked him. Whoever bought a car from him came back for more. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. She did nothing but look after us. She worried about every moment of our life. I never came home from school at 3:15 that my mother shouldn’t be home. Life was very different then. Everything was in our neighborhood. There was no shopping malls to go to. Whatever we needed, we walked over and got. Park Avenue was the next street from me and that street had, you name it, from ladies to linen to shoes to whatever you could possibly want or need was there. I had an interest in boys but I never really cared. I had girlfriends who had boyfriends but… I was very tall. I was this height when I was 12-years-old.
Me: How tall?
Irene: 5-foot-8. And boys, when they’re 12-years-old, are like 5-foot-2. So they used to laugh and make fun of me but it didn’t really make a mark. I fluffed it off. And then I met Norm, who was extremely tall, good looking, and we gravitated to each other and when he asked me to marry him, of course, that was after going out for about three years, it was easy for me because I knew a lot about him. Norm is a self-made man. Norm didn’t have education. He ran a big business. People today need MBAs to run a business like Norm did but he did everything with his own style. And everything worked. In business, you have to know how to navigate and also, you have to be a gambler. As far as our children, Elliott was born two years after we were married. Three years later, Howard came. And four years later, Stuart. So Elliott was seven, Howard was four, and I had Stuart. Norm was a very interested parent. We did everything together. There was no such thing as, “Weekends I’m going fishing” or “I’m going on a golf weekend.” That didn’t happen. The only thing he did do was he went to Europe for his styles. He used to get all the styles in my size and I had a wardrobe of every designer imaginable because that’s who he used to copy. It was a very lucrative business. He knew what he was doing and the stores liked him and he was good to his employees. I don’t think there was an employee there who had one bad word to say about Norm because he was not petty, he shared. When they had a good year, everybody benefited by it. We always lived in our own home from the day we got married—he told you all that. And always a nice home. Sainte-Agathe-[des-Monts] to me is the best place in the world.
Me: You lived full time in Sainte-Agathe?
Irene: We lived six months in Sainte-Agathe and six months in Florida. We haven’t spent a winter in Sainte-Agathe in over 30 years. Would I like to? I hope I don’t have to because winters are difficult, slippy-slidey, snow, ice. You want to know about life at home when I was young and single?
Me: Sure. Tell me.
Irene: I think I did tell you. My mother was very responsible. She only worried about us. That we ate nutritious food, that we went to bed on time, that we had good fresh air, that we played outside. My mother and father seldom had a harsh word amongst themselves. They spoke very gently and very quietly to each other.
Me: What was life like with three boys?
Irene: Ahh, life with three boys was wonderful. I loved every minute of it. Because Norm was successful, almost from the beginning, I always had help at home so we would get up in the morning, I would give the kids breakfast, this was before school days, dress them, and we would be out the door by 9:30. And whoever was my help at the time would clean up. We’d come back. We always went outside even if it was snowing, blowing, it didn’t matter, we were out. I went to A&P, which was the shop there, I went and did my grocery shopping. We came home and had lunch. If the kids were young and had to have a nap, I would go out and do other errands. I had a car. A lot of people in the ‘50s and ‘60s my age did not have a car yet. I always had a car but we lived in the suburbs, which was a little bit difficult also. If you didn’t have a car, there wasn’t much you could do around there.
Life, Alex, has bumps. It has peaks and it has valleys. But we always got through them. Sometimes with more difficulty than others, but I can always feel that Norm was there for me. He’s a very loyal husband. He has never strayed or even thought of what should he do on his own. There was always a connection. Not only to me but to our sons.
The first one to get married was Stuart. And he and Shari were married a little while maybe two or two and a half years and they gave birth to Alex; that was the joy of my life. I loved him from the minute I saw him and still do. He’s a warm, kind, charing delicious young man who I know I can count on for the rest of my life.
And then next was Marni and next was Becca and then Romy and then Zoe. I have one grandson and four grandgirls who are the love of my life. They are all going in different directions. Two are in New York, one’s in Brooklyn, one’s outside of Chicago, and one is in Florida. I would like for their future to be a bit more solidified, but who am I to… Covid has really put a bad dent in everybody’s life and I’m hoping the girls will find nice boys. Alex, I think found a lovely girl. Julia right now is a very special girl. They understand each other and I hope the girls can find their matches also. And that’s it.