THE END

Suddenly, the lifelong Jewish housewife was serving hot dogs. Heartbreak hardened into cynicism.

MARTIN PATRIQUIN July 31 2006
THE END

Suddenly, the lifelong Jewish housewife was serving hot dogs. Heartbreak hardened into cynicism.

MARTIN PATRIQUIN July 31 2006

Suddenly, the lifelong Jewish housewife was serving hot dogs. Heartbreak hardened into cynicism.

THE END

BARBARA STRUDENSKY 1935-2006

Barbara Strudensky, née Abramovitch, was born on Dec. 19, 1935, in Montreal, the younger of Ida and Isadore Abramovitch’s two daughters. She grew up in and around her mother’s beauty parlour on Park Avenue in Montreal’s working-class Jewish district. At 18, she married Marvin Strudensky, giving birth within a year to her first child, Steven; Barry would come three years later, and Andrea, the youngest, eight years after that. She was an exceptional housewife, coaxing her children through such home-cooked staples as salmon patties and green beans and keeping her fridge stocked with brownies and cakes. She was tall, slim and beautiful, her nails and hair as meticulous as the house she kept.

“My mother was taught that you get married and someone takes care of you,” says Steven. “That’s what she bought into.”

There was one rule best left unbroken: no one was to bother her before her first coffee and cigarette in the morning.

Barbara was a prolific smoker, filling the kitchen and den of the family’s CôteSaint-Luc apartment with wafts of pungent smoke from her king-sized menthol cigarettes. She started at 15, and was smoking three packs a day by the time she was married. Marvin, a bookkeeper by trade, had his own habit, chasing faraway dreams, and in 1978 he and Barbara split up after 25 years of marriage.

It was to be the first and most devastating of what she referred to as “the earthquakes in life.” At 43, she was alone with no way to make ends meet. She picked up some work as a manicurist, using the skills she had learned as a child from her mother. It wasn’t enough. The bottom of her suburban dream had fallen out from under her, and she became very depressed.

Barbara’s brother-in-law Sydney Titleman (her sister Sylvia’s husband) owned Restaurant Emile Bertrand, a greasy spoon in SaintHenri, a working-class district dominated by railroad tracks and heavy industry. When Sydney died in 1983, Sylvia and Barbara took over the counter at the tiny, popular hole in the wall known for its homemade spruce beer. All of a sudden, the two lifelong Jewish housewives were serving “steamies,” fries and bottles of the spicy, carbonated concoction to the restaurant’s mostly francophone clientele.

For Barbara, it was another of life’s earthquakes. She didn’t speak a word of French. She learned the basics: “chou” meant cabbage, mustard was “moutarde,” and every order had to be preceded with “Pour ici ou pour emporter?” (“For here or to go?”) “My mother could never really speak French,” says Barry, her younger son. “She spoke the language of hot dogs.”

She also began reading newspapers cover-to-cover, and switched

from Danielle Steel novels to the scuffed, belligerent prose of Mordecai Richler. Her friends were now the labourers, police officers and journalists who frequented Emile’s. In her former life, confrontation meant a disagreement over a grocery bill; now, there were health inspectors, language police and landlords to deal with. With this, Barbara’s heartbreak hardened into cynicism. “She created an identity for herself, that she wasn’t going to take shit, she was going to do what she had to do,” Barry says. The counter at Emile’s was a war zone, and Barbara its general. Hell hath no fury like that reserved for anyone who bothered her with anything short of murder between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. when she was serving the line of customers that often snaked around the corner.

In 1989, another earthquake. The restaurant burned to the ground and Sylvia, who didn’t take to the hot dog trade as readily as her sister, had never bothered with fire insurance. Barbara got a bank loan and reopened six weeks later; at 54, she became a business owner for the first time in her life. Among the “friends of the restaurant,” as many of the male customers were known, was Barry Fleischer, who in 1991 began brewing and bottling the spruce beer when the former brewmaster retired. Soon enough, he and Barbara were an item.

The restaurant, though, was falling apart, and was in danger of falling prey to Saint-Henri’s burgeoning condo market. Barbara moved around the corner in 2004, into a building bought by the family. It was decorated the same way: bright yellow walls with red trim, adorned with pictures of celebrity customers and newspaper clippings. Barbara, though, never wanted to move. She’d had enough earthquakes.

On May 24—a week before Montreal’s smoking ban was to come into effect—Barbara finished the lunchtime shift and nearly collapsed. Her daughter-in-law took her to the clinic, where the doctor advised her to go to the emergency room. Barbara would have none of it; she would spend one more night in her Côte-Saint-Luc apartment. “I feel like this is the last time I’ll be here,” she said.

It was. The next day, the doctors at the Jewish General Hospital found that cancer in her lungs had spread throughout her body. Barbara took up residence at the hospital, handing out free meal certificates from Emile’s to doctors and fellow patients, and confounding the nurses with her constant smoke breaks outside. On the night of July 2, Andrea went to see her, turning down Barbara’s television and telling her mother she was greatly loved. Barbara Strudensky died early the next morning,

MARTIN PATRIQUIN