Dec. 18, 2020
By JANICE ARNOLD
MONTREAL—Clearing out a home after a parent dies or moves to a care facility is bound to evoke memories and often turn up surprises.
Toronto writer Sharon Kirsch’s widowed mother’s departure for a seniors’ residence and the sale of the family home set Kirsch on a years-long research project. She delved into her parents’ relationship, and hers with them, as well as the lives of long-dead relatives they rarely talked about – for very different reasons.
Kirsch’s new book The Smallest Objective (New Star Books) is a very personal memoir set in the Jewish Montreal of the 20th century, fascinating for its frank examination of mothers and daughters, revelation of family secrets, and showing how the past is always somehow present.
It’s about what material goods we leave behind say about us – and her parents left an awful lot behind.
Born in 1960, Kirsch was the only child of Rene née Rutenberg and Dr. Archie Kirsch. She grew up in the suburban split-level her parents bought new in 1955, the same house Kirsch was tasked with disposing of after her mother’s worsening dementia made it impossible for her to continue living on her own.
Kirsch avoids pathos. In fact, the book starts out as a mystery. Her father, a Second World War veteran 17 years older than her mother, always claimed he had buried a treasure under the floorboards of the master bedroom.
Kirsch spends considerable time and expense, even hiring experts in ground penetrating radar, but finds nothing. It was only the beginning of obsession.
That micro exploration grows to the macro level as Kirsch methodically goes through her parents’ stuff. While not exactly hoarders, the couple seem to have kept all manner of ephemera, in addition to the usual photos and documents, letters, postcards, invitations, recipes, grocery lists, newspaper clippings and obscure collections.
These prove to be a more valuable trove than the illusive hidden booty. The ever-unfolding memorabilia contrasts with the mental decline of her mother, a once fashionable and fastidious woman, until her death in 2013.
Kirsch comes to a better understanding of her mother’s lifelong anxiety and the fractiousness that marked her marriage. Although she had attended college and become a teacher, Rene, typical of her generation, gave it up for an idealized domesticity.
The title, The Smallest Objective, is a term that expresses the magnification power of a microscope, a found object that takes Kirsch on a journey back to the generation before her parents. It also suggests the minutiae which affords a glimpse into the bigger picture.
The microscope had belonged to her father’s father, Simon Kirsch, a Lithuanian immigrant and son of a peddler who got into McGill University and studied botany, earning a PhD in the early 20th century.
Sharon was named for Simon but he died long before she was born and was only mentioned at home in vague terms.
Simon Kirsch would work for the U.S. Forest Service in the Wisconsin woods, then become a McGill professor, unusual for a Jew, she finds out. He then branched into real estate and left academe to make a modest fortune investing in land and mining around Quebec. At his death, he was regarded as a respected Jewish community leader.
After finding clippings of his obituary, Kirsch then set her sights on the family “black sheep,” her great-uncle Jockey Fleming, born Moses Rutenberg at the end of the 19th century to a Russian immigrant family.
Charitably, Jockey was a colourful Runyanesque character who hobnobbed with entertainment and sports figures and was a favourite subject of Montreal newspaper gossip columnists. More realistically, he was a ne’er-de-well who lived on the margins of the law, scalping tickets after earlier stints as a featherweight boxer and singing waiter.
Kirsch was 14 when he died in 1974 but she only saw him by accident on a downtown street. Her mother quickly steered her away from him, muttering the family was ashamed of him.
As she does with Simon, Kirsch spins bits and pieces into an imagining of the larger historical and social circumstances that made Jockey into who he was.
The other relative almost as rarely mentioned by her parents was her aunt Carol, her mother’s younger sister and sole sibling. The reason was not shame; on the contrary, Carol Rutenberg was beautiful, talented and outgoing. She had a career as a physiotherapist and married a dashing ex-Air Force pilot.
Pregnant with their first child, Carol miscarried and died days later at age 26. Kirsch, who was not yet five, has only vague memories of her. It seems the shock and grief was so great, her mother simply shut her emotions away with cherished mementoes of that short tragic life she kept in albums and boxes.
These were the true buried treasure.
As Kirsch concludes, “I began The Smallest Objective by studying possessions and myself became possessed, claimed by my subjects.”