The stories of Sydney Harth are told with an energy and humor that almost belies their powerful, dark subjects. She tackles subjects like chronic depression, the infidelity of parents, the death of children, and rape, all with a cheery, vivacious air that helps her work hit that much harder. You'll be thrilled and unnerved by the stories we present here.
Sydney Harth passed away on January 9th, 2004.
Sydney's works here at Unlikely Stories are:
The Way It Really Happened
The first thing to know about me is that I'm a woman, in spite of my name. The second is that I can't brag about having outgrown autobiography. Bertie, my yellow Lab companion and I are still trying to figure out who we are, and most of the four dozen or so items we have published --Bertie only publishes non-fiction where he can assert himself-- seek an answer to this question.
I remember the day of my grandmother's funeral, "Your grandmother Jacobs," as my mother called her, never using her first name. It seemed to my youth that females did not have names, only relationships like Mumsie, Sis, Aunt, etc. Jacobs was the surname my father used, and its original was not some elaborate version of Jacobs, like Jakobowski, although I used to say it was because I didn't want to admit I didn't know my own name. I later learned that people used to buy passports to the land of promise, and the name on the passport was the name those people used ever after. I use my husband's name for writing because, although people often misspell it, nobody asks me where it came from.
I can't ask ANYBODY HOW JACOBS CAME ABOUT
I haven't, since my mother died, spoken to any of the people who might know. Mumsie was exceptionally beautiful, with an aura (the sort that comes before a migraine) and the family treated her like a fairy princess, or at least, they talked as if she deserved such treatment.
After she died, these worshippers collected in Toronto to watch a showing of a video, shot at her memorial service by my brother's current wife. They gathered at the home of my mother's younger sister in Toronto, and information about the video show came to me in letters of condolence. I could see the family sitting on the comfortable blue couches in my aunt's living room, eating popcorn and watching a rabbi with no gifts for language, speak words with no meaning, about a woman whom he had never met. My Brother's Hebrew stumbled through the necessary prayers, and he was given great credit for this in Toronto.
All these relatives sent me soupy letters to console me, and I made myself write thanks to each. These letters were only mildly abusive, in regrd to the late-departed, but people don't like having to wipe mud off their ideal. None of these cousins and aunts ever answered. My mother always had expanded on my iniquity when talking to them, expounding on my refusal to be adorable, even to wear makeup and stylish clothes, and my letters doubtless proved I was hopeless.
ONE SECRET I DO KNOW
My Dad's mother died many years before my own. Mumsie said--with appropriate shock in her voice--that Granny had a weakness for Dutch gin, and had bottles stashed everywhere. These bottles accounted for her death, said Mumsie, although Granny was eighty-eight at the time. I wondered later how Mumsie accounted for her own death at eighty-three. She had vodka and brandy bottles hoarded in odd spots all over the two room apartment she occupied at the time.
HOME FROM SCHOOL
Mumsie kept us home from school, at my father's request (out-of-respect, it was called), and I had a pleasant boring day reading in my room even though I was in seventh grade and hated missing a minute of school.
I had what I considered a beautiful room, with windows in two directions and lots of light, not to mention a double bed, and a dressing table, and lots of bookshelves. All the furniture was painted a ghastly lilac color, with pea green accents, including a hideous taffeta spread. Mumsie thought the room ugly, and regretted that my brother couldn't have the larger bedroom because its decor was so "feminine."
That day of the ancient gin drinker's funeral, my friend Davey came over after school. Mumsie told us sternly to play-quietly, but our favorite game was wrestling on my bed. He was twelve, with red hair, a crooked arm from polio, thick glasses, and probably a better idea than I about what we were doing. I enjoyed making a racket, climaxed often by the collapse of my bed, which we knew how to put back together.
This time the collapse brought Mumsie into the room with a mighty roar which sent Davey out of there as soon as he could find his shoes. She beat the shit out of me with a belt. Maybe she had something amusing happening in her room right then --Mumsie liked fun-- and our racket spoiled it. My feeble push toward sex probably created the problem. She was hardly twenty years older than I, and she hugged closely her role of sex queen of the household. She wanted no interference from me.
had an unpronounceable name before she married the man who became Mr. Jacobs. She came from a rich, educated merchant family in Bucharest, and she was sent to an elegant school for Jewish young ladies. My memory is that she was enormously fat (48 inch hips, Mumsie said) and about five feet high. She fed me sweet greasy things I loved, and she could read and write in Yiddish, French and Hebrew. She knew no English, although she and I somehow could communicate, and although she lived quite happily in Montreal for nearly fifty years.
She managed to bring along nine or ten children when she and her husband migrated to Canada, but she left her brilliant eldest son, Adolph, with one of her brothers, and he became the first Jew ever to receive a doctorate from a German university. Leipzig, I think. He emigrated when he finished his education, and he taught linguistics for years at Mac Gill university in Montreal. He married a gentile woman, which did not shock the family as much as the fully decorated Christmas tree with an angel on top Adolph and his bride had on display the one and only time the family came to visit.
MY DAD WAS THE YOUNGEST
Granny's supposedly handsome and dashing husband—so he is reputed, but I've never seen his picture—decided after a few years that Montreal was not for him. Gramps took off when Dad was about three or four. He was five or seven years younger than Granny, and must have been having what today they call a mid-life crisis. Mid-forties was about the right age to dump thirteen kids and go off with a ballet dancer.
I'm not sure he actually went off with a genuine ballet dancer. I might have made that up at an early age because it sounded right, and at the time I had no idea what a ballet dancer did. This wicked gentleman did want to say good-bye to his baby son, and baby son, who did not know what was happening, ran from him. He remembered running down the narrow streets and alleys behind their tenement, with pops close behind calling his name. Zelig is what they called him, Jewish for Sidney. Don't ask me why they gave me the same name when I came along. People always ask me, and I change the subject.
St. Catherine Street
My Dad grew up on St. Catherine Street, not then the fancy shopping street of the city, but a slum. The kids supported Mum as best they could, once Gramps (no one ever told me his name) took off, and my dad used to say he had to quit school at age ten, to look after his Mom.
I used to ask him what he did in those early years, and I'm not sure what he did was altogether legal. It probably involved some rum running during prohibition years, but he talked little about that. He liked to talk about the day everything changed.
He met Emma Goldman on a train
I suppose because he was handsome and good-natured, she opened him both to socialism--or was it anarchism?--and the world of letters. Chances were they also did some fucking on that long journey from Montreal to Vancouver. She must have been a lusty lady, judging from what I've read about her, but my dad would never have told me anything about that. He would only say he was never the same after meeting Emma. Mumsie, who never had the experience, was jealous of Dad’s memory and said nasty things about Emma and him.
AS FAR AS I'VE GOTTEN
I haven't really made great progress in penetrating my family secrets. People who may know the answers, are either dead or not speaking to me, and I embed what information I have in my fictions. As I do it, I often think of a song Bertie taught me, or thinks he taught me. I don't tell him I first heard the song the way Odetta sang it with Larry Mohr at the Gate of Horn when I was a student at the University of Chicago. Bertie found his version in the "picture book" section of the children's library. The way I have it in my memory, it starts something like this:
I was born about 10,000 years ago, There ain't nothing in this world that I don't know. I saw Peter, Paul, and Moses playing ring around the roses, And I'll whup the man who says it isn't so I'm justa lonesome traveler; I'm a great historical bum. Highly educated, from history I have come, Well I fought the battle of Waterloo, and the Battle of Bully Run, And that's about the grandest thing mankind has ever done!!!
Bertie really wants me to get together a collection of the various dog stories I've published. He's even given me a title, The Dog People, a story that came out last spring in Prairie Star, a new Canadian print mag which pays decent rates. But first I have to learn more family secrets. They're more interesting than anything else I'm doing these days, although Bertie disagrees. These three unlikely stories contain a lot of what I've been able to find out so far.