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I never laughed very hard at Bob and Doug McKenzie because I didn’t get the joke. As far as I could tell, these two brothers just sat around in their tuques, discussing back bacon, long underwear and drinking beer. A glimpse of their Saturday afternoon did not amuse me. Maybe I identified a little too strongly with them. In fact, if I had to put myself into an ethnic category, it would probably be “hoser.” Most of the time, I simply say Canadian.
My mother is a beautiful, Palestinian-born Armenian. She came to Canada as a teenager after her parents left Palestine in exile with their five children in 1948. They were extended Jordanian citizenship and moved to Lebanon, where another child was born, and where the family lived until they moved to Toronto.
There are often no checkboxes for Armenian on surveys regarding heritage, so I usually default to Caucasian since my dad is part Irish and part German and, basically, the whitest man alive. I used to get a good tan thanks to my mom, but these days, with sun screen and the hole in the ozone, I hardly do.
Growing up in the 1980s, I ate a little-known dish called hummus on a regular basis. Not only that, but I was encouraged to pronounce it “hommoss,” which did nothing to discourage the phobia that would ensue in the school lunchroom. “What is that stuff?” was the regular response from my classmates. The only other kids eating hummus in the small Southern Ontario city where I grew up were the ones who had Middle Eastern moms like mine – and there weren’t many.
My dad gave my older sister, my little brother and me the gift of not interfering with my mother’s Armenian-ness: He knew he was lucky to be with her, so he wasn’t about to blow it by insisting on steak and potatoes.
Food was probably how I first figured out that I wasn’t like my schoolmates. What I ate wasn’t what my friends, in their pastel Ralph Lauren button downs and perfect sandwiches, were eating. At home, we had names for the dishes my mom made: Kefta was a mix of rice and ground meat stuffed into oblong balls of cracked wheat. These, we called “meat footballs.” Lentils and rice was a dish we lovingly referred to as “rabbit turds.” And a delicate mix of roasted lamb and vegetables became “stuff-in-the-oven.”
My mom fed us according to what she’d learned from her mother, my grandma, whose food was uncontested at every Armenian church function I ever attended.
My grandmother was unapologetic in her self-promotion as the best cook she’d ever known. Her freezer was piled high with lahmajoun, flat, meaty, Armenian pizzas that we warmed in the oven as soon as we walked through the door of her home on Sunday visits.
To be accurate, my grandmother was ethnically Armenian, but born in Jerusalem, was educated at a French boarding school, carried Jordanian citizenship and was living far from her home in Palestine. My grandfather was also Armenian and born in Turkey. They spoke five languages between them. At home, they spoke mainly in Arabic, confided in Armenian and fought in Turkish. My grandmother wrote her grocery lists in French and spoke to her grandchildren in English.
I was lucky my grandmother learned to communicate in English. I got to know her sense of humour well and appreciated her arrogance when it came to not only her Armenian cooking, but also the dishes she’d mastered since coming to Canada.
“Grandma, you make the best carrot cake.”
“I mean it, you really do.”
“Yes, I know. Carrot cake, the best, I make.”
My grandmother also put her English to work when launching advice at soap-opera characters and at the bingo hall.
She became quite a bingo player with quite a reputation and a sizable group of bingo friends. Her name was Baizar, but her bingo friends called her Betty. Her practised ease with English, and facility as an interpreter and appreciator of humour in the subtleties of language made her a favourite at the hall. Once, she casually bragged to me that she’d won $3,000. “I just said ‘BINGO!’ And I won. Just like that. ‘BINGO.’”
My grandmother would head out to play in the worst Canadian weather. She’d don her shawl, her long coat, rubber boots and one of the hand-knitted caps that she’d made. She used to knit mittens, too, along with the warmest, bulkiest socks in the world. Grandchildren were given them at Christmas and we called them “bullet socks” for their unmistakable, missile-shaped toe. These socks were so thick they were unwearable with shoes.
My grandma may not have played hockey, but she braved the cold for bingo, which must qualify her as something of a hoser.
Negotiating the cold weather, being stubbornly ourselves, having a sense of humour – aren’t these what make us hosers? We live in the Great White North, that alone should make us qualify. I learned a great many lessons from my grandmother, and one of them is this: You don’t have to be Caucasian to be Canadian. You don’t have to wear pastel Ralph Lauren button downs and eat perfect sandwiches. I am Canadian and my grandmother, too, was Canadian. She was the most beautiful hoser I have ever known.
Monique Montgomery lives in Waterloo, Ont.