Along with the home baking phenomenon I’ve noticed during the pandemic, I’ve observed another trend among those of us privileged to be staying home. There’s been an explosion of nostalgia, whether it’s digging up and scanning old photos, or reconnecting with older memories in other ways.
Thinking about this gave me the idea to share a memory of my own.
In 2019, I took a big break from public speaking at conferences. I’d decided that outside of my job itself, the entire year of my sabbatical would focus on taking care of personal things. While a lot of what needed to be done wasn’t fun at all, I was determined to get on stage at least once for something that was unequivocally fun. And I did.
In October I was thrilled to nab a spot in the Montreal edition of a show called Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids. It’s a super entertaining event and podcast, in which people read stuff they wrote as young people, whether a journal, a song, a poem, or in my case, a teenage diary. Here’s the podcast version of the show, in which I recount my high school grad-night antics. In case you want to skip ahead, I’m on at 24:00.
When was the last time you wrote someone a letter, by hand, using pen and paper?
I’ve recently been going through some old documents, and unearthed two specimens I had to share.
That Time I Installed Family Mailboxes
I had forgotten all about the incident when, as a 12 year-old, I was inspired to set up mailboxes outside my mother and brother’s rooms, as well as my own – for important inter-bedroom deliveries, I guess? I wish I could remember the details, because really, I can’t imagine what I was thinking.
June 11, 1980.
As you see, you have a new mailbox made personally by Kathy Presner, (me). I am going to tell you how to use it. It’s very easy:
1. First you take what it is that you are sending.
2. If it’s a letter or anything flat, put it in the person’s mail folder.
3. If it’s something that won’t fit in the folder, leave the parcel at the bottom of their door.
p.s. If you have any questions, feel free to ask me!
Kathy Presner (signature)
That Time We Were Obsessed With Stationery
Here’s a letter – circa grade five, I’m guessing – from an era when we were obsessed with a limited set of things, including stationery (this letter was written on a frolicking-kitten-adorned notecard), who-liked-who, Shaun Cassidy, and each other’s handwriting.
Thank you for the stationnary!!! I hope you get stationnary for my birthday. About that barbie camper Debbie got for her birthday, when everyone left, we started on it and we finally finished it. When we went swimming, the garde said the pool wasn’t open. Then we phoned pools, and more pools, but all of them were either closed or you needed a membership card. (Which we didn’t have. Do you really love [boy’s name]? And if he asked you to go out with him would you? Have Stephanie and you ever had a big fight?
Who’s your favorite groupe and single singer? My favorite groupe is kiss, and the B. Gees. My favorite singer is Shawn Cassidy, and Andy Gibb. Have you read “Iggie’s House?” I’m only on the 2nd chapter. What are your hobbies? Right now my hobbies are collecting stationnary. I think your mother is very pretty. And your dog is very cute. Do you like [another boy’s name]? Well, I don’t. I love your hand writing. And I hate mine.
p.e. Please answer all my questions on your next stationnary
Before my great-aunt Leba (Presner) Mayerovitch died a few years ago, she lent me some thick photo albums, in which I found some family pictures I’d never seen before. This is the story behind three of those images.
My grandfather Samuel “Shia” Presner was a second-generation Canadian whose parents escaped poverty and anti-Jewish sentiment in Poland around the turn of the twentieth century, coming to Canada and settling in Montreal.
Education was the clear route to success in the new world, but despite top marks, when Shia applied to medical school at McGill, the well-regarded university in his hometown, he quickly discovered he wasn’t welcome. A “a strict quota” limited “Jewish enrolment to 10% of all students” in the Faculties of Medicine and Law. (This was not a friendly time for Jews in several parts of Canada. My father remembers being told about a prominent resort in Quebec’s Laurentians with a sign at the entrance proclaiming: “No Dogs / No Jews.”)
So Shia did the next best thing, as did many of his friends: he became a pharmacist. After graduating, and thanks to a loan from his brother-in-law, he opened a drugstore around 1936 on busy Ste-Catherine Street West in downtown Montreal, just a few doors west of Crescent. He dispensed prescriptions at the back of the narrow shop, served up chocolate sodas and malted milks at the “luncheonette” counter, and sold all manner of knick-knacks, or should I say tchotchkes. Evidently the pineapple ice cream sundae was also a big seller.
My grandmother Lillian (Bierbrier) Presner helped customers with cosmetic purchases in a role then called a “beautician,” which didn’t really take advantage of her Bachelor of Commerce degree. (She would put her education to use later in life, starting a mortgage company.) The store stayed open seven days a week – even though some Sundays saw only one or two customers – because Shia felt an obligation to be available, just in case someone needed some toothpaste or Aspirin or an urgent prescription filled.
After acquiring two more pharmacies around Montreal, my grandfather’s three-pack-a-day (unfiltered!) cigarette habit took its toll, and he was hit with a heart attack in 1955. He quit smoking and scaled back his work, selling his stores but still practicing pharmacy until the age of 80. He died three years later when I was 16.
Shia, thank you for persevering in the face of ignorant and prejudiced people. I’m glad you found a profession you were proud of, even though it wasn’t your first choice. I wish I’d gotten to hear your stories directly, but am still grateful to have learned them now.
Special thanks to my dad Bob Presner for help piecing together and fact-checking the stories in this post.