Canning Street in North Carlton is a wide north-south road running from Park Street all the way through to distant Carlton and the Commission flats. My mother’s oldest sister Eda lived there with her husband Jakub Slucki and their two children – my cousins Charles and Miriam. Going to 501 Canning Street to see the Sluckis was a treat and an adventure for a number of reasons.
First, I got to see my cousins. Charles, who is known by pretty much everyone in the world as Sluggo, is five years older than me so he was sort of my hero and I followed him around everywhere. But his sister Miriam is just over a year younger than me, so we were very close, and whenever I wasn’t trying to become one of the teenage “in-crowd” with Charles and his friends, I’d spend time with Miriam just talking about life, the universe, and everything.
Me and Charles in our hippy days (c.1971)
Second, was that I got to play with all the big boys who were Charles’ neighbours and friends. They were mainly Aussies of Irish Catholic background with names like Mick, Frank, Mick, Tommy, Jack, Mick, and Mick. Oh, and there was also one whose real name I never knew, but he had the most exotic nickname I’d ever heard. I assumed for years that his surname must have been Murphy, but I found out recently that it was Hall. All I knew was that his nickname rocked, and I resolved then that if I ever got the opportunity to have a nickname, it would definitely also be “Spud”.
And finally, we nearly always went there on a Sunday, the one day my uncle Jakub would be at home. You see he went off to work in his little knitting factory in Collingwood at around 6:30 in the morning, and he would stay there till 11:00 at night. And he did this Monday to Saturday. So the only way we’d see him was if we went to the factory – a day trip to the “outer suburb” of Collingwood – or if it was a Sunday and he was at home.
He was a most interesting and hard man. He’d had a wife and two sons before the war, and he’d lost them in the Holocaust, murdered by the Nazis. After the war, he’d met my Auntie Eda who was about 20 years younger than him, swept her off her feet, and as quickly as possible, hightailed it out of Europe to Australia – a far better place to bring up a family which now included two-year old Charles.
But one of the impacts of losing his first family was that he seemed to have made a pact with the Universe to live life as hard as possible and suffer as much as possible, and he seemed to do that very well. He worked his butt off for 16 hours a day (for not much reward), he smoked like a chimney, which is probably what killed him in the end, and – certainly to my young ears – he yelled a lot. He yelled at my Auntie for God knows what, he yelled at Charles, mainly for having long hair, he yelled at his friends when he was debating politics. But, he never yelled at me. In fact, and this might be the main reason I remember him so fondly, every Sunday he would give me a two shilling coin, calling it my wages. For fifty years, I’ve lived under the illusion that I was the only one who received those wages, but a few weeks ago, my cousin Butch told me that he also used to score two bob from our Uncle Jakub, so it’s possible that with his background in the Bund and his strong principles of solidarity, he’d decided that any hard fought industrial relations gain by any individual should be distributed amongst the whole proletariat. Hence all the nieces and nephews shared in the Union’s victory.
Jakub, Miriam and me (c.1956)
He also had great little made-up names for everyday items and great little anecdotes that he had picked up from having lived such a tough life. So, his word for serviette was visitor since he only ever got one when there were visitors. And the anecdotes and little stories. My auntie used to have these great little jars of anchovies which I loved. So, she’d make me lunch like anchovies on bread, and potatoes with gravy, and then some chicken. One time, after I’d already had all that, I saw that she’d made some vegetable soup, which looked fantastic. So I asked if I could have some now. When he saw me eating it (after I’d already eaten most of my meal, he said “Bist azoy vi a Rus” (You’re like a Russian). “Why?”, I asked. Well it turned out that in their days in the Soviet Union during the War, if there was ever any meat available, you’d grab it and eat it quickly, just in case it would run out. You’d then worry about appetisers and soup. So he called me a Russian from then on because I’d eat my soup after the anchovies.
That little cottage was always full on a Sunday too. First there was the family – anywhere between six and sixteen of us depending on whether my four grandparents were there too. Then there were between one and three stray single gentlemen, who would pop in for a free home-cooked meal and a little political conversation with my uncle. Then, since Jakub had continually sponsored people emigrating to Australia from the still war-torn Europe, he had many grateful souls who would simply drop in to shoot the breeze and once again thank him for their new life. Finally, there were a number of younger people – mostly Charles’ friends – who would come by for a bit of a history lesson and a friendly political debate over some schmaltz herring and vodka.
And then there were the knepp (the buttons). My Auntie had a tiny little room out the back where they had a “machine” which made buttons, and all of us would take turns manufacturing those little cloth-covered metal fasteners. I’m not sure if the ones made by us kids ever actually saw the light of day – they were probably recycled to be used again the following Sunday – but it was easy, it was a lot of fun, and mainly, I think it gave Jakub a pretext for giving us our wages.
Jakub Slucki died in 1978. One of Charles’ sons Jake, is named after him and Charles’ other son David looks like him. My Auntie Eda died in 2008 ….. on her 85th birthday. They are greatly missed.