Late blooming Lil Brown, 91, pens memoirs of Depression-era Jewish life in Toronto

Lil Brown at her desk

Sourdough bread starter kits spread like a virus as people sought to bake their way through this pandemic. Bikes, snowshoes, puzzles and paints flew off store shelves as shut-ins strove to keep busy and ease anxiety. In isolation, many suffered the related epidemics of depression and loneliness, to which seniors are already vulnerable.

COVID has also meant that mature adults, deemed more at risk, have lost social support networks, no longer able to see kids, grandkids, and friends.

And then there’s Lil Brown, who made a conscious decision to stay positive and productive. This year, the 91-year-old Toronto resident added a layer to her many accomplishments: She wrote her memoirs—24 chapters and counting. Each day, she rose early and took tea before picking up a pencil and sat at her desk, a re-purposed clothing press that her father once worked at.

With the ultimate hope of being published, the stand-alone stories are currently being emailed one-by-one, as they’re completed, to a select distribution list. She’s received accolades from enthusiastic readers of all ages and walks of life, including Rhonda Lenton, president and vice-chancellor of York University, where Brown obtained an Honours Fine Arts degree at age 75. Said Lenton: “Her memories are all part of York’s rich history, thank you for giving us permission to share them with our Advancement team.”

While her brothers got to attend law school, Brown left her studies after Grade 8 because “a girl’s education wasn’t deemed important at the time,” she says. She enrolled at the University of Toronto at age 47 and completed a BA, followed by Bachelor of Social Work and Master of Social Work degrees at 60. She practiced social work until age 85 and taught memoir writing to seniors until two years ago when walking the hallways of long-term care institutions became too difficult.

Brown’s writing is set in Depression-era Toronto and reflects the resilience that no doubt served her well at that time, as well as during this past year-and-a-half. But her inner strength predates COVID.

After divorcing in 1970, Brown became a single mother to three daughters, two of whom would die tragically. At the height of the pandemic’s restrictions, Brown was isolated from her doting surviving daughter, Pearl Richman, and from the grandchildren she adores.

Brown’s writing is evocative but direct, much as she is. (“What you see is what you get,” she says.) Yet her attention to detail brings to life not only characters, but time and place. Street cars, street names and architectural detail abound. Brown’s family made ends meet by having a tenant with whom they shared a single bathroom, which was always spotless.

This is the universal immigrant story, but also, specifically, about Jewish life. There’s the Dry Goods Man, who wets the lead of his pencil in his mouth to keep accounts in his leather-bound spiral notepad, operating on trust, with the slogan “a dollar down and a dollar a day,” never charging interest. His worn suitcase contains treasures that change weekly, “things my mother wanted,” like a damask tablecloth and a floral belt, now 90 years old, still in mint condition, and still cherished by Lil; The “egg lady” who had dwarfism; Miss Kane, the “kept woman”, styling her hair with a curling iron heated on the stove’s open flame. Powerful literary prowess evokes the feelings of a child who adores deeply and experiences profound loss when tenants disappear overnight with no explanation.

Timely right now, the segment titled Rosh Hashanah 1937 sensually recounts a graveyard visit where Kaddish is recited, as well as the smell of fermenting concord grapes and the taste of homemade pickles.

And when I look back to that rose-coloured time, I am once again, a little girl, sitting on one of our white painted kitchen chairs surrounded by the love of my parents. That’s when I felt HaShem’s (God’s) spirit whispering, “Are you ready? Are you ready?”

Lest we grow overly sentimental about bygone days, Brown pulls no punches in the haunting story of Ida, the runaway bride who underwent a lobotomy for refusing to marry a man whose disturbing secrets she uncovered.

Brown is still writing and inspiring others. Her granddaughter, Maxie, writes: “You are also my Lilith, a strong, independent woman who paved the way for so many others. You have been an incredible role model to me my entire life.”

Brown pinpoints the best moments of her life as Maxie’s birth in 1990 and that of her grandson Cole in 1992.

When I ask her “what’s next?” her blue eyes suddenly well up.

“I don’t have a lot of time,” she responds “I’d love to go back to school and keep learning,” she concludes, flashing a 100-watt smile.