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HENRY AND JEAN ACHS
THE EARLY YEARS
There were no members of the Achs family at the signing of Canada into a nation. No Achs family member was present when Saskatchewan was carved out of the western expanse of this country in 1905. Yet, Henry and I felt no less like the early pioneers of this province. Like them, we left family and friends behind to embark on a new adventure. Henry left his roots in Hungary in 1937 for a New World adventure to live and work in Montreal. His immigration hinged upon his promise to return after his contribution to the meat-processing firm of Poles & Company, establishing the “Europa” brand ham in Canada. Mr. Fred Mendel was a partner in the company. The relationship forged with the Mendel family in Europe was to extend to Saskatchewan and throughout Henry’s working life. My roots were in Montreal, a thriving cosmopolitan centre in Canada. I was born, raised, and educated there. And, on May 8, 1940, I was married there to that ambitious young immigrant.
Like the early pioneers, Henry and I braved a trek half way across a continent to create a new life in the West. It was, indeed, a brave new world! We arrived in Saskatoon June 19, 1940. Henry lost little time renting a room for his new bride. We boarded with the Kaleal family on 14th Street East. Henry immersed himself in the start-up operations of Intercontinental Pork Packers, while Jean was thrust into “home-making” and life on the prairies. Several months later, we rented a small house of our own on 11th Street East. It was equipped with all the amenities available at the time: a coal and wood stove and furnace, and an icebox.
An early impression of my first year in Saskatoon was coloured by my observations of the people. Coming from a large impersonal cosmopolitan centre did not prepare me for the openness and friendliness of the 35,000 residents of Saskatoon. True to their pioneer roots, a stranger was simply a friend yet to be made, as were the friendships formed with the many “plant” people and the many other residents of the city with whom we became acquainted.
Our life was played out against the background of the farming seasons and the farming community’s impact on the economic prosperity of our city. Living through Saskatchewan winters and scorching summers had a way of putting you in touch with nature whether you wanted to be or not!
On July 17, 1942 at 4:30 pm, our first child, Kenneth Henry Achs, a beautiful 7 pound 12 ounce bouncing baby boy was delivered at City Hospital. Ken grew up toddling around the kitchen carrying his father’s lunch pail, saying very distinctly, “I’m going to work.” How very prophetic!
In late 1942, our rented house was to be sold. Daunted by the prospect of assuming a mortgage, nonetheless, Henry decided it was time to purchase our first home. Still working day and night, Henry delegated the task of finding the perfect nest to me. Wartime was an awful time to be in a house hunt. The provincial government required a nine-month waiting period before possession could be assumed and time was of the essence. Nothing prepared me for the experience! I contacted an agent to arrange viewings of available properties. The agent asked if I was interested in something modern. “Not too modern. I don’t want anything fancy,” I replied. His look of askance told me we weren’t communicating. “Where are you from?”, he asked. “Montreal,” I replied. “Well,” he said, “Here, ‘modern’ means running water!” Needless to say, I looked at thoroughly “modern” homes. 514 Albert Avenue became our new residence and remained our home for 10 years. The friends and neighbours we met there enriched our life. On April 21, 1946, our second child, Mary Barbara Jean Achs was born.
Meanwhile, Intercontinental Pork Packers had become a going concern shipping canned products to the troops overseas and to post-war Europe. Henry’s 1937 Oldsmobile, for years the only car in the parking lot, now had some company. Our family was complete and our lives were firmly rooted in Saskatoon.
The war years were behind us. Henry was no longer an “enemy alien” but a naturalized citizen of Canada, one of the first in Saskatoon. The children’s education took up much of my energy. They began their education at St. Joseph’s School on Broadway Avenue. There were parent nights, concerts, bake sales, the PTA… Henry felt a woman’s job was to take care of the family. And I did!
Our household was on the move again in 1956. Our previous “modern” house wasn’t quite so “modern” now. Boychuk Construction was opening a new subdivision south of 8th Street East. We had an opportunity to purchase a brand new house for about half the price of an economy car today. The area was typical of new construction sites—half-built frames, unframed basements, mountains of top soil and a prairie slough. #13 Cumberland Avenue was “home” for 27 years.
The sixties ushered in a decade fraught with joy and sadness, adventure and enterprise. It was a decade of “firsts”. For Henry and I, 1961 brought us our first opportunity to travel for the 25th Anniversary of Intercontinental Packers’ Australian operations. We took the long way home to visit Henry’s native Hungary—the first time he had been back since his arrival in Canada in 1937. His feelings were mixed. It was not the homeland he had left. The ravages of war and Communist domination dimmed the vision he had harbored through the years. He returned to Canada with a renewed gratitude to his adopted country. We celebrated our 25th Wedding Anniversary in 1965.
Graduations highlighted this decade. Ken and Barbara both completed their grade 12 and both went on to the University of Saskatchewan. Barbara graduated in 1968, but Ken decided this wasn’t the route for him and this decision led to many other “firsts”. He purchased his first car before he had his driver’s license, but his pride and joy was a 1940 Ford, “Green Stuff”. It was not in stellar condition, but it found a home in Henry’s garage for about two years while Ken worked night and day customizing it into a show car.
The dye had been cast. Ken pursued his consuming interest in cars. Before long, I was forced to accept weekends he spent at car shows across the province. He joined the Dragons Car Club and “Green Stuff” became a well-known prize-winning entry from Manitoba to the West Coast, USA! Car shows gave way to the racing circuit across Canada and the US. Ken, always breaking new ground, was the first person in Saskatchewan to build and race a gas dragster, then a fuel-injected nitro dragster. Henry and I went to the races when Ken raced in Saskatoon. How could I possibly feel comfortable watching an only son speeding down a raceway at hundreds of miles per hour riding a metal pipe equipped with a seat belt and tires? That, combined with the ear-shattering noise, made my head spin and abbreviated our enthusiasm for the sport.
At age 21, Ken decided the business world was for him. He opened a car parts store on Broadway Avenue and 10th Street. It clicked, and within a year, not only had he married, but his business had relocated to a bigger facility, the Orange Crush building one block away.
Sorrows mixed with joy in the sixties. I lost both my father and mother, but I was also presented with my first granddaughter and two grandsons.
Whoever coined the phrase “empty nest” obviously had a totally different view of parenting than Henry and I or our children. As Ken was divorced when his children were very young, he raised them as a single parent. The grandchildren provided endless hours of amusement for Henry and I. He certainly had much more tolerance and patience with them than he had for Ken and Barb! A divorce, a heavy workload and the remodeling of Ken’s house allowed the grandchildren to become our second family.
Barb and her husband Arnold returned to Saskatoon in 1974. Arnold decided to advance his education and enrolled in a Master’s program in curriculum studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Barb and Arnold left Saskatoon in 1976 for Brooks, Alberta where they both had teaching positions.
A 50-year working association with Mr. Fred Mendel, 39 of them at Intercontinental Packers in Saskatoon, ended in 1979. Henry retired. Retirement for Henry was like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
The eighties were a period of adjustments for us. I had to learn to have Henry at home and Henry had to learn to be at home. He was restless. He needed new stimulation. His son provided the remedy. Through the late seventies and early eighties, Ken’s business began to expand and undergo a metamorphosis. His interest in refurbishing and rebuilding vehicles had taken a natural turn to constructing something “new”. A major undertaking was relocating his Mid-West Automotive to a developing industrial area near the airport. His was one of the first major complexes and for years “the ugly orange building” was a local landmark.
Ken decided to construct a condominium on Saskatchewan Crescent East. Henry and I were on the move again into a new home! Interestingly enough, I was the one reticent to move into a condo, reluctant to give up what I saw as our independence. But Henry and Ken prevailed. That took an adjustment on my part!
Adjustments concerning the family were also required. Barbara and Arnold presented us with a tiny new granddaughter, Amanda.
Ken’s three children were less dependent on Nana, but they always enjoyed our Wednesday macaroni and cheese lunches. Shelly, Robert and Kevin all graduated in the eighties, Shelly from the U of S with a Bachelor’s of Arts degree. The boys graduated from Evan Hardy Collegiate. Adjustments to our very close relationship were required. Ken had remarried, but was shortly thereafter separated and divorced. I was now a “grandmother figure”, not an “authority figure”. Robert attended the U of S and played for the Hilltops, attending two Memorial Cup matches. He eventually left Saskatchewan to attend the University of North Dakota on a football scholarship and achieved a master’s degree in Speech and Language Pathology from the University of Oregon. Kevin was into the music scene and he too left Saskatoon for San Francisco, California. Amanda was separated by distance and apart from frequent visits, both ways, Henry and I found that we were forced to think about “us”.
For years we had toyed with buying a condo in Hawaii, but distance from family and Ken’s business interests in Arizona made Mesa an attractive alternative. We liked a mobile home community near Mesa and so Ken purchased one for us which we left there permanently. Saskatoon winters were seemingly longer and becoming less attractive to withstand. Henry loved the warm Arizona weather, golfing, and puttering around our vacation home. We loved to spend time there with friends in the park and one or more members of the family dropped in frequently for visits. Henry suffered his first stroke in Mesa. It was difficult being out of the country and we were reliant on Ken and friends to see us safely back to Saskatoon. Not long after our return, we were immersed in wedding plans. On September 2, 1989, our granddaughter Shelly married, staying in Saskatoon with her husband.
The new decade began with such promise. None of us could have predicted the years of heartbreak that were to come. Henry’s stroke meant postponing the celebration of our Golden Wedding Anniversary, but the family, Shelly in particular, was determined to have this event celebrated with much fun and fanfare. On the August 1st weekend of 1990, the Sheraton Cavalier was the scene of the festivities.
In 1993, Ken met Colleen Wilson, who was known through her work on television. She was also a lawyer and they began working together, growing the business. They married in Hawaii in 1997, Ken finally having found happiness in his personal life.
Barb and Arnold were however, restless. Arnold decided to embark on his doctorate degree from the University of San Diego in Education Leadership. They began to attend summer classes and committed themselves to a year’s residency. After a Christmas visit home to Saskatoon, they left for San Diego in December of 1993. It was tough being so far away, but our health didn’t make it possible to visit during their stay there, much as we would have loved to do so.
My granddaughter Shelly had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. She valiantly tried every means at her disposal to fight the disease. She underwent surgery, radiation, chemo-therapy, mega-vitamin therapy and a stem cell transplant. The two years she suffered was mirrored by the suffering we all experienced. It’s hard for parents to lose a daughter, and hard for grandparents to outlive their granddaughter. Shelly died on September 15, 1995, just days before her 30th birthday. We were all devastated. Beyond a doubt, it was the hardest thing Henry and I had to endure. Henry seemed to lose his zest for life after Shelly died. He suffered a series of strokes and kidney failure.
In January of 1997, Henry, my partner of almost 56 years, died. It was a brutal Saskatchewan January, -30°, snow drifts, winds. Kevin came from San Francisco and knew why he left Saskatchewan winters behind. Life certainly changed for me. After what seemed like a lifetime of care giving, I found it difficult to adjust to widowhood. The grandchildren were far way, Ken and Colleen were occupied with business, and Barb and Arnold were both teaching. I found myself at a loss. What filled a gap was my sister, Wanda. She moved to Saskatoon from Montreal just before Henry got sick and took an apartment up the hill from our place. Now, we kept each other company and I kept busy running her errands and taking her to various appointments. I had my car; I was mobile!
Amanda graduated from grade 12 and went on to the University of Calgary. I was fortunate to attend Amanda’s graduation. As my only granddaughter, she holds a special importance in my life. Both Robert and Kevin got married to American women and both now live in the United States with their families.
The millennium has given rise to reflection and assessment. As I reminisce about the previous century, I realize how much Saskatoon has become a part of me. I realize how many friends Henry and I made in this community and how much they have enriched my life. I now realize how much the rhythm of the seasons influences life on this prairie landscape. I have had opportunities to move, but Saskatoon is my home. I have lived most of my life here, and it is here, I will finally rest.