My mother, Jean Walker, was the 13th of 15 children, born in 1949 to a church-going black family on a farm in Ohio. The house had only two bedrooms, so her parents slept on a pull-out bed on the porch in the summer and in the living room in winter. Her seven brothers slept in one bedroom, while the eight sisters shared the other. They attended a small school where the white kids sat up front and the black students at the back, separated by a row of empty desks. When she wasn’t studying, she did chores around the farm. The girls planted the vegetable gardens with corn and green beans, churned butter, did laundry, and took care of the younger children. The boys helped with the heavy work and looked after the animals. “With 14 siblings,” my mother used to say, “you’d better get to the table quick, or you weren’t going to eat that day.” There was never enough food or money to go around, but the family didn’t feel poor. Everyone around them was in the same situation.
Jean was a sensitive girl who used to lie in the fields and watch the clouds scuttle by. Her parents were always quick with a whipping, and the casual violence wore on her soul. She found a cubbyhole in the back of a closet, where she’d hide out and devour books by the light of a bare bulb. Desperate to get away from her chaotic, rural home life, she worked tirelessly in high school to earn a scholarship to Antioch in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a liberal arts college and one of the first post-secondary schools to integrate. As a nascent feminist, she was drawn to Antioch’s progressive vibe. In 1971, she enrolled in women’s studies and journalism.
In her first semester, my mother attended feminist art lectures and Thelonius Monk concerts on campus. She had changed her name to DuShaun—she thought it sounded French—grown out her Afro and taken a liking to African-print dashikis that she found in the vintage shops. One evening, she went to see a student play. The only white boy in the production was a skinny Jewish kid in the role of a princely frog, leaping around the stage. She was drawn to his wild, free spirit and decided to introduce herself.
His name was Stanley Granofsky, and he was descended from Jews who’d fled the Russian pogroms at the beginning of the 20th century. His ancestors arrived on the shores of Halifax with everything they owned sewn into hidden pockets in their threadbare coats. They made their way to Toronto, and crowded near Kensington Market and the last remnants of the Ward, working in the haberdashery factories on Spadina. In 1945, my paternal great-grandfather and his son Phil started the paper company Atlantic Packaging, which they operated out of the family garage. A year later, Phil married my grandmother, Shirley Rockfeld.
Phil spent his adult life transforming Atlantic into a company worth hundreds of millions of dollars. By the time my father was born in 1952, business was thriving and the family was growing. A few years later, they moved into a mansion in the Bridle Path with a swimming pool, a tennis court and rolling green gardens. My grandparents became pillars of the Jewish community, donating millions of dollars to charities like the United Jewish Appeal.
For an ambitious immigrant family, appearances were everything, and Stanley became desperate to shed the crushing burden of his parents’ old-school expectations. In his teens, he grew a Jew-fro, wore hip-hugging corduroy bell-bottoms and smoked pot while listening to Miles Davis. Lost and desperate, he followed his best friend down to Antioch College, where he studied theatre, literature and photography. He thought that the school’s progressive culture might suit him. His parents hoped it would give him some direction.
Soon after my parents met, they fell into a passionate on-again, off-again relationship. My mother had never seen a Jewish person before, and my father had never really talked with a black woman in his life. They were mysteries to each other. They would hang out in coffee shops, discussing politics, race and religion. My mother liked that he was educated and funny, and that he listened to her. He thought she was sexy, assertive and direct.
When my mother was young, her family doctor told her she had a blood condition that would likely prevent her from having children. As a result, she and my father thought they didn’t have to use protection—and within a year, she was pregnant. In a panic, my father asked her to have an abortion. She refused. She was sure they could make it work. She was 22, and he was 19.
In the winter of 1972, they drove to Toronto to break the news to his parents. They rolled up the driveway of my grandparents’ mansion in a beater they had borrowed from a friend. My dad wore his Che Guevara T-shirt and ripped bell-bottoms. My mother was in her best African-print wrap dress, a Black Power button proudly fastened to her ragged coat. As they pulled in, she realized her elbows were ashy and desperately dug in her fringed bag for lotion.
The evening didn’t go well. DuShaun had met Stanley’s parents before, when she’d come up to Toronto for the holidays, but she’d been introduced only as a friend and never stayed long enough to exchange more than a few pleasantries. Shirley was always polite enough, but Phil was aloof.
Standing in the kitchen, my parents broke the news that they were expecting a baby: Phil and Shirley’s first grandchild was going to be a half-black American Methodist. My grandfather stood up and started shouting, telling them they were not welcome in his house. My father called him a fascist, and the two descended into a screaming match. My father was furious and terrified for his future. My mother was crying bitterly, wondering how they would make ends meet.
After several heated phone calls, my grandparents cut my dad off financially. He and my mother dropped out of school and went to her family farm, which was still crowded with siblings and cousins. My father wasn’t built for hard labour, but he tried to be of use, digging ditches and milking cows. Some mornings, my conservative black grandfather would look out the window and see my dad doing sun salutations in the back 40. Pregnant and unemployed, my mother tried to keep the peace.
Around the same time, my dad began to follow a spiritual leader named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (now the subject of a Netflix docuseries). The man had built a massive ashram in Pune, India, where he introduced the practice of “dynamic meditation,” a mix of Hinduism and psychotherapy that, according to Bhagwan, enabled people to experience divinity. My father decided he had to travel to India to meet this guru. In India, he took sannyas and became a disciple. He changed his name to Fakeer, dyed his clothes red and orange, and wore a mala with a black-and-white picture of Bhagwan on it. He had finally found his purpose, his people.
He made it home in time for my birth, in July 1973 in Springfield, Ohio. DuShaun was thrilled to be a mother. Fakeer was unprepared but desperate to do the right thing. They named me Anais, after the French author Anaïs Nin, whom they were both reading at the time.
When I was four months old, Fakeer decided he wanted to live closer to other sannyasins, so with a new baby in tow, my parents struck out for California, where they could be near a large commune. There, I received the Hindu name Ma Yoga Puja, which means “to worship.”
They found an apartment in San Mateo, and struggled to support themselves and a new baby. My dad was doing primal therapy while my mother worked two jobs, as a representative for AAA and a department store clerk. When I was a year old, Phil and Shirley visited my family in California. My mother served cheese and Ritz crackers as hors d’oeuvres, set the small table with their best mismatched plates and cutlery, and cooked a fancy dinner they couldn’t afford. She was desperate to impress my father’s parents.
Shirley immediately picked me up and held me gently in her arms. Phil was disgusted by the dingy apartment. “How can you live this way?” he shouted. “What are you doing with your life?” Furious, he slapped his son across the face. They continued arguing while my grandmother and mother shrieked and cried, begging them to stop. They didn’t visit again. A few months later, my parents found they couldn’t even scrape up enough money to pay their $300 rent in San Mateo. They packed up the car and went back to the farm. In 1977, when I was four, we came to Toronto.
We moved into a one-bedroom apartment above a Chinese restaurant in Parkdale, where the air smelled of stale frying oil and my mother had to shove towels under the doors to keep the mice out. To keep our small family afloat, my mom worked as a waitress and sales clerk, and my dad drove a taxi. Every night, he was supposed to pick me up from daycare at the YMCA at Dovercourt and College. I was often the last kid there. I remember waiting late into the evenings as the underpaid, endlessly patient daycare worker checked her watch. It was sad and lonely, and I hated seeing the other kids leave. Life at home wasn’t much better: my parents were exhausted, fighting endlessly over unpaid bills and dashed dreams. After about a year in Toronto, my dad returned to India.
When he split, my mother went on welfare. We couldn’t afford our meagre rent, so we moved into a crumbling rooming house at Dovercourt and Bloor. Every night, I could hear people ranting through the thin walls. My mom and I slept on a mattress together. She wept through the night, stalked by fear and instability.
Soon after my father left, my grandmother Shirley phoned my mother and asked if she could see me. She had been in touch sporadically over the years, but I’d never visited her. When my dad left, she sensed that we were in trouble. Broke and exhausted, my mother was happy for a break. She put me in my best little flowered dress and cleaned my scuffed running shoes. Together we took the bus to Don Mills, where my grandmother picked me up in her salmon-coloured Cadillac. After my mother helped me into the car, Shirley and I drove to the Bridle Path. The neighbourhood rolled by us, from grey to green, from struggle to opulence. The smell of the car’s new leather made me motion sick. Terrified and alone, I leaned my head out of the window and threw up.
We pulled up to a red-brick colonial mansion with white columns and an emerald-green lawn. In the distance, I saw a tennis court and gardeners tending the grounds. I was so nervous that my grandmother had to gently coax me out of the car and convince me to come inside. She told me to call her Bubbe. Once we were in the house, she deposited me in the living room and went to get us lunch. I stood there motionless, overwhelmed by the lavish space. The dining table was long enough to seat 18, and a crystal chandelier hung above it. Silk brocade curtains framed the picture windows overlooking the gardens. There were tchotchkes and awards from Jewish organizations crowding the mantels, and marble tabletops held black-and-white photos of the immigrants who’d crossed oceans. I quietly searched for a trace of myself in their ancient, weary faces and found none.
We sat by the sparkling pool, and ate a lunch of chicken salad sandwiches and iced tea. My bubbe chatted softly, trying to put me at ease. I heard the ice cubes clinking in her glass, smelled the pungent scent of fresh-cut grass. I closed my eyes, took in the warm breeze and slowly felt something unknot in my chest. The beauty and ease reassured me. Finally, I let my guard down, only then realizing how heavy it had been.
That night I slept in my aunt’s childhood room. She had a four-poster bed and a collection of beautiful dolls in silk dresses that closed their eyes when you laid them down. I crawled down from the bed and laid my cheek against the soft carpet lined with vacuum marks. Everything smelled so clean. The next day, my grandmother bought me new clothes that I would keep just for their place. Lace-trimmed dresses, pressed and folded. Shiny patent-leather Mary Jane shoes. I never told my mother about the new clothes. I could never admit how happy I felt away from the grinding pressure of her disappointments.
Over the next few years, we fell into a routine. Every couple of weeks, my mother and I would travel to the Don Mills bus stop, where my grandmother would pick me up in her pink Cadillac, and take me to their house for a weekend or the holidays. I was constantly travelling between two worlds, bouncing between the realms of wealth and need, ease and strife, Jewishness and blackness, childhood and maturity. I felt guilty leaving my mother behind but always looked forward to my time with my bubbe. I quickly learned to shift who I was in each of these worlds: I was rowdy and rambunctious with DuShaun, quiet and polite with Shirley. In the Bridle Path, I wanted to be the perfect granddaughter, to keep her wanting me back. At home, I felt the responsibility to keep my mom emotionally afloat, to need nothing so as not to burden her further. I had a tacit agreement with both women to never speak of the other life I was living. It became second nature to cleave myself in two.
When I visited my grandmother, the two of us would have lunches by the pool or in the sunroom off the kitchen. My grandfather was mostly at work and would often come home after I had gone to bed. I was nervous around him, and he accepted my presence with a resigned ambivalence. During the day, my grandmother and I would sit at the large dining table, and make crafts from macaroni noodles and toilet paper tubes. I’d join her on errands to the grocery store and the kosher butcher. We’d chat with the other Jewish ladies at her weekly hair appointment. Her hairdresser once, unwisely, attempted to straighten my curly hair. I immediately sweated it out, turning it into a frizzy halo that I thought was dazzlingly glamorous.
Some nights, my grandparents and I would drive to the Primrose Club, a private Jewish social club on St. Clair, where valets would help us out of our car. Shirley would leave her fur at the coat check, and we would enter a massive dining room overlooking the twinkling lights of the city below. I saw white tablecloths and silverware. Old-school waiters wore tuxedos and white gloves, and knew my grandparents by name. My heart beat hard in my chest, and my new shoes pinched my feet. It all felt so impossibly sophisticated.
At the Primrose, other guests would approach my grandfather to ask for an audience or commend him on a recent donation to a Jewish charity. He was powerful and connected, and everyone knew it. He made the rounds in the room like a newly elected politician with a suave Sinatra vibe. My grandmother, coral lipstick perfectly applied, played the part of his loyal spouse. When the inevitable question arose—who was this little brown girl?—my grandfather would fall uncharacteristically quiet. My bubbe never equivocated: she introduced me as their granddaughter without hesitation. I would see the flash of surprise in people’s eyes, quickly replaced by good manners and compliments on how cute I was. During a dinner of matzoh ball soup (my favourite), brisket and Jell-O, my grandmother taught me which silverware to use and how to lay my cloth napkin across my lap. I loved every minute of it, revelling in the glamour and the fiction of belonging.
By the time I was eight years old, my mother and I were living in an apartment on Dovercourt. Some nights, I’d return home from the Primrose Club carrying doggy bags. My mother would get indignant—she didn’t want their leftovers. The two of us would curl up on the bed that we shared and talk into the night. I would lie and tell her how much I hated my Bridle Path visits, and she would gratefully believe me. We were happy to just be together again. The next morning, I would find the food containers empty.
After a few years, the whipsawing between worlds had begun to take a toll. I was always trying to figure out where I belonged and what was expected of me. The tension of balancing social expectations, racism, classism and family history grew stronger over the years as I became more aware of the opportunities I had that my mother didn’t. I was old enough to understand the inequality and hostility that the people I loved felt for each other, but too young to do anything about it.
It was 1983. My mom had changed her name back to Jean and found a steady job working at a women’s shelter. We moved into a housing project at Christie and Dupont, bordered by railway tracks and a junkyard where people would dump their garbage. It was small, but clean and cozy, and it was the first place that felt like a home.
That year, I made neighbourhood friends, covered my walls in Michael Jackson posters and wore out Thriller on my yellow Sony Walkman. Even with our newfound stability, I would often catch my mother sitting at the kitchen table late at night, trying to figure out which bills she could pay and which ones would have to wait. I loved her fiercely but also yearned to be out of the pernicious reach of poverty.
Fakeer had remained a constant presence in my life over the years. He kept in touch through letters and crackling, echoing phone calls. In 1984, he returned to Toronto, and he wanted me to start living with him part-time. By this point, he had made amends with Phil and Shirley. He was living off dividends of his family business and the money he made from driving a taxi. I was thrilled by the idea of having my dad back in my life, but the first time he came to see me, my parents got into a terrible fight on the sidewalk about his feckless ways and intermittent child-support payments. I retreated to my room and listened as he drove off without even coming to say hello to me. I accused my mother of chasing him away and was so angry that I didn’t speak to her for days. Eventually, she allowed me to visit him.
Once my dad was settled in Toronto, my mom would often pick me up from school, and we’d stake out his place to see if he was living high on the hog while skipping out on child support. Of course, she also wanted to see if he was dating anyone new. We would buy a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, fries, biscuits and a small tub of pink macaroni salad. Then we’d park across the street and wait and watch. Every time the lights of a car would drive by, we’d scramble and duck to avoid being seen. I’d do homework, and we’d listen to Whitney Houston and Lionel Richie and talk. I came to enjoy our clandestine stakeouts. My mom was smart and funny, and in those moments we were able to just enjoy being mother and daughter.
The year I turned 12, I went with my dad up to one of the communes he frequented in the Laurentians. “Make sure those crazy white people don’t touch you,” my mother warned. Fakeer pulled up in his beat-up Volvo station wagon, blaring a discourse by Bhagwan, and we were off. The commune was set up beside a sparkling blue lake. Everywhere I looked, there were hippies and sannyasins dressed in red and orange clothing. Everyone was hirsute, dirty and beautiful. They spoke French and German and Italian, meditated freely and danced wildly.
We slept in an old inn in the woods, and at dusk we ate vegetarian meals of chickpeas, lentils and naan in a wide-open field dotted with wildflowers. I loved hearing people passionately discuss philosophy and politics, gesticulating wildly, all tanned skin and white teeth. At night, there were full-moon parties where the women decorated themselves in mud and beads, their pendulum breasts swinging in the breeze. The men, including my dad, danced naked around a bonfire, playing the drums. He’d grab my hands, and we’d howl at the moon as sparks from the fire drifted up toward the inky black night. This was so different from my other lives back home with my grandparents and mother. I felt drunk with freedom.
One day, my dad was doing an extended Kundalini meditation, and I was exploring the commune on my own, eating an apple. I came upon a young French-Canadian couple making love in their hut in the woods. Curious but embarrassed, I hid behind a tree. They spotted me and told me that I could watch if I wanted to. “It’s a beautiful thing, man,” the woman said. “No hang-ups here.” I was pretty sure this was the scenario my mom had warned me against, but I took a spot on a log anyway and watched as they got around to it. The experience was incredibly educational. “So that’s how it all works!” I thought. Eventually I finished my apple, got bored and continued on my way.
Trips to the communes became a regular part of my summers. I remember them as exciting, beautiful and lonely. When we were together, my dad was a thrilling iconoclast, railing against conformity. He led me to revolution and encouraged free thought. Then, as quickly as he would appear, he would have to leave: for India, for adventure, for some pretty little ma he had met. I would return to the city, and remember him and our time together as if in a fever dream.
That summer, my mother and I went to Ohio to visit her family for the first time in years. It was a wonderful shock to be surrounded by huge, beautiful groups of aunts and uncles and cousins. There was a family reunion at a Dayton public park with hundreds of people, and pounds of pork, chicken and ribs barbecuing over open flames. Even the vegetables had meat: mashed potatoes with pork gravy, collard greens with ground beef. Music pulsed out of open car windows, and the laughter was constant. Everyone was broke and struggling to get from paycheque to paycheque, but somehow that made it more bearable—we weren’t alone. That night, we returned from the park to the housing project where my aunts and uncles and cousins lived. We pulled lawn chairs onto the broken front steps, the adults drinking beer and wine coolers from a metal ice bucket.
During the day, I would cruise around Dayton with my older cousins in the back seat of their beat-up ride. We passed boarded-up houses and strip malls, decaying and brown like rotten teeth in a crooked smile. Public Enemy and NWA blared into the stifling heat as my cousins called out to friends walking by. We saw young men slapping down dominos, fades shaved into the side of their heads and ropes of gold slung around their necks. We saw young girls skipping double-dutch on the sidewalk, stiff pigtails bouncing in unison. We honked at the old-timers, waving from under their striped sun umbrellas. On the outskirts of town, the boys would stop to take a piss and stretch their lanky legs. Dusk settling all around us, they would wrestle and roughhouse, yelping into the slanting light. As we walked through the tall grasses, I would braid crowns out of dandelions and ceremoniously place them on my cousins’ heads. They looked like figures in a Basquiat painting: rough innocence full of joy and some unnameable sorrow.
When my mother and I returned home to Toronto at the end of the summer, our cozy apartment seemed empty and isolated. As the winter holidays approached, I flew to visit my grandparents at their winter home in West Palm Beach, Florida. The three of us rang in the new year swimming laps in the pool, reading the newspaper and enjoying quiet meals together. My grandfather and I would sit on the balcony while my grandmother would serve us in an apron and that coral lipstick, perfectly applied. Phil and I finally bonded during those breakfasts, talking easily together for the first time. We’d sit in the early morning sunshine, eating sliced tomatoes by the bushel with a little kosher salt. He told me stories about the anti-Semitism he faced as a young man in the ’40s. He fought and scraped for everything he had built, starting a business in his parents’ garage and growing it by sheer force of will. I had always been afraid of him; he was so inscrutable. But during those conversations, I realized we weren’t so different. He too had experienced hardship, prejudice and poverty. It made me understand his anger at my parents and his fear at their choices. He never asked, but I forgave him for it in my own small way.
To some extent, being an outsider had given me an all-access pass. Because I didn’t belong anywhere, I somehow managed to belong everywhere. I had seen the bottom, the poverty and disenfranchisement that my mother had suffered. But I was also the beneficiary of a system that didn’t let us fall through the cracks. Thanks to social assistance, we never went hungry and always had a roof—however leaky—over our heads. When I was young, I benefitted from subsidized daycare for low-income mothers; when I got older, I was lucky enough to have a few exceptional public school teachers who celebrated and encouraged me. I had seen wealth and privilege, and came to know that money in and of itself does not insulate a family from pain. After adapting myself to so many different worlds for so many years, I began to fully and confidently inhabit the space between them.
In September 1985, a scout for the kids’ series Owl TV came to my Grade 6 class at Hawthorne Public School and asked my teacher to select a few students who might like to try out for the series. I was chosen and shot a couple of episodes. In those early days, I discovered that being in front of the camera felt like home, a place I belonged. For the first time, I had something that was totally my own. One of the directors was working on another kids’ series and asked if I’d audition. Within weeks, I was cast as Lucy Fernandez on the show that eventually became Degrassi Junior High. Most of the cast weren’t professional actors. We were all chosen in some way because we were outcasts. Our differences made us stars.
That series brought financial stability to my family for the first time. My mom and I were able to easily pay our rent and balance the seesaw of poverty we had been riding. We didn’t worry over bills, splurged at the mall and even began travelling a bit. I was thrilled to finally take the burden off my mother’s shoulders and watch her enjoy life. That small Canadian show went on to become an international sensation. I was lucky enough to be a part of it until I was 18.
When Degrassi wrapped, I left for New York to attend film school at NYU. After graduation, I returned to Toronto, and acted in film and television for the next decade. I eventually moved to the other side of the camera, and wrote and directed three feature films. I’m currently working on a TV series based on my experiences as a kid moving between multiple worlds. My husband, Craig, and I have three children who inhabit their own complicated and wonderful worlds.
All of these experiences gave me the gift of empathy. From titans of industry to a single mother trying to survive in the projects, we were all just doing the best we could with what we had. Sometimes I think of my ancestors who crossed oceans, farmed fields and bore the brunt of racism. I wonder what they would think of my beautiful Canadian life. My mother now lives and works on an apple farm in Ohio surrounded by family. She never remarried, and we remain very close. My father is still a rolling stone, happily travelling from one continent to another, living exactly how he pleases. He splits his time between Europe, the U.S. and Brazil. He’s a beautiful rebel and one of my favourite people to be around. In 1995, my grandfather fulfilled a lifelong dream, helping to bring the Raptors to Toronto. He died the same year. And Shirley, my bubbe, just celebrated her 94th birthday. She had seven grandsons after me, but I am her only granddaughter. She’s one of my best friends, and I visit her every week. In those quiet moments, we hold hands, and she tells me how much she loves me.
This story originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.