Olive Cohen

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Olive Cohen

                                    
was building a church there. The church is now on the Manitoba list of historic places. This church building activity invoked in him a loathing of all things ecclesiastical, a feeling that he passed on to his wife and six children and became a kind of family trait.
        Despite this shared feeling, my grandparents separated when my mother was about four or five years old, and my grandmother, with several of the younger children in tow, moved to Winnipeg. She began using the name “Harrison” an Anglicized version of her maiden name, but given her rudimentary knowledge of English, no one was fooled, and my mother remembered the bigotry shown to the Ukrainian kids in school.
        Partly to escape that, partly to escape her oppressive home life, my mother got involved in music. She joined a mandolin orchestra, took piano lessons, and sang. It was the last skill that changed her life. She won several singing competitions, and by the time she graduated from high school she had representation. For the next 15 years her life was controlled by agents and managers. As she told me “I never had to decide what to wear”. She formed a Duo with fellow Winnipegger Jeanie Pullock, and together they sang on USO tours, on the radio, in the early days of television, and in Vaudeville.
       For a number of years, they were based in New York and were both very popular and highly sought after. My mother also sang in the first New York production of Kurt Weill’s “How Green was my Valley”. Her deep contralto voice was very well-suited to Art song and Lieder and she became increasingly interested in this repertoire and studied with a student of Lilli Lehmann. She was booked to do a one-woman show at a 
       

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On this day 100 years ago, in the unincorporated       village of Valley River Manitoba, just outside of         Dauphin, my mother was born to Ukrainian immigrants Petro Grodzik and Afesia Hryhoryshen.   They were in Valley River because my grandfather

Written by Warren Cohen on October 6th, 2022

big nightclub in Montreal, and part of the act involved her singing and playing the piano at the same time. She figured she needed to get her piano chops up, so she decided she needed a few piano lessons. That is how she met my father.     
       Within a year they were married. Her career pretty much dried up after that. Although she had literally no domestic skills or experience, she tried to raise a family in a chaotic environment that included her teaching singing and my father teaching piano lessons in the house. She continued to sing for many years, although not much publicly. The last time I remember her singing in a concert was when I was about 11 years old. She sang some Webern, Berg, and Ravel for the Montreal Morning Music Society. She was still in terrific form. Although she never sang opera publicly, I remember her warming up frequently with a gorgeous rendition of “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix”.
       
        Music was always what made her happy; the various difficulties and tragedies of her life as a wife and mother, roles she was not temperamentally suited for, made her depressed, but I could always cheer her up by engaging her in conversation about some minutiae of vocal technique. She was very much a star, and even at the age of 90, could turn on the star power as soon as there was a camera around. It was stunning to watch.
                       She’s been gone for eight years now, having died just short of her 92nd birthday. Especially with the war in the Ukraine going on, I think of her and her legacy frequently. It’s kind of an amazing journey. I miss her musical advice, and her gentle energy, and always remember that I had a truly remarkable mother.