The Sunday Magazine

"I loved that boy, he was just like one of my own."

Alma Potter of Springdale, Newfoundland, cared for Marvin Swirsky when he was a little boy of 5. They hadn't seen or spoken to each other for 70 years. Then Alma tracked Marvin down. We listen in on a beautiful reunion.
Alma Potter and Marvin Swirsky hugged after reuniting for the first time in 70 years at her home in Springdale on Aug. 19 (Garrett Barry/CBC)

By Garrett Barry

A full lifetime had passed since she last saw him, but for some reason Alma Potter couldn't get this little boy out of her mind.

She had been waiting to see Marvin Swirsky again for the better part of 70 years. The last time she saw him, he was just six years old — and looked nothing like he does now, at 77.

And she has changed too: marriages had come and gone, and children were born and raised, giving way to grandchildren.

But there was always something that brought her back to that little boy, who she used to care for when she was a live-in maid with his family in post-war Corner Brook.

I loved that boy, he was just like one of my own,- Alma Potter

"It's something that's been with me all my life. Besides my own family, I talked about those people like I belonged to them."

All these years, Potter kept a handwritten note that little Marvin Swirsky wrote to her on Jan. 24, 1946. 

"Dear Alma. In the woodbox of your memory, let me be a chip," it reads. "By: Marvin at five years."

When Swirsky read that note again — during a visit with Potter at her home in Springdale in August — he couldn't get through it.

He and his wife had travelled from Toronto, where they live, to be reunited with Potter, who is now 89.

After a more than 70-year wait, it was unbelievable moment.

Marvin Swirsky fought through tears as he tried to read out a note he wrote for Alma Potter when he was just five years old. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

"Do I look like the little boy that you knew?" Swirsky asked when he walked through the kitchen door, and saw Potter for the first time in decades.

"Oh my Marvin. Oh my goodness," Potter replied. "I never thought the day would come, my darling."

For two hours, the pair traded memories, held hands and relived the days of their youth.

Memories kept

Potter was just 17 when she left a job in Lewisporte for a more lucrative position in Corner Brook. The Swirsky family offered to pay $20 a month.

Only in my heart do I see a five-year-old boy. There's an old man with a beard now.- Alma Potter

She travelled by passenger boat, and train, and finally met Marvin, then just a young boy.

"They treated me like I was a guest, not a maid," she said. The Swirskys would serve her supper first, she remembers, and then she would serve them after that.

"And this little boy? Oh, he was a part of me."

A reunion 70 years in the making

5 years ago
Duration 0:49
Marvin Swirsky visited Alma Potter in her home in Springdale, N.L. in August. It's the first time the pair had met in 70 years.

Potter spent a year and a half with the Swirsky family, leaving a few weeks before she married, just shy of her 19th birthday. 

She never forgot them.

"He was the sweetest boy that you would hope to meet in life," she said. "If his mother said go to bed by 7, he would be in bed by 7. All the little boys would be out playing, and this little darling was in bed."

The impact that he and his mother had on Potter was profound — so much so that Potter named one of her four children Marvin in his honour.

Reunion 'something special' for man and former maid

5 years ago
Duration 1:27
Marvin Swirsky says he gets emotional when he talks about reuniting with a woman who used to take care of him 70 years ago.

The Swirskys were a Jewish family who immigrated to Corner Brook from Poland.

On this Saturday reunion, Swirsky learned something new about his mother. According to Potter, she had designs to return her family to Israel, and had petitioned Potter to join them.

"That's where she wanted to go? See, I didn't know that!" said Marvin.

'A bolt out of the blue'

The reunion began to take shape three years ago.

"I was thinking about him for a while, and I haven't really thought about him in that way for years, and I said 'I got to find Marvin Swirsky!'" said Potter.

It's almost like having my mother beside me.- Marvin Swirsky

An online search revealed his name, and the phone number at his home in Ontario.

"It was like a bolt out of the blue," said Swirsky, of that first phone call — which was redirected to a home in Florida where he was staying.

"It was shocking because, you know, when she says, 'This is Alma' ... If someone said to me, describe her when you were young, I couldn't," he said. "But I remember Alma as being one of the first people that was in our house that looked after me."

This family photo, of Alma Potter and her four children, hangs on Alma Potter's wall in Springdale. From left: Craig Pelley, Marvin Pelley, Donna Dominic and Ted Pelley. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

With both his parents often busy working at their Corner Brook store,  Alma Potter was important to little Marvin.

"She was like a substitute mother to me, and it's just special, that's all," he said. "Very special."

Having his substitute mother around again, holding his hand and speaking sweetly — it's brought back lots of memories for Swirsky.

"It's almost like having my mother beside me," he said, fighting back tears.

Alma Potter sent emails to Marvin Swirsky in advance of his trip — and has continued to message him since he left Newfoundland and Labrador and returned to Toronto. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Potter said given her age, she's not sure she'll have another chance to have this moment again, which makes the reunion with Swirsky even more special. 

"Only in my heart do I see a five-year-old boy. There's an old man with a beard now," she said. "A grandfather! But it's just as precious.

"I feel tremendous, I can't describe how I feel. Because I loved that boy, he was just like one of my own."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full documentary. 


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