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May 26, 2024

Opening my heart to others

I didn’t have friends during my years as a businesswoman. I was surrounded by caring colleagues, extraordinary employees and cherry-picked franchisees, of course, but I didn’t have true friends with whom to discuss topics other than business. I was so busy, preoccupied and absorbed by a thousand and one things that I didn’t have any spare time to socialize with friends. Most of the ambitious businessmen who sought me out were on high alert. They all wanted to do business with our brand, and my reputation for being demanding and uncompromising preceded me. I never bargained. Never haggled, never dithered. If they wanted to sell me something, I would name my price and they either agreed or went home empty-handed.

At that time, I often thought a man was living inside my head. I’d been a book worm all my life, an artist who crafted words, with no business knowledge or training. I was learning how to be a franchisor by ingesting biographies of men who’d developed great franchise networks. I was always one reassuring step ahead of the game. Thank goodness! I knew that the risk of failing was clearly much greater than the chances of winning. The beautiful thing about it was that I was never afraid of failure! I was fearful of running into a mean ol’ bear money or original ideas.

When I opened my first small restaurant, the breakfast food industry in those days (1987) suffered from a glaring lack of decent breakfasts. And so I put on a chef’s hat and apron to create amazing, one-of-a-kind dishes that dazzled thousands of customers. After 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6… the 7th Cora restaurant became a franchised location! This exceptional restaurant in Montreal’s West Island, located at 187 Hymus Blvd., Pointe-Claire, is still going strong today.

We had to face the facts: I was gifted with creativity and business. I’d created an unbeatable breakfast restaurant concept and I now had to travel my own Camino de Santiago, sowing franchises all over this vast country. During those years, I was audacious and careful, a spendthrift and a penny-pincher. I was constantly expanding our team of experts and always in a rush to open the next restaurant. I took calculated risks without ever putting the heart of our operations in danger.

I’ll never forget the times during my childhood when we used to pick hazelnuts with Grandpa Frédéric at the end of summer. Every year, using the same jute bag, Grandpa would show us how to remove the nuts from the tree and place them in the bag, which he’d later hang in the barn to allow the precious contents to dry. After a few months, he’d smash the bag against a stone wall to crack open the shells. Grandma then carefully stored the tiny treasures, dispensing them sparingly on Sundays so that there’d be enough left for Christmas. Just like my grandmother who gave me a few meagre hazelnuts, 30 years later, I rewarded my children, who helped in the restaurant, with a few measly dollars of spending money.

How could I’ve possibly managed to open myself up to others and find real friends during this solitary but very full life? I was constantly spinning like a weathervane, looking for the best location to set up the next big yellow Sun. Only when I transferred my role and title to my youngest son did I finally start to slow down. In the end, the horrible pandemic succeeded in immobilizing me. I changed my lifestyle. When eventually we were given the all-clear to leave the safety of our homes, I started writing at the town’s coffee shop. And there, at last, I found friends.

Like a baby bird learning to fly, I’d whisper a few hellos to the people near my table, and they in turn would answer. I smiled, I was happy. After a few weeks, we moved our tables closer together in order to get to know each other better. Like a bee slowly feeding on the nectar of flowers, I learned about friendship, this mutual feeling as precious as honey. It hasn’t been hard for me to make friends. The go-getter in the past had to deprive herself of friendship because of the urgent need to make a living to ensure her young family’s survival. Today, friendship is like a decadent dessert served to me on a silver platter. A gift, a reward. I won’t run away from the challenges that still occupy my mind and keep me from growing old.

I love my friends tremendously and their antics and eccentricities, like a desire to die standing up! Together, we’re learning that living means being constantly confronted with what is beyond us. We were discussing it the other day and realized how easy it is to age mentally and give into fatigue and weariness. “The less we do, the less we want to do,” said George, the oldest in our group (82). I was quick to reply that my mind and my inner being have never taken to retirement. I detest the word “retiree” because it seems like a fragile wobbly-headed trinket with a knobbed walking cane.

There’s no denying it, as we get older a part of us remains young, like any creation that’s never really finished. May the heavens bless this eternal youth that prevents us from growing weak. I wonder. I may have once lacked love, but now I’m surrounded by intrepid, valiant souls.

Very early last Sunday, an elderly man walked into the coffee shop and came over to my table. I’d never seen him before. With his two hands resting on the chair in front of me, he bent down and told me, “Dear Cora, your modesty is a sign of greatness.” He then took his leave and went to the counter where he ordered a latte to go and left. I was the only customer in the café at that moment. I’ve never seen him since.

This year, I’m celebrating my 77th birthday surrounded by friends. I feel very lucky to have such a tight-knit circle of companions – people who watch out for me, check up on me and whose company I enjoy.