There are 540 kilometres between my office and my aunt’s house.
Last week, my office was full of meetings, big ideas and little frustrations, posturing and punning. My aunt’s house was empty.
I didn’t leave the office in a hurry, because I thought I had more time. I thought I could drive to the city, have some dinner and get some rest before going to the hospital. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad for the time I had, especially for those last few hours spent mostly driving and reflecting.
I could tell you stories about my aunt, like that time she leaned over her crutches and said, “Look how you’re growing! If you get taller than me, I won’t be able to talk to you” and I prayed I’d stop growing right then. Or how our little shih tzu Chen would sit at her feet on her electric wheelchair with his underbite exposed and his hair blowing in the wind and she’d laugh that laugh. Or how I knew she was okay with my distaste of the phone and was always, always eager to open my letters and emails. I would find — later, going through her things with my cousin and not crying — that she kept every photo I had ever sent. Some of them were framed.
I had all those hours to tell those stories to myself, and laugh, and think about what I’d say when I got to the hospital. My cousin called when I was about an hour outside the city and I told her my plans.
“There isn’t going to be a tomorrow,” she told me. “Come now, but get here safely.”
Those two phrases kept running over and over in my head as I navigated the 401: There isn’t going to be a tomorrow. Get here safely.
There isn’t going to be a tomorrow.
Get here safely.
There were all these things I had wanted to say and all the things I’d practiced saying, but when I saw her there, a shadow of my most precious aunt, I smiled and said, “I’ve just come to say hello,” because there was no way in the world I was going to say goodbye.
And we sat with her, a few of us representing her larger family, who were there in spirit. We told more stories, and we got a little boisterous, and it felt exactly the same as it did those times we sat in her apartment and squeezed as much of our lives into two or three hours as we could.
I thought I had more time. But in the end — at the very end — we had just enough.
Of all the nieces and nephews, I wasn’t the easiest to love.
I didn’t live near the rest of the cousins, but it was more than that, the way I held myself apart even as a child, the way I lived inside my head with a circle of imaginary friends and a secret language. I was ridiculously shy and attached to my mother’s hip. When I spoke, I was as awkward and muddled as I am today.
I wasn’t the easiest of the cousins to love. And yet.
And yet The Aunts never failed to love me in the very best ways — by being near me without pushing into my world. By giving me the greatest of gifts: stories.
There is the story of the picture taped to a wall in Aunt Vic’s spare room: Burt Reynolds on a bearskin rug in all his glory. How Aunt Laurie helped convince my mother I should have my ears pierced. The way Aunt Ginny never treated me like a child, silently empowering me. How Aunt Sue loved books alongside me.
My voice is eerily like theirs. So is my face — my smile and wrinkles and just-watch-me attitude.
I am not the easiest aunt to love. I am separated still by distance and emotion.
I hope my niece and nephew and their children take from me some little stories, of my foul language or terrible puns or how I learned to marry shyness with a just-watch-me attitude, and I hope they know I marvel over how fabulous they are.
TORONTO – Her arrival is announced by a rattling at the key hole. Aunt G and Uncle C share a look across the room. Their relationship with their neighbour is more than a friendship – it is a safety net, because they see each other every day. A missed visit would be a red flag.
“You call me Inga,” she says as we are introduced.
Her shirt is light pink and has a large appliqued butterfly on its collar. Her sweater is a darker shade of pink, marked with black and gold swirls across the shoulders and chest. Her leggings are white, have huge black polka dots, and end before her white ankle socks. Her hair is cut short and fashionably. Her glasses are stylish, with dainty white arms that end in a diamond of negative space near the lenses. Her face is open and friendly; when she is not smiling, the memory of her smile lingers. Her voice is well-used to laughing.
Today she comes with a small gift – a toy from a kids’ meal – to pass on to my niece’s three little girls. While my aunt pulls open the plastic wrap, my uncle and I talk about coal mining.
His father spent 30 years in a colliery in Glace Bay, Cape Breton. He was one of the lucky ones – black lung didn’t get him. A few years ago, we toured a colliery in Glace Bay and heard the Men of the Deeps choir. I’ve been hooked ever since and could spend all day listening to mining stories. That the miners eventually received paycheques rather than cash was the women’s doing, my uncle told me. Otherwise, cash in hand, the workers were inclined to stop at the bar on the way home and their wives might not get their household allowance.
On the room’s large TV, an anchor is chatting with an astrologist about the possibility that we’ve all been living under the wrong sun signs. My aunt asks me what I think.
“I’m a Gemini,” I say. “It depends on my mood.” Inga’s head whips up. “A Gemini? When?”
“June,” I tell her. “The 11th.”
“It’s not! June 11! That’s my birthday!” She gets up and comes to stand beside my chair, and she asks me again.
“June 11, 1971.”
“I am June 11, 1933.” My father’s birth year. I think – I hope – that maybe I’ll grow into the same sort of smiling, friendly, energetic senior Gemini that Inga is.
“It’s a little Frisbee,” Aunt G reveals in her soft voice, holding up the two plastic pieces that are the kids’ meal toy. She carefully inserts it into the green launcher.
“It shoots out?” Inga says in alarm. Too late, she snaps at my aunt: “Don’t you do it!” The little Frisbee flies up and out, ricocheting off a glass shelf of knick-knacks and disappearing behind a wrapping-paper bag. Inga moves fast, before I can begin to lift myself from my chair. She rummages in the corner, plucking the disc from a deep corner and holding it aloft. She doesn’t say it aloud, but “tsk tsk” is written all over her fine German features. She snatches the launcher on her way back to her chair.
“I’m serious,” she says, because the three of us are giggling. “If they point it this way –” she pokes the disc against her cheek beneath her eye. My aunt does not look chastened. She looks delighted. Inga is shaking her head and trying to look stern, but there’s a telltale glint in her eyes. The corners of her mouth are twitching upward as she fits the disc into the launcher. My aunt is smirking now. She tilts her chin toward the long hallway. “How far do you think it will go?”
She aims carefully and pinches; the miniature Frisbee soars along the hallway, straight and smooth as a glider. It seems like it’s moving in slow motion down the hall at waist height, arcing upward slightly before beginning its descent into the bathroom. It makes it all the way to the far wall. We’d been holding our breath, but release it in giggles. Inga retrieves it and shoots it again. Then I have a go. None of us loses an eye.
Inga disappears back to her apartment for a little while. It is filled with dolls, Aunt G tells me. Many of them are porcelain; some of them have been painted by Inga herself. There are teddy bears, too. When she comes back, she has a bear for each of my little great-nieces. She has me say their names as I put them in a bag, so I won’t get mixed up: A classic, jointed bear for Lily, one with a book for Emma, a polar bear for Sophia. And she has something for me, too: a thumb-sized green bear delicately stitched together by her sister in Germany.
But best of all, she’s brought me a beautiful card with a cutout faerie that says “Alles Gute.” All’s good. Inside she’s written: “To a Zwillinge, from a Zwillinge. Inga.” From one Gemini to another – friends even after so short a visit.
The VFW in Bigfork is about a quarter the size of the one in Kalispell.
It’s a shack on the side of a hill and most of the parking is for the handicapped.
There’s a small table inside reserved for the unnamed soldier. It has a white tablecloth and white dishes and there is no dust on the cutlery or glass. The seat is draped with a black cloth that has POW/MIA stitched in white.
It was here – since it was our fourth Miller-time stop of the day – that I started to feel a little drunk. It was here than Aunt V started telling family stories while Aunt L played the machines.
I grew up in the east, so I never saw The Aunts more than once a year (and rarely that much). Yet I am so much like them.
This summer, my brother was shocked (and somewhat appalled) at how much I look like our mom. But Aunt V and I are the ones with blonde hair and blues eyes – everyone else is dark. We all put too much salt on our food and though we’re interested in what everyone has ordered, there is no picking off each other’s plates. I hate sharing my food, but in Montreal that’s seen as weird and maybe selfish. Apparently in my family, that’s just the way it is.
The other thing we share is a talent for attracting … uh … characters. One of these is J.R., the old Mexican man who takes care of Aunt V’s Montana house. He’s 83 (and so’s his girlfriend) and he says he doesn’t drink, so Aunt V had to offer him a scotch twice before he accepted. He sat down to chat and Aunt L and I lit cigarettes.
“When are you going to stop that?” he asked me.
I said: “Tomorrow.”
Then he told me a story. Seems that back in 1973, he was living near San Francisco. He was driving along in an old black car. A big old boat of a thing. He had the windows down and he was smoking and just enjoying life. All of a sudden, he couldn’t catch his breath. He managed to pull the car over and stumbled out, got around to the front and draped himself over the hood till he got his wind back.
“The next day, I was driving in the same car, going the same way, and it was the same time of day – it happened again!”
“I would have started taking a different road,” I suggested.
He turned to Aunt V and said, “She’s a quick one. You’d better watch her.” The moral of his story was that he quit smoking right there and then. Good for him – 83 looks great on him.
I have more J.R. stories, but my flight’s about to board and I’m anxious to get on and get home. Meantime, please enjoy this picture from the inside of the washroom at the VFW in Bigfork. Why yes, that is Ronbo hanging on the wall. He watched me pee several times.
When we left the VFW in Kalispell, we started down the highway to Bigfork. It’s a twenty-minute drive, though, and Miller time happened halfway home, so we found ourselves at the Tall Pine Saloon, where an old biker was tending bar. The guys were ragging on him because he’d just gotten his bike out the day before and the snow was falling was like December.
The barmaid was in her 50s, pin thin and she had a head of huge, teased, curly hair. She was wearing bottle-thick glasses with frames that took up most of her rouged face.
The guy sitting next to us tried talking to us, slipping into the conversation a few times that he was a “one-hundred-per-cent disabled veteran.” The Aunts, who spend their days going from one VFW to another, were unimpressed.
“I like it when it snows like this,” he said.
Aunt V snorted at him. “Well, you did say you’re disabled.”
We had to backtrack about a mile to Grizzly Jack’s. The bartender there greeted us in Spanish and so Aunt V answered him in Spanish.
“Uh, I just used up all I know,” he said sheepishly. “It’s my one line. I’ve got no follow through.”
She was going to let it pass till she saw the poster on the bar fridge. “CINCO DE MAYO – MAY 4.”
“May 4? You really don’t know Spanish at all, do you?”
He took a pen and wrote right on the poster, between Cinco de Mayo and the date: “Pre-party.”
We only wanted to tease him because he was so beautiful. We would have listened to him speak gibberish, just to watch his lips move. The food was amazing, too. I had a pepperjack cheeseburger with bacon and jalapenos. The meat was so thick I didn’t even try to eat the bun.
Aunt L and I lit up while we finished our beer and cutie-pie barkeep came over. “I don’t really care,” he said, “but you’re not supposed to smoke in here while the kitchen’s open.”
“We’ve already eaten,” I said. “Are you going to kick us out?”
His eyes got wide and he started laughing. “Did you just say ‘ewwwtt?’ Are you Canadian?”
At the VFW lounge (Veterans of Foreign Wars, which I guess means no Civil War vets need apply), Aunt L made beeline for the machines while Aunt V and I sidled up to the bar.
The VFW is a fairly large building, with a room in the back for gambling and pool tables along one side. The bartender, with a short beard and curls coming down from under his ball cap, has a tattoo of a Hawaiian girl on the inside of his forearm.
We weren’t there long before a gentleman made his way over. He stood between our barstools with a hand on each of our backs. He was rubbing the back of my neck with his thumb and, judging by the long-suffering look on Aunt V’s face, he was doing the same with her. His round face was clean-shaven and he was bald under his red hat; his smile was an incredible centrepiece to his round, friendly face.
Apparently in Canada, if you come into a Legion wearing a hat, you have to buy everyone a round. Only high-ranking officers are allowed to wear their hats off-duty, so that when someone with hat walks into a room, you know who’s in charge. Every second man in Montana wears a hat, so that wouldn’t go over too well here, or anywhere in America, as a bartender at another VFW later told us.
“My name is Dill Pickle,” announced the gentleman with his hands on our necks. I knew his name already – Aunt V had pointed him out to me. “Dill’s my last name and they call me Pickle.”
She told him that I was the visiting niece and he asked whether I like my aunts.
“I’ve got four aunts,” I said, “and three of them are fantastic.”
He hooted and hollered and made me promise I’d come back, because he wasn’t going to visit me.
“I’d travel to see that gorgeous smile, but I ain’t goin’ to the far east, not even for you, beautiful.”