Aunts, in particular & as beloved category

Susie Harder Loewen

My mother’s youngest sister died this week, at 91. So I’ve been thinking about her, my Aunt Susie, and gratitude swells as the memories gather. Her qualities of competence and hospitality and commitment to family. Memories of being junior bridesmaid at her wedding (though I mostly remember my dress), her hosting the gift-opening after my own wedding, and her house — of course — being the place we could drop our first child while rushing to the hospital for the birth of the second. It was Aunt Susie, not Mom, who taught me to sew, and I remember that week with them in their Winnipeg house, how patient and wise she was with her little girls. There was a sense of welcome about her, and as far as I was concerned, every expectation that the welcome should be there. Taking it for granted, I suppose. She was my aunt, after all.

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Harder family (late 1930s?). My mother, Tina, standing far right; Aunt Susie seated beside their father.

She’s the last of them on my mother’s side — the last of The Aunts, I mean, a category all its own. (Mom, 98, the only one of her family still alive.) My mother had four sisters, thus we had the four aunts. As we got older and had families of our own, my siblings and I sometimes discussed and compared them, for The Aunts — the Harder aunts — seemed formidable women, strong was the word, and each in her own way, opinionated too.

I’ve noticed the role of aunts in fiction. Their usefulness as foil, as rescue. Just recently, for example, I read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, with its unconventional Aunt Izzy as contrast to Ursula’s traditional mother Sylvie. And in real life too — and I’m speaking generally here — aunts fill gaps mothers may not fill, provide near-hand models of other personalities to watch, perhaps emulate. Their faults become instructive as well, perhaps arouse appreciation for the mother one landed to. They belong to us, that’s the thing, they’re our heritage, but by virtue of connection plus difference, enlarge that heritage. Sharpen or soften it. Round it out. Sometimes, if they’re single professional women, they may tip a bit of money our way, which when we’re young and beginning, feels enormous. If we’re fortunate, they root for us, encourage, offer advice sought or unsought, in other words, freely help themselves to our lives, as we to theirs, and as a bonus, are interested in and involved with our children, and all this with less thanks in return than they deserve. Blessed be The Aunts!

 

The Margaret Laurence project

In blog-as-confessional mode today: it’s always gratifying to signal what’s been accomplished, but less gratifying to consider what was begun in high spirits and never completed.

In terms of the done, I refer to items along the right aisle of this site, where I’ve just updated “Recent essays and stories.” I was pleased that “Burial Grounds” found a home in the latest Prairie Fire. This piece grew out of concerns, when we first moved from Manitoba to British Columbia, about where I would be buried someday. All those years in Winnipeg, I’d had my eye on the beautiful Elmwood Cemetery and now we’d left it behind. (I know, I know, I worry about odd things.) I was delighted that The New Quarterly took “On the Memory Set,” a reflection launched by once trying to write a play. And, most recently, a review of Cameron Dueck’s fine book, Menno Moto, at Mennonite Historian (pg.11.)

Margaret Laurence

But the unfinished, the abandoned! Some time ago I made a list of these and it wasn’t short. This morning, needing a binder, I emptied accumulated notes for my Year of Reading Margaret Laurence project (2019), which I referenced back in December. Of four formidable women writers who shaped my sense of Canadian writing — Margaret Laurence, Mavis Gallant, Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields — it’s Margaret Laurence to whom I’m most drawn. I suppose I dreamed of one of those “annualist” manuscripts, even though I find them somewhat pretentious.

I glanced through the notes, remembered how much I enjoyed reading Laurence’s African stories for the first time and two collections of her correspondence (with publisher Jack McClelland, with friend Adele Wiseman), as well as re-reading some of her novels. I also read James King’s slightly irritating biography of Laurence. I noticed in the notes that I wondered whether she would have liked me. (Another odd worry, I know.) She didn’t suffer fools gladly, as her letters attest. It was the question of my own identity as writer, I think; a hope for resonance. But it’s the stories, not the personality, that remains. Their passion, their language. (Just one image from a story in The Tomorrow Tamer, by way of illustration: “the children darted, velvety with dust.” Which makes me ache with pleasure.)

While my admiration for Margaret Laurence’s work was affirmed, I lost interest in continuing the project. But if there’s not enough wool for a blanket, I offer a narrow scarf, namely encouragement to read, or re-read, Margaret Laurence. She’s worth it. Still, and again.

 

An immigrant’s anniversary

This Saturday, June 20, it will be 50 years since my husband Helmut (also known as H. in my blogs) immigrated to Canada. Since the pandemic prevents us from having a full-scale celebration of this significant anniversary, I asked him if I could commemorate in part by sharing some of his “immigrant stories” here. He agreed.

H. did not flee his Paraguay homeland at 19 on account of war or catastrophe. He was motivated by adventure, greater economic opportunity, and the pull of others like his brother John and family who had already migrated north to Winnipeg, Manitoba. (There was considerable movement between the Mennonite communities of Paraguay and the Mennonite communities of Canada in those years.) He and friend Herb Giesbrecht, whose sister Elsie was John’s wife, came together. For the first months, the two fellows lived in John and Elsie’s basement.

At the local airport, jaunty in hat! The youngest child saying good-bye to parents and some siblings, nieces, nephews.

He remembers well his first evening in Canada. Why wasn’t it getting dark? He was so tired and yet the day blazed on. In Paraguay, the sun would be setting around supper time and, being closer to the equator, never had Canada’s seasonal extremes in daylight.

And what was that buzzing around his arms and feet? “Do you have mosquitos here?” he asked his brother, swatting and recognizing the vicious little beasts he knew from Paraguay.

“Yup!” — Ah, not quite the hoped-for land of Canaan then.

His father had given him one piece of advice. “Learn the language,” he said, “and the rest will follow.” Which H. proceeded to do, taking evening classes and enrolling in the local Mennonite high school for Grade 12. (He had finished school in Paraguay as far as it went there then, but it wasn’t quite Canadian Grade 12 equivalent.) He began Grade 12 in January and the only subject he passed that first semester was German, his mother tongue. The next year, he completed the rest.

He didn’t “look like” an immigrant, so he experienced instances of awkwardness and lack of sympathy from others. At Zellers, for example, he’d learned that one took the merchandise to the checkout at the door. At Eaton’s, he wandered around the store with unpaid merchandise looking for the same, only to be reprimanded by a store employee. “You need a bill!” she snapped.

First summer in Canada

Bill? He had a friend Bill, but Bill wasn’t shopping with him.

When people heard him speak, the question was inevitable: “Where are you from?” He got tired of it.

At that time, it was possible to come into Canada on a tourist visa and then do the paperwork for landed immigrant status from within the country. A relative was helping him with this, but he and Herb had begun to work, picking up garbage at his uncle’s construction sites for $1.50 an hour. “We were working for cash, we didn’t have the proper papers,” he recalls. “Whenever I heard sirens, a shiver ran down my spine–now the police are coming for me!

They would also collect drink cans and bits of copper wire, anything to make a little money. And they made friends, and the summer was warm and wonderful. The excitement of newness wore off, however. “I would see planes flying overheard,” he says, “and wish I was on board, flying home. If I’d had the money to return that first year, I would have.”

When he did return to Paraguay for a visit after some time, it was a wonderful reunion but now he found he also looked forward to returning home — in Canada!

Helmut Dueck (right) and Herb Giesbrecht (1949-2018), one year in Canada. “We liked water!”

One of the downsides of immigration is that unless everyone comes, families are divided. John and Elsie eventually returned to Paraguay, so for decades now he has been the only one of his siblings here. He also had to miss the funerals of both parents and two sisters.

Eventually, Helmut bought a motorcycle. He then sold the motorcycle to buy a car. He wanted to buy a Buick but couldn’t say the name–that “byoo” sound at the beginning. He practiced and practiced but couldn’t perfect it in time so bought a Chevy BelAir instead.

Winter was a shock and “snow wasn’t a bit like the Christmas cards I’d seen — fluffy and smooth.” It was cold and wet and difficult. He bought himself some gloves but not knowing what he needed they were too thin and he froze several finger tips.

“I’m glad we didn’t come in winter,” he says, “because although it was cold we knew what summer was like and we knew winter would end.”

Gradually, he got to know his new country and its ways and then he met and married me, Canadian-born and raised, which strengthened his commitment to staying. (We did live in Paraguay for two-and-a-half years in the early 1980s, though, first for a long visit with his family, and then on a development assignment.)

In 1979, H. got formal citizenship. “I was glad it had come to that stage,” he says. “There were people from all sorts of countries in the ceremony. The judge explained that now we were fully citizens with all rights and privileges, so afterwards I handed him my business card.” He’d started his own drywall company by then.

He recalls a worker on his job site once talking about the “f—king immigrants.” “What do you have against them?” he asked. “They come and take our jobs,” the other man complained. “No,” H. said, “they might also give you work. You’re working for a f—king immigrant.” The other man sputtered “Oh, I didn’t know!” and apologized.

“I think being an immigrant has given me sympathy and understanding for immigrants in Canada,” Helmut says. “Just the other day I got excited to read about Syrian refugees working with a farmer in Nova Scotia.”

Does he ever regret coming? No.

I’m glad he came too.