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.

7E7184F3-CADD-46D1-AA7D-009352386EDF_1_201_a

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┬áreview 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.

 

Listening to a book

This week, beguiled by the offer of 10 Giller-winner titles FREE from Audible.ca and feeling the need to try something new during Covid-19 isolation, I downloaded Sean Michael’s Us Conductors and proceeded to listen to the book, all 11 hours 21 minutes of it.

I know I’m coming to audio books late; all of you have probably listened to dozens of them while running, walking, knitting, driving, whatever it is you do while listening to books. But indulge me please, because the experience was new and I’m still thinking about it, both the novel and the fact of listening to instead of reading it.

152EACD2-CE40-49EF-B04C-21149F599CDD_4_5005_cThe book is based on the life of Russian scientist Lev Termen, who invented the theremin, a musical instrument played without physical contact by the performer, except for contact with the invisible electric waves or whatever. (Watch the inventor play it here.) That might sound boring, but it’s a love story too, and a spy story, and a story of being in New York in the jazz age and in the Soviet Gulag. The fictional Termen, who narrates, speaks crisply like a scientist but observes and describes like a psychologist and poet. It’s quite wonderful.

At first I didn’t like listening. I was afraid I was missing something by not seeing the words. I actually own the print version, just hadn’t gotten to it yet, so for a while I followed along in the book. But that seemed silly. One or the other, I told myself. Listening, I could follow easily enough but when I stopped I didn’t feel as if I knew where I was, as if I’d been looking down at the path through a forest instead of around me the way I do when tracking text with my eyes.

Then I decided to work on a jigsaw puzzle at the same time, which ironically focussed my listening concentration and then I listened and listened and the hours advanced, and I was there, in Termen’s America and ship cabin and Kolyma and Moscow. I was there the whole time and I heard Termen telling his story and I still feel affected by where I’ve been and what I’ve heard.

Some time ago a friend who listened to a book club’s selection asked me if I thought that “counted.” I said Yes. I would still say Yes. As far as retention goes, I feel I know the book as well as if I’d read it. The content is the same. Nevertheless, I’m puzzling over Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” and wondering how to articulate the difference. Because it is different. Hearing the book felt intimate, unsteady in some way. It seemed to add a layer of vulnerability, as if another’s voice into my ear, instead of my eyes and personal voice of my mind, both skewed and strengthened perception.

Oddly, I now feel like reading Us Conductors. But why would I? Don’t I know it already? Am I simply looking for familiar ground? At the same time, I feel like listening to another book, to test the book-listening experience again.

Do you listen to rather than read books? What is it like for you?