I’m going to apologize right up front for any typos and grammatical mistakes. I’m having a hell of a time writing this one and I can’t face reading it again. It’s too hard.
My world is a little more dim today. My Aunt Blanche passed away yesterday afternoon.
My mother’s family was a large one. Three boys, Floyd, Merle and Willis (or Ron, depending on who you talked to), and five girls, Hannah, Betty, Jackie, Ileen (or Mary Katherine, depending on who you talked to), and Blanche. Of that large family, there’s only my mother, Ileen, and Betty left.
Blanche was the oldest. She would have been 89 this coming April, and barely a year separated her from my mother, who will be 88 this coming April. They were the first two and they were always close.
I know it’s likely not cool to pick a favourite out of all my aunts, and I love them all dearly, but I have to say, Blanche was my favourite.
I remember, forty-odd years ago, making that long trip to Guelph to visit Aunt Blanche and Uncle Charlie and their brood of kids. Wayne, Brian, David, Cheri, and Dale. They didn’t live in a big house, and it always seemed jammed full of people.
Whenever I went to one of my other aunt’s houses, Jackie’s, or Hannah’s or Betty’s, the places were spotless, and they were always very neat, very tasteful. The Clarke women all knew how to decorate and keep a clean home. But my point here is, their houses had just the right amout of stuff. No clutter. My mom’s place was always a bit more cluttered than the others, but still neat and clean.
But walking into Aunt Blanche’s house was like walking into Hogwort’s or something like that. It was still neat and clean, but there was…stuff…everywhere. The place was bursting with interesting things to look at and find. Whenever I think of Blanche and Charlie’s house, the first thing I think of is a couch they had along one wall, and the top few inches of a cribbage board peeking up from behind it. That thing must have been about four feet high and it always held a singular attraction for me.
And in amongst this ordered chaos, there was Blanche, the calm eye at the centre of any storm. She was the epitome of calm. To the untrained eye, she might be seen as uncaring, but that would be absolutely wrong.
Blanche was always content–at least to me and my memories–simply to be. She seemed to be happy in any situation, unperturbed in any upheaval, be it eight kids running around the house, or a bunch of family invading her home for the weekend. She had a happy, zen-like quality to her that I wish I could have inherited.
While some of my aunts and uncles were jokesters or sarcastic, Blanche was hysterically funny at times by just being her.
I remember when I was back in high school, a group of us decided to head down and check out a few different universities to try and decide which one was for us. The plan was to visit the University of Toronto, McMaster in Hamilton, and both Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo, both in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. My Aunt Blanche, hailing from Guelph, volunteered to guide us to both WLU and UofW.
We end a convoy of three cars. Aunt Blanche in the lead car, my mother following her, and one of the other kid’s mothers following my mom. And Blanche got us so lost. Still, she was obviously convinced that she could navigate her way out of it, so she gamely drove on, taking turns at random and choosing streets seemingly at a whim. And, even though she drove the wrong way on at least two one-way streets, still the other two cars had to follow her, my mother furiously honking her horn and flashing her lights. Blanche kept her zen-like calm and drove on.
At one point, she finally had to admit defeat and ask for directions. Instead of pulling up beside another car, or even taking the curb and hitting up a pedestrian, she stopped at a red light, then, hanging her head, shoulders and left arm out the window, flapped her hand to a woman waaaaaaay across the intersection and, in her somewhat gravelly voice, shrieked, “MA’AM! MA’AM! MA’AM!” until she got her attention and got the directions she needed. Thankfully, those directions got us where we needed to go.
At the time, being about seventeen years old, this was absolutely mortifying to me and my buddies and I can remember us sliding down in the back seat where no one could see us.
But by that night, that action had passed into legend. We told and retold that story until tears were squirting from our eyes. And, until the day I moved from Barry’s Bay, if one of my friends or I were on foot in Barry’s Bay, and another of us was driving, the customary greeting was to hang our head, shoulders and left arm out the window, flap our hand in the direction of the other and yell, “MA’AM! MA’AM! MA’AM!” So, I guess you could say Blanche was a trend-setter as well.
Years later, I came to appreciate my aunt more, to understand her from an adult point of view. That’s when I realized how loving she was, how devoted to family and friends. When Charlie passed away, she eventually found Stan, another good guy. He wasn’t Charlie, but he was a good guy in his own right. Blanche could pick them. When Stan passed away, Blanche found other ways to keep herself occupied. She volunteered at a hospice, and she was active on the computer–a skill her next youngest sister, my mother, could never master.
She was always busy, always active, and kept a pace that would tire someone half her age.
The last few times I got together with Aunt Blanche, we had some serious conversations. There were times when I might have needed a bit of advice. And this was when I truly began to understand my aunt.
Blanche would never stick her nose where it didn’t belong. She might have had the perfect word, the perfect advice, but, unless you asked for it, she held her tongue.
But if you did ask for it, if you did come to her, possibly in an emotional state, she would always calmly listen to you, nodding and encouraging you. And she would look at you and only you. If you were talking to Blanche, you became the most important person in her life at that moment. The rest of the world would fall away for her.
And then she would smile that wonderful smile of hers, the one that started at her mouth and crinkled the corners of her eyes, and she would either give you the perfect piece of advice, or she would say something like, “I remember when…” and then she’d tell you a story–often hilarious–about herself, or one of her brothers and sisters, or one of her kids, and it would perfectly illustrate the point she was trying to make. She had a million stories and could pick the right one for the situation every time.
My Aunt Blanche even accepted her end with that same calm. While the rest of the family took the news with shock and pain and anger, Blanche only shrugged her shoulders, accepted it, and pointed out that she’d had a good, long, productive life. She then prepared for the end, ensuring that her kids were looked after, that the right heirloom got to the right person.
And when she entered the hospice she used to volunteer at, she was greeted like a homecoming queen, and she said, “I’m so happy I’m here.”
Blanche might never been seen as someone who did something earthshaking or important, but she was that person. Her calmness, her easy smile, her way of disarming an emotional moment with a story and her obvious love…they were earthshaking to me. They were important. She was an absolutely loving woman, a loyal friend and relative.
Over the years, I had some wonderful moments and shared some lovely conversations with her. And I know that, for each of those moments and conversations, I became the most important person in her life. That’s a precious gift to give anyone, yet it was one that she gave freely and easily, and with a smile.
I can’t tell you how much it hurts me to know I’ll never have one of those conversations again.
Goodbye Aunt Blanche. I love you so much. Thank you for being in my life.