Goodbye, Aunt Blanche

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.

Blanche and Charlie 1944

Blanche and Charlie 1944

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.

Blanche and Charlie

Blanche and Charlie

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.

My Aunt Betty and Blanche

My Aunt Betty and Blanche

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.

Sowing her wild oats

Sowing her wild oats

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.

My mother and Blanche

My mother and Blanche


12 thoughts on “Goodbye, Aunt Blanche

  1. Oh man, I am so sorry for this loss Tobin, but this piece you wrote was a wonderful celebration of who she was. I know it was fueled by grief, but I read it and was happy to have had even this brief glimpse. She looked like my grandmother and I felt like I knew her. Forgive me if I came away from this piece with a smile. Not for the loss, but for the life in it.
    You and Karen are welcome in “banjo-land” anytime you need to get away and need some spirit lifting. If nothing else I have have been told I am a great distraction

  2. Thank you Tobin for the lovely, heart-felt words about our Aunt Blanche. She was an incredible woman who left an amazing legacy for her children and the rest of her family. She will be greatly missed by all.

  3. Well I really think this is a well thought out beautiful post!. What wonderful stories and emotion, brilliant really. I loved it as do many who read it. Blanche was my Nana just an fyi :). I have a few great stories myself. I don’t think I knew her as well as you did. I think I speak for a lot of her grandchildren. I think we saw a different side of her, but I am not going to speak for them. But!! Here’s a story. Nana took me out for my 16th Birthday to Fairview mall kitchener Mcguinnis Landing I believe it was, we got Fajita’s firts time I had ever friend them. Nana got a Beer dont know what I got. We spoke about Bra’s and underwear. Nana had taken me to La senza or a la view en rose and bought me 2 beautiful bra’s and matching underwear. I was amazed at how much they were and how much money she had spent on me. She told me a story of being in change rooms in school and girls wearing torn undergarmets and she swore she would never allow her daughter to wear undergarments that were not beautiful. I loved that and still do!. 🙂 after all it makes a woman feel beautiful. Also we went out one nite when I was in my 20’s, went to see a movie, we went for dinner first at Casey’s. We both had 2 pints of beer. I love that she drank!lol. I thought it was soo sweet and that I could drink with her, it was a delightful evening. This was not meant to put her down please no that. I have great stories of her as well, we all do! :). I really think Bran’d have big mouths LOL more than others. It’s not a bad thing and saying whats on your mind isnt always bad either. I have a lot of funny stories about nana. I will share more.
    TY for your lovely blog!

  4. have to add, the best stories you will get from us braund kids are the Gifts she gave us/bought us for Xmas and the food she made. LOL thats all I have to say. 🙂
    Not that any of the cousins would see this but they would laugh their asses off!

  5. Tobin, as you know, I read your blog about my mom in the wee hours of Christmas morning. Your thoughts warmed my soul and I had a hearty laughing fit reading it! It was so nice to start Christmas morning giggling! Your words are magic. Mom and I have always had a special spot in our hearts for you. Thanks cuz! What a lovely gift you are! xo

  6. it is now 5 days since my big sister, Blanche died and it is just starting to hit me now-when she would come out to Winnipeg to visit me I always had more food when she left than when she arrived as she was buying stuff for everyone-remembering her visits when we would be sitting in the sun (don’t do that anymore) and my kids, being teenagers would always ask why her skin was so white-she would answer that the inside was brown and she just turned herself inside out to get the outside brown-well you wouldn’t expect your aunt to make up stories Right!!! another memory that was sad but we had to laugh as Al had been in real estate the year before he died and he had every weekly report in his office and we carried out 25 bags to the garbage-up and down those stairs 100 times and we sure had a big drink after that hard work. I will never forget those 2 weeks she spent with me in those awful dark days and how she made me realize that I had a new life ahead of me and that sure proved to be right. She loved Al and she loved Hari because they loved me and that is all she wanted for me.

  7. This is the first time I have had the privilege of reading your letter on Blanche. It brought a lot of tears and some wonderful memories that came to mind. She accepted me into the family with love and I looked forward to every opportunity to see her. Thanks for a wonderful tribute!

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