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.

Yikes.

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

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A quiet nobility

Last night, we got the call we knew was coming, but didn’t ever want to get: Marilyn was gone.

Marilyn was my mother-in-law, mother to Kim, Chris and my wife, Karen, and married to Bill Richardson for over five decades. It’s easy to sum her up by the numbers. Mother of three, grandmother of six, wife of 54 years… but that’s not a fair or accurate assessment.

I met Marilyn back when I was about seventeen. I’d gone to school with her oldest daughter, Kim and had stopped by their house with a friend. I know I met her then, but I have no memory of it.

But if we skip ahead ten more years, that’s when I had started dating Karen, the middle child and Kim’s only sister. I was a cocky ass back in those days–something that hasn’t changed much in the intervening twenty-five years–and I met Marilyn again, for the first time.

I remember a few things about that meeting. Her friendliness, her openness, her immediate acceptance of this gangly, long-haired smartass…even when I found out she didn’t like the word “snot” and I then used it about twenty times. That was the first time I saw the look.

She got this look when someone would rib her about something. She’d set her mouth in a way that was somehow grim and yet smiling all at the same time. Her eyes would dance with a playful light, and the entire thing came together in an enjoy this now, because I’m so gonna get you later look.

She rarely did, but still, the look was delightful and terrifying. Because there was always that question of, what if she actually does get me later?

There was one time however, when she was quite proud of herself. Karen and I were over at her parents’ place and, as usual, I was being a smartass with Marilyn. To be honest, it was something the two of us shared, easily and comfortably. She was always content to be my straight man, and I loved her for it. Anyway, this particular time, I said something to get her goat, and she responded, uncharacteristically, with something like, “You better watch out, mister. I’ll get you for that.” This, of course, accentuated with her sharply pointing finger.

Of course I laughed it off.

We got home, and I got a case of the annoying ahems. This turned into a bit of a cough, and by morning, I had, for the one and only time in my life, a case of laryngitis. I couldn’t speak.

And when Karen called her mother to let her know, Marilyn was delighted, insisting it was her that put the whammy on me. You’ve got to admit, when I’m sassing her, the best revenge would be to steal my voice. She never forgot that, even though it was almost twenty-five years in the past, and she still threatened me with it every so often. And somehow, for all my bluster, it would tend to shut me up.

What I remember most about Marilyn was her mannerisms. I’ve already mentioned the look. I was the recipient of that many, many times. But there was also her true don’t mess with me look, that would come out when she related a story about a teacher being unfair to one of her kids, or any other injustice that she had to deal with. Marilyn never looked like a badass, but she definitely could be. It was obvious that there was a badassery about her. That was one look I never wanted directed my way and, thankfully, it never was.

There was that aforementioned wagging finger. She often told a story, and when she was ready to make her point, or give us the punchline of the story, she’d take a breath, pop the finger and start it with something like, “and you know…”

She also had this expression that she’d pop out as much as she did the finger. It became one of my catchphrases to throw back at her on occasion. She’d say, “Now, I’m not trying to be smart, but…” I loved that expression, and I hope she hears it when I use it going forward.

And then there were the birthdays. Whether it was one of her kids, the spouses of her kids, or her grand kids, she never forgot a birthday, and you could count on a call on your special day with her grinning rendition of the Happy Birthday song, all the way through, and sung loud and proud.

With her in the hospital this year, this was the first birthday since I was 26 that I didn’t hear that song. As delightfully torturous as it was to receive, I missed it horribly, and I’ll miss it until the end of my days.

Again, these are just small glimpses into the who Marilyn was. While she wasn’t always happy, having moods and bad days like the rest of us, she always seemed like a happy person. She enjoyed her kids, she enjoyed her grand kids even more. There were times when I know she didn’t have a bloody clue what they were talking about, but she was always interested, always delighted to spend time with them, and she would talk about it for hours and days later. She was proud of their accomplishments and she never missed a significant event in any of my kids’ lives. She seemed to soak up their youthful energy and radiate it back.

She was godawful horrible on a computer. I can’t tell you how many times I walked her through bringing back an icon that she’d inadvertently deleted, or navigating to a website, or showing her how to delete email. But for all of that, she never gave up, she never stopped trying, because her computer provided a window into the lives of those she loved. And though it could be frustrating for me to go through this, her gratitude afterward always made me feel guilty for ever being frustrated. And again, I’d give anything today to get one of those calls from her.

Even though I came into the picture after all this had passed, I know she was active in the schools her kids went to, and she made her home open to all the friends of her kids. I’m still friends with some of them today and they all have fond, warm memories of her.

And I can’t write about Marilyn without talking about her fifty-four year marriage to her husband, Bill. They’ve had a good marriage. They raised three great kids and watched them all become successful and happy. They’ve seen their grand kids grow up and become good people as well. They’ve traveled, in the last couple of decades heading down to Florida. They usually left in late September, and heading home before Christmas, with the long-running joke that they had to leave the country before my birthday in early October. So, yes, Marilyn could be a smartass when she wanted to be too.

But I’ve watched Bill and Marilyn closely over the past quarter-century. Yes, they’ve had their fights as all married couples do, but when it came right down to it, for all their differences, these two people became one. They had many of the same interests, enjoyed the same things, while still being very much their own people. Marilyn had her Young and the Restless, Bill had his fishing. Marilyn would play Wheel of Fortune on the computer, Bill would putter in his garage. They knew how to be together, and they knew when the other needed their space. But when they were together, they doted on each other, worried about each other, even told stories together, sometimes switching off between one another, sometimes talking over each other in their excitement to get the story out. That always left me wondering exactly who to look at. As far as I’m concerned, they had a wonderful, loving, caring marriage. I can only hope my own is as successful and long-running as theirs.

I was talking with a friend the other day about how Marilyn was doing. And the friend remarked that in all the time we’d known them, about eighteen years, they had never, not once, heard us say anything cross about Marilyn. She’d never said anything catty about anyone, she’d never gotten involved in drama or family politics, she’d never stuck her nose in where it wasn’t welcomed and didn’t belong. She never fought with anyone.

She was nothing less than kind, supportive, warm and loving. She was a woman of quiet nobility and understated support. She was always there if you needed her, but she’d never overstep her bounds.

She was a loving mother and grandmother, a good friend and a devoted wife and she was, in her own way, quietly extraordinary.

She was, on paper, my mother-in-law, but she was so much more to me. She was a friend, a sparring partner, my straight man, my biggest fan and a staunch supporter for anything I attempted. I know there was a couple of times when I inadvertently made her cry and I regret those with all my heart and soul. But there was other times when I made her laugh, sometimes wildly and unabashedly, and for those, I’m truly grateful. I’m glad that somehow, in my own clumsy way, I was able to bring some joy to her life.

She was my mother too, and I loved her. And I always will.

Nobody could ask for more than what you achieved in life, Marilyn: You were well loved. And you will be missed by anyone that knew you.

Goodbye Marilyn.

Bill & Marilyn

Cover Reveal: Burn Baby Burn Baby by Kevin Craig

Not one of my normal blogs, but this is important. Kevin Craig, fellow writer, fellow MNMer, fellow WCDRer, friend, and all around excellent guy, has a new book coming out. This is something special and you should take notice:


Curiosity Quills is excited to reveal the cover for contemporary, young-adult Burn Baby Burn Baby, by Kevin Craig, which is due for release December 11, 2014. The cover was designed by CQ managing partner Eugene Teplitsky.

Burn Baby Burn 1000About Burn Baby Burn Baby:

Seventeen-year-old Francis Fripp’s confidence is practically non-existent since his abusive father drenched him in accelerant and threw a match at him eight years ago. Now badly scarred, Francis relies on his best friend Trig to protect him from the constant bullying doled out at the hands of his nemesis, Brandon Hayley—the unrelenting boy who gave him the dreaded nickname of Burn Baby.

The new girl at school, Rachel Higgins, is the first to see past Francis’s pariah-inducing scars. If Brandon’s bullying doesn’t destroy him, Francis might experience life as a normal teenager for the first time in his life. He just has to avoid Brandon and convince himself he’s worthy of Rachel’s attentions. Sounds easy enough, but Francis himself has a hard time seeing past his scars. And Brandon is getting violently frustrated, as his attempts to bully Francis are constantly thwarted. Francis is in turmoil as he simultaneously rushes toward his first kiss and a possible violent end.

Pre-order Burn Baby Burn Baby from Amazon.

Add Burn Baby Burn Baby to your Goodreads ‘to-be-read’ list.

Kevin Craig - Author picAbout The Author:

Kevin Craig is the author of three previous novels; Summer on Fire, Sebastian’s Poet, and The Reasons. He is a 4-time winner of the Muskoka Novel Marathon’s Best Novel Award. Kevin is also a playwright and has had eight 10-minute plays produced. His poetry, short stories, memoir and articles have been published internationally. Kevin was a founding member of the Ontario Writers’ Conference and a long-time member of the Writers’ Community of Durham Region (WCDR). He is represented by literary agent Stacey Donaghy of Donaghy Literary Group.

Find Kevin Craig Online:

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads

The boy inside the man

I got a baby’s brain and an old man’s heart took eighteen years to get this far

I’m in the middle without any plans
I’m a boy and I’m a man

I’m eighteen and I don’t know what I want

I’m Eighteen – Alice Cooper

Eighteen years ago, on a Friday the 13th, my wife and I were in the hospital for the birth of our second child.

This whole pregnancy had felt different from the first one almost from the get-go. I remember my wife telling me that, with the first pregnancy, she’d never felt healthier. This time around, she’d been sicker. She’d also had placenta previa, a condition where the placenta actually covers the cervix where the child needs to go through to be born.

It was a condition that left my wife on her back or sitting for a good portion of the pregnancy. And every day that condition went on, the chances became smaller and smaller that she would give birth naturally.

And then, there we were, on Friday the 13th.

When our son was born–after about 13 hours of labour, weighing 8 pounds, 13 ounces…seeing a trend yet? –he decided to come out the natural way. He’d defied the odds. He hadn’t done it the easy way, but he’d made it.

The Boy is vexed

The Boy is vexed

Over the first few years of his life, he gained a couple of nicknames. The first, of course, was “Demon Boy” because of his birthdate, but also because, unlike our relatively placid daughter, this kid was hell on rollerskates. Louder, more rambunctious, lighter sleeper…

Then, as the years passed, he got the name “Bam Bam” after The Flintstones’ neighbour’s kid. Because Hunter was strong. I think a couple of examples are in order here.

The first comes when he was likely no more than a year old. I was letting him and his sister play in the living room while I got their lunch together. My daughter came in and told me Hunter was trying to hit her with a stick. I told her she shouldn’t be lying–because I knew for a fact there was absolutely nothing stick-like in our living room–and sent her back out to play. Not five minutes later, she came back in, this time crying and, even more disconcerting, with a distinct mark–a sticklike mark–reddening her cheek. When I entered the living room to investigate, there was our son with a stick in his hand. It was actually a piece of trim from our wall unit. He’d pried it off with his bare, one-year-old fingers.

The second example was from around the same time frame. Hunter was still in the crib, but quickly outgrowing it. This was evidenced by the fact that he managed to squeeze his little diapered ass out between the crib slats…because he’d torn a couple of them right out of their moorings.

Hunter’s a natural kinesthetic. He’s always enjoyed tearing things apart, just to see how they work. And whenever there was something that needed to be assembled, he was your guy. He rarely needs directions, he just sees it and goes for it.

Hi-YOOOO!

He’s also a smart bugger. Yes, yes, I know…every parent thinks they’ve birthed a genius. But in this case, I do think that tag might actually be warranted. Perhaps another story is in order.

There was a point where Hunter seemed to be struggling with school. We wanted to ensure that we knew exactly what was going on with this, so we consented to having his various skills and abilities tested.

The interesting part came when we went in to hear the results. The person that administered the tests actually sat wide-eyed and occasionally speechless as she described her own experience with Hunter. During the math portion, she provided him with pencil and paper. She would then read him a multi-part math problem. He was to use the paper to do his figuring, then provide her with the answer verbally. As she described this, this was where her eyes went wide. She said she would deliver the question, Hunter would pause, then ultimately provide the answer. She marveled at the fact that he actually got answer correct that she’d never seen answered correctly before. But the part that blew her mind was when, at the end of the math portion, Hunter slid back the paper. It was still blank. He’d run them all in his head.

“So why isn’t he doing well in math?” we asked.

She described it this way: Imagine you’ve gone to a car dealership and bought a Ferrari off the lot. Now, you’re excited to get it out on the open road and see what it’ll do. Instead, you’re faced with nothing but speed bumps that slow you to a crawl.

“That’s the frustration Hunter feels when he’s asked to do a complex math problem and show all his work.” Essentially, his mind was the Ferrari and the school system was the speed bumps.

So, he’s got the brains.

But what about the other aspects of my now-adult son? Well, he’s an absolute slob when it comes to picking up after himself. And he also has some weird idiosyncrasies. If you walked into his bedroom at five in the morning, you’d likely find him asleep. Under the covers, fully clothed, lights still on. Strange and uncomfortable, but that’s my kid.

And he rarely learns something the easy way. Hunter’s method is to put every rule to the test, to push it and prod it and stretch it to its limits and only then, if it survives his tests, will he accept it. This means he’s never really taken the easy road.

He’s fiercely loyal to his friends, putting himself in the path of an adult’s anger to defend a friend or to point out something that’s not right.

He’s very confident of himself, often overconfident, which has led to him doing some things that someone else would look at and think stupid. He’d rather risk the fall if there’s a chance he’ll fly.

He’s a typical boy and, at times, a highly atypical one. He’s had his share of fractures and sprains and cuts. But there’s also likely not too many kids that can say they were sprayed directly in the face with bear mace. He can.

I’ve also documented on many occasions how funny he is. Everyone else in the family is convinced he should try out comedy or acting. He’s a natural. I’ve seen him, with just a few words, shut down a room full of people. Just a few words, and they’re laughing so hard they’re crying and snorting and gasping for breath. He’s funny enough that his sister’s created a Twitter account, Willie’s Wise Words to document some of these occasions, but really none of them truly do him justice.

Me, Madison, Hunter

Me, Madison, Hunter

And for all of this, for all his tongue-in-cheek bragging about how he’s a “silverback” and how awesome he is, in reality, he’s quite humble. He’d be the first one to tell you he’s not that special.

He’s the one that can light me up more than almost anyone else on this planet. He can push every button I have, he can frustrate the shit out of me, he can enrage me, but he can also break my heart with his concern for others, and his dedication to those he loves. He can do this to me simply because he’s my son and love him dearly.

We mean this in the nicest possible way…

Through the past eighteen years, I’ve seen this boy, this teen, this man, take the hardest routes, make the biggest mistakes, be the most stubborn, and be his own worst enemy. But I’ve also seen him rise above, to shock me with his wit, his dedication, his candor and his love.

He’s always defied the odds. He’s never really done anything the easy way, right from the moment he came out, and his path, I don’t think, will ever be the truly easy one, but I do know that, whichever path he does choose, he’ll make it. He’ll forge his own path, and it’ll be the right one for him.

For my son.

I love you, dude. More than you’ll ever know.

Happy birthday.