Dear Aunty Mary
This is the long-original version of a story that was published in Macleans Magazine in the June 2022 issue in the “before you go” section. It also marks the first piece that I was paid to write.
In 1987 I was graduating from a fashion design program in Abbotsford, BC. Our final show was held in an arena in Chilliwack, where the town motto should have been: “Our only culture is Agriculture”. I invited my entire family to the show, and extended a long distance invitation to my Aunty Mary in Winnipeg. As I was getting ready backstage, the door opened and there she was. A tall, thin woman in a white turban onto which was pinned a huge diamond and pearl brooch. She had on shiny fuschia colored spandex tights, five and a half inch stilettos, and a multicoloured blouse belted at an angle at her hip. In her crooked arm, she carried a huge handbag, and hanging from her thin wrist a gold charm bracelet jingling with charms. She sashayed into the room, that had gone completely silent, gave me a big hug and told me to break a leg! Aunty Mary had arrived.
I visited Winnipeg every summer from the time I was six, until my baba died, when I was about fifteen. Aunty Mary was my mom’s youngest sister. She lived on a lovely tree-lined street with her husband Sam, a couple of cats, and usually at least 1 dog. I always stayed a couple of days at her house and or her cabin at Bird Lake. She was tall and thin, wore cat-eye glasses, and spoke in a deep raspy voice-the product of too many cigarettes smoked over too many years. Her outfits were chosen from a magic closet which held much more than the single door indicated, and she accessorized every outfit with lots and lots of jewelery. Aunty Mary was the only person I knew who was on a first name basis with her jeweller, Sidney, and as this was Winnipeg, she also had a wardrobe of furs for the winter. She never slept, preferring to read till the wee hours, and would sometimes wake me around midnight to see if I wanted a sandwich-roast beef on rye with dill pickles. We spent our time together playing scrabble, talking about family, going out for lunch or to the shop in her huge car. Aunty Mary worked when she liked, usually after lunch at the Greek place on Notre Dame where the owner knew her and always seated us at the best table. Despite my age, and shabby appearance-I never cared what I looked like until much later in life-she always introduced me as her niece Cathy, visiting from Calgary. Uncle Sam and Aunty Mary owned Winnipeg Lock and Key (the shop), where Aunty Mary did the books, usually with a cigarette burning in the ashtray, a dog sleeping on her lap, and with a steady stream of employees-her boys-popping their heads in the office to say hello. Uncle Sam left for work each morning after quietly placing a cup of coffee on his wife’s nightstand, and carefully opening the curtains to let in some morning light…but not too much. I understood the routine. Running into Aunty Mary’s bedroom to start a cheery conversation was not an option. I was to occupy myself until Aunty Mary was ready to speak, and or feed me.
Mary never treated me like a kid. Her house contained nothing even remotely kid-like except maybe Puss-Puss the cat. She was a voracious reader, and her genre of choice was horror. If I wanted to read something in one of the many bookcases that filled every room, my choices were blood-soaked novels filled with sex and violence. I was a kid who still slept with the light on…so I was sure to pack my own. We chatted about school, and family, but I was happy simply to spend time with her. Even as a child, I understood that Mary did what she wanted. She shopped, or worked, or dressed based on what she decided. She told Uncle Sam a little after their 25th wedding anniversary that she was leaving him. She told me later that she simply couldn’t imagine growing older with him in tow. She was the polar opposite of my mother. She was light and funny, and always on the go. I never knew what we would do when I was with her, but it was always interesting. I was an introverted kid so watching Mary interact with people and watching how their eyes lit up when she arrived amazed me. Mary didn’t have any children. She had loads of friends. She was social, and loved to be with people. Mary has always been a fixture in the Winnipeg art scene. Her brother-my Uncle Bill-is a prominent local artist.
I’m approaching 60, and Aunty Mary turns 90 in a week. I’m flying to Winnipeg and my cousin and her daughter are flying from Ontario. After more than 2 years of COVID we have decided that this occasion requires us to celebrate face-to-face. I bought her a birthday outfit, which is no easy feat as she is now less than 90 pounds and still six inches taller than I am. When we meet in Winnipeg we will probably visit a museum, or a gallery. We will talk politics, especially now, with the war in Ukraine. As a first-generation Canadian-her mother, father and two sisters were born in the old coutry-she is understandably upset by Putin’s aggression. She called me last week and over the course of the conversation let me know that she was unhappy with my lack of outrage over Putin’s war. As it was early days, and I thought the war would be over quickly, I tried to soothe her by saying that both sides were using social media as a weapon, and perhaps things weren’t as bad as had been reported. She told me that I had an obligation, as the daughter of a Ukrainian immigrant, and a member of our family to express as much outrage as I could muster. She said that if she could stand face-to-face with Putin that she would scratch his eyes out! Aunty Mary at 90, continues to be strong, compassionate, funny, and a hell of a dresser. People want to BE Mary. Through some twist of fate I have lived in her orbit for nearly 60 years.
Putin should watch his eyes, as Mary, and all the women in my family, we #StandWithUkraine