For every few famous grandmothers in children’s literature, there’s usually a Great Aunt popping up. They are often forbidding characters, grey-haired, dressed in black, possibly living in mysterious old houses or possessing of fortunes that would mean everything to a small and luckless orphan. They are holders of secrets, likers of silence, and eccentric in every possible direction.
I had a couple of the stern and forbidding types, but I was also lucky enough to have Great Aunt Jean.
Maddy and Great Aunt Jean were best friends. I don’t think that was always the case, but by the time I was born, they were thick as thieves. Maddy was the second oldest, and Jean was the youngest. Maddy lived in downtown Toronto for most of her life, while Jean moved north to Gravenhurst. They talked on the phone constantly. For Charles and Diana’ royal wedding, they celebrated with champgagne and orange juice and a long distance phone call that lasted the entire ceremony.
When Maddy came to live with us, they’d visit each other for four or five days at a time, talking from the moment they woke until late into the night, stories weaving around them along with cigarette smoke. Over the course of the day they’d move from coffee to Bloody Marys, and the stories would reach further back, to their childhood on Rathanally during the Depression, to the war.
They both loved books, and English History, and there was a constant trade of volumes back and forth between their houses. They both thought Anthony Hopkins and Geoffrey Palmer were terribly handsome, and that tennis was important.
Some relationship are a closed circle, but Maddy and Aunt Jean would always welcome me, or my sister, or my parents into whatever they were talking about. You could curl up on the couch near them and listen to them talk about books and their childhoods for hours, and always feel a part of things.
When I moved away, and started sending Maddy a monthly faux-magazine a la “Girls’ Own” it was only a matter of months before I started printing two copies and sending another to Gravenhurst. After Maddy died, I stopped writing it every month, but every Christmas I would write a new set of stories and send them to Aunt Jean, a small little piece of love and memory. We both missed her very, very much. When I got married a few years ago, having Jean be able to come was like having Maddy there too.
My Great Aunt Jean died a few weeks ago, peacefully while she was sleeping. I got to visit her before he went, and she was so very much herself still. Somewhere she and Maddy are drinking a Bloody Mary together.