Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The start of 1996 - Aunty Jean

It was supposed to be hot and sunny today, but as is so often the case on Lake Ontario, the lake is its own fickle weather generator. Around noon it clouded over, the wind picked up, and it looked like rain coming our way. But here at Presqu'ile if you don't like the weather, wait 5 minutes!

Last night we lit our own campfire, the first in at least a year. The wood from the park was wet and punky so instead of a campfire we had a campsmoke. I will no longer curse those around me who have a smoking fire. It likely is not their fault! With just the odd flicker of flame to light the night, and the moon eventually coming around the point to add its say, we had illuminating conversation.

If you were to ask me 'what was your most momentous year?' I would have no trouble answering: 1996. It was a year of deaths, births, adventures, celebrations and challenges.


The year started with sadness when my great Aunty Jean passed away. She was like a grandmother to me, enveloping me with love from my birth until her death in January 1996. I travelled with my parents to Medicine Hat, Alberta, where she had lived most of her life to attend her funeral.

Aunty Jean was my father's maternal aunt with a long history of spoiling him, starting from when his father was in the war, and his mother was a temporary war 'widow'. My grandmother passed away when I was barely two so Aunty Jean took over the role. Homemade cheese straws, donuts, fudge and other confections tickled our tummies with love.  She always had some store bought red hots, round cinnamon candies that burned our mouths, in her handbag. If we were lucky she had a whole bag for us. She always had stories about my dad. We never lived in the same town so sometimes long periods of time would separate our visits.

Her funeral was much like any other until, in her closing statements, the minister reminded us that a funeral is a final gift from the departed. A gift of family and friends coming together in love to reminisce about their loved one and reaffirm their relationships with each other - a celebration about life and love. It is one of the most memorable statements I have heard - I always recall her words when at a wake or funeral and make sure to fully appreciate each moment. The gathering is a gift to be treasured.

I always felt like Aunty Jean had given me another gift, one of adventure and heritage. While in Medicine Hat I found out about the 1996 Centennial Cattle Drive organized by the Alberta Beef Growers Association. It would be the trip of a lifetime, starting from just south of where my great-grandfather homesteaded in 1913, through CFB Suffield and into Medicine Hat. CFB Suffield is a huge tract of land that was expropriated from struggling farmers and ranchers to make a military training base. Some if it is untouched prairie. It is open land without fences and only a few roads. It is a landscape that I treasure like no other. I signed up as soon as I got home, along with my friend Deirdre (also a horse lover). But that's another story.

An insignificant but daily reminder of the trip to Medicine Hat for Aunty Jean's funeral, and everything else that happened in 1996, is the leather belt I picked up at the Calgary airport. It is a rich chestnut brown with a scene of running horses painted on it. I have worn that belt almost daily for 19 years; it has some wear, as my memories have, faded and worn in spots, other parts like brand-new; it is a talisman for everything that happened that year.


To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”  ~C.S. Lewis