Great Aunt Helen was Grandma’s younger sister, and a world traveler. In her 90 years she managed to criss-cross quite a bit of this planet. She had been to China & Russia a couple of times, all over England, Scotland, Ireland, and most of Europe. She traveled to Africa, parts of South America and all over North America.
Born in 1913 in rural Ontario, the 5th child of 6, Aunt Helen remained a single woman her entire life. She always wanted to be a school teacher, but they were poor and my Great Grandparents couldn’t afford to pay. So Grandma made the decision to help her pay for Teachers College. This meant that Grandma put aside whatever goals she had, and worked full-time to support her while she went to school. I believe it may have been one of the reasons Grandma married so late.
Aunt Helen ended up teaching school for 40 of her 90 years, and even spent a year teaching in England on an exchange program. When I asked her about her experiences once, she told me about teaching in small, one room school houses throughout Ontario, of her experiences teaching in England, and how different it was to teaching in rural Ontario. Of the long hours, the long drives to small hamlets across sometimes barely existent roads. Barely enough supplies, and all the trials and tribulations of a rural Ontario school Teacher in the 30’s and 40’s.
The remainder of her career she spent in Toronto teaching new immigrant children. She had fantastic stories of these youngsters that were all new to Canada. Hand sewn scarf’s and needlepoint cushions that each had a story behind them. She remembered almost all her students, she said. Aunt Helen always said that’s why she chose to teach in Toronto, at that school, “they have a strong and genuine desire to learn, those children of immigrants. They don’t take their education for granted, like so many Canadian children do”.
She was an intelligent woman who valued her independence and her freedom. When it came time for her to start thinking about a nursing home, she said “I just have nothing in common with most people, in those places“. She by this time had no peers left alive.
With Mom’s death in 2001, Aunt Helen faded fast. The whole thought of having to interact with strange people she didn’t know, and probably didn’t care to know, of losing her independence, depressed her. She licked cancer, licked a stroke, licked the aneurysm in her stomach for 25 years, and a few old farts in a nursing home intimidated her.
Neither Grandma or her sisters ever spoke of Feminism. Women RULED, period. They were all strong, positive role models. They went to war, they married or didn’t, bore children, they had careers and worked full-time. They were smart and witty, they talked with their hands, and told stories and laughed at funerals. They worked hard, and could be very serious and proper. They loved, they laughed and they expected to be treated equally, and they were.
Aunt Helen was always my favourite of Grandma’s sisters, as I most identify with her. I have always admired her globe-trotting spirit, her earnest desire to make a difference with her life, her strength, and her stories. She died in 2003, and I didn’t go to her funeral. I was all wrapped up in my new job and my new life, but I think she would have understood.
I had a good talk with her though, one last time the year before I left for the Big Smoke, the winter of 2002. She said she was proud of me for going out and seeing some of the world, “don’t get too wrapped up here, get out, see things, do things, live” she said. So I did, and so I am.
Postcard from former Soviet Union
We are leaving Novosibirsk today. This is Lenin’s monument where the brides place their bouquets in appreciation for the future he has given them.
I trust the communique’s are coming through .
We leave now for Tashkent-capital of Uzbekistan. My bag is getting heavy – won’t need the warm cloths – only 2 days of rain so far – H.