Tuesday, January 4, 2011

WWAVD -- What Would Aunt Vera Do?

When you look back over your life there are a few people who are instrumental in shaping your life, your parents, your teachers, a best friend, or a coworker. In my case, one of my chief clay-moulders would be my Aunt Vera. Dad's eldest sister was the matriarch of the extended family. It was she who planned the Christmas get-togethers, hosted the city relatives, and collected all the family facts and photos.

Vera was born in 1907. She married late in life to Uncle Cecil. Most of the family often thought (and voiced in private), she might have been better to have not bothered. Uncle Cee was a killjoy, a fly in the proverbial ointment, a wet blanket, in short, everything Aunt Vera wasn't.
Aunt Vera and Uncle Cecil

For her working career, Aunt Vera taught public school in Toronto, a task she loved and excelled in. However this was long before I entered the scene. I just recall her talking about one of her pupils, named Omen Ure (yep, think about that one for a minute). What a crappy name! RP, that always brought out the other lists of not-so-cool names that other unfortunates had been saddled with: Sally Mander, Chandle Lear, etc.

After a long and illustrious teaching career, Vera and Cecil decided to retire back to the village of Dunchurch. Aunt Vera was always the primary breadwinner, as Uncle Cee was pretty much too crotchedy to ever really hold down much of a job. Aunt Vera had spent hours planning her new abode and knew exactly the setting and location where she would develop the jewel of Dunchurch. She sent Cecil on ahead to organize the building of her their new home, whilst she finished up her final year of school.

Never one to take orders from a mere woman, Cecil proceeded to have the builders turn the house plan to face north instead of south, as instructed. Aunt Vera's bright sunny kitchen and dining room, darkened under the shadow of the pines in the north, and the desired tranquility of the bedrooms was shattered by the bright morning sun and traffic of the highway, to the south. I'm not sure, why she did not intervene, before this happened; perhaps the deed was too far developed, before she saw it.

A small city lot had served its purpose, but it was never a large enough canvas for Vera. Suddenly, here was an acre of undeveloped land (surrounding her misplaced house) that beckoned her green thumb. And tackle it, she did! Soon, annual borders and perennial beds greeted every visitor. Spring bulbs ushered in the season and hardy chrysanthemums waved goodbye each autumn. Between alpha and omega, continuous, riotous colour flooded her yard.
Sunday Morning after church
This was all fine during the first few years of retirement, but as the time advanced and stamina dimished, Vera turned to hired help. A good strong farm lad, with gardening potential, I was the lucky choice. I've never quite figured it out. I was rarely called upon to work during the spring and fall when most gardening is done. It was always the hottest days of summer – great weed killing days. But I didn't weed. No, those were the days of splitting and moving her beloved, perennial clumps. Don't ever believe you can't move a plant, because it is the wrong season. We moved everything under the sun, the hot blazing, stifling sun ........and they all lived. They didn't dare to do anything else. Well that, and the copious quantities of water she would lavish on her new transplants, I'm sure were the reasons.

This is where I got my first gardening knowledge (and income). Sure we had a vegetable garden on the farm, but that was mainly just planting, weeding and harvesting. Valuable skills, but hardly rocket science. Aunt Vera instilled in me, the basics of propagation, the values of aesthetics, and the means of achieving that in any situation.
The perennial bed
But Aunt Vera was about a lot more than just gardening. As I mentioned she was the keeper of the family records. This was in the era before family tree research even popular. It was also pre-computer times. Imagine keeping track of all those dates, names and generations sans analogue. But keep track she did. And she wrote a book about it. With the aid of a niece and her husband, in the publishing business, Vera's text, a genealogy of our family, became a reality. I'm happy to say, I had a small part in the making. Once more Aunt Vera, saw some sort of potential in me, and had me design the cover. As I think back, this was a very generous gesture on her part. An artist of some merit, it would have been so much easier (maybe safer) to have done the design herself, the design that all readers first saw. But once more, she gave youth a chance. Aunt Vera kept all the family photos and slides. She even had the large leatherbound album of photocards from the original Irish immigrants to Canada.

I've alluded to Aunt Vera's artistic side. She dabbled in oils and watercolour in her younger years. In later years her media changed to fabric. Her quilts were the envy of all the neighbourhood ladies. I can often recall being invited to her place after school to meet up with Mom, who had spent the day quilting. Of course the ladies were never finished upon my arrival. Such a hen party – not gossips mind you, just a bunch of older ladies, enjoying each others company and discussing the events and personalities of the neighbourhood. I did mention, there was no gossiping though, did I not?

Rug-hooking was another venue Aunt Vera pursued. These were not the simple braided mats trod upon by our forefathers. Hers were tapestries, gorgeously tinted and shaded wall hangings. While she never lured me into picking up a crochet hook or a quilting needle, she did foster whatever creative talent I possessed.

Aunt Vera taught piano. She taught every student within a 10 mile radius who ever played piano. Well every student but me. I've never quite understood why not. I started playing piano by ear at five and by seven or eight was playing hymns and carols. I'm quite sure at that point, my parents were unable to pay in actual dollars, but I am sure some other equitable arrangement could have been struck.

Now I said Aunt Vera taught and taught well, but she, herself, was an abysmal pianist. She played piano at our church for many years, and if I was kind, it was at best, painful. At eleven I took over. Obviously Aunt Vera realized that I had a talent that needed developing, however, still no offer of lessons. I do recall one quick session after an afternoon of gardening. She took me to the piano and explained the circle of fifths (as much as an ear-player could comprehend), and the relationship between the combinations of sharps and flats that add up to seven. From this I learned to cheat and play five flats as two sharps instead, and three sharps as four flats. As an ear player I had definitely discovered certain keys I was more comfortable playing in.

Aunt Vera was a teacher and life long learner. Me too, albeit she was gone twenty five years before I ever realized this goal. But as I look back, she was the only other teacher in the family, but for a couple cousins.

So as I reminisce, Aunt Vera and I have a lot in common. Our thumbs both were permanently stained green. We shared a passion for researching our heritage. Music was a common theme, although we sat at opposite ends of the spectrum. Teaching provides my livelihood as it did hers.

She taught me that anything is possible with plants, if you really want to do it. And I often think as I design a new or renovate a existing flower bed, what would Aunt Vera have done?

When she made her will, she carefully included each of her family and gave everyone meaningful artwork, items and mementos. I got a quilt, her piano and the vintage leatherbound album, complete with all the photos. No I didn't get the slides at that point – that's a whole other story in itself.

And that's about all I have to say today.

Musings and Meanderings from the Musical Gardener.

1 comment:

  1. What a neat story. I can see how formative she was in your life. How great that she took you under her wing.


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