As many of you know, I don’t come from a small “town;” I come from a small village. Embro, Ontario had a population of just about 600 people when I was growing up, without even the one proverbial stoplight to slow down passers-through who would miss it if they blinked. If you’ve read an Alice Munro story or a Robertson Davies novel–especially the Deptford trilogy–you’ll have a pretty good sense of what it was like. A lot of stiff-upper-lipped Scotsmen who coached hockey and spent Thursday nights at the lodge; a lot of salt-of-the-earth women who tolerated them and ran things from behind the scenes. Within a block of each other was the Presbyterian church and a local United Church congregation, and the green between them was where I remember celebrating Embro’s 125th anniversary in 1983.
I won’t romanticize it. No doubt it was a difficult place to be an outsider. And when I was young, the stability of the place was already eroding: the culture of divorce and dislocation would eat away at a more ancient fabric. But the village and surrounding rural township forged an identity in two primary nodes: the hockey arena and our rural school.
I am just old enough to remember the original arena: a green ramshackle driveshed of a building on Argyle Street–basically corrugated metal and a roof over what would otherwise be an outdoor rink. It was here that I would take my first steps on the ice, though within a few years a new arena would be built on the other side of town, the local temple of Canadian religion. For a significant swath of the community, life revolved around the arena.
But even more of us were bound together by the school. All of us were bussed from miles around to a country school north of Embro: Zorra Highland Park, whose name signaled the Scottish heritage of the township (“Embro” is said to be a garbled form of the “Edinburgh”). My first teacher there in kindergarten also happened to be my great aunt, Helen Piett (née Smith). I was terribly sad to learn that Aunt Helen died a few weeks ago, on November 22, 2014. I feel like I owe her memory and legacy a word of thanks.
My first-hand memories of Aunt Helen are memories of “Mrs. Piett,” my teacher. Because it was a country school, we went to kindergarten all day, every other day, so I remember her getting us settled down for nap time in the afternoons. “Get your mats, children”–cushy, ugly, brown naugahyde mats for sleeping on the floor. I remember her comforting me and putting a band-aid on my hair after Darryl Fraser hip-checked me into one of the cubby-holes, sending me off with the principal to get stitches in Tavistock. I remember how every year, for generations, she created silhouettes of each student’s young profile by tracing the outline of our heads projected by the stark light of the filmstrip projector. She would cut these out of black construction paper, mount them on stark white backdrops, label the name and date in her meticulous cursive hand, and then present them to the parents. Often when I visited friends in their homes, these shadows of their younger selves adorned the walls like memories.
For reasons that are painful to discuss, I never really got to know Mrs. Piett as “Aunt Helen.” Those corrosive forces that fractured families hit my own, leaving estrangement and dysfunction in their wake. The entire “Smith side” of my life disappeared behind the walls erected by divorce–walls that are invisible and yet also block our way.
But then just before we moved to the United States in 1995, somehow Aunt Helen got in touch with me and passed along what is now a treasure to me: a family history of The Maisley McWilliams in Canada, 1846-1939, with five supplements tracing the history up until 1994. Little did I know that Aunt Helen was also the family historian. Most significantly, she had written me into the history I thought I’d lost. There was my name in this story. And even more: there was my marriage to Deanna in that final supplement. And there were my two sons, their births in 1992 and 1994 etched into this family tree. While I thought this family had forgotten me, Aunt Helen hadn’t.
And she didn’t ever again. Faithfully, every year, she would send our family a Christmas card with one of her lovely letters of reflection and gratitude. And we would reciprocate, partly in gratitude, but mostly because she was the only set of arms reaching out to us from this lost side of my life. In Children of Divorce, Andrew Root argues that divorce is traumatic because its effects are ontological: it rends our very being. Aunt Helen was someone who was trying to keep me stitched together.
This week we received a letter from Aunt Helen’s daughter, Marlene Matheson. Its first line both pierced my heart and cheered my soul:
It is with sadness that I write this last ‘Christmas’ letter for Mom. Mom will be spending Christmas with Jesus Christ this year.
I am grateful for the quiet, steady witness of saints like Aunt Helen. Thank you, Aunt Helen, for the gift you gave our family: the gift of a history, a story, but also the model of one who longed for the Lord of history. Enjoy your well-deserved rest in the country you’ve been looking for your whole life. I can’t wait to see you there.