Accompanying Dad to visit Aunt Mags in her house perched high on the Delta hillside was something I wasn’t always eager to do despite her panoramic view of the verdant Delta wetlands and the cityscape beyond that twinkled enchantingly from dusk to dawn. The vista was merely a bonus, a consolation for all the unrehearsed family entertainment a person could stand.
“Aye, but Charlie, pubs are not the same in Canada. Nowt is. It’ll never be home to me,” Aunt Mags told my father who sat across from me sipping tea at her kitchen table.
Mags was ironing clothes on a flip-down board from a cupboard near the telephone. I watched her ready a T-shirt fit to wear straight from the dryer, spritzing it with water from a former cleanser bottle. She lifted the iron and said pointedly, “Here they go just to get drunk where in England, it’s a social thing.”
“Aye, yes, I know what you mean for I have never seen a tipsy Englishman in my life,” my father teased, raising one of his silvery eyebrows at me.
My father possessed the kind of friendly, crinkly face that convinced you he’d entered the world grinning right through the doctor’s swat on the bum. He and Mum settled in Vancouver before I was born, both smitten with Canada for all the reasons Aunt Mags claimed she wasn’t.
Mum’s determination to die a Canadian Citizen was rewarded only months before her passing right after I graduated college. For a couple of years after that, Dad and I were both kind of numbed. We simply didn’t know what to do without her. Mum’s request to be interred in her Canadian homeland was fulfilled despite my aunts’ flagrant protests. But then, Aunt Mags had spent all of her sixteen years in Canada determined not to enjoy a single minute of it, nor let anyone else if she could help it.
“Are you having me on, Charlie?” she demanded.
She raised the iron, a would be weapon reduced to sheer comedic prop value due to the shimmying hank of flesh dangling from her upper arm.
“Not at all, not at all,” he said, winking as he stood. “Home is where you make it. Now let’s see, where’s your washroom, again?”
“You know very well – OH! Go to the loo!” Mags said, her complexion turning ruddy, contrasting nicely with her sleeveless pea green blouse.
The iron hissed out a shot of steam and I focused intently on milk foam bubbles floating on my tea, watching as they popped one by one. We all knew Mags would never return to Britain. She owned a house here, a proper house with a private garden. In England all she’d had was a cramped row house with a strip of grass out back the width of her present boulevard.
“Complacent Canadians,” Mags muttered, ironing Uncle Alfred’s shirts with a heavy handedness that seemed to work out the creases better than anything else.
“Well, I was born here and you’re a citizen now, too. If you don’t like the way things are, it’s up to you to do something about it,” I said, gathering my hair into a haphazard pony tail, using one length of it to twine around and hold the rest in place.
“Dual citizenship doesn’t mean being born here, thank our Lord Jesus Christ in Heaven. I know which one is real. You’re not true to your roots, Jessie. Oh, your mother would shudder.”
“These are my roots,” I said, knowing Mum wouldn’t shudder even if she were still alive but instead of saying so, I was content to let my father resume the battle when he returned.
“Wherever did you get those hideous shoes?” Mags said, referring to his worn in brown leather loafers.
“Down at the Goodwill. Aren’t they lovely?” He hoisted a foot up, holding onto the knee with both hands while wiggling his foot around like a shoe model in a fashion spoof.
“And only a dollar! Old Charlie Davies struttin’ about in shoes fit for attending the Ascot races alongside the Queen and me not even royalty!”
“Royalty, phhhhhttttt! That dollar likely fetched you a good dose of athlete‘s foot. Everyone knows you’re not to buy shoes second-hand,” Mags said smugly. “You never know who’s been wearing them. Could have been any type of foreign foot.”
“Fancy that, a foreign foot in me shoes! Well then, I guess they were meant for me, being a landed immigrant and all,” Dad said.
He had never bothered to change his landed immigrant status which came in handy, if only to shut Mags up once in a while.
I picked up the box Uncle Alfred had left by the door and said, “I’ll just toss this in the trunk, Dad.”
“That’s boot, not trunk. Trunks are used to store things and ship things,” Mags said, attacking a new shirt.
“Thanks for the tea. Thank Alfred for cutting those stakes for Jessie,” Dad said, scooting out the door on my tail.
“All that moaning wears, it does,” he said, seated in my old, reliable Valiant.
“It’s all so pointless. She’ll never go back,” I said.
“It’s a way of life for some. They start complaining of the weather in December and they’re still complaining come July no matter what it’s doing outside. It’s that or money or government, they can always find something wrong. Now, Lass, what’re doing’ with wooden stakes? Not planning to finish a certain witch, are you?”
He let out a chortle and I was close behind. Dad always seemed to amuse himself as much as he did me. He reached out to the metal peace sign hanging on a chain from my rearview mirror and gave it a twirl, spinning it around.
“I need the stakes to make signs for a protest,” I said.
“Not getting yourself into one of those political rallies again, are you?”
“Sort of. We’re trying to save Burns Bog from commercialization. Developers want to start building on it,” I said.
“It is a huge area,” Dad said.
“Yes, but big project or small, we’ll eventually lose the wetlands if they succeed,” I said, easing to the curb outside the brick apartment building where he still lived in the suite he and Mum had bought for their retirement together.
“Just stones in your shoes, lovey, just stones in your shoes,” Dad said, extricating himself from the worn bucket seat. He leaned back into the car long enough to say, “Don’t forget, I’m cooking your Sunday tea.” Then he turned on one well-worn heel and whistled himself home.
Sunday afternoon found me in my denim overalls on Dad’s living room carpet, adrift in a sea of royal blue pile surrounded by placards that my bachelor suite floor would not accommodate. Dad combed through the personals while I stenciled letters on large squares of white cardboard until Mags turned up, her voice squawking on the wall speaker when Dad answered the buzzer.
“I’ve come for your ironing,“ she said.
“I don’t need any ironing done,“ Dad said back.
“Let me in, you silly git. Alfred’s gone for gas and left me stood here in the rain,“ she said.
“Well, then,“ Dad said, pressing the black button.
Mag’s lavender fragrance and unique brand of good cheer coasted in over the aroma of roasting beef and onions. She set her umbrella down and, handbag still on her arm, put the kettle on to boil.
“I can’t understand you, Jessie. You and your young friends remind me of those hippies preaching love and peace in the sixties. With so many parks here, why ever would you bother to save one?” Mags asked.
“It’s not just a park. It’s about wildlife and unique ecological systems. Many consider the bog the lungs of the whole Vancouver region,” I said.
“Ahhh, the mountains and the trees have gone to me head. I‘m getting giddy now,” Dad goaded Mags. “Think of it, woman. The countryside in England is like most back gardens over here.”
I gathered my long hair back into a ponytail and twisted it around itself into a knot so it would stay back off my face while I worked. Dad could pass for a decade younger than his sixty-two years but Mags looked far older than sixty-five. Momentarily stymied, Mags kept quiet until she spied the personals ads spread out before Dad.
“Bit old for that nonsense, aren’t you, Charlie?” Mags asked as she gathered Dad’s ironing in a plastic laundry basket a vibrant shade of Easter purple.
“Never too old, never too old. Man shall leave his father and mother to join a woman as one flesh. Direct from your bible, I believe that is. And what’re you doin’ with me laundry again for pity’s sake? I can take care of myself, I say, I can take care of myself.”
“I know,” Mags said, “But it’s the way you take care of yourself that bothers me. You were never like this back home, wearing your clothes straight out of the dryer.”
Mags did look genuinely concerned and I felt a little sorry for her. That need to be needed was greater in my aunt than it would ever be in me.
“I never had a dryer in England. Next thing she’ll be calling me a complacent Canadian. Or a hippie,” Dad said, still scanning the ads. He struck out ads with a great sweeping motion of his pencil.
“No, too old…too independent…oh, no, this one’s big as a house,” He snickered to himself.
“How can you tell without a picture? They’re just print ads aren’t they?” I asked, colouring in another stenciled letter with black poster paint.
“Because her ad says that size is not an issue. I don’t mind telling you that if I share a bed with somebody, I need to know there’s room in it for me. Oh, oh, this one will never do, either. She’s British,” he said, giving the paper a sharp tap with the end of his forefinger.
“So are we,” Mags said.
“Yes, that’s why I’m afraid she might start moaning how everything is so much better back home.”
“Are you poking at me again?” Mags demanded. She stood with the laundry basket on one hip, her red jacket still buttoned up.
“No, not at all, Mags. Not I,” he said, grinning down at me from behind his paper.
“I think I’ll join your rally, Jessie girl, if you don’t mind that I’m technically not a citizen. I’m good at marching from my army days,” Dad grinned mischievously, his blue eyes twinkling like usual and I couldn’t be sure he meant it.
But on the day of the demonstration, he was there, second hand shoes and all, wielding a placard that said NATURE’S FUTURE IS OURS!
Close behind him, I could see Aunt Mags’s silvery coiffed hair bobbing up and down under a sign she’d obviously made: “SAVE CANADA’S WILDERNESS.”
Huffing and puffing breathlessly, Mags could barely speak at first. I passed her my water bottle while raising an eyebrow in Dad’s direction.
“I couldn’t stop her,” he said, jerking a thumb toward Mags. “She complains steady that I wore my new shoes to embarrass her because she bought those new white trainers just for this. But I see she’s still here.”
“Yes, I’m here,” Aunt Mags said, turning to me. “My sister Nora’s been phoning every day. She wants to know why don’t I move back home so we can spend our last years together and do you know what happened? It struck me that I don’t want to go.”
“Blimey. We’ve lost all opportunity for peace in Canada,” Dad said, winking over her head at me.
“Would you ever mind?” sniffed Aunt Mags, her vocal chords fully restored by the cool spring water. “This is my country, too.”