The Touchstones

My younger cousin Tracey phoned recently to tell me about a plan she and five of her thirty-something single friends are hatching. It involves an RV trip to Alaska (where, apparently, men still outnumber women quite dramatically), a videocamera, and lots of sociologically significant interviews in bars. As she talked, I put on the kettle, took teabags from the caddy that was a gift from her grandmother when I got my first apartment, and dropped them into a pot my grandma gave me at the same time. Tracey was still talking when the tea was ready. I sat at my kitchen table and laughed helplessly at her descriptions and then dispensed advice on getting the stories – and believe me, there will be stories – published.

I picked up my cup and inhaled. The scent of orange pekoe tea winkled me back to my great-aunt Mary’s house – Tracey’s great-great aunt – sitting with half a dozen women and at least that many kids at her new round table with the fabulous black vinyl chairs that twirled.

Pink bathroom tiles, the smell of varnished wood paneling, the textured flowery fabrics of 1940s curtains, and green brocade chesterfields from the sixties. Flowered teacups, small girls carefully helping at parties, the sound of women’s laughter and the crackle of six conversations around one kitchen table.

Any of these details immediately evokes my grandmothers, second cousins, and a couple of generations of aunts. Living hours and a ferryboat ride away, still they were the solid backing to my ever-shifting world of elementary school and best friends, neighbours and new playground equipment. I spent summer weeks with them, learning the proper way to make a bed, eating Cheez-Whiz on white bread, and inventing aimless hot-afternoon games with my cousins.

Throughout the year there were bridal showers and birthday teas. On the second Saturday every December for six generations (or is it seven?) the whole tribe creates the Family Party with long paper-covered tables splayed under pots of curried shrimp and lasagna, sour-cherry pie and brownies carefully crafted by the roomful of strong women.

They are almost gone now, those matriarchs, slipping away through old age or illness. Sometimes they go one by one but occasionally they leave in clusters, just like they did everything else. They went to dances together, planned weddings, had babies at the same time, played cards, and talked. Always talked.

“I saw Biddy Dennison in Ladner the other day.”

“Fran and Ruthie are going to Nova Scotia to visit Allen’s relatives this summer.”

“Barbara and Peter are getting married in May…. Yes, I know it’s very quick, but they’re determined…. Well yes, pregnant is another word for it.” With Tracey, as it turned out.

For more than 40 years, through my childhood visits, adolescent angst, youthful hubris, and adult growth, the print-dress phalanx stood behind me, supporting me with their common sense and constant interest. Now that their ranks have thinned I feel a draft at my back. I miss their lemon squares and criticism, birthday cards and timely practical gifts. I feel a little adrift without their solidarity, the certainty that no matter what happens, someone will pick up the pieces and love me until the fragments coalesce into something like Rachel once more.

New generations need them too, to provide certain (though not necessarily approving) acceptance, the continuity of old ladies and middle-aged women with lots of life experience and a tremendous willingness to share it.

My cousin Barbara is just such a woman. Now that we don’t have access to Grandma’s expanse of lawn any more, or Auntie Marg’s big house, Barb offers her condo common room for parties and wakes. Joan is a rock, always ready with a laugh for a ten-year-old’s latest exploit and unflagging enthusiasm for someone’s retirement-launching cruise. Standing and surveying the talking, hugging, laughing crowd at the last Christmas party, George’s wife Margaret said with admiration, “These women are amazing.” I stared at her for a moment. She shows up for every event with unfailing respect and interest while her beautiful small boys (born just a year apart – the mere thought exhausts me) entertain themselves and everyone around them. I don’t think she has any idea that she ranks in the top ten.

At my uncle’s funeral last weekend I noticed for the first time the new batch of print dresses. As my mother’s generation fades, getting greyer and thinner and more absent, my cousins are taking up the slack. Louise rolled her eyes sympathetically when I shared my 14-year-old stepson’s latest misadventure involving his foot, a hundred-dollar running shoe, and the wheel of a moving car. Barb listened to me fret over my demented mother-in-law. The difference is they’re not standing behind me. They’re bracing me up, but now they’re beside me, shoulder to shoulder. Daunting as it is, I suppose that means I’m one of them.

At the graveside I hugged Debbie while she restrained her sobs. I whispered into her hair, “Breathe. Makes it easier to cry.” Then it occurred to me, “And easier to laugh.”

When Doreen said pensively that she no longer puts flowers on her garden-loving mother’s grave, I thought, “There’s no need. You honour her every time you tend your own beautiful garden, and you’ve passed her passion on to your children.” Next time I’ll say it out loud.

I’m learning. I have very good teachers.


I wrote this essay/tribute more than 15 years ago and I’m just as grateful for my touchstones now as I was then. XX