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Aunt Betty and the passing of time

My Aunt Betty died this year. She had suffered with dementia for some time and so it was a shock to lose her, but not a surprise. She was 87. Many of you, of course, have a favourite aunt or uncle.
Michael Atkins, President, Northern Ontario Business,

My Aunt Betty died this year. She had suffered with dementia for some time and so it was a shock to lose her, but not a surprise. She was 87.

Many of you, of course, have a favourite aunt or uncle. In my case, I had what I’m sure would have been my favourite aunt. She was also the only aunt I ever met: my father’s sister. On my mother’s side I have an uncle who is the only uncle I ever met. He is 92 but has no plans to leave us at all. He was climbing Machu Picchu not that long ago.

As time marches on, you find there are fewer and fewer people in your life you met while sitting naked in a bathtub with toy boats. Betty was one of them.

When Betty met her husband-to-be (Gerry Martin) she was 30 and a full-fledged pharmacist. I was seven and her only nephew. What was good about Gerry is that he came with a sailboat. It was the first one I ever met. It lived in the Bedford Basin Yacht Club and I enjoyed her more on land than sea. You got to paint it and scrape it and climb up the ladder and hide under the tarp and wear gardening gloves, which made you feel especially impor­tant. And of course you got to smell the sea, which would draw me back to the East Coast for the rest of my life.

Betty was a proud Nova Scotian.

If you showed the slightest in­terest—and sometimes if you showed no interest at all—she would speak with encyclopedic de­tail on the history of the Titanic, the Halifax explosion, the Bluenose I and II, Nova Scotian land grants from various kings, United Em­pire Loyalists and her favourite: tracing our roots to the Hector, a sailing ship of modest dimensions that left Scotland in July of 1773, with 23 families and 25 single men from the Scottish Highlands, and arrived late in September, hun­gry and bruised, to Pictou, Nova Scotia. They spoke Gaelic in the main and had very little time to build a roof over their heads before winter set in.

A few years ago I sat down with Betty, with a tape recorder, to capture some of that oral his­tory I couldn’t remember from the Christmas dinner table.

In listening, it is not just the family history that comes to life with unsurprising tales of fisher­men and hardscrabble farmers who survived both the voyage to the new world and the soil of Cape Breton; it is the almost total discon­nect between my aunt’s experience of the world and the world we live in today.

Betty’s time was shaped by two human dramas: the Depression and the Second World War.

She could never say her father was out of work. She allowed that he worked very hard, but didn’t get paid that much for about 10 years.

Life was duty and not necessar­ily for fun, although you could enjoy yourself when doing the right thing. During the war you volunteered to make care pack­ages for the troops overseas, and 40 years later you volunteered at the Woman’s College hospital—and when the premier threatened to shut it down (which they eventually did) you organized and protested.

Politics was in the blood. A lifelong Liberal, she knocked on doors, attended countless riding association meetings and was always current on the issues of the day. My favourite sport dur­ing the Brian Mulroney years was to call her up and ask what she thought of his extraordinary good government. There would be si­lence, and then a slow hiss, and she would launch into his failed policies. On Stephen Harper, it’s the only time I heard her swear.

Of course, her greatest sport with me during those same years was her thinly disguised (ac­tually undisguised) disapproval of the time it took me, in her par­lance, “to settle down.” Just before we did our taping not long ago, she said, “Isn’t it lovely that Kashka (my wife) is still with you. She is so lovely.”

I’m not sure if I saw a glint in her eye or not.

The difference, I think, between my aunt’s generation and mine, and those that have followed, is that circumstances demanded your best self. A world war with a mad man is unequivocal. It demanded self-sacrifice and courage, and our country and our people were not found wanting.

The Depression bred self-reliance, frugality, political activism and anger.

The freedom and prosperity be­queathed has made us less than our best selves.

I miss my aunt and we will all miss her generation.