EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 1
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Aunt Lillian was the eldest of my father’s three sisters. Unconventional, unpredictable, unpretentious, and unflappable, she was without a doubt the least conforming member of our family. Stories were legend about her childhood: how she chose pants instead of skirts; sports instead of dolls; the company of her father and brother over that of her mother and sisters. As an adult, she rejected religion, politics, and, at the age of twenty-four, the epitome of the two—in our family at least—Brampton itself. She moved to Toronto and purchased a house in which to board university students.
Aunt Lil’s boarders were always male. There were no exceptions. Aunt Lil said she did not want to be bothered with the histrionics of female borders. It seems that Aunt Lil also did not want to be bothered with the histrionics of female friends, for Aunt Lil’s friends were all male. She frequently had three or four over for an evening of cards. Aunt Lil’s idea of impropriety, such as she cared about such things, was to have only one male visitor.
Aunt Lil had no regard for conventional rules. She had her own rules. She was habitually late and incredibly disorganized. “Bedtime” was not in her lexicon. When as children we had summertime overnight visits with her, we went to bed when we were tired. Given how entertaining she was, we were rarely tired before midnight. She obliged the rules of nature not more than the rules of man. Every day, as I walked down the front stairs of our home, viewing the gallery of family photographs on the surrounding walls, I was reminded of the hot summer day in 1910 when our extended family posed for a picture-taking. All of the women wore cotton-—mostly white—and in the case of the young girls, our sleeves were short. My Aunt Lil arrived for the occasion dressed in a long tweed skirt with a matching knee-length coat and a velvet hat.
She was oblivious to the differences in religion, nationality, and economic circumstances that divided so many others in our family and in society at large. She defended vehemently my sister Ina’s relationship with Michael Lynch, a Catholic, over the demands of her sister Charlotte that the relationship end. (Aunt Charlotte’s view prevailed.) Though modern in so many ways, Aunt Lil eschewed automobiles, not just for philosophical reasons (their incompatibility with our lifestyle) but also for reasons of safety. She was convinced she would one day meet her demise under the tires of a car—a not unreasonable concern given the number of vehicular and pedestrian collisions of the time and given her frequent lack of attention to her surrounds.
When not tending to her male borders, Aunt Lil taught history at the Toronto Central Technical Institute not far from her home. Her high school students routinely judged her their favourite teacher for the way in which she brought historical figures to life. Her nieces and nephews had no trouble believing that. She was the best storyteller in our family, recalling details that many of us failed to observe, even when experiencing first hand the events she later described.
Aunt Lil was a pacifist when others were patriots. Her last unexpected arrival at our home was the evening that the hostilities of war commenced. She arrived without warning, scared beyond measure of what the war would cost the young men of our family; the young men of their generation. Why had she come this time?
“Aunt Lil!” I cried after the second halloo, quickly overtaking Mother and Grandpa as we moved toward the front door. Mother’s command that I wait for her at the threshold to the foyer stopped me from embracing my favourite aunt.
Mother put her arm around me, holding me back from my aunt. Without any of the usual pleasantries, she asked in a slightly frantic tone whether something had happened to Father. Her question was understandable considering the unannounced and unusual nature of the appearance. My aunt rarely came to Brampton, a town with which she declared she had no affinity, despite it being the place of her childhood and despite it being home to much of her family. That she would come during the influenza outbreak, when visits were prohibited, made it even more alarming to Mother.
“Jethro? Oh, I don’t think so. Certainly he seemed fine when I saw him this afternoon,” she responded without concern.
“You saw him this afternoon?” Mother asked.
“Yes. I passed him on the street as he was leaving the hospital. He told me of your plight, isolated in this house for over a week now and no end in sight. So I thought I would give you a reprieve. My boarders have all gone home. There’s nothing keeping me in Toronto. And I thought I could do a good turn by helping out the three of you!
“Although goodness, it was an effort,” she went on as she undid the buttons on her mid-length coat. Naturally, it was green. Green was practically the only colour Aunt Lil wore. “The train was so late. A shortage of conductors, apparently. And there were so few people on it. I could have disrobed entirely, and no one would have noticed.” I tried to erase that image from my mind as she removed her coat to reveal a cream-coloured blouse above a striped green skirt. A jade-like stone pendant dangled from a chain around her neck. Mother placed her hands on my shoulders and gently pulled me back toward the parlour as Aunt Lil reached for the coat tree behind the door.
“But Lil,” Mother went on, “isn’t the idea that we are all supposed to stay in our own homes, not spread the virus by entering other homes? That’s the reason Jethro is staying in Toronto—though, to our knowledge, he is not infected.”
“Oh! I know all of that, Mary,” Lil interjected before Mother could go further, “but none of that applies to me.”
“Not to you?” Mother replied, as though she did not hear Aunt Lil properly. “But Lil, shouldn’t it apply especially to you? You have had six infected borders.”
“Exactly, and have I contracted the scourge?” Aunt Lil asked, to prove her point. “No. You see, Mary, I am immune to it.”
“Immune to it?” Mother repeated. We had not heard of such a thing.