My Aunt Ena and Uncle Wendell are the last two of 7 siblings, 6 of which I knew: Harold, Gary, Dennis and my father, Maurice, the eldest. A younger sister, Agnes, died when she was a child, from surgical complications.
Our family went back to Manitoba from Alberta every other year or so, sometimes more, up until I was a teenager; we would often stay with Harold and Anna, and our older cousins Paula, Parker and Pamela. Wendell would often be around, up visiting from the army base in Shiloh while he was in the military, or down from Thompson once he mustered out. Gary and Janice lived in Flin Flon for a while, but would sometimes come south to MacGregor when the other brothers were around. We saw more of them and my cousin Tom once they moved out to Logan Lake in B.C. I only met Denny a couple of times, but he seemed nice, funny and smart, like all the Fitzpatrick boys (and girl!). Gramma Irene would usually be on hand for these summer visits as well.
Many times we would also visit Dad's Uncle Frank who lived on the old family property in Piney, a very small town near the Minnesota border, and we continued to go and stay there after he passed, in an old farmhouse with an artesian well and an outhouse to luxuriously sort out all your ablutionary needs. The first time a chamberpot got mentioned in Language Arts class, it became readily apparent that I was the only kid who had ever actually used one.
Hot dusty days in Piney seemed pretty boring when I was a kid, but the veneer of time and nostalgic patina have me looking back on them as an enchanted time. Bathing in a galvanized metal washtub, using well water heated up on the stove; watching Dad and Wendell and their cousin Keith pulling wild horseradish roots up from the hard-packed ground, their considerable muscles straining like they were in a tug-of-war with the earth itself. Nights of cribbage, accompanied by rye, beer and raucous laughter.
I never had a favourite uncle, really. Harold had kids my age and was rough and playful. Wendell was the youngest and a brilliant storyteller and impressionist (still is). Gary had a dry deadpan delivery that he could time the fuses on so they would be delivered the moment that everyone had just caught their breath from laughing at something someone else had just said. Hydro man, soldier, miner; they were a pretty manly bunch, and they might be crude from time to time, but never loutish.
How do you drift away from times like that, from connections like those? In my teenage years, it became easier to opt out from family gatherings, because of work or other events, coming face to face with Ena and Wendell and Janice and especially Parker again, I found myself wondering if fear played a role.
Being a bookish and introverted youth meant I didn't have a lot in common with my cousins, especially Parker, who was a model outdoorsman by the time he was 12: hunting with gun and bow, trapping, skinning. I loved hanging around with him despite how awkward it sometimes made me feel, but when I was ten, we received a terrible phone call in Leduc telling us Harold had been killed the night before by a train.
I don't know what was worse, the horrifying knowledge that my cousins (Paula, the oldest, was 16 I think) were going to grow up without the further guidance and support of a strong and loving father, or the fear that the same thing could happen to Tara and I. That sadness, that fear, that stilted awkwardness; I found myself wondering if these had played a factor in my opting out of some of the summer visits. I think I only returned to MacGregor on one occasion after Harold died. Whatever the reason, I wish I had chosen otherwise now, that I had worked harder to maintain and strengthen those family connections, even when they were two provinces removed.
This regret was heightened even more when I embraced them at Dad's party last Friday. Wendell and his partner Lona made it down from Thompson, where they run the bus depot. Janice and Terry came in from Chase, and it was good connecting with them. Ena and Anna flew in from Winnipeg after meeting up with Parker and his wife Belinda, who first had to come all the way down from Churchill, where he still works for the hydro, like his dad, since he was 18 years old. The two of them also own and run the Tundra Inn and a local cable company, so the next time I feel busy or overworked, I am going to go to their website and pour myself a tall cool glass of shut-the-hell-up.
It was a good gathering, with an appropriate mixture of tears and laughter that I think the man of honor would have appreciated. Parker and I talked about how much losing a dad hurts, regardless of what age he is taken. Wendell recounted how, when was 5 or 6 years old and deathly sick, vomiting every hour, Gramma warned him not to get out of bed when Maurice came home from the Air Force.
"But I heard him come in, and I couldn't stay in bed. I got as far as the top of the stairs, and got sick. And I heard Mum say, 'Well, you'd better go on up.'" He called my father his hero, and broke my heart in the best possible way.
Ena talked about all the favourable treatment Dad got by virtue of being first-born, saying, "She may have had seven kids, but only one baby."
Tara and Audrey and I soaked in tales from the farm, from MacGregor, from the Piney Hotel; of illicit border crossings and questionable dealings, of people encountered, good, bad and indifferent. Memories of Dad and his brothers and their friends. I thought about taking pictures, but was always afraid that the transition from participant to observer would break the moment, like a finger popping a soap bubble. Besides, Ena has that angle covered like a tarp.
We sang Happy Birthday, and toasted Dad with Irish whiskey around Tara's firepit. Amidst all the tears and laughter and beer and cake and balloons, some of those connections got remade. I was reminded of how special my family is, how special all families are. Of how important love is, and how crucial it is to talk about it, before it is too late.
It is looking very likely now that a great number of the family will descend on poor Parker and Belinda next summer in Churchill, very likely to see Beluga whales in Hudson's Bay, possibly to see a polar bear. The 17 hour drive to Thompson and 16 hour train ride to Churchill will be a pilgrimage, but not to wildlife, and not to the edge of the nation, but to my extended family, and see if those connections can be made even stronger; a presence to be celebrated.