Amazing Grace

The news popped up Friday with about a dozen other messages on my Blackberry. Subject line: Aunt Grace. I knew she was dead. After all, she was 96. And just last week another aunt, Margaret, called to tell me that Grace was “very, very frail.” Grace is (or was) actually my Great Aunt. My dad’s aunt. She went 96 times around the sun but lived no further than 25k from where she was born. It’s the end of an era, in a whole lot of ways. She might call it the end times.

Aunt Grace was a very sweet lady – a real “lady” in the old fashioned sense. She loved to hear us great nephews and nieces sing in church or recite scripture. She was the heart and soul of a the clapboard country church in Breadalbane, PEI that continues to struggle on decades after the trains stopped running and Uncle Al’s one-pump gas station closed.

Grace kept a tidy country house at the head of the 50 acres of mixed farmland she shared for 50 years with Great Uncle Jack. They had horses for a while, but by the time I was old enough to remember there were only two left and the yard between derelict barns was a playground for skittish kittens that Grace kept fed with little saucers of milk left on the stoop by the back porch. The house was where Jack was born, the place his dad Franklin had built in 1876. My dad, his grandson Franklin, called it “the century farm.” It’s only in the last decade or so that the family stopped pulling cords of firewood from those back acres. As a child I used to go back with the men every fall, armed with a dull axe from Uncle Jack’s barn. He used to call me the beaver for how that harmless implement gnawed at green saplings.

Before she was married to Jack, Grace was a teacher. I remember her telling me of those painful early years, how leaving home at 14 to take a one-room school was such a desperately lonely time. It’s astonishing now to realize that she left home to teach for the winter just miles away from where she grew up, kept separated from her family by a sense of duty and the lack of a passable winter road. She was a trooper. Strong. And loyal.

Grace was fussy and proper and made a kick-ass mint jellied salad with multi-coloured marshmallows. She had a bullet-proof faith and a devotion to her church that bordered on obsessive. The years I played trumpet with Grandpa Weale we were always in her sights, on her list for Sunday night service. I hated going, but felt an obligation. But having been dragged kicking and screaming to those services to play “Power in the Blood” or “The Old Rugged Cross”, afterwards I always felt uplifted, appreciated, part of a community. Those dark Sunday nights in rural PEI were always warm inside, the service followed by a congregational gathering with sweets and jellied salads and squares served on napkins by the wood stove in the church basement. I still remember the feeling of emerging from those services to the crisp evening air with the sky alive and bursting with stars.

Grace is gone, but it’s only as I write this that it’s occurring to me that what I miss most now is the sense of community that I felt back then, in her time. I’m going to have to think about that some more.

Aunt Grace was kind. She was loving and forgiving and generous. She enjoyed nothing more than to be able to prepare a meal or welcome visitors. Within minutes of crossing the threshold into her kitchen, tins of squares or molasses cookies would come out on fancy little plates, tea would be put on to boil. The photo albums would come out, or we’d retire to the parlour where she’d mount the old pump organ and start to play. Grace was intensely proud of family and was a prolific writer of letters. Even after mom and dad divorced, she and Jack kept coming by our house. She was not going to let division get in the way of connection. It’s only a year or two ago that I stopped receiving a birthday card from her, always on time, full of little details of her life or clippings from the newspaper, with a five dollar bill tucked inside. “Treat yourself, dear.”

An enduring memory I still invoke of Grace with Suzy is of her running down the driveway to Jack’s big Olds pulling away, her passenger door ajar. She loved to talk. He loved to get going. It’s just last week I said, “C’mon, Grace!” to Suzy as she was yammering with another parent in the parking lot at hockey practice. She knows what I mean.

Jack took off nearly a decade ago, now she’s gone too. Amazing.

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