Sunday, June 14, 2015

Aunt Do in Ottawa - my Woman in Gold

On the ferry to the island airport early Friday morning, I was standing outside when a red-winged blackbird landed briefly on my head. I took it as a good omen that I must look like a small tree.

It’s Sunday morning and I am in Ottawa – visiting Auntie Do, staying in an airbnb basement suite near her condo, driving a snazzy silver VW Golf.

My aunt is an unadventurous person, and now she has a good excuse to say no – she’s 95 and frail. So it’s a triumph we have already accomplished so much. Friday the weather was terrible, pouring and cold all day, but still, I persuaded her to go out, and out we went, to a small mall where – joy for her – there was a huge sale at Sear’s. And she actually bought some clothes! When she’s alone, nothing is right – too big or small, too bright or dull. But together we scored several lovely bits of clothing. I know they will stay on hangers for the rest of her life, but we had the pleasure of buying her something new, at least.

And then out to supper with her dear friends Una, Jean and May, her Scrabble partners and a raunchy, merry crew. We went to our usual place, the Village Café, and ate mightily and laughed a lot.

Saturday – hot and beautiful, the opposite of the day before - Do and I went to Ikea, only five minutes away. I never get there in Toronto, too far and too daunting, so what fun it is here. And doughty Do loved it too. We bought the usual – napkins, candles, four bright cotton tea towels for Do for $3.99. By then, she’d misplaced her glasses 3 times and her cane twice, always eventually, after a panicked search, recovered.

A quick sandwich and out again, to see “Woman in Gold” downtown. The reviews have been lukewarm, but we loved it – Helen Mirren, superb as always, well matched by Vancouver’s own Ryan Reynolds. It’s the true story of an elderly Jewish woman’s fight to reclaim the famous portrait of her aunt by Klimpt, stolen by the Nazis. Sitting beside my very old aunt, I felt deeply its core message about honouring roots and heritage, the power of family ties, the importance of memory.

I also felt the film keenly because my brother and I have just sold the portrait of my father painted in 1949 by Alice Neel. The Klimpt sold for over a hundred million dollars, our Neel, unfortunately, for considerably less. We had imagined, because Alice Neel is in art galleries around the world, that our painting would be worth a lot of money, and once again - like the silver spoon saga – we were wrong. No one wanted a small dark portrait of an unknown man. It went up for auction twice at Sotheby’s, to no avail. But an offer came through, and after much mulling, we accepted. By the time expenses are paid, we will each receive around $10,000. Not quite a hundred million, but not a poke in the eye. I’d wanted to keep the painting, but let’s face it, $10,000 for a writer is better than a canvas on the wall, even of one's father. Especially when there’s a good $500 copy hanging there instead.

But watching Helen Mirren fight for her family painting, I wondered about the wisdom of selling ours. No choice – my brother and I co-own it. Too complicated. 

Over our dinner of leftovers, Do told me about her childhood. She said as the second-born daughter, she was already a disappointment; both parents wanted a boy. Her mother Marion’s labour with her was especially long and painful; “You gave me haemorrhoids,” Marion used to tell her. And finally, Do was born with black hair, black eyebrows and black fuzz down her back. “Mama’s family were all fair and ginger, Pa’s family were dark,” Do said. “So – I might as well say it – Mama didn’t like me right from the start.”

How I felt for her, my aunt, who has never had any confidence.

We put out folding chairs and sat on her balcony, I with wine and she with tea. At one point, she leaned back, and the chair began to collapse and she with it. She folded backwards, landing on her back on the rough concrete. I was terrified she was injured, but though she could not get up, she was okay. I hauled her to her feet and we discovered that her elbow was purple and bleeding. But otherwise, she was cheery. I however was nearly faint with stress.

So after bandaging her and providing more tea, I left for for a long walk through Britannia Park by the beach. Over and over, this part of Ottawa has saved my life, its ancient trees, huge green spaces and expanse of river. I’ve walked here in all seasons when visiting my mother, watching her, as Do said, “just fade gently away.” I walked here when going through the ordeal of dividing her stuff and during my final stay in her condo with my kids, for her memorial. And now, visiting her older sister, with whom I’ve found great friendship and love, I still walk here to breathe and recuperate. Last night it was Canada too that I celebrated – a huge green space full of immigrants from around the world, cooking over small fires, playing cricket, a girl in a long red headscarf with a bicycle helmet on top, riding in the warm dusk.

How glad I am that my aunt and I have had this time together. So much to be grateful for.
Ninety-five - living alone, still driving. Her secret: cups of tea.
Sunset over the Ottawa River.
Taken from the car window. If only it weren't infested with Harpers.
The Chateau Laurier - they just don't make hotels like they used to.


  1. Beth, this is wonderful -- your portraits of your aunt, of Ottawa, of, well, life at its quiet best. I've stayed at the Chateau Laurier once, a very memorable time, and love those walks -- to the National Gallery or along Wellington, with the Parliament buildings and their -- our-- history. (And somehow we must wrestle our country back...)

  2. I feel extremely lucky that after the death of both my parents, I was able to discover and form a great bond with their siblings - Dad's brother, my uncle Edgar, whom I adored, and Auntie Do, the wonderful discovery of our deep family love. And yes, we'll get our country back, somehow. Let's think of Alberta and cross our fingers, and VOTE.