Aunt Ethel and I were born on the same date, but 40 years apart. I’d sing “Happy Birthday To Us” on the phone to her every year on our big day, which made her laugh.
From the late 1930s through to the early ’60s, Aunt Ethel – my mom’s eldest and favourite sister – lived with her two rambunctious boys and irritable husband in Quebec City. It’s the capital of Quebec province, with a population now of around 800,000, less than half the population of Montreal. But in the ’50s it was much smaller, more like a very large town, really.
As a nine-year-old kid in the summer of 1955, I went with my mom on a three-hour train trip to Quebec City to visit Ethel; it was to be a four-day adventure. I’d never been on a real train before. The kiddie trains at Belmont Park or at Eaton’s toy department at Christmas didn’t count!
This one (similar to the one in the picture above) was a ginormous iron monster belching dark grey smoke. And so loud! Hissing and chuffing along, it was truly impressive. I remember gazing out the window as the countryside sped past, counting cows and horses on endless farms… Finally we arrived at my aunt’s place. It was a dingy apartment not all that different from the one we lived in ourselves, come to think of it, but fewer furnishings, and a bit more drab.
I remember playing checkers with my cousin Bernie whom I hadn’t seen in years, half my life, to be exact! But even better was Aunt Ethel’s chocolate fudge cake. It was sublime! (She’d made it special for me because she knew it was my favourite treat.)
We went for walks in the neighbourhood; all the signs were in French, but most people spoke English too. It was almost as bilingual as Montreal was, at the time. I recall stopping into a dépanneur (convenience store) for ice-cream cones, and being thrilled that the large double-scoop cone cost only ten cents!
One day we took a picnic to the Plains of Abraham…
This was the location of the great battle of 1759, when General Wolfe’s troops (of England) defeated General Montcalm’s troops (of France). Many Quebecers of French ancestry still haven’t gotten over that loss. Behind me in the photo above you can see a statue of the loser, Montcalm, and he is also depicted below.
It was a strange, awful feeling to walk over those hallowed grounds, knowing so many soldiers had died virtually underneath our feet.
But for me the most memorable day of all was when my mom and Aunt Ethel conspired to commit a crime, starring – me!
At that time in the province you had to be 16 to go to a movie, with certain exceptions. There was a film in town that both Ethel and my mom were very eager to see, and for this one you only needed to be 12. It was The King and I, starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. (Yes, I know the IMDb says it was released in 1956, but I swear to you we saw it in August, 1955. For one thing, see the photo of me, above? The note on the back of it says: “Quebec, Summer, 1955. The photographer was concentrating on the pose and didn’t notice that your hair was misbehaving! Sorry. Love, Auntie Ethel.”) 😀 So sweet.
Anyway, though, here’s the thing: you had to be 12 to get in. I was only 9! Oh dear, what to do?! Well, leave it to a mom and an auntie! Out came the lipstick and nylons, fancy jacket and hat – with attached veil! After they were done with me, poking and prodding, brushing and pulling and straightening, they took a few steps back and looked at me with cocked heads, appraising… Well… they finally said… you’ll do! Triumphantly, off we went to the thee-uh-tah!
When we arrived, the female ticket-taker, in about the same age range as my mom and aunt, looked at me askance. What she saw was an overly made-up nine-year-old little girl trying, and failing miserably, to look like 12! She said something to my aunt – in French! I didn’t understand, but I watched as Auntie Ethel turned with the woman a little ways off and whispered something conspiratorially into her ear. I only found out later that she’d said something like, “She’s my niece, it’s her birthday, they’re just visiting for the day, could you please, oh please…” Birthday fib notwithstanding, her ruse was marvelous, and it got us in!
The film was fabulous and the three of us were in heaven. It was a day to remember… a visit to cherish…
Aunt Ethel and I shared the same birthday, 40 years apart; it was almost inevitable that she would carry a soft spot for me until she died. And I will never forget her.