Remembering Aunt Robin

Right about the time this message first makes its way into the world, my family back home in Northwestern Ontario will be remembering the life of Aunt Robin, who isn’t really my aunt but has always, nonetheless, been in my mind one of “the aunts.” It’s not to be a memorial service, my parents told me firmly. Aunt Robin didn’t want it to be a big deal. Not long ago, when a friend who lived “in town” — that is, outside the borders of the triad of communes where I once lived and where she lived right up to the end — when he passed away, his family held a gathering that must have been more like a family reunion than a memorial service. People coming and going, visiting, eating, while a photo montage played to one side. When she heard this description, Aunt Robin insisted that her own memorial be like that. No speeches, no teary memories. Just friends enjoying each other.

That’s pretty typical of Aunt Robin. Her joy was in watching her family enjoy themselves, not in being the focus of attention. I remember she had a particular smile that came out when she watched her good cooking being enjoyed. She would sit quietly after the meal was served, and look out over the tables in the big dining room. Each table could seat a couple of nuclear families plus some singles, but nobody was hampered by table boundaries — everyone would be turning to interrupt and add to conversations at other tables, calling across the room to ask a question or tell news. There’s a particular tone to the conversation of a large group of people who are enjoying the food that’s in front of them. I don’t know how to describe it except that it’s different from the sound the same people make when the food isn’t as enjoyable. Anyway, I’m pretty sure Aunt Robin knew the sound too, because she’d look out over her big noisy family, and a quietly satisfied smile would come over her face. It wasn’t a smile of pride, but one of pleasure. Seeing us happy made her happy.

Aunt Robin didn’t want a big deal, with teary accolades from a podium. No fuss, no drama, just friends gathering to remember. So instead of listing off all the things that made her amazing (there were a lot), I’ll just tell one story. The kind of story you might tell in a gathering of friends to say goodbye to a loved one.

I was eleven, and freshly transplanted from a remote trapline in Northern British Columbia to the commune after seven years away. I had early memories of communal life, and I’d visited other groups during our time away, so the transplant wasn’t the cultural shock it might otherwise have been — but still, after seven years spent mostly in seclusion with one’s own family, a crowd of thirty or more people at every meal is an adjustment. What made the adjustment more difficult during those early days of our return was an uncomfortable feeling that the adults had some expectation of me that I wasn’t meeting. I couldn’t put my finger on it, and I was far too shy to ask anyone. I just knew I was doing something wrong.

I remember standing in the roomy kitchen at the island counter. Aunt Robin had asked me a question, and as I answered, my eyes slid away to gaze somewhere near her shoulder. I didn’t put any thought into this action — it’s just the way I interacted. She leaned in close, her hand gently patting mine, and whispered, “It’s okay to look at my eyes when you talk to me, you know.” She said it with not a trace of sarcasm or malice. She just wanted me to know that it was okay. It jolted me, the realization that THIS was what the other grown-ups weren’t telling me. Maybe they, like me, couldn’t put their finger on what was different about me. But Aunt Robin, a gifted observer, saw it. She knew it was making me stand out, causing discomfort. And with that gentle whisper, she helped me fit in.

It wasn’t until years later, as an adult, that I read that it’s common in northern First Nations and Alaska Native groups for children to avoid eye contact with their elders, out of respect. I hadn’t known that, but I must have picked it up living in an area with a high Tlinget population. It was a cultural difference that most people living farther south wouldn’t know about. I don’t know if Aunt Robin did — probably not — but she was perceptive enough to see not just that I did it, but that I somehow thought that doing otherwise would be wrong. “It’s okay,” she said, and gave me permission to become part of the group. It was such a loving act. She didn’t stand outside and judge my differences; she leaned right in and made me welcome.

That invitation, that reassurance, was who Aunt Robin was. Inclusive, loving, radiating peace. She was a child magnet for that very reason. Someone small was always in her lap or her arms, or leaning on her, or on a step stool at her side learning to make perfect pancakes. That’s how I’ll always remember her.