For three years, I lived with my parents and younger brother and sister on a concession road outside of Aylmer, now called “College Line.” As I am nostalgic from time to time, I walked that road a few summers back, accompanied by one of my daughters. The pines along the long lane of our former landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Fuller, were gone. Their apple orchard, where I’d spent many happy hours, was razed and replaced by a field. The shabby little red insul-bricked house we’d rented had been sided white, and was occupied by a Mennonite family. Their children followed us happily up the lane and couldn’t speak a word of English. The lilac bush cluster I’d made forts in was still there, and so was the old barn. Even the little cold house, half-buried in the ground, was still standing. Mr. Fuller used to go in during the winter and get apples for my brother and I. They stayed fresh in there all year long.
Further up the road stood the Bradts’ yellow-bricked farmhouse, flanked by the pretty white house Mr. Bradt’s parents had occupied when I knew the family in the 1960’s. We swung out from the road and ventured around the back way towards the house. I knew that Aletha and Ron still lived there. I hoped that I might be able to exchange a hello with Mrs. Bradt.
Aletha Bradt was my second mom for those three years when we lived on that concession. There is no better way to describe it. That relationship wasn’t unique to me. Any kid that walked up her lane became part of her family. It wasn’t like I was special. Everyone was special. Now, it wasn’t like Aletha was some sweet, fluttering fairy-godmother type, spreading glitter and rainbows wherever she went. She was tough and she was loud and she meant business. Any kid in her house toed the line, or they were firmly reminded of “the board of education” she kept hanging in plain view on the kitchen wall. I think it was an old bread board. She used it for paddling and did not discriminate by last names. That was just a technicality. My younger brother, I believe, had some education administered to his back end by Aletha on one occasion. Aletha had four children of her own. They were well-fed, well-worked, and well-loved. It wasn’t that doe-eyed, sweet and tender kind of love. It was tough love, but it was real and it was tangible. I know, because I felt it. I spent a lot of time at the Bradts’ house. Aletha never opened her door and sighed, “This isn’t a good time” or “My kids can’t play with you right now.” That isn’t to say she might not push a broom into your hand, or send you out to the garden to pick a row of beans. I spent many an hour with a feather duster in the Bradts’ house. I didn’t mind. It was part and parcel of being a part of Aletha’s family. Being an honorary Bradt also meant a bowl full of mashed potatoes, corn and hotdogs all slathered in ketchup at the noon meal and all the butter tarts you wanted. (Aletha’s butter tarts! Never in my life will I expect to taste a butter tart to match hers). It meant free access to her kids’ toy room at the back of the house. It was well-stocked and always shared. It meant that I went with Aletha and her kids to Vacation Bible School at her church. It meant that I piled into her old green station wagon with her kids for picnics and swimming lessons and trips to Port Bruce for a day at the beach.
Aletha was forthright, and at times, formidable, but I never stammered in her presence or feared an unexpected flare of anger or annoyance. What you saw was what you got. She was a steadfast and predictable, and she took you exactly as you were. She was a warrior in her kitchen, a wizard of the stove, sink and freezer. She was always baking or canning. There were more freezers in her house than I could count.
On that walk a few summers back, as we came up from the back towards the house, I saw that old green station wagon, sagging in the long grass, amongst all the other old hulks and wrecks. Ron was a farmer and old things had their uses. He hadn’t gotten rid of anything. As we came up towards the back of the house, I noticed the garage floor was filled with frolicking kittens. Aletha had always had litters of kittens bounding around in that garage. The back wall, I noticed, was flanked by freezers. And then, Aletha came out of the house and through the garage to see what we were up to.
Even though we had occasionally run into each other over the years, I was not sure that she would recognize me. I’d turned fifty at that point in time and I didn’t look too much like the six-year-old kid she’d fed almost every day. Aletha gave me the once-over with those frank eyes of hers and we had a good chin-wag with the kittens spilling around our feet. Like no time had passed at all.
She apologized for not inviting us in. Ron had been in poor health and was recovering from surgery. She was proud to tell me that she was close to eighty. Still canning, cooking, baking. I didn’t doubt that there was a plastic container stuffed with butter tarts on her counter as we spoke. I shared many of my memories with her, of those times spent in her kitchen and on her farm. Without getting mushy about it, I think I managed to convey to her how special my memories of those times were. I think she understood that I was thanking her.
That was the last time I saw her. My mom called this evening to let me know that Aletha passed away yesterday. I’ve thought of her so often over the years. It’s good to think of her now. I’ll always remember her. I think Aletha and her kitchen have made appearances in a few of my stories over the years. I didn’t realize it at the time. Aletha is a part of me.