Bob Collins is best known as a farmer, carpenter and co-owner of Arrowvale Campground and Farm just west of Port Alberni. What many don’t know is that Collins is also an author with several books under his tool belt.
Collin started writing about his childhood and some short stories centred on farm life, publishing them in the monthly agricultural paper, Country Life in B.C. Some of those stories eventually made it into book form, and Collins has twice been nominated for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour in the Canadian publishing world.
Collins used to visit Westhaven seniors’ home in Port Alberni around Remembrance Day and read them a short story titled Aunt Dolly. It is his poignant contribution to memories and loss those left behind endure when war is fought on foreign soil.
‘Aunt Dolly’ is reprinted with permission.
By Bob Collins
Special to the AV News
To my brother and I and 13 of our cousins she was Aunt Dolly. But she wasn’t really our aunt. My mother called her Aunt Dolly but she wasn’t her aunt either. She was my Grandma’s cousin. Aunt Dolly was a McLeod but her mother and Grandma’s were both Buchanans.
As kids we would see Aunt Dolly several times a year. In some ways she was like another grandma. She always seemed happy to see us and would quiz us at length about our health, interests, and progress at school. Our answers were always polite but brief. We were far too busy with our own little worlds to spend very much time chit-chatting with a lady who was older than our grandma. She loved us anyway. She always remembered our birthdays with a card and a dollar and there was a present from her for each of us under the tree every Christmas.
We probably didn’t deserve the Christmas present (unappreciative little swine that we were). She sent the same present to all of us each year, and she sent the same present every year. Monogrammed handkerchiefs. Handkerchiefs were an awfully long way down any of our Christmas wish lists and we were all a little too young to appreciate the hours she must have spent stitching our first initial flawlessly into the corner of every one. The handkerchiefs were too perfect for everyday use. Mine piled up in my sock drawer and only came out on Sundays when one would peek out of the breast pocket of my church suit.
As I grew older, I began to look forward to Aunt Dolly’s handkerchiefs. They became a predictable Christmas tradition, like the cardboard star that crowned the tree every year. Gradually I came to realize that Aunt Dolly’s gift to us was her time. She could just have easily shipped us a cheap hankie right off some dime store shelf, or she could have just stuffed another dollar into an envelope with our name on it. But she didn’t. She spent hours embroidering her affection into those handkerchiefs, making each one unmistakably our own.
Eventually the handkerchiefs stopped coming. We kids were growing up and Aunt Dolly was growing old. It wasn’t until after she died that I really stopped to wonder why she had been so fond of us, her cousin’s grandchildren.
“Because she had no children of her own.” Grandma said.
“Because her young man was killed in the War.”
“Her young man” was Grandma’s way of saying fiancé. I never knew Aunt Dolly except as an old lady. But of course, she had once been young and carefree and in love. Her marriage was postponed when her “young man” marched off an Ontario farm and on to the War in France. He never came home. Aunt Dolly was left with the memory of their last lingering kiss on the train station platform and the broken promise of his return.
She never found another young man. Didn’t look for one according to Grandma. But even if she had the cruel tally of the “war to end all wars” left young men in short supply. Eventually Aunt Dolly took a job as the town clerk in a small Saskatchewan town. Decades later she moved on to B.C. where she spent her retirement years doting on her cousin’s grandkids.
I can’t help thinking about Aunt Dolly at this time of year. About how the war changed her life. About her young man and their unborn children. And thinking of her makes me wish for a lot of things: I wish that on Remembrance Day everyone could spare a thought for Aunt Dolly and everyone like her who lost a loved one to war.
I wish I knew her young man’s name. I wish he’d come home, and I’d never even met Aunt Dolly because she was still in Ontario spending her love on her own grandchildren instead of stitching it into the corner of hankies for her cousins grandchildren.
I wish I’d appreciated those handkerchiefs more when I was young. And I wish I still had one now.
Bob Collins co-owns Arrowvale Farm and Campground in Port Alberni, B.C. He is known locally as a farmer and carpenter, but as author he has had two of his books shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. This short story was originally published in Country Life in BC.