One of the first visits I remember making during my life was across the Detroit River and into Windsor, Ontario, to visit my Grandmother’s Sister, Aunt Edith and her Husband, my Uncle Sol. I was impressed by the fact that their house was built on the shore at the 90 degree river bend, where the merchant ships looked like they were sailing directly into the living room. I also remember the tapestry of purple African Violets that carpeted every inch of their back yard. As we were saying our “goodbyes”, Uncle Sol tiptoed among the violet waves of flowers planted in long neat rows, carefully choosing the very best and perfect shade of violet to give to each of my Grandmothers and Mother. They giggled with delight, in anticipation of adding another variety to their existing collection. Each of the women had an African violet menagerie from Uncle Sol’s Canadian garden, kept in their dining rooms turned greenhouse, where they captured the most sunlight. I can still remember the warm afternoon sun beaming down over the plant stands that displayed tiers of perky, vibrant pastel blooms among the thick deep green fuzzy leaves I liked to touch when no one was watching. I can still recall the soft, sweet smell of the tiny blossoms in the intense heat of the summer sunshine, and how it lingered in that corner of the house.
As the ladies accepted their re-potted plants, Aunt Edith presented each of us three kids with a crisp American dollar bill. I didn’t understand the significance of the fact that it was an American dollar and we were in Canada, let alone the value being worth twice as much in Canada. It was the early ‘60’s and here was this sweet, elderly couple of modest means, sharing the most profound and intrinsic part of their being with us as somewhat distant family. We made several subsequent visits, all ending with the same traditional exchange of African Violets with an American dollar bill for us each.
We all piled into the car, waving wildly to Uncle Sol & Aunt Edith with expressions of gratitude when my Mother, who was more skeptical and pragmatic about receiving such gifts, exclaimed, “How are we going to get these plants through customs”? There was a moment of silence while the four grown adults concocted their stories. Dad, who was driving the culprits, instructed the women as if he were debriefing his platoon for a mission. He served in England during WWll and was an Electrical Engineer, so his voice commanded their obedience. Personally, I got a kick out of him addressing his Wife, Mother-In-Law and his own Mom in this fashion-qualifying his action with the characteristic Irish twinkle in his eye. “Let me do all the talking” he’d insist. “Everybody else stay quiet”. Having been across the border countless times over the decades, those poor Customs Officers ask the same repetitive questions with that robotic tone and blank expression “where were you born?”, What is your destination?” “How long were you out of the country?”…like a bomb dropping from the sky overhead, the interrogation we anticipated as standard issue ensued: “Do you have any plants to declare”? Dad whipped his head around, threatening us children with a glare to melt us on the spot with the laser beams shooting from the depths of his blue eyes. I had only witnessed that look once again in my life when he was called from work to retrieve me from the high school office where the truant officer held me for cutting class. “Do you have any plants to declare?” Time had stopped. I swear my Grandmas were beaming with an air of school-girlish mischief as they had done this before. After all, who was going to question two sweet little ol’ ladies, appropriately accessorized at the time with matching hats and gloves on a Sunday afternoon? “No” Dad stated firmly and we were waved on through. Welcome to the United States, the sign read, where we all breathed a sigh of relief, mainly for me because I could talk again. I swear I could hear the plants let out a little sigh too while securing them painstakingly between our feet on the floor of the backseat. What a sight, the loose dirt clinging to the furry leaves & velvety petals vibrating in resonance from the motion of the car, teasing to fall upon the Grandmas’ pristine polished patent leather pumps. From my 3-year-old perspective, I couldn’t help but wonder if they tickled their ankles a bit through their tight fitting silk stockings.
Years later, after Aunt Edith had passed away, Uncle Sol & I became pen pals. I loved to send notes and while Uncle Sol had developed a palsy, he continued to write often against a ruler to hold his hand steady, although his penmanship had become barely legible. Bless his heart for continuing to humor me at such expense to himself. Tucked inside the fold of the card was a crisp, brand new American dollar which I sent back to him with my next letter, thinking that was the “custom”. When my Mother learned of this, she scolded me for insulting him. We exchanged that same dollar bill for years, not realizing that I was merely returning it. I felt it was something that we shared and understood just between the two of us. Two-score and a ½ a decade later (you do the math); I continue to visit Canada and always, always think of my Uncle Sol when I pull out my American dollar to exchange. These memories of Uncle Sol and Aunt Edith are worth far more than a dollar will ever be worth, American or Canadian!