“You must have been a beautiful baby, ‘cause baby, look at you now….” The song was playing on the juke box.
We walked, not talking, bundled in our winter clothing, from the high school to the local hotel in our small mining town. The cafe was the place to go on any day when learning lessons from books was done. But because of the local gold mine’s afternoon shift change, the lady at the cash register would not admit one student into the cafe unless, at a minimum, you had money to pay for a Coca-Cola. If you showed proof of coin to order a Coca-Cola, chips and gravy, you were a shoe-in.
She would rather have the men coming off morning, afternoon or evening shift work – with money for a cafe breakfast or afternoon supper – than a bunch of hang-around, unruly, poor students, she told us.
On Payday Friday, when the miners from outlying smaller mines were paid, luck or chance were the only means by which you’d find an empty seat after moiling through the people. On a cold December walk in 1963, a week before Christmas, my cousin and I were the first students to arrive. We slid into our favorite booth across from the jukebox, the best seats to hear the records play.
The lady forced us to stand as she wiped the table with a greasy cloth, then ordered, “Sit!” We pulled our gloves off, unzipped our coats, pushed our school homework next to the napkin dispenser, salt, pepper and sugar containers, and rubbed our hands for warmth.
My cousin didn’t live with her mother. She lived with a woman everyone called Old Lady, far down the Old Town hill, and then again around another hill, and on a small island where houses were built fair distances from each other. The Old Town was considered the poor side of town because many Dene and Metis lived there. The land was supposed to be a “Preserve,” but was called a “Reserve” because the distant Federal Government refused to acknowledge Dene- or -Metis-owned land in and around Yellowknife.
My cousin seldom talked to her biological mother, or about her. When she saw her, she ignored her. She never said outright, but I guessed she was angry at her because she heard her mother was going to sell her for a bottle of whiskey when she was a baby. Old Lady took the baby girl from my aunt and reared my cousin as though she were her child. My cousin loved Old Lady like she was the only mother she knew, even though her biological mother came to see her as she grew.
From the vantage point of our booth, the hotel lobby was in plain view. When I was 13, anyone not of legal age wasn’t allowed in the lobby. Although there were no formal municipal laws, the white ‘Gin-Shots,’ or ‘Big-Shots,’ as people with money and power were called, were determined to enforce unwritten laws of northern lands. As in many regions in the world, the ‘Non-Originals’ conveniently forgot there were Indigenous peoples living here long before gold and uranium mines scarred the landscape.
Our view from the booth showed what was happening in the bar whenever anyone opened and closed the door. We saw who went into the bar, who came out of the bar, who went into the bar underage, and the new people in town. The scene was chaotic and more unruly than a group of high school students. On Payday Friday, everyone of legal age went to the bar. The hotel lobby and bar were always busy with miners, expediters, prospectors and white people coming to the North from southern Canada to barter business opportunities.
There were some Aboriginal people who had money to buy a beer or a shot of hard liquor, but an Aboriginal person would be told to leave if a white man wanted his seat at the bar. Aboriginal people were often not allowed in the hotel lobby or bar at all: “Get the hell out of here. You’re not supposed to be in here! Get out of here, that guy’s got money and you don’t!” Like the black people in the southern United States, Aboriginal people were not allowed to use the indoor – or even the outdoor – toilets.
Metis people who looked white were allowed into the bar more than Dene people. But Metis people would be told “behave yourself” by the doorman, before they were permitted to enter. There was another bar called the Old Stope where old-timer white people and Aboriginal people went. The Old Stope was on the top of a hill in the older area of town and all people were welcome.
Me and my cousin took turns switching seats when the cashier wasn’t looking to view the live circus through the cafe doorway into the hotel lobby. People inside the lobby often stood at the entrance to the cafe, peering in to see who was there, or sometimes walking through to use the far exit by the cashier. The Coca-Cola arrived, but we were still waiting for the fries and gravy when a woman peered around the corner of the doorway into the cafe.
“Oh, no,” my cousin said, sliding from middle of the padded red leather booth to press closer to the wall, trying to avoid contact with the woman, trying to act inconspicuous.
“What,” I asked, turning to see who my cousin was attempting to avoid.
“Don’t look,” my cousin whispered. The woman turned to greet my face, smiled a wide, cordial smile and walked into the cafe to stand by our table.
“How are you girls doing?” she asked.
“Fine, Auntie,” I replied, waiting for my cousin to greet her mother. She gave my aunt a scowl, saying, “Oh great. I suppose you’ve come from out-of-town to be uptown.” My aunt slid beside her daughter, put her arm over my cousin’s shoulder to hug her and was going to kiss her on the cheek, when my cousin pulled away from her. “Don’t kiss me,” she said. “I don’t want stinky red lipstick on my cheek.”
Her mother, unfazed, sat for a moment, asking how school was, if we were having fun and if we were going to the town theatre for the evening show because a new movie was playing. My cousin avoided her. I answered simple questions with simple answers.
“Just leave,” my cousin scowled without looking at her mother.
“Don’t talk to your mother like that,” my aunt told her daughter.
“You’re not my mother,” my cousin said. “You’re nothing but a drunk… and worse. And you smell of booze. Just leave.” If my aunt was upset, she never showed any signs of emotion or a pained heart. She slowly lifted her young body from the booth and stood looking at us before saying to me, “Come and give Auntie a hug and kiss.”
I always liked my aunt for her spunk and courage, her pretty face and her innocence in a changing world. She was raised with Elders who were caught between an Aboriginal traditional lifestyle and the fast-moving growth of a mining town. My aunt was a pretty woman and looked stunning in the early Friday evening light with her hair nicely combed, makeup on her eyes and red lipstick. She wore plain dark slacks with a button-up print blouse beneath a new winter jacket. I always remembered how beautiful she looked. I put my arms around my mother’s sister and squeezed her neck in a tight hug. She kissed me on the right cheek and upon release said, “You girls be good tonight. Here. This will help with your pop.” She handed her daughter a five dollar bill. In 1963, five dollars was a lot of money for high school students.
My cousin refused to take the money, but with my scowl conveying, take it, she allowed her mother to leave the bill on the table.
My aunt told her she loved her before saying “good-bye for now.” She walked through the cafe doorway to the hotel lobby where I saw her speaking to three men. I turned to my cousin, who spoke before I opened my mouth. “She’ll be drunk in less than half an hour.”
“Why do you treat her that way?” I asked.
“You’ve never had to put up with what I’ve had to put up with. She’s nothing but a drunk.”
“Don’t be so harsh,” I answered. “Good or bad, she’s still your mother.”
“When you’ve been through more bad than good from someone who didn’t want you in the first place, it’s hard to love someone who calls herself a mother, but never acts like a mother. Anyway, Old Lady is my mother and the only one who’ll ever be a mother to me. I don’t even want to touch this money from her. But… it’s here now, so, want a cheeseburger?” I consented to linger longer in the ‘see-all’ booth. I saw my aunt walk with the three men up the wide stairs leading to hotel rooms. I guessed she was going for a drink with men she knew, on Payday Friday.
In half an hour, I saw the same three men and my aunt stagger back down the stairs, swaying.
My aunt’s finely combed hair was messed, with a piece sticking up from the back of her head; her eye makeup was still intact, but the red lipstick was smeared past her lips and on her face. Her eyes were glazed and her print blouse unbuttoned to expose part of her bra. The men seemed not to mind her presence; never pushed her away, swore at her or slapped her, as I’d seen other, worse, cruel, drunken white men do to some women. I heard rumors my aunt was a ‘lady of the night,’ but, until now, I’d never seen anything to make me believe she was anything but my aunt.
What I saw of her in the hotel lobby evening light may have confirmed idle thoughts, but didn’t change my love for her. What she did and what she was called and what white society chose to do to maim her, didn’t matter to me. She would always be my mother’s sister. She would always be my aunt. She was still the woman who bore my cousins. She was still the sober woman who visited our house and played tea house with my two younger three and four-year-old sisters, back-combing their hair until their little heads looked as though two tiny aliens had invaded our house wearing gigantic wigs. She was still my aunt who took my older sister on the high hills behind our house on a picnic to roast duck over an open fire.
She was still the aunt who begged me to sit at the back of the church and held my eight-year-old hand so tightly I thought my fingers had turned to stone at my mother’s funeral and kept saying over and over, “I killed her! I killed her. I should never have told her to have the operation.” She was still my aunt who hugged and kissed me and told me to always be proud of who I was as a Metis person. She would always be my aunt. I didn’t care who thought what of her, or what she did, or how she chose to live her life. She was always good, caring, considerate and a kind Auntie, to me.
“See, I told you she’d be drunk within half an hour,” my cousin grumbled angrily, interrupting my thoughts.
“Oh, leave it alone,” I said, disgusted. “Just get over it already.” We chewed our cheeseburgers in silence, both staring at different walls of our small, hometown cafe, choosing to no longer glance at the hotel lobby doorway.
On the walk home in the softly falling snow, after I said good-bye to my cousin, I thought about the song. The song I heard when we first entered the cafe was about once being a beautiful baby. I was thinking of my Metis aunt.
“You must have been a beautiful baby, ‘cause baby, look at you now….”