My parents’ marriage had a “plus one”: my dad’s older sister, who never married, and who counted on her brother and his brood for holiday celebrations high and low.
My aunt, Blanche Teahen, was a “career girl” who wore suits or fancy dresses to go to work; she travelled a couple times a year on vacations with other women like herself who were single, whether because they never married or, later on, were widowed or divorced. Sometimes they flew to their destination and I would receive a postcard from Arizona or Bermuda; other times, they would drive and their road trip might include a stay with my family.
Blanche had moved to Windsor, ON to attend a secretarial college after high school and lived with her aunt and uncle, who had no children of their own. She has spent the rest of her life in Windsor; for nearly four decades she commuted across the river to Michigan to work for the Consulate General of Canada in Detroit.
In the summers, I would travel to Windsor to see Blanche, at first with my parents and then on my own when I was old enough to take the train by myself. Blanche still lived with her aunt and uncle, who had long since retired. My Great Aunt Mae would take me on the “tunnel bus” – you got on in Windsor, travelled through the tunnel under the Detroit River, and got off in Detroit after clearing border customs. We would meet Blanche at her office, and then go out to lunch.
I grew up in a small town and Detroit – confusingly due north of Windsor – was my first big city. Escalators at Hudson’s! Tomato aspic served at the Colonnade of the Penobscot Building! Sanders sundaes! Funny what sticks in a child’s mind.
Over the course of her career, Blanche progressed through different administrative positions and became the consulate’s office manager. She handed payroll and scheduling and would often compare the merits (and demerits) of the various heads of post who rotated through Detroit. The male diplomats came and went, but many of the female administrative staff stayed for decades. I didn’t know it at the time, but this longevity gave my aunt a ringside seat at many important moments in Canadian history.
While a country’s embassy is usually the locale for high-level dealings, the Detroit Consulate, one of 12 such offices in the U.S. beyond the Canadian Embassy in Washington, became central to the new relationship opened between Canada and the U.S. as the result of the 1965 Canada-U.S. Automotive Products Agreement , known as the Auto Pact. Heads of state and industry would confer at meetings hosted by the consulate, organized by administrators like my aunt.
One of the junior diplomats from my aunt’s time later became internationally famous: Blanche often told stories of young Mr. Taylor, who went on to become the behind-the-scenes hero of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. Ken Taylor was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and received a Congressional Gold Medal from a grateful American government.
When we moved my aunt into an assisted living facility last year, we brought along her treasured memento from those consulate days: a framed letter signed by Canada’s first Trudeau prime minister noting and honouring her many years of service. While her memory is fading, sight of that letter can bring back one of her many career stories. I need to tell her residence staff that the one about Ken Taylor is actually true.