To my Ukrainian Aunty Mary, who wants to scratch Putin’s eyes out

‘You taught me that I could think what I liked, speak up when I wanted to and have the courage to change my mind,” writes Cathy Burrell to her aunt

Cathy Burrell
(Courtesy of Cathy Burrell)

(Courtesy of Cathy Burrell)

The first time we spoke after the war in Ukraine began, you were outraged. “Our relatives are being systematically slaughtered,” you said. As the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, you have remained connected to the old country. I am your youngest niece, and you felt I should be outraged, too. “If I could stand face to face with Putin, I would scratch his eyes out,” you said at the end of the call. I had absolutely no doubt.

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I grew up in Calgary and every June, my mother put me on a plane to Winnipeg. She wanted me to get to know her family. I stayed at Baba and Grandpa’s house all summer but always spent a few nights with you, my mother’s youngest sister and my coolest aunt. You were tall and thin, wore cat-eye glasses and spoke in a deep, raspy voice. Your outfits were chosen from a magic closet, full of colour and prints, tight pants and high boots. You lived on a lovely tree-lined street with your husband, Sam, a couple of cats and at least one dog. When I stayed with you, we would play Scrabble, talk about family and drive around in one of your huge cars. You never slept, preferring to read till the wee hours, and would sometimes wake me around midnight to see if I wanted a roast beef sandwich on rye with dill pickles.

In 1987, when I was graduating from a fashion design program in Abbotsford, B.C., I invited my entire family to the final show, extending a long-distance invitation to you in Winnipeg. I wasn’t sure if you were going to come, but on the night of the show, the backstage door opened and there you stood, wearing a white turban with a huge diamond and pearl brooch, shiny fuchsia spandex tights, 4½-inch stilettos and a multicoloured blouse belted at an angle. You sashayed into the room, gave me a big hug and told me to break a leg. After you left, everyone in that room wanted to know who you were.

Even when I was young, I understood that you did everything on your own terms. You shopped and worked and dressed and chose restaurants based on what you wanted. On your 25th wedding anniversary, you told Uncle Sam that you were leaving. Later, you explained to me you just couldn’t imagine growing old with him in tow. (You’d left your first husband, pictured above, after a short marriage in the 1950s.) You didn’t need children. You had loads of friends from all walks of life. You still get together with three women you worked with 60 years ago, and remain a regular on the art scene in Winnipeg. 

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You influence me every day. From you, I learned that I could think what I liked, speak up when I wanted to, have the courage to change my mind and be okay with going my own way. When I tell people that I decided not to have kids, I think of you. For 90 years, you have lived a life that other people want to tell stories about. I hope you know how grateful I am to be your niece. Your honesty and unbridled passion inspire me to try to live as bravely as you do. After speaking with you about the war in Ukraine, I felt your pain and the pain of our entire family. Putin, you should watch your eyes. Aunty Mary, and all the women in this family, #StandWithUkraine. 

This article appears in print in the June 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here, or buy the issue online here