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By Alan Gratias


The Montréal Review, September 2011







"Look after Mum," Dad implored from his hospital bed quarantined from the rest of the floor, "she's not well."

He had been rushed to the Ottawa General Hospital in the middle of the night from my house in Rockcliffe Park. I had been woken by the night nurse who had called for an ambulance. His breathing had been irregular before the violent coughing fit, a residue from the pneumonia we thought he had recovered from. At eighty seven, lung congestion is hard to shake.

"Don't worry Dad, I'll take care of her," I replied tightening my grip on his hand, a huge farm hand rendered clammy and soft by his deterioration.

"She'll stay with me."

Through the maze of feeding and breathing tubes I saw the farewell look in his eyes. I rested my head on the bed, washing his hand with tears. He was ready to cross over to the OtherWorlde. Father looked at me intensely, nodded, and slipped away.


Born on March 24, 1915, Mother grew up the youngest of six siblings, five sisters and a brother. Elizabeth, Fran, Manny, Alan, Eleanor and Jean. There was a ten year age gap between her and the next eldest, Fran, and twenty five years to the oldest, Jean. The fact there was such an age difference between her and the rest of her siblings was the defining reality of her life in that she always felt she was a mistake, an unexpected pregnancy at a stage when her parents longed to travel.

My mother felt an outsider inside her own family. Left in the care of handlers and nannies, she rarely saw her parents who seemed old and distant. Her father Francois Xavier, having discovered the Far East, spent the early 1930s traveling widely throughout China and Japan with his wife Minnie.

The Plaunt family traced its origins back to the late seventeenth century on Ile d'Orleans, an island in the St. Lawrence River a few miles below Quebec City, originally named Bacchus by Jacques Cartier because of the abundance of wild grapes. Mum's great-grandfather, another Xavier Plaunt, left Ile d"Orleans to settle in the Renfrew area north of Ottawa in the early nineteenth century, attracted by the potential of the lumber industry in the upper Ottawa Valley.

He prospered and because he was community minded, he provided land for the Canada Central Railway and gave fine sites to the Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist Congregations for their churches. He won accolades and contempt for his generosity. Religion was no small matter in Renfrew. The religious wars spawned in the old country were packed in the immigrants' luggage. By the turn of the century the most attractive residential portion of Renfrew contained much of the 'Plaunt section'.

The family name was originally spelled 'Plante' but this changed when Xavier married Jeanette McLean in 1818. Jeanette spoke Gaelic while Xavier, who was unable to read or write, spoke only French. Plante became Plaunt when Jeanette spelled the family name as it sounded in French. Mum's father, affectionately known as F.X., always on the frail side, married Mary Amelia (Minnie) Butterworth, descended from United Empire Loyalist in Nova Scotia. He settled down to the lumber business accumulating wealth through the Harris Tie and Timber and Poupore Lumber Companies.

As the only child at home growing up in the vast and now empty residence at 1 Clemow in the Glebe district of Ottawa, Mum couldn't help but feel lonely and unwanted. As a young teenager she wandered the inlets and ravines that dissected the classical grid of streets from the Rideau Canal to Bronson Avenue, worried what was to become of her. Her five sisters gone to marriage or looking for husbands and brother Alan away at Oxford. Elizabeth felt abandoned in the dark halls of the family home. She never was much of a student, attending but not graduating from Elmwood, an exclusive school for girls in the Rockcliffe Park district of Ottawa.

When Alan returned from Oxford in 1930, he took his kid sister under his wing and became 'in locus parentis' but his real interest was in building public broadcasting. Alan was born in Ottawa on March 25, 1904, shortly after Marconi's successful experiments resulted in the developments of 'wireless communication'. Through his unrelenting efforts a new form of broadcasting was born. Alan Plaunt established the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission in 1932 and its successor, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. His life was dedicated to his belief that a publicly owned system was critical for Canada's cultural independence from the United States. He believed that the new medium of radio had enormous capacity to unify Canadians. He took his youngest sister along on his many trips to the continent, introducing her to Paris as an eighteen year old in 1933. Mum loved being under the tutelage of her worldly brother and all his sophisticated friends.

Elizabeth Plaunt at 16

Elizabeth Constance may not have a good student or have a lot of girlfriends but she was beautiful and charming. Because she loved to have fun, there was no shortage of gentlemen callers at 1 Clemow enquiring after the dark haired debutante. Early on she learned the art of flirtation, recognizing its power, and practicing its techniques to good effect. Despite all her insecurities, and sense of failure within the family, Mother knew how to garner the attention of the handsome young men congregating on her door step. Petite, full figured and slender of ankle and calf, when Elizabeth threw back her head in laughter, tossing out a bon mot or two, men were in her thraldom.

Her four sisters had shown the way in landing good men leading to early marriages and comfortable life styles, Jean to a Toronto businessman, Fran to a Chicago entrepreneur, Eleanor to an English aristocrat and Manny to the son of a Swiss Baron, the charismatic Jean de Watteville. The last of the beautiful Plaunt soeurs, Mother knew what was expected of her. She became engaged to the scion of one of Canada's biggest mining dynasties, known in her circles as the 'golden nugget,' because he was so rich, so handsome but alas, so stupid. The strapping protégé with big dreams, broke off the engagement within a few weeks and headed to Hollywood .

The next in queue, the dashing Lieutenant Roger Rolley, secured an engagement which lasted a year before he too decided to end the betrothal for reasons Mother never explained to her children. I did get to meet General Rolley, and his second wife later in his much decorated military career. Whenever I broached the subject of his engagement to my mother, usually on the second digestif at a neighbourhood dinner party, he put on his mischievous smile. "Quite a gal your Mum, a marvellous woman."

I don't know why these two young men bolted the marriage dock, but it does give rise to some doubt about my mother's state of mind in 1936 when she moved to Montreal to live with her parents. I have not come across any diaries that might reveal a motivation for the sudden departures of her courtiers, but I can't help but feel that Dad should have taken a similar path. He too was smitten that June evening in the grand salon of Gleneagles Apartment 23, the finest address in Montreal, overlooking the splendour of the urban skyline and the river beyond.

The husband of an Ottawa friend, Tony Larrat- Smith approached Elizabeth on the terrace.

"Betty I would like to introduce Orvald Gratias, back from Oxford and new in Montreal."

Mother extended her hand delicately, scrutinizing the too handsome tall stranger, the one with shy eyes who mesmerized her view

"Yes I know Oxford. My brother was there." Giggling she threw back her head with the lustrous fine hair.

"You must be a fine scholar, but can you dance?"

Turned out that Dad with all his athleticism was a damned fine dancer, but he didn't know any of the steps of the whirlwind that Mother was about to lead him into. The romance between Elizabeth and Orvald ignited quickly leading to a brief courtship, engagement and marriage in June 1938 with tout Montreal in attendance.

The wedding held at the Anglican Church of St. James the Apostle was described by the Montreal Daily Star as "one of the fashionable events of the season." The column included a depiction of the bride's dress as "a gown of ivory satin draped to one side under a fall caught with an appliqué of seeded pearls." My father was dazzled by the petite dark socialite who teased out a playful side from the introversion of the prairie boy adjusting to the big city

As a wedding gift F.X. built a stone mansion for the young couple on the far side of Mount Royal. Constructed of cut limestone with towering chimneys and surrounded by terraces and gardens, the imposing residence at 235 Chester Avenue was completed in time for the birth of their first child.

My sister Anna was born November 14, 1940 a few months after the house warming party on Labour Day of the same year, a chic occasion where the liquor flowed, music and dancing past midnight culminating in shouts, accusations, and a shut down of communication. The following week Father was travelling and the boredom returned, a bigger boredom now that Betty was lost in a grand house again.

The arrival of a child with a nurse and nanny helped for a while. But Betty was more interested in being a chatelaine than mother, particularly if motherhood meant a diversion of focus from her to the new born. She needed the attention herself. She resented the fuss over Anna. Time to wander, search for adventure, maybe take on a lover, anything to regain the pedestal and the adoration.

By the time the twins arrived on April 23, 1946, the pattern had been established. Long absences, some accounted for, others just disappearances, short bursts of domesticity punctuated by parties, quarrels, and the occasional police intervention. Because my mother did not cook, or have any interest in food, the question of grocery shopping and meal preparation, was always incendiary. Cooks came and went with the regularity of the seasons, the firing in a fit of jealousy because of appreciation shown by a member of the family. I have no recollection of my mother ever actually preparing a meal for the dining room, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas included.

If Betty paid little attention to her first born, shipping Anna off to Elmwood in Ottawa in their first intake year, she was more attentive to the boys. Perhaps it was because she had lost a middle child, the infant Elizabeth, to crib death that she demonstrated a more nurturing temperament to the twins.

There was no question that Mother preferred men to women. Her whole modus operandi was geared to the opposite sex. Betty loved being recognized as Mother of the Gratias twins, and as our achievements and notoriety grew, so did her pride. Although our exploits made wonderful cocktail fodder for the Madonna and her entourage, when it came to discipline and the savoir faire of good parenting, Mother was lost.

Betty had been ignored as a child and that's all she knew how to do. She was great fun to be around but ill equipped to be a role model. She was the quintessential 'hands off' parent, not out of a laissez faire philosophy but because she didn't know about boundaries. Never having anchored herself in life, never having a sense of what she was supposed to do, Mother escaped to a life of indulgence, suffering long bouts of depression and abysmal loneliness, emerging from time to time with her charm and gaiety at full boil, but with diminishing returns.

My sister Anna had a harder time of the infidelities than the twins. Being first born she was far more exposed to the family wreckage. Six and half years older she bore the brunt of the marriage breakdown with its ongoing psychological damage. While Deo and I were running about the playing fields of Lower Canada College, she watched Father deteriorate into alcoholism. She lived his despair every day. It was Anna who walked Dad to his first AA meeting at the St.Antoine Armoury in November 1969. She accompanied him to every meeting for three months until he realized that he could give up liquor.

Mother and Anna had a toxic relationship because Anna could not forgive her for the abandonment of the marriage. Not only was Betty not trained to be a mother, she did not have the desire or nurturing instinct to learn to become one. Mum wanted to enjoy herself. She would have gone dancing every night.

Anna and Betty were physical opposites, one the petite maiden with tiny features and Anna at six feet tall, the towering Amazon. My sister had the same body type as father, large boned, broad shouldered and thick thighed. When Mother banned her to a boarding school in Ottawa at the first opportunity, their estrangement escalated until no one cared about a rapprochement. Over the years Ann a became the unofficial custodian of the family secrets, a trustee of our dirty laundry whom we could consult from time to time to remember the reality, when years later we had whitewashed the pain out of childhood memories.

It was the same with dogs. We had two as family pets growing up in the stone behemoth on Chester Ave, Fritz a dachshund and Holly a basset hound. Both suffered the same fate, fussed over and spoiled for a brief honeymoon period then ignored for the rest of their lives. The training, walking and feeding was left to the staff. In the end because I had taken an interest in the animals, I gradually assumed responsibility for their care.

When the time came to say adieu, I was called on to take the dogs to the vet. Fritz and Holly six years apart, both put down by Dr. Bernard at the Town Animal Clinic. There the resolve was born, when the time came for Alan to have his own dogs, they would not be ignored. My dogs would know they were the cornerstone of the family.




Alan Gratias is the founder and creative director of Gravitatis Entertainment and former agriculture trade negotiator in Ottawa.  He has published a book, The Completely Civil Servant (Eden Press), a satire on public service. Betty Goes to Dancing is a part of his unpublished memoir The Lodger and the Gravitarg.


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