Excerpted from Seven Aunts by Staci Lola Drouillard. Published by University of Minnesota Press. Copyright 2022 by Staci Lola Drouillard. All rights reserved.
When she was living in the yellow house, Aunt Diane worked nights until 1:30 a.m. serving highballs and lowballs to people she probably saw every damn night. She still felt it was important to put her best face forward, because you never know when a stranger from out of town might sit down at the bar and have something new to say. That was back when drinking in bars was the primary source of grown-up entertainment, at least in terms of how the adults in town chose to spend their pre- and post-dinner hours. Happy Hour at the Kove was always “double bubble,” and I remember seeing the parking lot overrun with cars as soon as the clock hit 5:00 p.m.
My mom worked there, too, as a waitress out front and also as a bartender. We spent a lot of time there as kids — not so much in the bar but in a booth in the dining room overlooking Lake Superior. If we were lucky, Mom would order us grilled cheeseburgers and hand-cut French fries for an early dinner. The last school bell rang at 3:10, and so my sister and I would sometimes walk down the hill from school to the Kove and wait for mom to get off work at 4:30. The bar was usually empty at 3:00, but as it began to fill up with customers, it felt off-limits to us. I do remember watching Aunt Diane working the bar under dim lights on some of these evenings. It was a “lounge” in the true sense, with low ceilings, red swivel chairs, globe candles on each table, and a piano in the corner, which was often played by E. J. Croft, the old-timer who used to hammer out old songs while wearing his chopper mittens. And sometimes it would be Frank Gillis on the bench, a local, well-known jazz pianist who played there during Happy Hour, or on Saturday nights, when the whole place would be full of diners and drinkers.
The Kove was just one of many bars in town — albeit somewhat fancier than the others. You could get a blended grasshopper or a proper martini, which didn’t happen at other places back then. The Legion downtown was another hot spot, and while we were growing up, we heard a lot of stories about how, back in the day, the smalltown cops would look the other way when a local husband and father got plastered at the bar before dinner and proceeded to drive himself and his truck right through a signpost. In fact, back then, the local cops really didn’t care how much you drank as long as you were able to get yourself home in one piece without hurting yourself or someone else. That’s what it used to be like in our very tiny, rural Minnesota town where everyone knew each other, they knew what you liked to drink, and they most likely knew a lot of your secrets too. Some of that has changed, but some of it is still the same. DWIs are no longer tolerated, but the local ’tender still knows your drink, and the secrets still run rampant, that’s for sure.
With the consequences very different back then, the job of a bartender was to get everyone nice and drunk and listen to their secrets. In Aunt Diane’s case, she did all that and looked glamorous doing it. I imagine she pretty much saw and heard it all from behind the darkstained wood of the Kove bar. A fast bartender who made drinks four at a time, she likely made hundreds of dollars in tips every night. And I’m sure she had to handle plenty of pickup lines and not-so-subtle innuendos from flirtatious customers. Aunt Diane was beautiful, but she was also darkly funny and had a hoarse giggle — an engaging trait that added yet another layer of intrigue. Her way of speaking and laughing was similar to the way Uncle Stormy and Uncle Bruce talked, because the three of them spent the most time together when they were little. Uncle Bruce was most particularly known for his ability to summarize a ridiculous situation by delivering a sharp and funny one-liner, but really, all my Drouillard uncles and aunts, as well as my dad, have a gift for making people laugh. Theirs is a uniquely Drouillard way of forming words and making jokes, which is a reflection of when, where, and how they grew up.
The youngest of seven, Diane was born at home in the woods outside Grand Marais, on the same September day that her mother almost died bringing her into the world. Lola Drouillard had delivered all six of her other children at home with the help of a niece or a family friend such as Lucy Caribou. These were the circumstances when all of my father’s other brothers and sisters were born, but in 1939, when Grandma Lola’s seventh and final baby was ready to be born, it was clear that this delivery was going to be different for her. It was in early September, less than two years after their next youngest child, Stormy (Gale), was born. Uncle Stormy was named “Gale” because there was a big storm on Lake Superior the day he was born. But he never liked the name Gale (he thought it was girly), so everyone called him Stormy.
Grandma Lola was thirty years old when Diane was born. She was always a very small woman, barely five-foot-one, and yet her diminutive but able body had already brought six healthy babies into the world — all of them born without major complications. There was no hospital or clinic back then, and the business of delivering babies was considered to reside firmly within the realm of women’s work, especially if you were one of the Anishinaabe families who couldn’t rely on the help of town doctors or nurses to make house calls. So, Grandma Lola was reliant on the help of relatives and Ojibwe midwives who knew a lot about delivering babies and traditional medicines. On the day Grandma went into labor, it’s likely that Lucy Caribou, their neighbor and friend, was called on to help with the delivery, since she had been there to bring a number of the Drouillard babies into the world. On this seventh occasion, Fred and Lola’s new baby daughter was born into the hands of family, washed in warm water, and then wrapped tightly in a blanket. But after the baby came Fred knew something was wrong. By the time Grandma Lola started hemorrhaging, Grandpa did the only thing he could do, and that was to go and find help. He left Grandma there with her attendants, six kids and their newborn baby daughter, and he headed up the hill to Mike and Sophie Powell’s house, which was about half a mile through the woods.
Mike and Sophie’s son Milt, a longtime friend of our family, recalled the visit, and told me that there was a knock at the door that night and “it was your grandpa.” According to Milt, his dad took Grandpa Fred out in the woods surrounding their house and dug up a certain kind of root. And then Mike Powell told Grandpa Fred to go home and make a strong tea with the root, instructing him to “have Lola drink a cup of it.” He said, “It would taste like the devil, but have her drink it all.” Grandpa Fred did what Mike told him to do, and the medicine she drank caused Grandma Lola’s bleeding to stop. As Milt put it, “She cleared up.” I’ve often wondered if Aunt Diane knew this story, or if it was kept hidden away from her and the rest of the family.
At that time, using traditional medicine was considered taboo by the non-Native, mainstream medical doctors, and so maybe Grandpa didn’t tell anyone how close Grandma had come to dying.
The fact that a common root — dug out of the clay soil in northern Minnesota and made into tea — was used to save Grandma Lola’s life is an extraordinary part of Aunt Diane’s story. That magical root, and Mike Powell’s knowledge of it, literally changed the trajectory of life for everyone in the Drouillard family, especially for Aunt Diane. In some ways, her existence on earth was formulated at that moment, when her mother didn’t die on the day she was born. The earthly magic that saved her own mother’s life would always be present in Diane’s after that.