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My boss called me at 11am on Saturday. “Wilson, you’re going to Chicago!” Margaret Trudeau, the mother of our Prime Minister, was performing a stand-up comedy set. And since I’m the liberal, culture guy in the office, there really was no choice.
Upon arrival, I went straight to The Second City venue. I had just missed the Saturday night performance where Justin Trudeau was in attendance. I asked some friendly people about the show. No one seemed to know about it. Comedy is a young person’s game, so it was not surprising to discover that kids with hipster Ghostbusters sweaters had zero awareness or interest in the fact that a major world leader’s mother was performing in their regular hangout. It was clear that Trudeau fever had not yet gripped Chicago.
One of the first things that struck me at The Second City was how loyal the venue is to its legacy. Its legacy is inextricably linked to Canada. Episodes of SCTV play on a loop in the bar adjacent to the theatre. Count Floyd, Bobby Bittman, Pirini Scleroso and Johnny La Rue on mute, as a reminder of past greatness while the aspiring comics mingled. I had a couple of Pabst Blue Ribbons and then headed to my hotel to do some reading before the Sunday afternoon show.
The next day, I was anxious. Cold sweats. Despite my liberal leanings, I have recently become disillusioned with our current Prime Minister and his policies. I kept having to remind myself that this was not about him or his government.
There was political anxiety in the queue for the show as well. An older couple engaged a middle-aged Canadian couple in line. “What do you people think of us? Trump is a travesty. Trudeau is handsome. I mean, I could be his mother, but he is handsome. And he came out against Trump you know? I like that he cries. Real men cry.”
The two couples then googled images of Trudeau crying on their phones. The Canadian couple explained the SNC-Lavalin affair to the elderly Americans as a “minor scandal” that the opposition Conservatives have taken advantage of. It’s always fascinating to eavesdrop on political chatter, even more so given the proximity.
Despite all of the turmoil that Prime Minister Trudeau has gone through over the last year, he remains a dreamy, aspirational figure to this audience which I would estimate averaged out at around 65-70 years of age. We were herded into our seats and that's where I met Ellie.
She began talking to me almost immediately, patting my knee. “I’m from Iowa, and I’m always cold. I will use you for heat,” she said as she snuggled up. She would not tell me her age, but she was at least ten years older than Margaret Trudeau. She had been brought to the show by her 60-something son, and despite her kindness and warmth, I could tell she was not as thrilled to be there as the rest of her family. Ellie was drinking a full pint of beer at a remarkable pace and she held my arm and said, “I know I’m old enough to be your grandmother, but may I buy you a drink?” I accepted and Ellie got a second pint for herself.
Margaret Trudeau took the stage at 4pm on Mother’s Day.
She came bounding out energetically in a white button down blouse, blue jeans and sparkly red shoes. She read from a script (the show is still being workshopped).
I did not know what to expect, but I was admittedly skeptical of the whole spectacle. Comedy is an art form and those who dedicate their entire life still struggle to do it well.
Thankfully, it wasn’t really a comedy set. There were moments of laughter, sure, but it’s more accurate to refer to Certain Woman of an Age as an autobiographical one woman show.
Old photos flashed on the screen as she regaled the very warm audience with tales of shopping, romancing, and kibitzing with the most historically significant people of our time.
There were revelations that were worth more than the price of admission. Pierre Trudeau was a feminist as long as you weren’t married to him, Trudeau said. She was stifled by his rules and his old school, frugal ways. He would throw out the copies of Ms. magazine that Gloria Steinem would send to Sussex. As for her own feminism, Trudeau claimed that she was, for most of her life, an accidental feminist. One standout anecdote was about how she had inadvertently “insulted” the First Lady by wearing too short of a dress during a presidential visit. The next day after the scandalous headlines, Hollywood’s leading ladies like Elizabeth Taylor joined in solidarity with Trudeau by lifting their hems.
From what I could glean, Trudeau is a Steinem-style feminist. There was no talk of #MeToo, but plenty of talk about women being resilient and empowered. Pulling herself up by her bootstraps? Yes. Pearl-clutching on the fainting couch? Not so much. Indeed, one of the primary metaphors of the show was the perennial flower. Women, Trudeau argued, are perennials—seemingly fragile but in fact, strong and capable of bouncing back again and again. She briefly led the woman in the audience in a chant of “F*ck you!” in order to celebrate the defiant advances of women over her lifetime.
She escaped her marriage to Pierre and had whirlwind romances with Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones (dispelling the rumour that it was Mick she fancied), Ted Kennedy, Ryan O’Neal, and Jack Nicholson (who then shunned her for Angelica Huston). She spent time in psych wards, dealing with her bipolar disorder. She bought tens of thousands of dresses, was dissed by the Pope, blessed by the Dalai Lama, propped up by the Queen when she almost had a curtsying mishap.
She revealed, too, that Fidel Castro stopped her from joining Justin at Pierre’s coffin during that iconic moment from the funeral. Castro put his hand on her shoulder and said, “He’s a man.”
In the emotional apex of the show, she dealt with the grief of losing her son, Michel in a tragic skiing accident when he was just 23.
She recalled the last time she saw him, he drove away in his Ford Bronco, only to stop a few houses down to come running back to sweep her into his arms and twirl her while saying “I love you!”
It was good storytelling. The way Trudeau spoke of Michel and her grief, hit all the right details and had a raw emotionality was truly touching, and many were brought to tears. I must confess that I had a little something in my eye. Real men cry. Ellie, my lovely neighbour did not. She seemed quite perturbed, but it may have been the result of her son cutting her off after two pints. I never caught his name. Maybe it was Pierre.
I noticed a young woman in tears directly in front of Ellie. She seemed particularly moved by much of the show. I noted her at the time because the audience was largely elderly.
By the end of the show, Trudeau had transformed the “F*ck you!” chant into a “Love you!” chant, and the audience happily obliged. Trudeau reiterated her message about mental health awareness, practising self-care and seeking treatment when necessary, and then it was over.
Ellie smiled her warm smile at me and held my arm again. It was genuinely hard for me to not follow her home and ask to hear some of her stories.
The young woman in front of Ellie darted up onstage to embrace Trudeau. It was her daughter, Alicia Kemper. When she returned to her seat, tears still in her eyes, she said, “I love her so much.”
Ellie said, “Good work.”
I said, “Congratulations.”
Alicia said, “Thank you,” and went backstage to join her mother.
Ellie lingered and talked to me for a while as her son tried to get her to leave. We eventually hugged and said goodbye. I felt genuinely lucky to have experienced the show with her.
As I left the venue and walked through Old Town, I reflected upon the genuine human experience I had just witnessed. Margaret Trudeau is no Chris Rock, but she’s no Hannah Gadsby either. That is to say, she’s a remarkable woman with one hell of a story to tell.