We went to visit my mother’s oldest sister Mary just once in all those early years. She and her husband, Nellis, had had a farm in Napanee. Nobody in the family approved of Nellis. He was eight years younger than Mary, and they said he’d never worked at a proper job. He kept the farm haphazardly, occasionally drove a taxi, played the fiddle, and hunted bears. Everyone felt sorry for Mary, who had been a one-room school teacher in Picton, Ontario, her whole life and had earned all the money. But all along Nellis had been haunting local auction sales and had filled his barn with what the family referred to as “Nellis’s junk.” When he died of a sudden heart attack, he left more than $100,000 he’d squirrelled away from selling that junk.
I really only discovered Aunt Mary at the end of her life when she was living at the Hay Bay Rest Home. On my visit she handed me an album. In her late 70s, Mary had decided to write the family history, and here it was: 80 pages in her perfect schoolmarm script, illustrated with daguerreotypes and photos dating back to 1847.
Mary said she’d recorded the family history for the edification of the younger generation. The stories could help us make “a right decision” that would bring “happiness and contentment.” I thought this meant Mary knew much about contentment and happiness. But now I feel her words were loaded. What she meant was, a wrong decision brings disaster.
It is curious to read a story and know it is your story. Not just written for you, but maybe even explaining you. As I read her manuscript, it is Mary who surfaces from its pages. Beside the tintype photos of each of her ancestors, Mary had writen a brief story. I discover her great-uncles, the ones who went off to the American lumber camps or became volunteers in the Boer War. There’s the story of her great-aunt Annie whose husband, William Blake, staggered home after a drunken binge and ended up killing Annie and her daughter with an axe. The next morning, when he discovered what he’d done, he hanged himself.
There is Annie’s brother Jeremiah, who got the hiccups in his teens and couldn’t stop. He died within the week. Her sister Sara began to “fail” in her early teens and also “faded away and died.” It must have been TB, but the stoic tenderness of that ghostly fading lingered in Mary’s mind.
These stories are anecdotes. They have the sadness and elusiveness of sepia photographs of ancestors who remain stoically silent and unapproachable. They hide more than they reveal …
Rosemay Sullivan is the author of 11 books, the latest of which is *Villa-Air Bel: World War II, Escape and a House in Marseille, which won the Yad Vashem prize from the Canadian Jewish Book Awards. She has won numerous prizes including the Governor General’s Award for Shadow Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen. She teaches at the University of Toronto where she is director of the Creative Writing Program.*