Great Aunt Emma

"Emma's Knight"Taken October 20, 2007 with Canon PowerShot A550
“Emma’s Knight”
Taken October 20, 2007 with Canon PowerShot A550

I must apologize to the memory of my Great Aunt Emma, for this horrible photo of her painting. It’s a water-colour, framed behind glass, hanging in an awkward niche in my parents’ small space. To get the shot at all, I had to jam myself between the fake gas fireplace and the stereo stand, straddling something or other – it might have been a speaker; I don’t remember. I imagine Emma, if she could somehow see them, would marvel at both the fireplace and the electronics in the stand, not to mention the annoying blinds that caused me problems with the reflection shining on her painting, 70-odd years after her death.

The knight in the painting is Emma’s depiction of a Crusader, having his sword blessed before setting off to convert the heathenish sinners into unwavering faith in a God they’d never heard of.

And if you can’t convert ’em, hell – run ’em through.

When I was little, I used to stare at Emma’s painting for hours at a time. I thought, then, that it was Joan of Arc. I used to imagine that maybe Emma felt a little like Joan: misunderstood… ostracized… martyred. Well… “martyred”, I guess, came later for Emma.

She was my mother’s father’s sister, one of three. As you can see, Emma was an artistic soul, at a time and in a place where that was unusual. The time was the late 1800’s or early 1900’s, and the place was a teeny-tiny farming community on the Manitoulin Island – a community of hard-working, God-fearing, good people. “Haweaters”, they still proudly call themselves, and I’m just as proud to be descended from them.

Emma was a “difficult” girl. She was not exactly… dependable. Her moods were sometimes… erratic. Her actions often confused people.

Sometimes, she could be extremely morose. Depressed. Her family worried over her. At other times, she became violently angry, and frightened them. There were days that she was giddy, and loud, or just plain “odd”. There were also days, and weeks, and probably whole months at a stretch that she was just plain “Emma, herself”, and they would be relieved and nervous at the same time, wondering which Emma would be there next, and hoping by some miracle that her “fits” had passed for good this time.

My mother believes, now, that Emma might have had Bi-Polar Disorder, or what at one time was called Manic Depression. I think my mother might be right, but that was an unheard-of condition way back then. And I’m guessing you have a pretty good idea where Emma ended up.

It must have been a difficult decision, sending her away. Committing her to an asylum. The Nut House. Booby Hatch, Funny Farm, Loony Bin. Horrible, terrible names, I know. Back then, though, they were horrible, terrible places to be “institutionalized” – places where, if you were shut up into them, whether by your family, or by a magistrate, you would be shut up with other people that may very well have started out with troubles similar to yours, but over time had really been driven literally mad. By the time you met your fellow inmates, most would be dangerous, psychotic, unrecognizable versions of themselves. And you would probably end up the same way. And back then, they almost never let you out.

Emma’s sisters, Marjorie and Lavinia, would go and visit her when they could afford the trip to Toronto. Sometimes, she didn’t care if she saw them or not. Maybe during those times, she didn’t realize who they were. But there were also visits when Emma was “Emma, herself”, her perfectly normal “self”, the sister they loved. Those visits were especially hard for Marj and Vine, because Emma would cry, and beg them to please, please, just let her come home. She hated it in the asylum. The other patients frightened her. She was going crazy. Please, please, just take her home. But they couldn’t take her home, and they would have to say good-bye and leave her in that awful place, alone.

After awhile, they didn’t visit anymore.

Emma died some time during the Great Depression. My mother doesn’t know if she was still in that asylum or not, but she was still in Toronto when she died. No one had any money then. No one could afford to travel.

There was a man who came from the Manitoulin, who lived in Toronto at the time. He saw Emma’s obituary in the newspaper, and recognizing the family name, he decided to go to the funeral. He knew Emma’s people, and he wanted to give his condolences. He wasn’t able to.

He was the only person there.

Not-So-Random Song for the Day: “Eleanor Rigby” – The Beatles

5 Replies to “Great Aunt Emma”

  1. I’m sure great-aunt Emma would have been delighted that her art is being viewed around the world, 70 years after her death.

    Obviously very talented genes in your clan!

    Les Says: I wonder what she would think of the Internet… Would she be suspicious like Ruby, do you think, and refuse to touch a computer?

  2. All the lonely people
    Where do they all come from?
    All the lonely people
    Where do they all belong?

    Such a shame, but you have offered a worthy tribute here.

    Les Says: Thank you, Mushy – that’s what I was hoping to do with this post. I like to think that Emma somehow knows that.

  3. How very sad.

    At first I thought you meant that was Aunt Emma’s painting as in, she purchased it and it hung in her house. Then I realized SHE is the artist who painted that picture. WOW.

    So sad that she wasn’t able to live at home with her family.

    I do think today Emma might just be a liberated chick who has a bit of a temper. I.e., a misunderstood artist who lives in society just fine.

    Thanks for the glimpse into your world.

    Les Says: Welcome to Where the Walls are Soft, Cardiogirl – it’s nice to see you here. Thanks, too, for giving me a new angle to look at, as far as Emma’s story goes.

    1 – you make me feel that maybe she might have had times that she found such a life ‘adventurous’…
    2 – you handed me a great novel idea on a silver platter…
    3 – you just made my whole freakin’ week.

    Hope you visit more often (you could be my new Muse!).

  4. Les,
    there is a story to tell there. might be a little close to home for me, but you tell it.

    Les Says: The only “facts” we know are the ones in the post, but Cardiogirl’s comment has grown an entire novel based on Emma’s little known one. I will be forever grateful.

    It won’t be on the blog, but when it’s finished, I intend to harangue publishers until I can proudly announce the date you can start haunting your local bookstore for it. 😀

  5. That was a great story. Too bad about Emma. Brings up stories from my Moms family about an aunt that became increasingly hard to deal with as she succumed to Alzheimers. Only knew her briefly before that. Very sad. Life just sucks some times.

    Les Says: Yes, it does, Hairy. I think I may have finally found the magic formula that turns that around. You are one of the more important ingredients to the recipe.

    Wow! I think they must have pumped Happy Gas into the air over Sault Ste. Marie today! LOL!

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