Sunday, March 25, 2007

Aunt Madeline

When I was a little girl and we would visit my father's relatives in Kingston, Ontario, my parents would always take us to visit my great-grandfather's only sister, Aunt Madeline. Aunt Madeline was about as eccentric as anyone could be. She had quaint little house full of antiques and memorabilia, and a beautiful garden. Her house reeked of cats, however, but we knew enough not to scrunch up our noses as the grown-ups conversed. Before we left, she would give us each a crisp Canadian two dollar bill. Later, I would enjoy the stories my grandmother and my cousins would tell about Aunt Madeline. She was gifted with clairvoyance and was known to accurately describe things happening far away. Sometimes she would read tea leaves at parties, but she stopped because she became too disturbed by what she saw. Also, she was a devout Catholic. She became a writer under the name of "Joan Talbot," recording a great deal of local history and anecdotes for magazines and newspapers, later collected in a book of essays called Memory Turns the Dial.

Madeline was born in 1890 to Charles and Emily O'Connor on Long Point Farm in Leeds County, Ontario. She had a twin sister who died at birth. As a child she had occasional fainting fits which terrified her parents; consequently, her mother may have spoiled her a little. She was a fey creature who especially enjoyed sleigh-riding across the frozen lakes in the winter, as well as the woods and nature. In an essay Madeline wrote: "Is there any comfort in all the world for heart and soul, like that which only woods and fields can give?" (Madeline O'Connor Memory Turns the Dial, p. 73) As an adult she related: "When I was a small girl, my mother would take time from her chores and we would go out into the woods. Mother would sit on the forest floor and read stories aloud, while I acted out the parts." (Memory Turns the Dial, p.3) She was especially fond of flowers and wrote lovingly of the lilacs which the early settlers planted by their log cabins, which bloomed all over Ontario even after the cabins had crumbled away. Every April, Madeline and her mother would go into the forest and search for the first mayflowers and in August, on her birthday, they would go to a place called Flat Rock to pick blueberries for pie. Such simple past times were duly recorded in her father's diaries year after year.

When her health permitted, Madeline went to the little stone school house across the road from her family's farm. Some times the other children called her a "papist" but it did not bother Madeline because her parents had explained to her what the term meant. There were frequent family gatherings with the numerous relations who lived near by. Her parents often gave food and shelter to the "hobos" who peopled the roads in the summer; Madeline was not supposed to bother them while they ate. Many young people died of tuberculosis in those days and so there were frequent funerals. Madeline's father noted in his diary that he was concerned that Madeline was having too much exposure to death for someone so young.

When her only brother Fergus married and started a family, Madeline was devoted to her nieces and nephews. She wrote an essay called "Daisyland" describing the seventh birthday of her oldest niece, Norah O'Connor, my grandmother.

Many years ago a little girl we will call N. and her teenaged Aunt we will call M. named a big field of white daisies "Daisyland."...Every morning N. and her young aunt would cross the orchard to visit Daisyland....Sometimes the summer breeze would stir the daisies towards the orchard and they would seem to bow a welcome....Then again a real wind would rock the flowers to and fro, as if they were merrily dancing.
When Madeline grew up she moved to Kingston with her parents. When they died she inherited their boarding house. Madeline, however, had no head for business matters and did not pay the mortgage, so she lost the house. At one point she fell in love with a young Protestant man but their religious differences kept them from marrying. The young man ended up as a missionary in China. Madeline never married. Her brother eventually bought her a little house on Barrie Street. She devoted herself to writing and helping "the oddest people," as one of her nephews said. She could be very difficult, especially when it came to her menagerie of cats, but was always willing to listen to the troubles of others. She became the font of information on our family history. She died in May 1982, quite a long life for someone who was seen as frail as a child.

In one of Madeline's essays she reflected upon the nature of modern life:
How prone we are in this age of scientific marvels to think of the life of our forefathers, the pioneers of this country, as dull, monotonous and lonely. But we should note the signs and symbols they left, simple and humble ones, to prove that they, too, knew the poetry of life, they appreciated the true nobility of nature, better than we their descendants in this age of hurry and speed. (Memory Turns the Dial, p.73)
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4 comments:

alice L. said...

I always enjoyed visiting her and the cats did not bother me because she loved them so much and they gave her such companionship and pleasure. She had such a gentle nature, and a gentility which reflected the good breeding and refinement under which she was raised. I found that to be an
inspiration in the age of crass, vulgar behavior into which our western culture was tumbling.

Anonymous said...

What a lovely account of such a lovely life...I'm so impressed. I may have been able to have been her friend if she was so acquainted with odd people.
Thanks for the lovely story. It demonstrates how good people are!
Terry of Abbey

Sally T. said...

Just read the story of Aunt Madeline, she was definitely a kindred spirit. My own childhood was somewhat similar. I played in the woods and went with walks with my Mother there. We gathered blackberries in the summer and in early spring we gathered land cress(about this time of year). It was delicious gently cooked and sprinkled with good apple cider vinegar.

Nothing can kindle your imagination like a woodland playground. There is so many props for your productions. To this day I love furniture or furnishings that look like they belong outside in the woods, but brought in painted, stained or gilded with silk cushions of taffeta or velvet strewn on them.

I think living around nature lets you be more connected to God and the spiritual world.

Keep well, I do think Spring is here. Our birds are singing their heads off.

Love, sst

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks for mentioning her wonderful traits, Alice.

Yes, Terry, she was precious. The fondness for odd people runs in the family, I think. Thank you!

Yes, Miss Sally, I grew up in the woods, too, so I totally identify with what you are saying.