Sunday, November 23, 2014

Aunt Ellen

Over the course of many vacations, when going to the lake in Ontario where my uncle had his summer cottage, we would watch for Long Point Farm where my great-grandfather had been born. Across the meadow could be seen Aunt Ellen's house and the Saddle Rock, a huge boulder on which rested a stone saddle, carved by nature. Her house was then no more than a ruin, but it had once been very charming. While perusing my Uncle Ferg's memoirs, he, my grandmother and their siblings also watched for Aunt Ellen's house as children:
Aunt Ellen's house was seen, across the field as we drove down Ellisville Road, before we saw the farm house and Dad was always informed by the chorus when the house was seen. It was directly across from the barn where her horse and her cow, usually a Jersey, were kept with the other farm animals. She knew where the best berries were around the farm and many landed in her cellar for winter consumption. Her cow was a tea milk cow. This was the cow whose milk was saved for the house. (From Because You Asked For It by Dr Fergus James O'Connor, p. 107)
Aunt Ellen was long dead when I used to watch for her house, and her livestock gone. But because of the stories I was told, it was not difficult to picture her walking across the fields, always with a pail of cookies for the children. She was the maiden aunt of the O'Connor family, the only one of old Daniel's seven daughters not to marry. Many families in those days had such aunties who were not called to either matrimony or religious life, but to live the single life in the world. Not that where Aunt Ellen lived can be considered "the world;" in some ways she was a bit like an Irish anchorite of old.

Two of the other sisters, Lottie and Annie, married late in life; Aunt Ellen's house was originally built for the three of them. Uncle Ferg describes it as a "great little house" with a loom house behind the kitchen, and a cellar "deep enough so that it was cold but frost free. The front lawn was beautifully kept. Lilac trees typical of all early Ontario houses. Peonies, narcissus towards either side and other flowers but I do not remember the types." (O'Connor, p 107)

Aunt Ellen (or "Eleanor O'Connor of Long Point" as she signed her name in her sister's autograph album) was born on the old homestead in 1839, the third child and second daughter of Daniel and Brigit Trainor O'Connor. She and her brothers and sisters were educated by an old Scottish professor named Duncan Cameron Horn whom Daniel hired and he boarded with the O'Connors. Horn had allegedly been one of Napoleon's guards on Saint Helena but otherwise would not tell much about his past. He wrote poetry to one one of Daniel's daughters; in The Paradise Tree I have him writing to Joanna, the eldest. He was very learned and instructed the whole family; it was as close as they ever got to a university. All but two of the children became schoolteachers, including Ellen, who was known for her correct and precise manner of speaking.

At one point, when she was a young woman, Ellen went to work in upstate New York, probably as a domestic or even as a governess since she was educated. All we have from that time is an undated letter from Daniel to Ellen and her younger sister, Mary O'Connor Desmond, who had married and was also living in New York state. Daniel was quite concerned about his maiden daughter's virtue, as he expressed in the letter.
My dear Ellen, as your lot is cast among strangers by practicing this precept as you have been taught by the church and by your parents, you will gain the respect and esteem of those who can appreciate virtue. You know it is the duty of servants either man or woman to obey their employers in all lawful actions. If however, they solicit you to commit sin in order to do anything wrong or sinful do not then, but resist all evil. Consider the family you work for as your own, look to their interest, let nothing go to loss that is under your care. I hope you will keep Sundays holy, shun every dangerous party, and also associates who are addicted to immoralities of any kind. (Letter from Daniel O'Connor to two daughters)
Ellen returned from New York with her virtue unscathed, and lived for the next six decades in her little house on the family farm. Her youngest brother Charles and his wife Emily built a house down the road from hers and they saw each other daily. Ellen sometimes annoyed Charles, as he records in his diary on December 8, 1906: "My birthday and a Holy Day. Ellen here for the day but she always casts a gloom on my day by recalling 'poor father died on your birthday.'" Nevertheless, they all saw each other through the many trials and labors that were part of living on the farm. Charles and Emily's son, my great-grandfather Fergus Joseph, described winter time on the farm in his memoirs:
Winters on the farm were rather dreary yet were possibly the busiest days and nights of the year. So much had to be prepared in the winter for the summer season....One of the main resources of the farm itself was the production of wool and woolen goods. During the summer time the sheep were shorn and the wool was washed and taken to the carding mill and was returned to the farmers in strips of wool....These strips all had to be spun on the old high wheeled spinning wheel into yarn...all through the winter the women of the house were busy doing this sort of work. Then, of course, the yarn was made into socks and mittens and into underwear....
Another task was the preparing of apples for keeping into the spring time. We'd peel the apples....then the apple was cored and the pieces split into various sizes and and strung on a long string.. Every house and every kitchen had two or three hooks inserted in the kitchen ceiling....from these hooks strings would come down and...the apples dangling would be left there to dry....Those apples would be used in the months of April, May, June right up until the fresh apples were free. (from Grandfather Remembers by Dr. Fergus Joseph O'Connor)
Pumpkins were also hung up and dried, and pumpkin sauce and pies were practically a staple. There was the loom house, where old rags were dyed and woven into rugs, as well as quilting. At the end of the winter would be the sugar-making out in the woods. It was a self-sufficient life of many and varied never-ending tasks.

In the photo to the left is Aunt Ellen (seated in the front center) surrounded by some of her brothers and sisters. Considering how hard life was then, it is amazing that they all lived to be ancient. Aunt Ellen entertained a great deal. Friends and relatives often stopped by for tea. She was famous for keeping her Christmas fruit cakes soaking in a crock of rum for years. Uncle Ferg recalls eating a five year old cake at Aunt Ellen's "as perfect a cake as possible." (Because You Asked For It, p 107) At my grandmother's seventh birthday, Aunt Ellen showed the children how to braid daisies into chains to decorate the table. "A beloved old aunt" is how her niece Madeline O'Connor described her.

The unmarried vocation, however, has many challenges, as Aunt Ellen certainly found. In her journal, written in her flowing, meticulously even script, she often penned the words "all alone again" after visitors left. She obviously had the battle with loneliness that is part of the celibate vocation. In her diary are poems copied from the English Catholic poetess Adelaide Proctor.
Only to rest where He puts me
Only to do His will

Only to be what He made me

Though I be nothing still.

Only to take what He gives me
Weak as a little child
Questioning nought the reason
Joyful and reconciled.

Only to look to Him ever
Only to rest at His feet
All that He sayeth to do it
Then shall my life be complete.
Aunt Ellen may not have lived in a convent, but she was certainly a consecrated soul, one of those unknown souls whose prayer and humble life had an impact on those around her. She remained in her little house into her nineties, when she finally went to live with one of her younger sisters in Gananoque, where she died in the 1930's. Her house is no more, but in her diary are printed the words PER PACEM AD LUCEM, followed by this verse by Adelaide Proctor:
For one thing only, Lord, dear Lord, I plead
Lead me aright
Though strength should falter and though heart should bleed
Through peace to light.