Great Aunt Lenore was one of those orbital family members I encountered a few times a year, and whose context in my early life was not entirely clear to me. I remember her mostly as a bosomy backdrop for costume jeweled brooches, with grey marcelled hair and a wall-eye that always looked away while she asked how did I like school. She was not a cheek-pincher. She was a spinster* who somehow knew that an ivory-colored vinyl manicure set was the perfect Christmas present to give to a nine-year-old girl.
We dispensed with the “great” and simply called her Aunt Lenore. She was Pappaw Watts’ older sister (by ten years), born in 1897. I came along in 1953, and as a child was a bit tentative around her. It might have been that eye which refused to look at me, or simply because her world was so different than mine. We didn’t visit her often, but the ebb tide of a memory— the occasional Christmas or Easter noonday dinner in her dimly lit Victorian dining room (my younger sister Dianne and I on best behavior)— sometimes laps at my feet.
The holiday ham would be festooned with Dole pineapple slices, tacked on by whole cloves, an exotic touch, and a far cry from our usual pit stop after church: the brand new McDonald’s off I-83. My shyness and disinterest in adult conversation pushed me into exploring the house’s dark shadows, punctuated by porcelain knickknacks and bright white spotlights of crocheted doilies draped on chair arms, a love seat’s back, or under an African violet.
Of all the objects I have traveled the decades with, one that somehow has never strayed is a patchwork Afghan throw that she knitted. It most likely was a wedding gift for my parents (my father was her nephew). I don’t know which is more incredible: that I still have it or that she made it at all. Aunt Lenore was legally blind.
Her niece, my Aunt Anna Mae, is the lone custodian of memories predating my birth for my father’s side of the family. Anna Mae was my father’s younger sister, up until he was electrocuted on the job and our world’s axis took a seismic shift. Natural questions that would have been asked became stillborn in the wake of our personal nuclear family incident. So I’m asking them now. I learned that Aunt Lenore’s blindness was caused the day she was born.
“They put the wrong drops in her eyes. I guess they put drops in babies’ eyes as soon as they are born. That is what I was always told. She could see to get around but was considered completely blind.”
She went to the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia to learn a trade, and came out a masseuse. Who were her clients? No one I knew while growing up would indulge in what is now standard luxury spa fare. But massage was likely the muscle relaxant most prescribed by doctors of the time. E.R. Squibb’s followers were still experimenting in pharmaceutical labs, test tubes clinking, while she worked out knots (and knocked out her knitting projects).
I wish I could talk to her right now, woman to woman, spanning the centuries over a cup of tea: one of us a relic of the Victorian age, and the other of the baby boom era. Both childless, we each mustered—maybe even mastered—a creative life within the triangle of fate, circumstance, and will. She never left her hometown. I fled to Manhattan. And with me, I took that Afghan quilt.
*This (derogatory) term reflects the time I am referring to.
The shoe box of ancient family photos has yielded this gem. I never knew who it was, until I recently scrutinized the back. In pencil, it faintly says “Lenore 1913.” She is sixteen, in a field, wearing glasses and feeling the tall grass and wildflowers that she can’t see. Weaving it into her expanding world.
copyright Sharon Watts 2016