Friday, September 2, 2011

Great Aunt Lizzie

Though its been about seventy five years since I last saw her, I have chosen to honor my great aunt Lizzie with a painting, for to me she had little recognition in life and deserved better. I hope I've captured a little of the mistique about her. I imagined it from an old sepia photo my cousin sent.

In those days someone a little retarded was known as backward which is probably a lot kinder than the fancy terms we use today for folks born mentally challenged. As a child when visiting my relatives in Vancouver I was never informed how she was related to me nor was her status in the Canadian family explained. I sensed another family secret and knew better than to ask.
I remember her as a pleasant fixture, average build, slightly bent over. What stuck out for me was her name, Lizzie, which I thought totally unbecoming. Gross, in fact, but then I think I was a bit of a snob.

Recently I learned that Lizzie, full name Elizabeth, was the child of my great grandmother Emily. Her father, last name of Hughes, died when soldiering in India. She was likely born in India, unlike the rest of my maternal relatives who were born in England. About 1883 as best my living cousins can figure.

G granny, a tiny wisp of a thing with skin as white and tender as new fallen snow went on to marry a man named Dyer , possibly another soldier in India, and to bear thirteen more children, of whom only five plus Lizzie lived. Ironic since Emily worked as a midwife in England. At some point almost all the relatives emigrated to Moosejaw, Sask.

Lizzie was the type of person who would give you the shirt off of her back, but she would also give others the shirt off your back. Since her stepfather refused to let her marry, she became the spinster aunt.

After G grandfather Dyer died, they moved to Vancouver, where as was the custom they were passed around from relative to relative, probably depending on who had a spare room.

My cousin Ed relates the following story of a time Lizzie was living with his parents. This occurred about 1946. His little brother Tom, about four, put a can of pork and beans into the oven of their sawdust burning kitchen stove. No one was injured but the oven door was blown off and landed at Lizzie’s feet. The ceiling and walls were covered with pork and beans.

My cousin Dollie heard two stories of Lizzie’s death: one version says she choked to death on an orange peel; the other that she was scrubbing the kitchen floor and her half brother Fred, a mean sort, came by and gave her a kick. We all prefer the orange peel version. Lizzie was known to save and store old food, and the dried up orange story makes some sense.


Beth said...

How thrilling to see this because I saw you begin this painting in Leslie's workshop. The subtle colorations convey a gentle antiquity. The story is touching. Thank you for sharing the image and these memories.

Patricia said...

Thanks for the story. Most of us can relate a family tale of this type;often a not-told but assumed when I was a kid, left to always wonder and eventually figured out many years later. In the 1930's-40's I watched my mother's discomfort when my dad came in soused every so often. Her family were strict Methodists and looked down on my dad who was not a churchgoer. But he was a lot nicer than they ever were. No one told me this but I knew. In the 1950's as an adult I could say my father was an alcoholic, and I felt better with a word, a disease not just an undefined feeling. Your portrait of Lizzie appeals to me with its softly illustrated, caring sensitivity. I've not done much portrait work but enjoy the effects of soft pastels when I do.