One summer I was visiting my aunt in Saskatoon and beside the bed in the spare room where I slept was a box of books. “Those books belonged to your Great Aunt Marie”, my aunt said. “I was going to give them away but you can take any you like.” There was such a variety of beautiful covers in greys and wines and sky blues. The pages of the volumes were just beginning to yellow. There was a Guide to Great Symphonies and a selection of novels. Impulsively I stuck the whole lot into the trunk of my car to take home.
I never really knew my Great Aunt Marie. She remains a childhood memory of wire frame glasses and gray hair pinned up in a frill at the back of her head. In the picture I have of her in my mind, she is sitting in a straight back chair in my grandparents little house in Drake, Saskatchewan. She is wearing a dark plain dress with a thin white ribbon around the collar. In front of her is one of the colorful rag rugs my Grandma used to make.
Reading through her book collection I became very curious about Marie. One of the books she was reading eighty years ago was about a young girl who dares to call herself a feminist and tries desperately to escape the confining roles set out for a lady in her day. Another, was the story of a Quaker family who moves to the American south to try to ease the tension caused by the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. Pretty progressive topics for a small town Mennonite girl in the 1920’s to be reading about. This was long before the time of women’s liberation and Martin Luther King.
I asked my mother about her aunt and she told me what she knew of her story. After graduating from high school Aunt Marie couldn’t find a job on the prairies and so she decided rather boldly and impulsively to take a trip to California. This was quite an adventure for a young woman to set out on by herself and my great grandparents saw her off with some anxiety.
In California she found a job with a family named McManus. She became a combination nanny and housekeeper for them. The job started out as a temporary placement but ended up lasting almost a lifetime. Apparently everytime Aunt Marie wanted to leave California her employers would insist they couldn’t manage without her. She cared for their home, their children and even Mr. and Mrs. McManus as they grew older.
My mother remembers how as a child she always assumed her Aunt Marie must be incredibly wealthy. All they knew of her then was the large box that arrived from California every Christmas. In it were beautiful dresses for my mother and each of her sisters, and exotic dried fruits, candies and nuts. To children living on the dusty Saskatchewan praire during the Depression that box was like a miracle from some fairytale world.
Then one day, not long after Mom and her sisters had begun their careers Aunt Marie came home. Mr. and Mrs. MacManus had died and there was no where else for their long time servant to go, but back to her own family in Saskatchewan. So she came to live with her youngest sister, my grandmother and it was at my grandparents’ house that I saw her when I visited.
I wish I had known my Great Aunt Marie better. She lived a life very different from that of the other Mennonite girls who grew up with her in the prairie town of Drake, Saskatchewan. If you can judge a person by the books they read, she must have been an interesting lady!
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