Lighter than breath, its paper as brittle as the skin of an onion, the letter had been written in pencil, not the wisest choice for an artifact. But no doubt its authoress never dreamt it would one day be placed in the hands of her great niece, a person she never even knew existed.
My great aunt Prudence died long before I was born, leaving it up to her remaining family members to distill and elucidate her personality for future generations of MacDonald women, of which I am one. I have been told she was “difficult”. There have even been strong intimations that hers was the sort of “difficult” that leaned towards “meanness”. But who really knows for certain? Family translations of one’s true essence are often suspect at best.
I stare at the unfamiliar handwriting on this old letter, carefully removing the pages from their faded sheath, curious to catch but a glimpse of this mysterious aunt I never knew, and am immediately startled to see that it was written from Glasgow. Reading further, I find that she and her husband lived in that Scottish city in 1917-18, something of which I was totally unaware. She is writing to her sister, my Aunt Susie - whose fervent wish to be known as Susan was forever denied by her family - and I read of her frustration at the lack of adequate embroidery thread as well as her newly realized need for a raincoat...”everybody has one of them for it rains nearly every day”. She mentions both the cold and the poor soul that died on the boat over, wrapped up in a sheet and thrown overboard in a burial she clearly finds unsettling. She describes the Scottish beds that are so tall she has to climb up on a stool just to get into one saying, “If you ever fell out you would kill yourself!”. Although she writes that “everything here is so different” there is not a hint of homesickness hiding behind her pencilled words. She is on an adventure, far, far away from her Tennessee home, and she appears to be enjoying herself.
Her sister, my great Aunt Susie, is the aunt I remember, for it was her home we frequently visited when I was a little girl. Sadly, she passed away before I could chisel conversations in memory, but I can vividly recall her candy-coloured hyacinth gardens and the ever-present pound cake that sat underneath the glass dome on her kitchen counter. I remember her rooms were shady and smelled of lemons. Having no children of her own, I think she found me a bit fascinating, much in the same way an anthropologist marvels at a creature heretofore seen only in books. I think I made her laugh. Aunt Susie married the local postman and they lived, very happily by all accounts, in the same house for the rest of their lives. I never heard of them taking exotic holidays, in fact I never knew them to leave their little village at all.
When I finished Aunt Prudie’s letter from Scotland, I sat for a long time in thought. Knowing I have the blood of both these women dancing threw my veins makes me wonder if my own dichotomy betwixt wanderlust and nesting comes in part from these two sisters. For even when I am most content amongst my books, my teapots, and my gardens, I still feel a longing to drag my suitcase out from the closet, fill it up with sweaters and shawls, and make a wild dash to the airport, clutching my blue passport in my hot little hand. The homebody rests on one shoulder, the adventurer on the other, and both constantly whisper their wishes into my all too receptive ears. Are these two sisters partly to blame?
Once, when I was feebly attempting to articulate the astonishing connection I have felt to the Highlands of Scotland from the moment I first stepped onto that soil, a friend told me I was experiencing “cellular memory”. I have thought a lot about that ever since, especially since practically all of my ancestors, both maternal and paternal, came from that country.
How much of who we are is immersed in the unfathomable parts of our being, far out of reach of analysis or x-ray?
How many of the songs that my heart loves to sing were once sung by someone centuries ago?
How old am I, really?
Aunt Prudie as a young girl, perhaps wistful for another voyage?
Aunt Susie on her sofa with me.
Painting above: The Letter by Norman Hepple