This is Mother’s Day, not Aunt’s Day…but I decided to take a minute or two to reflect on my mom’s sister, Vivian, who had no children of her own but was part owner of all of her nieces and nephews. We all owe her a nod of remembrance now and then because she was a big part of our lives.
When she passed away at the age of 85 several of the nieces and nephews came together to help clean out her house…a formidable task since this was the family homestead, such as it was. Aunt Vivian was an artist and many of the prize possessions that we took home with us on that day were some of her paintings and a few other family heirlooms. I, being sort of the unofficial family historian, also took some of her papers and a few old and faded cards and letters that she felt a need to keep these many years.
One of the items I found later in her papers was a quotation that she took great pains to copy out in her own distinctive artist’s block printing that we all recognized as her handwriting. This quotation clearly established her philosophy and her self-proclaimed mission in life regarding her nieces and nephews. The quotation is the best way of describing who she was:
There was usually, somewhere a now almost forgotten maiden aunt who furnished the extra ammunition needed for winning the decisive battle on some early day in an obscure, eager, young person’s life…. The good aunt always gives to nieces and nephews the something extra, the something unexpected, the something which comes from outside the limits of their habitual world… She is the joker in the pack of cards which, placed here or placed there, can change the whole aspect of the game. She belongs to to nobody and to everybody. She belongs now to one child, now to another and the one whose turn it is to draw her wins. This is the kind of aunt I rather hoped that I might be. I wanted to join the long line of the famous aunts of history: those individuals, sparkling and free, who left such treasures behind them — Jane Austen, Kate Greenaway, Louisa Alcott, Emily Dickenson, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Chief of our aunts — and Samuel Butler’s Aunt Pontifex in the Way of All Flesh — aunts whose excellence in the role of aunthood is so richly shown in their lives and letters.
by Katherine Butler Hathaway
I scanned her hand-written version:
So here’s to Aunt Viv — may she live long in our memories.
Footnote: My Aunt was a person of many talents besides being an artist. One of these was dressmaking and she owned her own dressmaking shop and designed dresses for her customers. She was also the wardrobe mistress for the Goldenrod Showboat that was moored at the Mississippi River levee in St. Louis. She made and altered the actors’ costumes and worked on scenery. Bob Hope and Red Skelton were among the actors on the Goldenrod during the early years. The Goldenrod was the inspiration for Edna Ferber’s book and the later Broadway musical Show Boat. She was also a member of The Mummers, a theatrical group in St. Louis that included Tennessee Williams. The Mummers were the first to perform some of his plays. In spite of his later fame, my Aunt’s opinion of Tennessee Williams was not very complementary.