Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Auntie Alice

Christmas is a season for telling family stories. Tomorrow I'll travel to another state to visit my sweetie's family, and I know for certain I'll hear his family stories.

On Saturday I found myself telling him about my great-aunt, Alice Margaret Schuyler Lighthall. I've been thinking of telling some of her story for years, but I'm not sure which part or where to begin.

Every year at Christmas, she and my grandmother (her sister) would arrive at our house, Auntie Alice from Westmount, an English-speaking city now within Montreal, and Gran from Springfield, MA. This picture would have been one of their last visits with us. Auntie Alice is reading, Granny is contemplating the prospect of a cup of tea, I'd guess.
Where do I begin? Auntie Alice was born in 1891 and lived to two months shy of 100. She told me once she didn't want to live to be 100, and so she didn't. She was mentally sharp until the end. I visited her a month before she died, so I can attest to this.

Here are some of the pieces of her life:

Auntie Alice wanted to go to McGill to study law, but her father didn't want any "bluestockings" in the family.

In 1916, she joined the St. John's Voluntary Aid Detachment, which took her briefly to England and then on to General Hospital No. 5 in Rouen, France, where she was a nurse through to the end of WWI. I have a copy of her journal from those two years. It doesn't reveal much of her feelings, as she was an intensely private person and my mother says she was afraid her parents would be too inquisitive. The journal includes photocopies of watercolors she painted while there (though she didn't actually have much time to paint). Here are a couple:
(Chateau near Petit Couronne, Rouen and No. 5 British General Hospital, Rouen. Wards 19 and 20 and air raid trenches.)

She was instrumental in the Canadian Guild of Crafts, started by her mother. According to the Guild website, this organization "was founded in 1906 in an effort to conserve, encourage and promote Inuit art, Amerindien art and fine crafts of Canada." I was present in about 1983 when she was honored by the Guild of Crafts for her lifetime of dedication.

Because of her work with the Guild of Crafts and other organizations, she was appointed to the Order of Canada.

Auntie Alice was a published poet and was the president of the Poetry Group of Montreal in the 1960s, according to an article in the Westmount Examiner in 2008.

She wrote a Christmas pageant set in France, which had Druids as well as Christians in it.

She was fascinated by archaeology and civilization. She was one of the founders of the Westmount Historical Association, and it was due to Auntie Alice that the Hurtubise House was saved from demolition in 1955. This house was built in 1739 and is now owned by the Canadian Heritage of Quebec.

She listened, really listened, to children.

Auntie Alice spent much of her time reading. At her old house in Westmount, she had stacks of books by her easy chair, sporting flags of bookmarks throughout. In her later years, she'd sometimes fall asleep at our house while reading a massive tome, woken only by the clunk of the book on the floor.

She was funny and smart, as well as tremendously dignified. She favored swoopy dresses with multiple folds and patterned scarves. I believe she made the dresses. When she arrived at Christmas, she was festooned with small tote bags.

She lived with her parents until they died. Auntie Alice never married. Because she was the last of her generation in Montreal, her cellar was full of the belongings of relatives who had died. It was an amazing treasure trove! There were fourteen trunks down there at one point. Once I was rummaging around down there (with her permission), and opened a small box to find a set of false teeth. I guess you don't just throw those away.

If you had breakfast at her house, you had to be prepared to have a boiled egg that was closer to raw than cooked. She must have just waved it over the boiling water and called it done. Because we were expected to be polite, we ate everything we were served, no matter what. I put lots of salt and pepper on my raw egg.

We loved her dearly.

P.S. I know my family, especially my mother, will have plenty of comments to add! Suggestions on where to begin?


Anonymous said...

Auntie Alice DID go to McGill, as did her sister. But neither finished.Their mother (who was pleasantly bossy - iron hand in feather pillow)didn't want bluestockings in the family because that would make them unmarriageable. And in those days, a mother's DUTY was to see her daughters comfortably married. She was the one who put the kybosh on law school.

The Christmas pageant was presented one year in Christ Churh Cathedral in downtown Montreal.

Anonymous said...

AA did sew her own dresses, too -- and not with a sewing machine, but by hand! In summer, she wore gauzy diaphanous dresses, and in winter, ones made of lightweight wool. And she favored scarves worn like shawls, as the picture of AA and Granny shows.

My understanding was that AA was allowed to do all the coursework for her McGill undergraduate degree, but not to graduate. After she died, McGill awarded her an honorary degree -- the first time ever that the University awarded an honorary degree posthumously. She was completely remarkable.

Lainie said...

Thank you for a beautiful tribute. I enjoyed every word.

megan hicks said...

I can think of one apple that didn't fall far from the family tree. What a wonderful character. I hope you get to come back as a fly on the wall and listen to what your relatives remember about Aunt Priscilla. Completely remarkable.

Granny Sue said...

What a beautiful tribute to a woman who certainly lived her life to the fullest. Thank you for sharing her with us.

Anonymous said...

Some of her most valuable work for the Canadian Guild of Crafts involved getting protection for Inuit stonecarving artists. Their work was being copied in Hong Kong and the cheap knockoffs were shipped to North America for sale, greatly undercutting the prices for genuine Inuit art. Auntie Alice was instrumental in the effort to develop an authentication program for the Inuits and their art, so that every piece carved by a Canadian Inuit had a stamp or sticker on it from the Guild, verifying that it was indeed the real deal. That effort cut way back on the knockoff market, and meant that the Inuit artists were recognized for their original art, and paid for its value.

Anonymous said...

what about starting with the war diaries? would you feel comfortable fleshing them out at all?

Priscilla Howe said...

Wow! I knew there would be some great comments on this. Thanks, everybody.

I'll consider fleshing out the war diaries. I want to be careful--remember the book about Uncle Bill (Lighthall), Flying Horseman, written at Auntie Glad's request by a fellow who had never met Uncle Bill? Some of the dialogue was completely improbable.

AE Donnelly said...

really great reading of memories of a remarkable woman. Thanks priscilla for warming my mind with such fond recollection.

David said...

We were just up in Montreal this past week, so Auntie Alice was certanly on my mind. She took me up to Lac Tremblant two years in a row for a couple of weeks, clear up at the north end of the lake. She taught me to paddle a canoe singlehanded, and we went all over the north end of the lake by boat. No electricity, no plumbing, certainly no phones.
I don't know anyone as adventurous, inquisitive and wise.
In the photo that Priscilla posted, she was reading a short book that I had brought, on the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. I was pleased to send her copies of Archaeology magazines for years.
Also, she was able to relate local history as though she had been there. She just had a way of making it come alive. Kinda like Priscilla, eh.

PriscillaHowe said...

Dave, this is great! Thanks for adding to the picture. I have that photo of AA and Granny on the wall of my office, where I see it many times a day.

Anonymous said...

My mother worked with Miss Alice Lighthall for years at the old Hurtubese house in Westmount for The Canadian Heritage of Quebec http://hcq-chq.org/. My mother was the Secretary Treasurer and her office was right beside that of Miss Lighthall. One of my mothers jobs at some point was to transcribe Miss Lighthall's stories. Miss Lighthall recorded all her memories on tape, there are tons of tapes of her stories in her own voice 'out there'. The task was never completed (the transcripts) and where these tapes are or the transcripts I do not know. Hopefully TCHQ kept them. Mr. Colin Molson was the one who requested that she do this since she had so much knowledge of historical events from Montreal. I thought her family if they didn't know about the tapes might like this information, I'm sure it would be wonderful to hear her voice again telling her stories. My mother admired her greatly and although I only met her a few times she impressed me much.
If you have any questions you can reach me at gaelengaelen@yahoo.com