Aunt Emma — Part 3

I’ve been putting this off, but if I just start writing, the words will take me wherever I need to go. This is the alchemy of writing for me, and it always works when I give it a chance. So here goes…

This past September my sister and I spent part of one rainy day going through old letters that had been exchanged by members of our grandfather’s family, which included himself, his sisters (Great Aunts Helen and Emma to us) and his mother — another Emma who was our Great Grandmother and had been called, by her grandchildren, Gracum Emma.

It was a treasure trove of letters written in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. As we read we sat at a table that our grandfather had built back when he was young and those letters were mostly new. The ones from 1902 on were sent to or from Uintah Lodge — the small cottage that Gracum Emma had had built that year.

The house sits, still, on the patch of ground she bought on the southeastern shore of Sawdy’s Pond in the Helderberg Hilltowns of Upstate New York. Now called Crystal Lake, it’s a place that our family has been visiting for about 120 years now — and me for nearly 70 of those years.

It was remarkable, what she did, and she was revered by her children and grandchildren, one of whom was my mother. I never knew her, but stories made her real. She raised her three children alone. Her husband, Walter Murphy, died at 35 on February 5, 1897, when my grandfather was 7 and Great Aunt Emma was just 2 years old (Great Aunt Helen was somewhere in between the two of them). They were all living in Salt Lake City at the time. This was before Utah was a state. Walter was an attorney out there. I was able to find his obituary online (one of the perks of privilege in this world of ours).

Anyway, as the rain pelted the tin roof lightly in September 2021, my sister and I read newsy, everyday notes — mostly from Emma to her mother. She wrote about making strawberry shortcake, walking to nearby towns, and visits from relatives, neighbors, and marauding skunks and raccoons. We also found letters that our mother and uncle had written as children, sharing their summer adventures with their two maiden aunts (Helen and Emma) and their grandmother, Gracum Emma. The box was stuffed with the wholesome summertime letters of generations of children with the means to have such adventures.

And I’ve a complicated set of feelings about it all. I’m drawn to the stories and feel lucky and grateful for what was handed down. At the same time there’s guilt — even shame — about the collisions of happenstance and reproduction that lead to the accretion of privilege that all of those childish words reflected.

And it came down to me, too. So many layers of luck painted my world-view before I even had words myself. It wasn’t money that came, but education and connection — a particular set of expectations about life and what it held. The privilege that came to me and I benefited from has, in the profoundest of ways, absolutely nothing to do with my abilities or my worth. But it has everything to do with what doors have opened for me — what foibles have been overlooked.

Anyway, back to those letters. We came upon a packet of letters written in 1909 from a camp in the Catskills. Aunt Helen had written part of one and then apparently turned the page over to Aunt Emma. Her words stopped us cold. Here they are, in her hand:

I knew that my mother was crazily anti-Catholic. And I knew that her mother was riddled with prejudices, as was her father. I could not stand their views, and had held onto Great Aunt Emma as the one person in the family who was different. It was a belief that I’d invested some pretty significant emotional capital in over the years.

So damn! Now what? I could try to excuse it by telling myself that she was young — maybe 12 or 13 — and that she was parroting someone else’s views. I could hope that this was not what she continued to think and feel as she grew into adulthood. I could imagine that the words didn’t truly represent what was in her heart, even then.

There’s no getting around the fact that these words are entangled with my roots — all of them including the ones above. And there’s no denying the ugliness they represent.

What must you feel inside to believe that it’s okay to write something like this? What makes words like those feel true and accurate, rather than hateful to you?

So, it’s about Aunt Emma, even as a youngster. It’s about the family she was part of and the WASPish Protestant privilege that surrounded her. It’s about how that came down to me.

And it’s about this country here and now. A country that’s basically no different from the one that held this ugliness in 1909. A country where virulent antisemitism could be unremarkably noted by a 12-year-old — just an aside in a letter from summer camp in the Catskills. A country that was, and still is, grotesquely debased by its blindingly self-righteous exceptionalism.

Perhaps, in an odd and painful way, Aunt Emma has given me another gift — different from what I’d come to expect from her.

May we open our eyes to ourselves…

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7 Responses to Aunt Emma — Part 3

  1. Pingback: Class and Privilege | JordanCornblog

  2. Juliana Eades says:

    Good for you to write it! I’ve been looking forward to it. Very thoughtful, as always.

    What are you going to do with the letters?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. nyeanh says:

    I can only imagine what you felt when you came upon that letter. I am so glad you had company. Oh, my. And Aunt Emma, did she carry those ugly beliefs with her through her life or challenge them with the thoughtful and generous parts of herself? Wonderfully written posting! Startling and haunting.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks, Katie – it truly was shocking. And you’re right — a treasure — but one with some teeth. Maybe all treasures are kinda like that. Anyway, I appreciate your kind comments, always! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Katie says:

    This was NOT the Aunt Emma conclusion I was expecting! Wow – what a revelation! It must have been shocking to come across that message in those letters.

    I think it’s amazing that you have those letters and that cottage though… what a treasure! It kind of reminds me of The Paper Palace.. hopefully your own experiences there haven’t been as dramatic!

    (PS. Please don’t feel bad about what your family wrote in letters over 100 years ago. My dad still says the same thing about black people. TODAY! In 2022. “A country that’s basically no different from the one that held this ugliness in 1909.” — indeed!)

    Liked by 1 person

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