Letter From a Bygone Era
My Great Aunt Theresa was a wild one.
In her youth and young adulthood, she wore turned-down hose, bobbed her hair, smoked, drank whiskey, and was a chorus girl. She was unabashedly opinionated (in her youth and old age), and married and divorced several times (I never did know exactly how many).
By the time I met her, she was an old woman, but the spunk and chutzpah were still there. She spoke her mind without reservation, was ballsy and loud, and cut through all the B.S. and decorum so many of her era felt was necessary and proper.
Aunt Theresa was anything but “proper”.
And I liked her that way.
She was the antithesis of her sister, May – my maternal grandmother – who had once been a Salvation Army officer, raising five children on her own after kicking her husband out when he became an alcoholic and wouldn’t get sober.
Don’t get me wrong – I loved my grandmother without reservation, and it was she to whom I went for advice (or Mama). But Aunt Theresa always intrigued me, and I loved spending time with her. She told me stories, could get me to laugh in a heartbeat, and made me feel I could do whatever I wanted in life. She was a real “Auntie Mame” type:
"Life is a banquet, and most poor sons-of-bitches are starving to death!"
So I suppose it should come as no surprise that when I went through Mama’s papers after she passed, there would be remnants of Aunt Theresa as well (Mama was named after both her mother’s sisters – Theresa and Agnes – and while she liked the former name, she loathed the latter, and eventually dropped it completely).
I expected that it would just be pictures, and maybe a playbill or two, but what I found was as shocking as it was funny (although the author was anything but amused when he wrote it). It was a letter from the older brother of one of the men Aunt Theresa married – don’t know whether it was #1 or #2, but the letters is dated 1916, and it was during her chorus girl heyday.
What amazes me about the letter is the complete audacity of its message, and the overwhelmingly judgmental and patronizing tone displayed throughout – all the while claiming “Wishing you and your wife all the happiness in this world”.
I don’t know how long Aunt Theresa stayed married to Alex, but if John’s letter to him is any indication of the rest of the family, I've no doubt that at the first meeting (and probably subsequent ones, if there were any), there were covertly hostile fireworks - all communicated in reserved, "proper" tones. When Aunt Theresa and Alex divorced, I'm sure she was more than happy to be rid of his family as well.
And just think... if I were being educated in the public school system today, I wouldn’t even be able to read the letter that lends such an insight into my family history... ’cause it’s all in cursive [small rant].
Here’s the text, and photos of the actual letter follow:
Nov. 2, ’16
My dear brother Alex –
The news of your marriage is so great a surprise that I can hardly find words to express my feelings. I surely regret the step you have taken and sincerely believe it was the most foolish thing you could possibly have done. In the first place I am of the opinion that you are by far too young to have known your own mind and in the second place, altho I recognize your intelligence, I don’t think you are mentally prepared for married life. Of course, needless to say, everybody in this world is born with the right to choose, but their ability to choose the right one at the right time can be questioned. No doubt you acted in haste, for I understand your wife is a chorus girl in the show. Evidently she was not with the company for rehearsals as at that time there was nobody I can remember attractive enough to command admiration or attention, and you shared this opinion with me at that time. Not knowing the girl or woman to whom you have given our name and in respect for you, I will refrain from commenting until the time when I meet her, if she lasts that long with you, or you with her.
I presume the shock has caused mother extreme pain for in a sense she justly depended upon you to achieve a success that would assure her a comfortable old age. As it is, your future is probably buried forever and other than your present position I fear success holds nothing more for you, I’m sorry to say.
Please be “big” enough and “broad” enough to find no offence at what I have herewith written, as every word comes straight from my heart to a younger brother, and only your own selfe is at present uppermost in my mind.
My promise to mamma is strictly fulfilled and every week she is in receipt of a remittance from me. For her sake and for the many sacrifices she made for you and I, I trust you will never forget your holy obligation and overlook the payment of the squarest debt you owe.
Remember always that it is mostly left for us two to provide her for the balance of her life and never get tired of doing so. Fortunately for you and unfortunately for me, fate has made your earning capacity greater than mine at present, and altho I don’t “begrudge” you your prosperity, I earnestly look forward to the time when I will be able to assume all the expense of mamma’s care. We must not expect too much from Victor as he has more than done and is doing, his share.
Please write me everything as soon as possible and nothing but the truth and tell me your plans, with regard to yourself and ma.
Wishing you and your wife all the happiness in this world, I remain,
You loving brother,
Answer quick for it takes four days to reach me.
Week of Nov. 6th – Pantages, Calgary, Canada
Week of Nov. 13th – Broadway Theatre, Butte, Montana
Week of Nov. 25th – Pantages, Spokane, Wash.
So there it is... a letter from a bygone era, to a man who married my great aunt.
If only there were a record of her first meeting with John and “Mamma”. Now THAT would have been something to witness!
Aunt Theresa rocked it, and I thumb my nose at John in her honor.
© 2015 & 2018 Gael MacGregor