Vive Les Vieilles Tantes!
(Or, “Long Live the Old Aunts”).
My mom came by yesterday with a bunch of documents from an old trunk she had been going through. They included material that had belonged to my Great-Great-Aunts Lois and Hilda Simmons, who were the sisters of my Great-Grandmother Bernice. Lois (b. 1893) and Hilda (b. 1890), of whom I’ve written here before, were Red Cross volunteers at the canteen in Dijon, in the Great War. That image above is from a frail leather-bound book given to American soldiers and medical volunteers headed to the front, to help them speak and understand basic French and German. It turns out that Hilda kept a diary of their time in the war, a copy of which now resides in the local Historical Society museum. I didn’t realize that. I’ll try to get down there this week to read it.
There were a few letters Lois had written back home to Bernice from Europe and beyond. There was a fantastic account she sent back, in pencil, from the train in the Toulouse station, when she and Hilda were apparently on a tour of France after the war’s end. It came on hotel stationery from Marseille, and read, in part:
We left Dijon May 6 and have had a most wonderful time since. First we went down to Cannes — right on the Mediterranean — just a lovely city built of white stone, great hotels overlooking the sea, banks of vivid flowers and avenues of palms. Everything is quiet modern and is so to tempt wealthy “globetrotters.” Counts and countesses, barons and baronesses, are as common as mulberries in your back yard. While in Cannes we took trips which covered the entire “Riviera,” as the coast line is called. Trips up into the mountains gave us wonderful views of the cities for miles. When up on the top of the mountains you see the clouds rising from the sea. They float up and then get on a level with you, then float on. At times you are above them. And below looks just as an ocean of silver would look. Hilda said, “I’m going to write Lorena [my grandmother, a teenager then — RD] and tell her that we’ve gone through the clouds.” I asked her why she wanted to cause Loren’as mind to become more puzzled? Personally, I think we’ve caused the kid to think enough. Words can’t describe the beauty of this part of France.
Lois then describes the smells of the perfume town of Grasse, and the Provencal horticulture. Then she writes about how they headed to Toulouse to see their cousin Percy, an American military officer billeting with a friend with locals, taking classes and awaiting his next orders. She writes:
They both think they will be sent up into Germany in the Army of Occupation when the university
closes. Neither are overly pleased. They live with a Baron and Baroness and are worshipped by them. We received quite a lot of attention, being the Captain’s cousin, and were dinner guests last evening with the family. From here we go over on the Spanish border, making several stops. Then Bordeaux, then Paris, up on the front and back to Dijon. The old jam sandwich. Love for all — Lois.
Mind you, Lois was about 25 at this time, and had grown up isolated in the south Louisiana countryside. Her parents didn’t have much, but they made sure their children had educations. I am in awe of how intrepid those old aunts of mine were, coming from deep in the sticks, and making themselves first of all volunteer nurses in the war, and then enthusiastic travelers. The sophistication of those ladies is a thing of wonder. Nothing stopped them. Back home and still working for the Red Cross, Hilda was told that she wasn’t allowed to take relief supplies to north Louisiana victims of the epic 1927 flood, because she was a woman, and it was too dangerous for women. So she disguised herself as a man, commandeered a boat, and took help to the stranded communities.
Back at the Red Cross canteen, during the war, General Pershing showed up late one night unannounced, and asked for tea. A tea strainer could not be found, so Lois found a clean edge of her petticoat, and drained the general’s tea through it. I remember her telling me this story as a child. I once wrote about my old aunts, and the influence they had on me as a very young boy. If you look at that post, you can see the ramshackle cabin in which they spent the final years of their lives, and you can see Aunt Lois at work in her kitchen, where I spent many hours as a child. My neighbor here in St. Francisville is a retired Episcopal priest who, early in his ministry, would pay pastoral calls on Lois and Hilda. He asked me not long ago why in the world the family let women in their seventies and even early eighties live in such relatively primitive conditions. A good and reasonable question, I thought. I put it to my father, who laughed heartily. “‘Let? ‘As if you could tell those old ladies to do a damn thing they didn’t want to do!” he said. Strong-willed women, even until the end.
In 1922, Lois lived in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, doing I don’t know what. There is a letter to Bernice from Honduras, in which Lois writes of the material poverty in which she’s living as an expat — her clothes are wearing out, new material is scarce and costly, and she won’t pay the “4 to 6 dollars” local seamstresses ask for new dresses (“I ain’t that kind of a coo-coo”). Mostly she tells of the joy she’s experiencing in her life there. She writes to ask Bernice if she might let her (Lois’s) sister Lorena, who is now 19, come to Honduras to visit with Hilda. “I’d love to have all these kiddies here on the beach, and don’t think of one thing that could happen,” she writes. “They would all have the time of their lives playing in the sand and bathing. Lorena is old enough to enjoy travel.”
My grandmother Lorena didn’t go, but stayed in the country, married my grandfather, and started a family. Aunt Lois, even more than Aunt Hilda, remained the impossibly sophisticated aunt who lived in the city — New Orleans, New York, wherever. My father once told me, “Any civilizin’ I ever had was thanks to Aunt Lois.” Unlike the rest of my family, Lois was at home away from home. She wrote to Bernice from Honduras:
I’ve had a lot of fun here, continue to have it — am satisfyingly liked and loved — and have a place in almost every heart. Certainly in every home. These things that you neither buy nor sell are greater balm for tired backs than anything I know.
It’s interesting that she put it that way. Last month, when I took my niece Hannah to Paris — for she is old enough to enjoy travel — we were walking through the Luxembourg Gardens one Sunday afternoon, and I watched her going off with my old friend Beatrice, talking privately about who knows what. (Bea sent a note just yesterday saying that even though she had just met Hannah, it was like she had known her for years). I thought at the time what an extraordinary gift I was able to pass on to my niece: the friendship of this wonderful French-Dutch family, which has been so dear to me for many years. Hannah ran in the garden with Bea and Philippe’s little girl, and though those particular words didn’t come to mind, I thought about the passing of this transatlantic friendship on to the next generation was one of those things that you neither buy nor sell, because it’s priceless.