Aunt Serena’s Legacy

This was originally posted in Book Writing World in 2012.

I’ve always loved history: this is what happened and this is why you are here. And I’ve always loved the 19th century because it was like a great-grandmother, animating the lives of the oldest people I’ve known, the ones who taught my parents. When listening to my grandmother talk about my mother I soon became aware that there were different versions of the same events. It wasn’t long before I knew that the real story was that I was hearing “a story.”

Stories were rare in my family. They have been reticent, reluctant raconteurs, those old ones. No fiddle or harp accompaniments in our house. Last year I found out that my mother’s aunt, who was born before the use of electricity in houses and died after the end of trolleys in Brooklyn, had been one of the first American women to write comics. Ken Quattro, the Comics Detective, had posted something about Aunt Serena on his website.

Happiness drummed me when I found the post. As I gazed at it, I wondered, as I do from time to time, if I am psychic: that night, as I got on the web to look for Aunt Serena after a long hiatus, I just knew that I would find something. Et voila.
Finally, I had more than anecdotal evidence that Aunt Serena was an artist. FinalIy I had reassurance that there was an artist in the family. Finally, someone had published. And not only comics: Ken Quattro said Aunt Serena had illustrated a book that is still in print. It is called, 40 Years of Hardware by Saunders Norvell.

I bought it from Amazon. With so much absence of real talk in my family, I was grateful to have it. Saunders Norvell was an elderly contemporary of Serena and my grandparents and my great-uncle, the people who shaped my mother’s family as I knew it. He would know the social and political climate of the times. Surely, I would d get more information for my memoir upon reading it. I was wondering, though, how interesting could hardware be?

I started to read. I found myself participating in sentences that described (and this is a partial list) St. Louis when it was a sleepy town with rampant alcoholism, Mr. Norvell’s sacrifice of his dream of a painter’s life in Paris so that his parents and siblings would not starve, the changing fashions in men’s beards and pants, a dinner and private conversation with Mark Twain, selling hardware from a horse-drawn cart in Colorado, the modernizing of the hardware business, his musing on whether there were not some (unnamed) things more important than work, how he came to sell American hardware in Cuba after the Spanish-American War and, inevitably, the changing of the guard at the end of his hardware career.

It was good reading, full of many events, some of them known to my great-grandparents. And the book contains the drawings by Aunt Serena, and it brought her closer to me. But I kept wanting more of her. I wanted to talk to her. I wanted her to tell me her story. Not telling it, she probably has.

Still, her book is in my bedroom. And it didn’t used to be.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. leagpage
    Jun 06, 2014 @ 13:24:23

    So magical.


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