vintage photos

The last of the Dupuis girls

On Friday, the last of my grandmother’s sisters died…Aunty Mary. She was 95. She’s the third from the left in the photo below–my grandmother is second from the right.

Dupuis sisters

The Dupuis sisters surround their mother, Sarah. From left: Doris, Evelyn, Mary, Adeline, Alice, Norma, Eleanor.

While I wasn’t as close to Aunty Mary as I was to several of my other great aunts, I enjoyed visiting her. She was a tough cookie disguised as a cupcake, a tiny little thing with a quick smile. Who shoveled her own driveway her whole life, because she could. She was part of a seniors bowling league where she played every week – even right after she had a toe amputated. When her partners didn’t believe she’d lost a toe, she whipped off her shoe to show them.

Sometimes she’d tell me things about the family I didn’t know. When I got interested in genealogy and started researching my grandmother’s family, I had a tough time finding out where my great-grandfather was buried. Then Aunty Mary told me and my mother that when her father died in 1925, leaving his pregnant wife with 7 girls under the age of 12 to care for, there was no money for a headstone. The cemetery manager took pity on the widow and allowed her to bury her husband in a family plot with his parents, with no marker.

In the late 1970s or early ’80s, Aunty Mary had breast cancer. One day when my mom, my cousin Becky and I were visiting her, she told us that her hair fell out doing chemotherapy leaving her “bald all over the top of my head – just like a man.” She unexpectedly lifted her wig to show us. The three of us had no clue how to react.

Mary had a twin sister, Adeline (nicknamed Red)–as you can see in the photo above, the two didn’t look much alike. Mary and Doris married brothers Ernest and Edward Gagne. Mary and Ernie married in 1935, when my grandmother was only 12. She had five kids and worked at New Departure from 1945-1975. I think that’s part of the reason why we saw more of some of my other great-aunts, who were closer in age to Norma or had fewer children than Mary and could therefore get out of the house more easily. (Although most of the sisters worked at New Departure at some point and probably saw each other frequently at work).

In November 1949, Mary and Norma crossed paths in the delivery room at the hospital…my grandmother had just delivered her daughter Shirley; Mary was on the way in to have her son Lenny. For some reason, they were convinced that one sister would have a boy and the other would have a girl. When Aunty Mary told us about it, she said, “On my way in, I saw Norma coming out and told the nurse to stop, that was my sister…I asked what she had and she said she had a girl. I told her I wanted the girl!” (She got a girl the next time.)

Sometime before 1946, when both my grandmother and Aunty Doll got married, someone wrote this poem about the seven sisters.

Poem: Lucky Seven

Poem: Lucky Seven

While it’s certainly not great literature, it’s sweet that someone was so taken with the sisters that he wrote this poem to try to capture their personalities. I’m grateful that I had the chance to meet all seven sisters and see their zany dynamic.

Six of the sisters with their Aunt Clara. From left: Norma, Adeline, Clara, Evelyn, Mary, Alice, Eleanor. Probably taken around 1985.

Six of the sisters with their Aunt Clara. From left: Norma, Adeline, Clara, Evelyn, Mary, Alice, Eleanor. Probably taken around 1985.

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My vintage roots: Aunty Doll

The sisters and their mom

From left: Adeline, Mim, Mary, Eleanor, Norma, Evelyn, Alice, Doris.

As I may have mentioned before, my grandmother was the youngest of seven sisters. She was born in 1922. Her father died just a few years later, leaving a widow with seven children under the age of 14 to fend for herself during the Great Depression. While that sounds like a recipe for disaster, the outcome proves otherwise. The girls came together at an early age to keep the family solvent. When the state wanted to place some of the girls in foster homes, my great grandmother brought home piece work from factories–all the sisters pitched in and the family earned enough money so they could stay together under one roof.

My grandmother and her sisters remained close for the rest of their lives. When she retired, my grandmother had a rotation. Mondays she spent time with Eleanor, Tuesdays she went shopping with Evelyn, Wednesday nights she went to bingo with a different sibling, Saturdays the sisters all played Pinochle at Alice’s house. These women laid the foundation for my vintage aesthetic.

They also all had odd nicknames. Doris, Eleanor, Mary, Adeline, Alice, Evelyn and Norma were Aunty Cootie, Peachy, Fatty, Red, Ki-yi, Doll, and Peppy.  (I just found out about Cootie and Fatty recently. Aunty Dee and Aunty Mary sensibly preferred their own names.)

Aunty Doll

Aunty Doll and Uncle Ed’s wedding.

Today would have been my Aunty Doll’s birthday. Evelyn was closest in age to my grandmother, possibly closest in other ways as well. My grandmother was Aunty Doll’s maid of honor–the photo here is one of my favorites. Seeing my grandmother and one of my favorite aunts both look so pretty,  so happy, so free makes me glow.

Aunty Doll was my mother’s godmother; her first name became my mother’s middle name.

Norma and Evelyn gallivanted together all the time. They made an interesting pair. My Aunty Doll came across as conservative and ladylike. She’s the first person I knew who wore a skirt and blouse every day, or possibly a sweater set. I don’t think I ever saw her go bare-legged, even in the summer. My grandmother was a bit more relaxed, a bit more mischievous. When one of our cats set a live mouse loose in the house, Aunty Doll was the one standing on a chair shrieking while my grandmother laughed and directed my mother in the fine art of mouse-catching.

Aunty Doll kept her small house immaculately clean and doted on her husband, Edward. They travelled together, mostly bus trips with other retired folks. Aunty Doll knew I collected rocks and brought me back something from each of her trips.

I loved her little kitchen with its crackle-top chrome edged table. I loved her piano and the photos all over the house. I loved how effectively she used her space: though the house was small, it never felt crowded. I loved that she sent cards for my birthday, Christmas, Easter, and my wedding anniversary, always signed “Love and prayers, Aunty Doll and Uncle Ed.” A few years before she died, she had surgery to clear blocked artieries in her leg. Despite the fact that this 80+ year-old woman had 90+ stitches, she demanded the hospital release her early because “I only left Edward dinners for three days.”

She loved tap dancing. When she passed away last year,  her family gathered at a local restaurant after the service to talk about her life and share our memories. I brought the wedding photo included here–her sons were surprised. They had never seen that photo before. They were also surprised that on the day she died, I drove two and a half hours to say goodbye and let her know how much she’d influenced me. When Aunty Doll’s sons offered me her tap shoes, I was honored. They sit on top of a book shelf in my office where I see them every day: a reminder of her energy, style, and grace.