By Susan Clements
She peered out from the tintype, swathed in a voluminous robe, hair piled high, topped by a feather plume. At first I thought she must be an opera singer playing the role of Madame Butterfly. She was a petite woman, staring arrogantly at the camera, the hint of a smirk on her lips.
I found the photograph sticking to the bottom of a box of family memorabilia that had been moldering in the attic.
Some families are organized. Not mine. No one on Mom’s or Dad’s side deemed it necessary to put pictures in albums, or identify the people in them. These unlabeled images were dumped in a box, with era piled on era, for some later archaeologist to sort through.
I was separating these into piles when I came upon the mysterious, exotic woman. Now there have been some interesting people in our family, but none of them can be described as exotic.
My sister Pam had a theory: “That could be Aunt Melly.”
She remembered hearing stories of my mother’s independently wealthy great-aunt, a world traveler. As children, we played with the kimono she brought back from Japan, as well as Egyptian scarabs and ropes of Hawaiian coral.
Additional research led me to speculate that “Aunty Melly” was Amelia New, the youngest sister of my great-great-grandmother Mary New Dassler. I found Aunt Melly listed in New Rochelle phone directories as late as 1930. She lived to a ripe old age and apparently never married.
Family legend has it that Aunt Melly, while entertaining, could also be rather mean. According to my mother, she left a will in which she dealt out rewards and punishments. Aunt Ida was left “something nice,” while my mother received an alarm clock.
What message does she send me over the years? What do I share with her besides perhaps some similar DNA?
I compare Melly’s solo portrait to her sister, Mary, pictured with the Dassler family. Sam, the patriarch, mustachioed and burly, sits on a wicker chair, sporting a Teddy Roosevelt Rough Rider hat. Mary stands behind him, hand on his shoulder. While Sam stares boldly into the camera, Mary’s gaze is unfocused, looking off into the distance. Four fussily attired children are arrayed around them. Sam is the sun around which this family revolves.
I can’t imagine Melly as an ancillary planet. She wants – and needs – to be the center of attention. Her photo says, “Look at me! I am different!”
Like me, Melly was the last born. Many have observed that the youngest child often craves attention, and gets away with behavior not tolerated in older siblings.
I suspect she never found a reason to temper her attention-seeking ways. My guess is that she cultivated flamboyance, which, as she grew older, became eccentricity, eventually calcifying into crankiness. The gift of an alarm clock may have been retribution for a child who didn’t respond quickly to a summons from her great-aunt, or nodded off during another endless tale of adventure.
In my youth, I wanted to be the sun in the center of any solar system in which I found myself. That trait is still there, but the years have taught me that there are millions of stars in the universe.
There is much to admire in Aunt Melly’s life: her independence at a time when women were expected to depend on husbands and fathers; her sense of adventure and elan. She was arrogant because she had to be, to live the life she wanted.
Aunt Melly’s spirit burns brightly in tintype. There is so much I’ll never know, but I think I would have liked her. In that image from over 100 years ago, I recognize a kindred spirit.