My Spinster Aunts
by Jim Low
copyright 1999

The past has been wrought with jokes and unkind stereotypes of the elderly spinster, or “old maid” as they were unaffectionately called.

Aunt Grace and Aunt Tot, sisters of my Grandmother, never married.  For their entire lives, they were vital members of a large extended family.  Each had two jobs.  Aunt Grace worked various shifts as a nurse.  Aunt Tot spent her days organising and maintaining the office of a busy doctor.  Both received a nominal salary for their years of service in the health field tending the health needs of many thousands of people.  They both shared the second job: helping raise six nephews and nieces.  They spent the prime of their lives contributing most of their earning to the needs of the younger generation of the family, besides taking turns tending to the emotional and physical needs of their nieces and nephews.  Not once did they complain.  Not once did they question the need to do what they were doing.  There was a need.  They were there to answer that need.

Both had their personal sides that were not always understood or appreciated.  They were taken for granted.  They knew that, and expected nothing else.  Their reward was the satisfaction in knowing that they were needed.

Aunt Grace was a gentle soul.  She was very religious, and practised her Christian religion in a very personal way. She disapproved of smoking or drinking, and was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.  But, she was not outspoken, and kept her silence when family members didn't follow her no-drinking and no-smoking lifestyle.  She ignored my grandfather’s little bottle down the cellar behind the axe.  People concluded Aunt Grace had “Victorian” moral values, and thus kept secrets from her about certain things in the family.  “Don’t let Aunt Grace know, but...” was often heard.  But—she knew most of what went on.  She knew who smoked, who drank, and who was having an affair.  But, to her credit, she never interfered.  I never knew why people felt they had to keep things from Aunt Grace.  In her final years, I got to know her well.  She opened up to me.  As she said: “I saw everything in human behaviour as a nurse, so nothing surprised me about the family shenanigans.”  The “family shenanigans” were plenty—and she knew them all.  In spite of all she knew, she remained loving to all.

Oh yes, few knew that Aunt Grace did fall in love with a man at one time.  There was even talk of marriage.  They knew each other as friends for years.  Alas, marriage never happened, as she decided her strong Presbyterian religion could not accept joining in marriage with her Roman Catholic friend, nor would she give up her family responsibility of assisting in the raising of children of her siblings.

That was one of Aunt Grace’s few mistakes—not marrying.  She would have made a fantastic wife and mother.

Aunt Tot was not the “sweet little old lady” that her older sister Grace was.  Tot was much more outgoing, and brought this rich personality into family life.  In many ways, she was the opposite of Aunt Grace, but the two were also inseparable.  She made financial and emotional contributions to the family, but didn’t hesitate to take vacations at times.  Aunt Tot was very discreet.  Everyone in the family thought she didn’t drink.  But she did have her clandestine little sips on social occasions and when on her many trips.

Many trips?  Of course.  She even managed to get Aunt Grace to share the driving in a Model-T on an expedition from Ottawa to Halifax in the 1920’s.  There were the many cruises to the Caribbean island with friends during the 1930’s and later.  And rumour has it that her travelling friends were not always ladies, but sometimes even gentlemen.  (Shhh... don’t tell Aunt Grace!).  In  the 1950’s she even made trips to Europe, and family had to then sit through hours “enjoying” her trip as she spent many evenings showing her slides.

Aunt Grace and Aunt Tot spent years contributing to the family.  They had little and expected little for themselves.  They were “spinsters” who had a large family they loved and who loved them.
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