Aunt Ellen and Gram (Ann O’Grady Sullivan) on Mother’s Day
All my life, she was there when I needed her. My Aunt Ellen lived in the village of Ballston Spa, New York, in Upper New York State. She was my mother’s sister. Aunt Ellen usually wore dresses. She gave the world her sunny side with sparkling blue-eyed Irish smile. She had rosy cheeks and auburn curly hair.
On the private side, Aunt Ellen told me that when she did cry, she would hide in the closet. She didn’t want Uncle George or her children to see her upset. Seeing pictures of Aunt Ellen in her youth, I imagine my Uncle George fell in love with her because she looked like a Victorian lady with her hair all swept up in the day’s fashion. When they married, Aunt Ellen moved into the ancestral Victorian home where my Uncle George grew up.
Aunt Ellen always knew that when I called, there was usually some trauma going on at my house. It was the drinking that upset me the most with its unpredictable rage that would flare up. Mostly I remember the kitchen chair scraping across the floor when my dad stood up from the table and started yelling at us kids, or my mother. Those were terrifying times, and when I could, I would sneak away and call my Aunt Ellen to come and get me.
Pulling into the driveway and getting out of the car, she would come into the house with a smile and charmingly say, “Hello Woody. Hellow Connie.” The way she said it was like nothing was going on in the whole wide world, and she could diffuse an explosive situation with her innocent smile. Oh, she knew all right what was going on.
Aunt Ellen had a shield that I frequently hid under as a child and young adult. She would say, “I’ve come to take Mary Ellen home for a visit.” Sometimes an argument would be smoldering, and the air would get cloudy and laden again. It didn’t matter, Aunt Ellen had a way of turning a situation around, and soon, I was safely out the door. Different feelings plagued me as I got into her car.
At times, I felt downcast and sometimes confused as to why I felt the way I did. Aunt Ellen had the ability to sweep my dark mood away. Driving the car, she would say, “Look at the sky M.E. Look at how beautiful the world is.” I would get caught up in her enthusiasm, and in an instant, my melancholy evaporated. Aunt Ellen liked driving the car and seeing all the beauty around her.
One day while riding in the car from her house to the farm, I started to get uptight thinking about returning home to the chaos again, and she caught my mood. All of a sudden, she stopped the car along a country road, and said, “Look M.E., look at those flowers. Do you know what they are? In a foul mood, I said, “No.” Aunt Ellen said, “They are Turk Cap Lilies.” The way she said it was like witnessing the Lands of Arabia and her sheer magic had a wonderful affect on me.
As a young woman, I was selected by Seventeen Magazine for a position at the World’s Fair in New York City. My father forbade me to go to the city. He said,”No daughter of his was going to New York City.” It was a terrible time for me. I had no clothes or money, and he was adamant. I wasn’t going to New York City. As usual, I called my Aunt Ellen and told her about the job and that my dad wouldn’t let me go. She said, “You are going, and I am going to take you there.” She knew that I needed to get out of that house and to start a life of my own. There was no future for me in Saratoga Springs where I grew up.
For the trip, we went shopping for clothes. Hiding them under the bed, I waited for the day when Aunt Ellen would come to get me, and we would travel to New York City. The day finally arrived, and I came downstairs wearing a new suit, hat, and gloves and carrying my sister’s Samsonite blue suitcase. My sister was going with us too and helped drive the car. My father had tears in his eyes when we stood in the driveway to say goodbye. He was having financial difficulty at the time and was not in the position to adequately provide for me. Dad handed me $40 and told me that was all he could give me. I knew he felt bad and without adequate funding, I still went ahead. I felt free as a bird. My Aunt Ellen was there, and I was walking into my future thanks to her.
Years later, I was home visiting my parents from the far corners of the Earth. Aunt Ellen had kept up with my adult life and had followed my adventures across the country, Europe, Mexico, and South America. One one of our last visits we drove, from the farm in New York to my sister’s home in Massachusetts, and we took a long way. Aunt Ellen wanted to go through the Vermont Mountains to see the view and fall colors. After all, it was only three or four hours out of our way. In listening to me talk about my travels, she said, “M.E., you were born under a lucky star.”
All my life, I think about my Aunt Ellen who had so much to do with who I am today. When something special happens, and I see something beautiful in nature, I remember to say, “ Aunt Ellen, you would love this.” I often feel her close. I think my Aunt Ellen had a lot to do with how I think because she taught me how to see.