I don’t remember seeing pictures of my Great Aunt Louise until recently, but she has haunted me since I turned fourteen. That year (and I’ll just quote from my Loser anthology essay)
my grandmother pulled me aside to warn me I was old enough now to be vigilant about madness: my own, my sister’s, and my future children’s. She described the descent of her own little sister, Louise, a beautiful girl with hair exactly the same shade of auburn as mine was then, into early dementia.
Louise stepped out of her clothes one hot Texas afternoon, and went dancing down the street, naked, with a scarf. Institutionalized for a time, Louise came home, only to pull a butcher knife from her bathwater and brandish it against her mother. She was returned to the sanitarium, where she died of tuberculosis.
“Always remember,” my grandmother said, “insanity skips generations.” It’s the kind of warning that tends to stay on your mind.
While worrying all those years about whether madness would descend, I conjured up a particular image of Louise. And here she is, more or less as I’ve imagined her: scowling in high heels. Not so much deranged as defiant.
I knew my grandmother dropped out of high school so Louise could stay in. That she got a job and bought clothes for her sister, and shoes, and other things to help her blend with wealthier people than the very poor family she came from. I knew she was thrilled that I was born with dark hair and that my middle name was Louise. I knew she had watched her sister deteriorate over the years in the mental hospital.
But somehow I never pictured them together — not until my mom’s boxes arrived, and I uncovered photo after photo of the two of them joking around, holding puppies, balancing on tree logs, playing instruments. I wonder now if my grandmother thought I looked like her sister, although I don’t see any resemblance between us, myself.
In the shot at the top of this page, Martha (grandmother) smiles at left while baby Louise sits in a wicker pram. In the portrait below, Louise sits at right, her mouth open; Martha stands next to her, looking serious.
And in this last photo, they’re older — maybe 15 and 11? Martha, at left, smiles off into the distance, while Louise looks at the camera. Louise was considered the beauty of the two of them, but I of course think my grandmother is prettier.
Your gratuitous literary link: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper” (1913).