Genealogy, Quebec

The Maiden Aunts

Aunt Kay and Aunt Vi. Their names were always said as a unit for as children we saw them as inseparable. Their lives were also lived as a unit, lives devoted to family, career and an insatiable love for travel.

Violet, born 1904 1, and Kathleen, born 1907 2, were the daughters of George Hudson Willett and his wife Isabelle of Caplan, Quebec. George was a farmer and a seasonal guide for hunters and fishermen 3. Money was tight. From the beginning the girls wanted more than a life on the Gaspe coast.

By the time she was seventeen Violet was living in Montreal with her older sister Madge and working as a stenographer 4. Kathleen joined her a few years later. In 1927 Kay signed her first contract with the Lachine School Commission, later to become part of the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal 5. Kay’s career was that of a teacher, a consultant, a principal and ultimately an adjunct professor at McGill. Violet spent her entire career at the Bank of Montreal retiring as an executive secretary.

Initially the sisters lived in a lodging house in downtown Montreal 6. Early in my childhood they moved to an apartment in Montreal West. The apartment was small: living room, kitchen and one bedroom with twin beds. Beautiful rugs, furniture, and treasures from their travels made the space appear luxurious. Kay kept a meticulous inventory of their possessions 7. The sisters entertained friends and family simply but elegantly. A drop leaf table at one end of the living room opened to seat six with place settings of silver, crystal and fine china. As children we learned to eat with proper table manners when visiting our aunts!

The sisters never married although family legend claims that Violet left a heart-broken suitor in the Gaspe, a man who wrote to her every Christmas until her death. Kathleen had many male friends and colleagues but there were no rumours of love affairs. Both women were slim and beautiful and dressed with style. Vi was a redhead; Kay was a brunette with a distinctive white streak. Later in life she dyed her hair and the streak became blue, an idiosyncrasy that fascinated me.

Both women were devoted to their nine nieces and nephews. They spent time with each one, individually or in family groupings, in the city or at the farm in the Gaspe. Family photos are witness to cousins and aunts enjoying time together at the beach 8.

More than the beach, however, I loved going to lunch with them in Montreal at the Eaton’s dining room on the ninth floor. It always included a shopping trip! Their joint gifts to all of us over the years included clothes, books, educational toys, university fees, and travel experiences. They gave me a piece of the silverware every birthday and Christmas from the time I was very young. You can imagine how excited I was as a four year old opening the gift of a fork! Today that silverware is a treasured memory of their love.

The sisters lived together their entire lives except for the four years that Kay taught in Germany. Even then Vi joined Kay to holiday with her in Europe. In the end it was Alzheimer’s disease that separated them. Vi succumbed first. When Kay could no longer look after her, she was placed in a home where she died in 1983 at the age of eighty 9. As in their youth, Kay followed several years later. She died in a nursing home in 1991 at the age of eighty five 10.

Thus ended the era of the maiden aunts. Their legacy lives on in the achievements of their nieces and nephews, achievements fueled in large part by the values they imbued in us.

 

 Research Notes

This family story is based on my own memories of my aunts and the stories my mother told of her older sisters in conversation with me. Where I can document specific facts, I have used the Evernote Clipper and stored the clips in an Evernote notebook labeled Family History.

  1. Violet Gwendolyn Willett – Quebec Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection) 1621-91967
  2. Kathleen MacDonald Willett – Quebec Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection) 1621-91967
  3. Library and Archives Canada. Sixth Census of Canada, 1921. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Library and Archives Canada, 2013. Series RG31. Statistics Canada Fonds. Reference Number: RG 31; Folder Number: 108; Census Place: St Charles de Caplan West (Parish), Bonaventure, Quebec; Page Number: 1
  4. Library and Archives Canada.Sixth Census of Canada, 1921. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Library and Archives Canada, 2013. Series RG31. Statistics Canada Fonds. Reference Number: RG 31; Folder Number: 124; Census Place: Outremont (Town), Montreal (Laurier-Outremont), Quebec; Page Number: 11
  5. Teacher’s Engagement document – on file with author
  6. Library and Archives Canada.Sixth Census of Canada, 1921. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Library and Archives Canada, 2013. Series RG31. Statistics Canada Fonds. Reference Number: RG 31; Folder Number: 124; Census Place: Outremont (Town), Montreal (Laurier-Outremont), Quebec; Page Number: 11
  7. Handwritten inventory of apartment at 7455 Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal – on file with author
  8. Family photos – on file with author
  9. & 10. Death announcements, Montreal Gazette – on file with author