Poor, Sweet Emma Lou (from my mother’s memoirs of the 1930’s)

When my mother Lizzie left Virginia as a young bride around 1913, she was most lonesome for her baby sister, Emma Lou, a precious blue-eyed blonde of eight. Emma Lou had been born when Grandma Sarah Perkins was past forty. Grandma must have been dismayed by a burst of fertility, eventually giving birth to five more children, the last two long after Mama left home. Never a doting mother, she was happy to turn Emma Lou over to Lizzie, age fourteen. Though Emma Lou never wrote to her, Lizzie kept up with her through her frequent letters home. When the family showed up “to visit” in 1928, Lizzie was devastated to learn that Emma Lou “wasn’t right” never seeming the same after a bout of measles not long after they left, when she never progressed any further mentally. She still spoke in a high voice like a child, chattering constantly, monopolyzing the conversation until Grandma made her hush. Painful as it was to see Grandma deal so brusquely with her, in Grandma’s defense, no one else would ever have gotten a chance to speak, otherwise. It must have been a very difficult life for both of them. Grandma was ashamed of Emma Lou’s condition and shooed her out of sight when visitors stopped by. However, she was not ashamed of Emma Lou’s ability to work. Emma Lou did the washing, ironing, housework, gardening and milking, uncomplainingly. As the boys married, Grandma loaned Emma Lou out to their wives to help when she was feeling generous. Lizzie was always protective of Emma Lou, not allowing her to do dishes or any clean up after a meal, giving her time to go out and “play with the kids,” who doted on her.  This is likely the only fun and acceptance she ever enjoyed as an adult.  Most telling of all, there are no pictures of Emma Lou as an adult.

8 thoughts on “Poor, Sweet Emma Lou (from my mother’s memoirs of the 1930’s)

  1. Ahh..

    I imagined her and I imagine that most of the pain was carried by those who were ashamed
    of her. As you describe it the family was mostly respectful, especially allowing her to play with
    the children and experience her self as she was…

    It sounds like Emma Lou the recipient of love mixed with shame and uncertainty…

    Thank you for posting this.


      • My mother had an Aunt that we had been told was ‘retarded’. I remember seeing her when she was very old, she lived with her two others sisters. I wish I would have had the sense to ask about their lives, but as a kid, you just don’t think about those sorts of things. One Aunt had lost a son ( my mother’s cousin) at Pearl Harbor–went down with the Arizona. People go through such trials and heartaches. Come to think about it, I have an older cousin that would have some information about these Great Aunts, I’ll call her and visit.


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