Friday, November 10, 2017

THE FIRST LADY OF EVANSTON - Cornelia Gray Lunt - BOOK I, Chapter 9 - The Discovered Likeness

This is the next installment in the autobiography of Cornelia Gray Lunt of Evanston, Illinois: Sketches of Childhood and Girlhood, Chicago, 1847-1864.  For more about the life and times of Miss Lunt, please see the first installment:                                   

Chapter Nine
The Discovered Likeness

Bowdoinham, Maine
Summer of 1853

The visit to Maine was nearing its close.  Grandfather gave me funny answers to my questions, for I met with frequent stumbling blocks, and many books I read that Summer did not by any means belong to the mysterious something called Literature.  But I devoured them all alike. - "Night Thoughts" shared with "Munchausen," "Addison" with "Gulliver;" "Pride and Prejudice" with "Grimm's Fairy Tales" all alike awakening vivid interest.  I was eclectic for a girl of ten, and splendid religious imagery invariably captivated fancy and had given me a grand conception of God, Heaven and Hell, which for years saved me from no end of trouble and vexation.

I had in those days a great advantage over Moses, for I knew exactly every time what that glorified Titanic Being, familiarly described and dilated upon in pulpits and Sunday-School, felt about me and everything else, since He so evidently, as the Preachers taught, let down strings for the faithful to pull!  And I was one of the puppets that found it all enthralling to belong to the Elect, and Hell and Heaven and incredible wickedness that I could not understand gave me great suspense and delight.

It was always the story, the romance, the novelty and excitement that gripped me, and made me weep and flow out in sympathy, and grow ever more tolerant and self-sufficient.  Book-hungry as I was I continued anxious to get certain baffling queries answered for I could never explain unhappy endings; To be joyous I considered essential and part of the Divine Plot.  Solemnity was not for me, nor denials or restraints, since all the major external influences made for freedom of thought and action and an ever growing mighty self-confidence.

It was in that spirit exuberant and gay that the blow fell one terrible afternoon.  Could I dream of the illustration reserved for me that day, crashing upon sensitiveness, and with one avenging blow destroying all hopes of personal attractiveness by the revelation in a bitter driving blow that left only conviction of personal defects.

On the sixth of August, the month just opening, there was to be a gathering of the Clan, relatives from Little Compton, Rhode Island, from Seaconnet-by-the-Sea, and the near towns of Brunswick and Bath.  My heart was full of eager anticipation, as my Grandparents on the eve of our departure for Chicago, were planning to hold high holiday with a hospitable feast for Aunts and Cousins to celebrate my Mother's Birthday.

That afternoon I had been sent on some errand, and returning elate I swung into the lower entrance, ran up the steps and was hurrying through the large living-room regardless of a visitor casually noticed, when I heard the voice that called me, and beheld my Grandmother sitting by one of the windows busily engaged talking to a lady facing her whom, I could not distinguish.  She turned her face as I drew near and heard the words - "This, Aria, is the little girl we think looks so much like you." - Oh! the wild horror of that moment, for I saw a face to my inflamed imagination, fairly hideous.  It would be a gross caricature of a good and clever woman to give any shadow of how she looked to me at that moment; I did not see the kindly expression, only the course gray skin; the big features, brow retreating, teeth projecting, and eyes with a cast that made them queerly repellent.  The straight hair was drawn back from a countenance which seemed of grotesque ugliness.  I could see nothing else and I snatched, with a choked cry, my hand from hers, and rushed wildly from the rooms, up and up into the garret's furthest corner!

It was a brand that set me aside from my family.  Of course I knew that Grandmother had long ago decided I was not good-looking, but she always added, "No matter how I looked, I was only half as entertaining as Aria," and I had always managed to cheer up ever since Grandfather said, "I was nice and had a twinkle in my eye."  Even after hearing again and again "That handsome is as handsome does," I plodded on easily consoled.  But that awful moment shattered all confidence or comfort.

I had never learned by inevitable limitations the finiteness of human capacity, or by bitter experience the fixity of laws relentless.  The temptation of a turbulent rebellious emotional nature had never before been aroused.  Now in manifest power and refusal revolt shook me to the foundations of fear and despair.

"I want to die - I want to die - I am so homely - I am so homely - I look like Aria Sumner!"  And until utterly exhausted over and over I cried that refrain, a sobbing heap of misery.

I did not answer to repeated calls, growingly and more anxiously insistent, until my Mother's repeated use of my name finally evoked a muffled response, as she mounted the garret steps.  The violence of my crying startled her - "Hush Neanie - Hush - Tell Mother what it is? - Now, at once," as I continued to gasp and shake.  "I look like Aria Sumner, - I am so homely, - I want to die - I want to die," between choking sobs, and it was  moment before I could listen to the quiet soothing voice.  "But that is wicked, God made your face."  "I don't care, - I don't care, - He wasn't good to me - He made me homely like Aria Sumner, and she has pig's eyes - I want to die, - Oh, I want to die!"

"Are her eyes like your Father's and yours? - Is her hair curly like Father's and yours? - Stop this minute and think - Did you never hear of people looking like each other and yet looking different?  To Mother your face is dear and when you smile everyone likes it."

Oh that drop of oil on the bleeding wound!  My swollen face was washed tenderly after the descent to Mother's room and she continued while bathing my half closed eyes, "Grandmother did not mean she thought you very homely, only you don't look like her family.  And one does not have to be handsome to be loved - Aria has lots of friends."

"Oh Mother don't let me see her again - I can't bear it - I can't bear it, - I can't," and I clung hysterically, but was soon startled into relative composure.  "She is your Father's cousin, and he will be hurt and ashamed you can show such feelings.  Now you must dry your tears and I will never let anyone know how you have behaved.  God has been very good to you and to us all.  I think my little girl can love and be loved a lot if she tries, and nobody will mind her looks; pretty people are not always nice, we won't talk any more about it.  Come with me to pick currants and berries for Grandmother's pies and puddings and jellies.  Don't you want to look into the big brick oven?  It's a fine sight.  Full of bread loaves, and cakes, and baked puddings, and we'll open it and have a peep."

Thus gently talking, quiet ensued and until maturity came, and the pictures of that episode grew absurd and laughter provoking to recount, it was never mentioned again; and never did my Grandmother the hurt frequent allusions to my looks cost, in comparisons (she illustrated) by incidents or distinct references to her own daughters, the so-called "Beautiful Gray Sisters."  Even my own lovely Mother did not dream how that wound opened and I ached afresh with convictions of the hopelessness of form and feature that distinguished our family.

That one agonizing emotion stands out in an intensity, fore the details of that unimaginable hour haunted me for years.  The keen impressions of the faces, my Grandmother's placid smile, and my sickening recoil from what represented at that moment an indescribable ugliness.

Remembrances from the interminable years of childhood are out of all proportion to their importance.  Agitated, excited, the horror of that moment was an actuality that for years made me shrink at its poignant recollection.  There was tumult and recoil in my hurt soul and a deepened consciousness of the defaced realities of the flesh.  It remained a tragic situation until I grew scornful of myself, could see the humour of the scene, and could laugh and declare that the grief was forgotten.

Foundations may be so deeply set that until some violent shock stirs us, and we are suddenly hurled into a whirl of feeling strong as the strong storms that sweep the sea, we never realize the power that lies within.

But I have progressed in ways small and great since then, and utilized in measure as the years mounted whatever inspiration or recognized instruction appealed to a nature like mine.  I have not known degeneration of energy, or lack of activity in attempts to accomplish things desired, or to induce growth by doing certain things for others well and quickly.


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