Several days before I left for Connecticut, I paid a visit to a Toronto-based writer (and retired university professor), in hopes she might help me with a possible clue in what happened to my great-aunt Ellen.
Confused? Allow me to explain.
The writer is the granddaughter of my mother’s landlady in the early-to-mid 1970s. (She passed away 35 years ago.) It was that landlady who once told my mother a story related to her life when she first came to Canada.
The anecdote goes something like this:
This woman – who I’ll call Mrs. S. – arrived in 1936 (from what is now western Ukraine, but at the time, was part of Poland) with her two daughters, to join her husband, who came here a handful of years previously.
Shortly after arriving, she found a job working in a shirt factory, cutting and sewing shirts.*
According to what my mother told me, Mrs. S. didn’t know a single word of English, yet learned how to cut and sew the shirts, thanks to a black woman who worked in the factory. Using hand gestures, the woman showed Mrs. S. what to do. And my mother seems to remember Mrs. S. telling her this woman’s name: Ellen. (My mother, of course, thought her aunt’s name was Helen, so she wondered about it, but wrote it off.)
This story may very well be the biggest of coincidences. But I thought it was worth trying to follow this thread to its end.
An initial Internet search led me to a book Mrs. S’s granddaughter wrote over 15 years ago, about her own search to understand her family’s history, and to understand the hardships they endured. I checked a copy of the book out of the library — initially to see if there was possibly any reference to this story told to my mother so long ago.
I found nothing specifically related to this mystery woman who helped Mrs. S. But I read the book from cover to cover, and it gave me a greater understanding of, and admiration for, Mrs. S and that side of the family.
I then tracked down the writer – who, as it turns out, lives here in Toronto – and paid her a visit. She was incredibly lovely, and we spoke about my mom’s time living in her grandmother’s house, but also about her late mother and aunt. Eventually, I told her about this decades-old story her grandmother told my mother, and asked if she’d ever heard this story, or whether her mother or aunt had mentioned it.
She wasn’t familiar with the story, but she thought if there was anyone who might know — or remember the name of the factory where Mrs S. worked, at the very least — it would be her aunt. Long retired from the medical profession, she’s now 89, and while suffering from dementia, apparently is still quite sharp when it comes to remembering the past.
So, there is where things rest at the moment. I’ll be getting in touch with the writer to see if she’s been in touch with her aunt, and if are any more shreds of possibility to pursue. Fingers crossed.
*I am going to double-check this fact, to make sure I’ve recalled this correctly.