Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Senn Sisters

Their names were Gertrude and Anna Senn or better known as “the Senn Sisters”. Purely Victorian, the type of women who would wear full-length pastel linen gardening jackets and carry tightly clasped leather pocket books had they ever left the house. Their home was like a museum, quiet and still, preserved in time with them in it.

My eldest grandmother lived downstairs, it was now a duplex where she had lived for many years with her husband, by this time deceased of 25 yrs., and two grown sons who had served abroad during WWll. Such a wonderful home of brick and character that once exemplified my now fragile and aging Grandmother. For as elderly as she was then in the eyes of a 7yr. old, The Senn Sisters were even older. The “ladies” wore black from head to toe. A substantial fabric with a sheen to match their sturdy orthopaedic style shoes. I knew them for 12 yrs. until my Grandmother died, and never, ever remember seeing them wear anything different. The eldest sister, Anna, wore her hair in a tight bun and spectacles, the little wire rims one might associate with a school marm. Her dress and shoes were more sensible than sister Gertrude’s, no frills, no nonsense. The two would be seated side by side with feet lined-up and planted firmly against the level hardwood floor, their frail hands clasped neatly in their laps. They sat erect and proud, an inward expression of their prominent upbringing and class. Gertrude had beautiful white silken locks of wavy hair, tamed with sterling silver combs. I was fascinated…jewelry for the hair. It wasn’t the only jewelry she fashioned. Her most apparent feature were the gilded chandelier earrings characteristically Victorian and precious, dangling all the way down the nape of her now crepe-ish neck. I knew they must be very special and had a story of their own to tell. “Why weren’t these classic, educated women ever married”, I’d wonder. “Who would ever choose to be spinsters?” The earrings were for pierced ears . This was not surprising to the 1960’s -‘70’s American girl but they were a “tell”. Their agreed quietness perhaps revealed more than they let on. My own Grandmother had a similar secret about her familial background, necessary for the turn of the century. Gertrude’s earrings hypnotized me, and her girlish grins and toe tapping to my piano music led me to nick-name her “the gypsy one”, differentiating between the two. Anna could silence her with a glance, although she typically didn’t make a sound. Anna would answer for them each, Gertrude nodding in agreement. Not particularly conversational, they were quite pleasant and sociable, but treated words as if they were a rare commodity, perhaps costing a price and wise to be rationed as everything once had been.

Every visit I saw them I was more and more spellbound by them - by Gertrude. I knew so little about them and was certain to discover even less after Grandma Laura died. The Senn sisters were in attendance for Grandma’s visitation, the first time I ever saw them outside their home. The funeral home was a mere 6 houses away at the end of their residential street. There they appeared in the same position, same clothing, same hairdos and accessories, same gypsy earrings. It was as if they had been frozen in time and deposited there in the parlour, like my Grandmother. There was no mistaking that the Senn Sisters were full of life, joined by their equally statuesque Brother, Charlie, who I learned of for the first time that day. His hair was stark white and full of personality, much like his Sister Gertrude, the “Gypsy one”. Charlie asked me all sorts of questions about my likes and dislikes, activities, friends and school. I felt flattered by the attention and comforted by the fact that these folks were from such a time in history I was reading about in textbooks, yet connected me with my Grandmother.

Our families were only there for the weekend, to honor my Grandmother and to empty her house. I have but a few things of hers, all of which have a visceral memory. I was quick to retrieve the detailed miniature carvings of “Grandma & Grandpa” who always sat simply and still, side by side in the same place of Grandma’s home, smiling and special.

Her glass encased anniversary clock stands on the center of my mantle just as it did hers, the centerpiece to her home, without time or motion since her passing. Behind it hung the prominent beveled mirror that reflected all who entered her home, preserving their memory within.

In memory of “Aunt R.” who was so tickled by this story and always encouraged me to write about it.

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