Today’s Wednesday Wonder is someone I have met, but I don’t remember doing so. It’s my maternal great-aunt Mary Susan Canova (1884-1961). As is my family tradition, she went by her middle name. She was often referred to as “Crazy Aunt Sue.” (Before you ask, no, I was not named after her. I was named after my father’s sisters, Bettye Sue and Doris Ann—see the middle name thing goes on both sides. Suna is my nickname.) She is the central character in the portrait you see (the girls on either end are my mischievous grandmother and her twin sister, and the adults are my great grandparents).
Anyway, Aunt Susan is an interesting story, or at least from what I have gathered. My mother’s family was one of those who never really talked about the elephants in the room or the skeletons in the closets. Until I was well into my mid-twenties, I honestly thought this was an extremely boring and average north Florida family with roots that went back to the Spanish colonists, and an artistic bent. It took forever to ferret out all the fun and fascinating details of their hidden underbelly! I won’t out the Canova clan in a public blog, but I think it’s safe to say that the family history of mental illness was one thing that was well hidden, for the most part. And of course, that’s understandable—there certainly was a stigma against it back then. Thankfully, a certain amount of eccentricity was tolerated, so my “off-beat” great uncles and the feuding twins of which my grandmother was one were all accepted members of society. The extended family was full of talents: there were ceramicists, painters, pianists and of course, crafts people.
And Aunt Susan was the queen of crafts in the little group. This was a very good thing, because she got the worst end of the mental health issues. From the whispers of my grandmother, sister, and mother, I gathered that she had some “issues,” including a bad case of kleptomania. Because of this, I guess she was sort of confined to her home most of her life. Luckily, Aunt Sue made her craft skills into a career. I am told that this woman churned out dozens of crocheted bedspreads, hundreds of tatted doilies, and many embroidered and lace-enhanced handkerchiefs. She would sell a bedspread for some ridiculously small amount, but it was enough to pay her expenses and make “a living” through her long life. I know it had to be hard on her—whatever her problems were, they seem to have prevented her from marrying, living an independent life, or fully participating in society. I am so glad she was talented in her fingers. She obviously was intelligent (she followed all those complex instructions!) and loved beautiful things. At least I know her life was surrounded by beauty, in homes filled with art and music, and the amazingly beautiful setting of a small town on the St. John’s River.
As soon as I can, I will upload photos of a couple of her items that got passed on to me. My mother knew how much I loved to crochet and tat as a young person, so she gave me a few samples of Aunt Susan’s work. I even copied the motif from the filet crochet table cloth she made, and used it as a decoration in my teen bedroom. These pieces of tatting, crochet and embroidery mean a lot to me. They remind me that I am indeed a part of a family tradition, and they also remind me that doing my craft activities help me stay stable and sane (though, thankfully, I don’t have any crippling mental health issues to deal with!). Even though I never had the chance to talk to her or get to know her, she influenced me in my desire to make my work the best quality I can, and to stick with long and complicated projects.