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Ghosts of Christmas Past #8: “Dear Nephew”



June 16th, 2012

Dear Nephew—

Our lunch last Saturday was enjoyable, more than you can imagine. Not only because we had each other’s undivided attention, but your cooking has improved considerably. (Is Rowan teaching you?) The wine was also a treat, considering I rarely open a bottle here at home. One glass at a time—it goes to vinegar before I can finish it. One day at a time, too—and I’m going to vinegar, as well.

Thanks also for the draught of our family history. Technically, I’m not a Tennant, so trimming the in-laws and cadet branches will simplify your task. And we both know a few who would best be forgotten; the less said, the better. So, thank you for the opportunity to add a few words about myself. Now, in my hundredth year, friends treat me with deference and relatives with tongs. Most are concerned that I’ll break — and a few that I won’t.

You ask about twinship. Being one qualifies me as an “expert” I suppose, but only in the way that you can testify credibly about being a male. Eller and I—I forget that you never knew her; your personalities are so much alike—were identical; Dwight and your dad weren’t. She and I spoke little to one another; we just seemed to know. Then Barnett Fentress entered the picture. Barney, Eller and I became a “couple” of sorts—a friendship that was very modern for the ’30s. People wondered when he’d choose between us, but that was never a possibility. The three of us, after all, were looking for a good man.

One summer in ’35 or ’36 we entered a dance marathon in Kansas City; Barney loved to dance. They didn’t know, of course, that Eller and I would alternate. Wearing identical dresses, she and I switched places in a dark corner by a cluster of potted palms. Barney carried the show, and it was he and Eller who eventually won. We gave the prize money—$50 if recollection serves—to the soup kitchen at St Mary’s church and laughed ’til we cried. Eller left for China the next Spring; I never saw her again.

Uncle Malcolm (Father’s brother-in-law; married to Kate) was a missionary in China, teaching at Saint John’s College, Shanghai, but he also operated a clinic for women in rural parts of Jiangsu province. Eller had trained as a nurse but flying was her real contribution toward increasing the missionary outreach. I treasure her letters from 1937—until they stopped suddenly just before Christmas. We never learned what happened, but it had something to do with the Japanese invasion. The State Department offered no explanation. Ironically, it happened just about the time your great uncle Anson was restored to us. There seems something karmic in the exchange.

I’ve made a few more notes for your writing project (a rough outline) and will include them with this note. There is also a surprise for you and Rowan, a gift I hope you two will enjoy long after I’m gone.

Your loving aunt,


PS: You’ll know where to scatter my ashes.


  1. […] The Community Collection acquired “The Canal” (painted circa 1940) from the family of Malcolm Cowles, who had served as a missionary in the Philippines and China before World War […]

  2. […] aviatrix?) and also happen to have been Howard’s great-aunts. He had a special relationship with Aunt Phyllis, who shows up in other settings. Twins fascinate me; in fact, there are multiple sets of them in […]

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