Maud Lewis – Tragic Birthmother

I am attracted to tragic birthmother stories. That is what I feel that both of my biological genetic grandmothers were. So last night we watched the movie Maudie. It is the story of the Nova Scotia woman, Maud Lewis, who’s folk art which sold for nominal prices during her life and has skyrocketed into value since her death. I am attracted the her famous painting of the white cat with the sad face.

In the Hollywood romanticized version of her story, her husband Everett Lewis was not a social person and is known to have been was born at the “Poor Farm” in Marshalltown, Digby County. In the movie, he frequents an orphanage. It is unclear whether his mother was a resident or an employee at the Poor Farm, and nothing is known of his father. The movie depicts Maud and Everette Lewis as two misfits who found each other and married.

When Everett wants to have sex with Maud, is ostensibly there as his housekeeper but in living with him, there is only one bed in the house – his bed. She confesses to him that she once ended up pregnant, had a severely malformed baby who died and was buried while she was asleep. Later in the movie, her Aunt Ida who had partially taken care of Maud before she went to work for Everett but didn’t want to die with regrets, confesses that the baby was perfectly normal but that Maud’s brother Charles sold her to a rich couple because he did not believe Maud was capable of caring for her.

Later, Everett tracks down Maud’s daughter and takes her to see the girl but Maud only secretly looks at her hidden next to their car, outside of her house and isn’t willing to go to the girl. One gets the sense that she may have felt the daughter would reject her for her deformities, caused by juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (which was not treatable in the time period she was growing up). And that could be the true version – which is sad and tragic enough.

There is some dispute about the movie version compared to the actual true story and that would not be surprising as movies are meant to entertain. Everett is said to have been much worse towards Maud than the movie depicts him as being. The author, Lance Woolaver, visited Maud’s famously hand-decorated with her paintings house as a child and has been fascinated by her story all his life. He wrote a heavily researched 500 page book – Maud Lewis The Heart on the Door.

The book is described as a full-length biography including detailed accounts of her disabilities, due to a childhood battle with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis that twisted her hands and joints. Despite this deepening and painful affliction, she completed and sold thousands of bright pictures and Christmas cards from her little one-room house. Throughout her marriage to the illiterate fish peddler, she suffered from poverty and loneliness, yet triumphed over all with her brilliant, colorful and happy paintings. Everett Lewis was murdered after Maud’s death in 1970, on New Year’s Day of 1979 for his lockbox filled with money from sales of Maud’s pictures.

This author’s perspective on the tragedy of Maud Lewis as a birthmother was that as a young woman in Yarmouth, Maud fell in love with Emery Allen. Woolaver believes he was the love of Maud’s life. However, after she became pregnant, Allen abandoned her. He also believes there was no reconciliation between Maud and her daughter. Whether Maud believed the lie initially told her or not, it is said that she rejected her daughter, Catherine, when she reached out to know her mother saying that her child had been a boy who was born dead. A subsequent attempt by the daughter to contact her mother by letter also failed to bring them back together.

Catherine Dowley was born August 13, 1928 in Nova Scotia. She was not aware that she had been named for her mother, Maud Catherine Dowley. Later in life she did know that Maud was her original mother and that Mamie Crosby was her adoptive mother. Catherine’s visits to connect with Maud in Marshalltown upset Mamie, who like many adoptive mothers felt that she had been a loving and good mother to Catherine.

Catherine (with glasses) with her adoptive mother, Mamie Porter.

Catherine married Paul Muise in 1949 in Yarmouth county and several years after their marriage, they moved to Ontario. They were the parents of about 4 children. Catherine died before Lance Woolaver’s book was released.

Everett was know locally as a dirty old man who would take advantage of young women for sex. Maud may have known there was that aspect to him and sought to protect her daughter from predation. Just questions without answers such as those I have in my own parents’ adoption stories. Those that know have died with the answers I will never have.

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