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.

The Tragic Story of Lizzie Lou and Frances Irene

My grandmother with her second husband

I’m realizing a day late that yesterday would have been my maternal grandmother’s birthday. Her father died on Christmas Day in 1953, one year before I was born to his first grandchild, who he never even knew. I can imagine Christmas was not the usual kind of holiday for my Stark family but then I don’t really know. My mom was adopted away from them when she was 7 months old.

Relinquishing a child has lifelong consequences for women and for adoptees. Between 13–20% of birth mothers do not go on to have other children. For those in an era of birth control, a few may consciously feel that to have another child would be to betray the first child which they lost to adoption. For many, and especially in my grandmother’s generation, there was either no known reason for infertility or something about their life circumstances precluded having more children.

After receiving the adoption file from the state of Tennessee that they had previously denied my mother, only breaking her heart and motivation to search by informing her that her birth mother had died several years before, it took me forever to make real contact with one of my grandmother’s remaining family members – this one is a niece. She would actually be my mom’s cousin, that same generation of descendants. She is the warmest person and gave to me the gift my heart was yearning for, some intimate, personal memories of my grandmother along with this picture of her with her second husband.

In some belated post-Christmas communication with her today, I felt compelled to correct the seeming misperception that my mom was the child of the couple in this blog. Here was my reply –

My grandmother never had another child. My mom was her only child (and this is not uncommon among women who lose their first child in such a tragic manner). Her father appeared to have abandoned them, at least to my grandmother’s perception of events, though a super flood on the Mississippi River in early 1937 must have been a factor. My cousin that shares him as a grandfather with me, believes he cared deeply about family. So why did he not come to Memphis to rescue the two of them ? There is no one alive now that can answer that question for me and so, there it sits forever unanswered. Of course, once Georgia Tann knew about the precarious situation my mom and grandmother were in, she swooped in to acquire yet another human being to sell. Awful but a definite truth of it all. I am happy that my grandmother found happiness with her second husband after the divorce between her and my maternal grandfather occurred (and it didn’t happen until 3 years after they first married and my mom was already permanently beyond the reach of her original family). 

She later corrected that “seeming” misperception, of course, she knew my mom was not this man’s child.

It is a tragic story. Why my grandfather left her after only 4 months of marriage, causing her to be sent away to Virginia to have my mom, there is no one left alive to tell me. Why my grandfather didn’t respond to the letter from the Juvenile Court at Memphis when my grandmother came back with her baby, there is no one left alive to tell me. My grandmother was so desperate to find a way to stop my mom’s adoption that she called Georgia Tann’s office 4 days after being pressured into signing the surrender papers, under a threat of having Tann’s good friend, Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley, declare my grandmother an unfit mother (which she absolutely was not !!). Then, she took a train to New Orleans to prove to Miss Tann that she did have friends there who would take the two of them in resolving at least the issue of stability, even if only temporarily. Everything she tried to do, including taking my mom to Porter Leath orphanage for temporary care – FAILED tragically.

I have all of my original grandparent’s birthdates on my yearly calendar now. I wasn’t able to know them in life but I don’t forget them in death. Maybe someday in the nonphysical realm to which my grandparents (and adoptee parents) have all gone, I will meet them once again and receive the answers my heart cannot acquire in life.