Several years ago, I became the curator of an ancient album of family photographs, many of which go all the way back to the 1700s. The faces staring out at me from the aging and faded images are a stoic lot, and all the women have a fire in their eyes that cannot quite be defined. I had been captivated by my Great Great Grandmother Charlotte from the very start. She is leaning in just slightly and her eyes are locked on the camera, her mouth is set in a bit of a smirk, a hidden joke between her and the lens. I suspect this photo was taken closer to the end of her life than the start, but her lineless face, her strong yet delicate features are ageless. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, she married a Yorkshire man and was mother to two sons, one of whom would go on to father Elijah Atkinson, my grandfather for whom my son is named.
History is important to my family, I have volumes of hand-scrawled records of births and deaths, ancient photos of High Wold House, the cottage that would have been Charlotte’s childhood home. I’ve spent hours pouring over the handwritten records of my family lineage. None of what I have seen or read tells me what has Great Great Grandmother Charlotte so captivated in the one photograph that survives today.
Only a faded and crumbling obituary for Charlotte from 1880 gives a clue:
“She was venerable and benevolent almost to a fault, of lively disposition and literary turn of mind…”.
I like to think that she would be pleased to be on the cover of my upcoming novel Hag. A novel that borrows and steals from the long line of stories I grew up on concerning the women who came before me. I like to think that secret smile on her lips is because she knew that one day, someone would bring our family stories to life. I like to think that she and all the formidable Scottish women who I have struggled to know from long told stories, pages of dates and maps, and the faces that look out on me from their portraits, are blessing this book with all the power of the old world and the new.
I have no idea where Charlotte Atkinson’s spiritual sensibilities lay, however, another line from her obituary stays with me:
“…judging a tree by its fruits, she was a Christian..”
Her death to what was described as “her liver crowded against the walls of her abdomen…” was a great loss not only to her husband and sons, but also the entire community. I see in her eyes secrets that I will never truly understand, and I doubt that, even in her lifetime, few did.
Hag is my tribute not only to my extraordinary mother, but also the long line of lively, literary, and benevolent women from whence I come. In this life we can only hope to be judged by the fruits of our trees, it is my deepest hope that Hag gives voice and light to the women that preceded me. I hope I make them proud, and not only because I truly think it would be terrifying to be haunted by Charlotte Atkinson.
- Kathleen Kaufman