The character Jane Chisolm in my new novel, Miss Jane, was inspired (an insufficient term I don’t really like) by my great-aunt, Mary Ellis “Jane” Clay, born in 1888 on a farm in east-central Mississippi. That is to say, there was the real person, my great-aunt, about whom we knew very little aside from her apparent (but secret, in terms of details) urogenital birth defect that left her incontinent and alone her entire life; and then there was, is, the character Jane Chisolm, about whom I’ve written, trying to imagine what it must have been like to live a life like that of my Aunt Jane. Jane Chisolm, the character in my novel, is born in 1915 and dies—well, that date is not certain. My Aunt Jane died in my nearby hometown of Meridian in 1975 at the age of 87.
I have only one personal memory of ever seeing Aunt Jane. When I was a boy, my mother’s extended family gathered every Sunday afternoon at my grandmother’s farmhouse in the country. One day, a car came up the red dirt road and parked beneath the oak tree near where we children stood. A man got out, went around to the passenger door, and helped out an old, thin, frail-looking woman dressed entirely in black, her long gaunt face obscured by a black lace veil pinned to the front of her little black hat. An uncle trotted over from the house to help, and the old woman was carefully conveyed across the yard to the house, the men’s hands gently gripping her bony elbows and resting against the small of her back. All we children had fallen silent and still as we watched the grave and strange processional.
One of my cousins whispered: “That’s Aunt Jane.”
“Who?” someone else said.
“Granddaddy Spurge’s sister,” another said.
Then we kept quiet, watching. We knew there was something remarkable about this old woman, this frail relic in black. Our parents would say, vaguely, when we asked, that “something was wrong” with Aunt Jane. Though what that might be we had no earthly idea at the time.
Years later, I was going through a box of old photographs and came across a black-and-white snapshot of a pretty girl wearing a dark dress and wide-brimmed hat, looking back over her shoulder at the photographer. Her expression and pose struck me as flirtatious. When I asked my mother who it was, she said it was Aunt Jane. Great-Aunt Jane.
I was surprised, and curious. This picture looked like it could have been taken by a boyfriend or lover.
My mother said that there were community dances back then, and Jane loved to go to them. She was quite popular with the boys.
“How did she manage that?” I said.
My mother didn’t know.
“But nothing ever came of it,” I said. “With a boy or man, I mean.”
That’s when I became fascinated with my Aunt Jane and what her life must have been like. What her condition may have or could have been. How she managed it. How she managed being a person who found a way to enjoy the early, flirtatious part of courtship but no doubt had to back away from it at some point and become an “old maid.” Not only an old maid, but an old maid with what was, in that day, considered to be a shameful secret.
I never really stopped being curious about Jane. I never forgot the photograph. Never stopped being deeply curious about the story behind it.
No one knew exactly what was “wrong” with Jane. It wasn’t spoken of among people, even relatives, with any candor. Jane did not discuss it with anyone. My mother didn’t know. Distant relatives in Texas, children of her siblings, didn’t know. Her medical records had been disposed of or destroyed. The rest home where she’d lived out her last days was defunct and I couldn’t find anyone who’d worked there. All I had to go on was the fact that, in her last days, she’d told my mother’s older sister that she had only one opening for the elimination of waste. I had that, and the fact of her lifelong incontinence, and the fact that apparently she was relatively healthy, urogenital “deformity” aside. And nothing else, really.
Add to that the odd disappearance of the photograph that first fascinated me: It disappeared, and my mother could not recall ever having seen it. As if I’d invented it, made it up. I may as well have. Now I had an entire life to invent, make up, after all.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Miss Jane.