Nelsie, nee Ann Nelson Walsh Penn, was born in Birmingham, England in 1883. Her mother, born Ann Nelson Walsh, was a charming woman with social standing and a wonderful sense of humour. When a teenager, she and her siblings had their photograph taken before her beloved brother, Tom, left for the US to observed the American Civil War. In that photo, which was taken outside in a country setting, she actually smiled – a thing not done during the 1860’s. Later she poked fun at fashion by sticking a maid’s feather duster in her bustle to see if anyone noticed at a ball. They did – it was written up in the social column! When Tom caught a stray bullet while with the Confederate army, Ann took in his young daughter, Jane. When Ann succumbed to tuberculosis in 1888 while in Madeira, she left behind her husband, her niece, and her daughter, my beloved grandmother whom we all knew as ‘Nelsie’. My great-grandfather never remarried.
Nelsie became a published poet at the age of 10 when she wrote about a quiet grave. Though much of her inheritance was lost in the crash of ’29, she supported the family by winning word contests in the newspapers, and painting lampshades. She was also talented in textile artistry. She continued to embroider and write poetry until her death in 1977 at the age of 93.
The two pieces of furniture Nelsie had that I could remember was her piano and her cupboard, a complex Victorian piece in which she kept various things…hair brooches, amber beads, sheet music, and poems she was working on. Loving children, she babysat so many that she never lacked middle-aged visitors at the nursing home, whom she had tended when they were children. In fact, when a lioness at the Indianapolis zoo died, it was Nelsie that nursed the cub until it could survive on its own. Even as an elderly woman, when visiting the lions, the other visitors would be in awe as my grandmother visited a grown lion who would purr and love her like a small pussycat!
I loved my grandmother dearly, and the only things I possess from my childhood are a crib sheet she embroidered for me, and two books of fairy tales she sent me. I named my little venture to honour her, back in 1997 when I began to make my toiletries and soaps for people who are chemically sensitive – or who just want ‘clean’ products.
Sylvia Ann Atherstone Genders