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Willie and Maggie Cooper at Reva´s, Christmas, 1963

image by
Emmet Gowin


Margaret Ennis Booher Cooper, affectionately known as Aunt Maggie, is 98 years of age. She lives alone in the same house she and her husband, Willie Commodore Cooper, moved into when they were married in 1930. Emmet and I live just down the road in the farmhouse her father built and in which she grew up.
As a child, Maggie found school boring and attended only sporadically. In 1925, at the age of 16, she quit school and started to work as a weaver in Dan River Cotton Mill alongside her sisters, Genic and Reva. Danville, Virginia, was the model of a southern town held together by the growing of tobacco and the weaving of cloth; it was not unusual for a farm girl to leave behind house and farm chores for the proud work as a mill hand. The cotton mill offered Maggie hope for a better life, friendships, and more money for an uneducated girl than any other job in town.
Aunt Maggie remembers the many long, hot summer days when the two-mile walk to the mill left her freshly pressed clothes damp and dusty. On summer mornings her pincurled hair would hang limp from the heat and the rise of the morning dew. Any girlish idea of beau¬ty would have vanished by the time she entered the mill. The cold winters were no less harsh. She and her sisters would often arrive home long after dark with feet half frozen.
When she was 62 years old, Aunt Maggie retired from the mill. The very next day, she wished she hadn’t. Life as a weaver had been challenging but housework didn’t interest her at all. To this day she complains of her mistake as if it had been made just yesterday.
Aunt Maggie is stubborn but not difficult. She nurtures without interfering. She is compassionate and generous, but never looks over her shoulder to see if her kindness is being noticed. When Emmet and I were first married and driving back and forth between Virginia and Rhode Island, Aunt Maggie always slipped a ten or twenty dollar bill into my hand just before we left to make sure we returned home safely.
When asked directly, Aunt Maggie will tell you what she thinks; but simplicity lies so close to the core of her personality that I think much of her life has been spent in thought and silent observation. Above all else, Aunt Maggie is independent.
Almost every day around noon Aunt Maggie walks briskly past our house, throws up an arm to say hello and heads to the barn to tend to her feral cats. From our porch we can hear her calling, sweetly encouraging them to come out of the woods to eat. When the cats have finally gathered at her feet she scolds them for taking so long to come, then tenderly begins the job of seeing that each one is properly fed.
We hear her talking in her low voice 10 the cats while she rubs their matted fur and checks for cuts. If the inspection reveals that they have been fighting, she scolds them again, reminding the cats of the consequences of such behaviour. Then Aunt Maggie sits down on the woodpile to rest. When she is satisfied that each cat is full and content, Aunt Maggie picks up her empty cat food tins and walks home. Some days she stops by our house to sit on the front porch and talk. More often than not we talk about the past.
When I was two years old, Santa Claus began to appear outside the window of my Grandma’s house on Christmas Eve. Santa arrived long after dark when all the children wcrc playing. If the children listened carefully they could hear Santa’s bell ringing in the distance. The excitement built as the sound of the bell drew closer and closer. A mother moved slowly toward the hanging light bulb ready to cut out the light as soon as Santa appeared at the window. The grownups knew Santa´s costume was inadequate, so pretended that in the darkness the children would have a better look. The children stared from a darkened room into an even darker night. Santa was a vision before their eyes.
The older children pushed their way through the younger children to get close to the window. Pressing their noses into the panes, they cupped their hands to their eyes to get a bet¬ter look at Santa in the dark night. Small children climbed on the backs of the taller ones while the fathers held their young tots high on the shoulders, swaying with excitement, remembering their own childhoods.
For many years Santa’s costume had been hidden in a boll’ in the bottom of a trunk, so the crushed gauze mask no longer resembled the face of Santa Claus seen in books. The age of the costume was unclear, though the wrinkled face, flattened nose, cheeks once red (now only the palest pink), told of many Christmas Eves past. A few of the children would cry with fright at the face of Santa. But in spite of its faults, for us, it was prefect and it was true.
The flat, wrinkled face did not betray Santa’s unquestioned kindness as he rang his bell and gently nodded, assuring the children that all of their wishes would be granted on Christmas morning. Then Santa slowly backed away from the dark window, nodded one last nod and vanished into the cold night.
Looking back, I remember one thing that especially moves me about these perform¬ances; it is that as the children grew up and began to doubt the authenticity of Santa, none of them ever imagined that their Santa had been a woman. The boys were particularly interest¬ed in learning the true identity of Santa Claus, so you can imagine their disappointment when, year after year, no uncles were missing from the Christmas party.
Now it seems perfectly natural to me that Aunt Maggie played the role of Santa Claus. She is a strong woman from a family of Strong women. In this role, Aunt Maggie identified with an important part of her own true character and it is perhaps this mystical aspect of Maggie that now inhabits at least some of these photographs.
The long tradition of Santa Claus appearing at Grandma’s window on Christmas Eve continues to enchant our children. Aunt Maggie handed her old Santa costume to some¬one younger over ten years ago. It was about this time that she began to appear in Elijah’s photographs.
I don’t know if Elijah consciously knew he was continuing the portraits of Aunt Maggie started by his Dad around 1961. Maggie is an interesting and unpredictable person, so it is not a surprise that both Emmet and Elijah saw something universal and magical in her. As Elijah constructed vignettes in our back yard in Danville and placed Aunt Maggie in them, I knew that she had arrested his attention, too. Emmet continues to photograph Aunt Maggie, from time to time-it is a love story by now.
I want to honor Maggie with this book of portraits. She is now nearly 100 years old.
Her heart is generous and her mind still alert. Her life is a living guidepost, showing us how to live with grace and humility. Aunt Maggie is the only one left who remembers using these curious family instructions to find loved ones living in the country. Though they seem old fashioned and unnecessary now, they help me retain my sense of place; “Follow the telephone wire east out of town, keep to the left at the fork, and take the first road after the barn with the bonnet.”

Edith Gowin, 2008


There is a second Aunt Maggie story dear to me. It concerns her husband , Willie Cooper and the ironing of a dress.
A few years back Edith and Aunt Maggie were in the front yard near the oldest of our walnut trees when, on a spontanous inspiration, Edith began to excuse herself, remembering some dress needed pressing. Maggie paused, lost in thoughts for a minute, “that reminds me”, she began slowly, “of something that happened over fifty years ago; I guess I had completely forgotten.”
“So what was it,” Edith said, settling for a story. “Willie had already gone to bed, saying he was to tired to wait a minute longer. I already had begun to iron a dress to wear to the mill next day. I almost had finished ironing that dress when Willie called in from the bed “aren´t you finished yet, I wish you would come to bed.” I said I was almost done but really need to iron a second dress once the iron was hot and everything was set up and going smoothly. “Go on to sleep, I´ll be there in five minutes.” It may have been only a few minutes when Willie called out again, “haven´t you finished yet, come on to bed, I can´t go to sleep while you´re ironing.” Well, Willie, I´ve just started a second dress, it won´t take long.” “What´s the matter with you anyway.” There was along pause until, finally, Willie called back, “I can´t go to sleep, I don´t have anywhere to put my hands.”

Emmet Gowin