Time Travel: Osla Seaborne Clouston

I have a five and seven year old. We talk about super powers. Quite a bit actually. They’re a little more creative than I am when it comes to thinking about what super power we’d like to have.  I’m boring. I always pick the same thing – time travel. There are so many dead people I’d like to meet. Near the top of my list would be Osla Clouston.


From left to right: Annie Easton Clouston, Marjorie Clouston, Osla Clouston, Edward Seaborne Clouston. Photograph from the Marjorie Howard Futcher Albums Collection, Osler Library of the History of Medicine, McGill University

Osla Seaborne Clouston was the sister of Marjory Meredith Clouston. That’s where the description of Osla has to start because everything I know about Osla, through her diaries and letters and paintings and photographs, revolves around her relationship with Marjory or “Daw” as she was known to Osla. Osla and Marjory were almost always together. They had been since birth. Osla was the temperamental sister, Marjory was the even-keeled one. Osla was the older one, Marjory was the baby of the family. Osla had a flair for the dramatic, Marjory indulged it. Osla lived with one foot in reality and the other entrenched in a complex imaginary world. Marjory was one of the few people invited into both worlds. They shared secrets and friends and schemes and memories.

Clouston sisters

Both girls were coddled and spoiled by their father, Edward Seaborne Clouston. “Ned” as he was known to the girls and all who were close to him, was one of Montreal’s most powerful men. Of rather humble origins, the son of a Hudson’s Bay Trader, Ned had climbed the ranks of the the Bank of Montreal until he sat as the Vice-President alongside the bank’s president, George Alexander Drummond.  Many years earlier, Ned had met Annie Easton in Brockville, Ontario where he was stationed with the bank for a spell. I know absolutely nothing about their courtship except for the fact that it came to an end when they were married in November 1878.  I suspect that Annie was a relatively shy woman. I wonder if I think that because she was slight in stature and private in nature. Though she performed the matriarchal duties of elite social life, she never sought out the spotlight, nor did she pursue a front line role in philanthropic or cultural societies. She had several very close friends and her visitors’ books and family photographs indicate that she spent much time surrounded by these trusted friends. Within the traditional confines of her class (i.e. having a nanny and other staff), Annie kept her daughters very close to her – planning trips and outings for the girls and welcoming them into her own bed when nightmares terrified the girls out of theirs. There is little correspondence between Annie and her daughters because she was nearly always with them.  It is clear that both girls adored their mother.


The Cloustons and the Allans at Boisbriant, Senneville Photograph from the Marjorie Howard Futcher Albums Collection, Osler Library of the History of Medicine, McGill University

Though she had every advantage of the era offered to her, Osla still lived a difficult and complicated life. She had perpetual health problems that plagued both her body and her mind. In her diaries she records the constant stream of doctors’ visits and new health regimen suggestions – weeks without reading, sitting in dark rooms, trips to warmer climates, headaches that never quite went away despite medications, and perhaps most disconcerting to her, extreme mood shifts that left her feeling confused and frustrated. She had a dark complexion, physical evidence of the power of DNA.  And she seemed to prefer the company of women to men – with her father, Ned, and Jimmy Paterson (was he in love with her?) an old family friend being the exceptions.


Osla Seaborne Clouston at Boisbriant, 1902 Photograph from the Marjorie Howard Futcher Albums Collection, Osler Library of the History of Medicine, McGill University

Osla and Marjory spent the winter of 1904-1905 in Europe.  Social networks connected them across the Atlantic so that these young, accomplished women had access to elite social circles and the corresponding active social schedules that accompanied privileged life abroad. They returned to Montreal in early June 1905 so that Osla could be a bridesmaid in her friend’s wedding. In the lead-up to the wedding, Lady Allan hosted a celebratory dinner for the wedding party at her house, Ravenscrag,  on June 2, 1905.  Marjory and Osla attended the party just up the hill from their Peel street house.  Osla never made it home that night. On the way out the door, Osla dropped dead.  She was nearly 26 years old.  The newspapers reported the cause of death as a heart attack. The cemetery recorded it as a brain tumor. Without an autopsy, we’ll likely never know the exact cause. Whatever the cause, Marjory was left without her best friend and other half. Annie and Ned had to face that nightmare world in which they’d outlived their child.

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4 June 1904, New York Times

I wish I could meet Osla. I wish I could feel what it was like to be in her presence, where any moment there could be an open door into a world of imagination. I wish I could watch her with Marjory, the intimacy shared only by closest sisters. I realize that I’m completely destroying my reputation as an objective observer of history. I’ve confided my emotional connection to those I’ve written about. And last week when I drove by the old Clouston estate, I confess I imagined what it must have been like to lie out on the grass at the family’s summer mansion in Senneville. Time travel.


Boisbriant today


monkeybars2I distinctly remember my confidence that day. It never once crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be successful. I’d done hundreds of back hip circles in gymnastics – why should it be any different on the metal monkey bars at school??  I was ten or eleven – I didn’t always believe in the people around me but I mostly believed in myself. I pulled my body up to the bar, surrounded by a few friends, and went for it. The next thing I knew, my nose was smashed into the hard sand beneath me and my head was starting to register an impact. I have no idea how it happened, what mistake I made, but I did understand very clearly that I was literally lying smack on my face, body in full lay out form. I’m probably pretty lucky all I got was a bloody nose. The strongest memory I have from that day is the surprise I felt at my failure.

Many people will know that my computer was stolen out of my car this past March. It was traumatic for all kinds of reasons – I felt angry and frustrated and a little freaked out that, along with my computer, my running shoes and undergarments were also lifted, though not my passport sitting in the CD holder.  I went through a whole cycle of reactions, not the least of which was panic that my whole personal world (I write a LOT on my computer and the vast majority of it would qualify as personal!) was in someone else’s hands.

What I was not worried about was my work.

As I was going through the PhD years, I heard story after story of computer crashes, people losing their research in house fires, archives closing, files being corrupted, and yes, laptops being stolen. And I was careful. Very careful. I saved everything everywhere. I’m even old enough to say in the early days I used floppy disks. Then CDs. Then memory sticks. I emailed copies. I saved documents on various computers across Canada and the United States. I was careful. When I discovered Dropbox, it felt like I could exhale a little. Dropbox felt like the answer to these problems. Of course, if Dropbox failed, I’d always have my own computer copies.

So though I panicked about my personal writing, I felt certain my work was safely stored in Dropbox. I didn’t think twice about it. I just got right back into teaching, waiting for the end of term when I could return to the final edits of the first draft of my manuscript. Yes, the one I’d promised to send the publisher in June.

On June 11, I opened my computer to begin one last read-through of the manuscript before I sent it to some friendly readers. That specific Dropbox account was empty. I searched every where. I drove into school to see if I had downloaded anything on my desktop there, I scoured through every email account I have, I checked random old memory sticks, I begged for help from Dropbox – they helped me try to sync the files from the stolen laptop. Two days of frantic panic. Two days of not being able to speak without crying. Two days of replaying everything over and over. Two days until I could admit that my book was gone.

There I was again, my nose smashed into the hard sand beneath me and my head starting to register an impact. No idea what mistake I’d made or how it had happened.

That was four weeks ago. Truth is I’m not sure I’ve yet screwed the courage together to stand up from the ground. I’m guessing my eyes would still be smeared with tears and dirt and my nose would be bleeding if the metaphor could come to life. I haven’t decided yet what happens next – if I start again or if I release the dream. It could go either way.

I have started to believe, though, that it’s just a book. That my life is so rich and full and honest, that I don’t need any book to feel valued or worthy. As academics we can get caught up in the publish or perish cycle that we forget that we have a choice. My stolen laptop has handed that decision to me on a silver platter – what I do with this gift, I still don’t know. I’m just trying to hold onto the fact that failure, that a face plant in the hard sand of life, has reminded me that choice should never be taken for granted.

Road Trip 2014

My sister Melanie jokes that she has a travel curse. Of course she didn’t mention the whole travel curse thing until after I’d booked the flight from Montreal to Denver not that it would have stopped me. For more than 2000 miles, we kicked that travel curse’s ass. Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont had nothing but love for us as we travelled with a truck full of furniture and boxes half way across the continent. We left the travel curse behind us and drove east, clinging to the hope of fresh starts. The days were long to be sure. But, speaking for myself, I never felt bored or overwhelmed by the length of the journey. We swapped stories and relived the awesomeness of our birthing experiences. We enumerated the ways the humid East coast would rejuvenate her thirsty skin and we oo-ed and ah-ed our way through some of America’s prettiest towns. We talked to Siri a lot – asking her about good places to eat or how far it was to Portage, Indiana, or Utica, New York. She almost always answered us honestly. Accompanied by the internet’s other vixen, Pandora, we listened to great music even through the beautiful but confounding land of Country music radio, Christian radio, and Country Christian radio. Mumford and Sons, Ben Folds, and Fun. eliminated the need to even turn on the radio.

It wasn’t all roses and meadows. In Nebraska, we drove through the kind of storm we’d never witnessed before – tornadoes, lightning and rain falling in sheets. There was the toll that wouldn’t take any kind of card so we had to dig around for the right change. We ate our fair share of fast food. Though she told me she’d rather lick car tires, fatigue and I did eventually seduce Mel into drinking Diet Coke. We missed an exit – but only one in a trip of 2100 miles isn’t so bad! I’d call these bumps. Not the doings of a travel curse.

We didn’t go all Thelma and Louise on the trip though we did feel like women with power and options and wide open roads.

On the last day of June 2014, we arrived at our destination: Burke, Vermont. That same night, Greg travelled down to Vermont and and we celebrated our 13th anniversary by snuggling up nice and close in the double bed at the local motel.

We welcomed the journey’s end to be sure. But still I was a bit sad to say good-bye to my sister and travel companion. Good thing is – she now lives in Vermont and we can visit whenever we want!


Mel arrives in the truck at Denver International Airport


Tornado forming


Leaving the storm behind and sunny skies in front of us


Chicago Hope


Wide open roads




The Green Mountains of Vermont


Journey’s End