Friday, October 13, 2017

Sepia Saturday: Girls in White Dresses

Sepia Saturday challenges bloggers to share family history through old photographs.

This week’s Sepia Saturday photo is of a young girl in a white dress writing at a desk. My great grandmother Mary Theresa Sheehan Killeen Walsh dressed her own little girls in dresses like that. It was the style in the early 1900s. 

Killeen and Walsh sisters about 1914
Helen Killeen Parker captioned this photo "The Royal Four."
The photo dates about 1914.
Killeen and Walsh sisters but am not sure who is who - -
Three standing left to right LOOK like Catherine Walsh,
Helen Killeen, and Julia Walsh.
The one seated would have to be Lillie, Mae, or Margaret. ??
But white dresses were not just for little girls. When white gauze, eyelet, voile, tulle, and lace came together, a delicate tea dress was born.

Lillie Killeen 1919
Lillie 1919
I can almost feel the dress my grandaunt Lillie Killeen wore in 1919, likely on Easter Sunday and throughout the summer.

Lillie Killeen 1960s-1970s
Aunt Lil late 1960s-early 1970s

When I knew Aunt Lil, she was already old. She was the only one of the seven girls in her family not to marry. At family gatherings at the home of her younger sister Helen Killeen Parker, Aunt Lil busied herself in the kitchen or orbited the dining room table offering second and third helpings of ham.

Aunt Lil always looked rather frail, almost demanding to be pitied. She rented an apartment and lived what seemed to be a meager life. We used to chuckle over stories of Lillie and her sisters shopping together at the grocery store. My cousin Jennifer as a child sometimes went with them. Her role was to run up and down the aisles fetching whatever the aunts needed to save them time and steps. Aunt Helen and Aunt Mae would reward her with coins and candy. Not Lillie. She never gave Jennifer a thing.

Killeen and Walsh sisters 1970s
The Grocery Store Crew
Lillie Killeen, Helen Killeen Parker,
Mae Killeen Holland, and Julia Walsh Slade (my granny)
My impression of Aunt Lil as a penny-pinching spinster dissipated though following a recent visit with one of Aunt Mae’s granddaughters. She recounted stories told to her by her father that revealed a different side to my prim and proper Aunt Lil.

Aunt Lil used to say that SHE was the lucky one, that her sisters were actually jealous of her. Why? Because she was SINGLE. These are not her exact words, but in essence Lillie boasted, “When I come home from work, I do not have to cook for anyone. I do not have to change diapers. I can do whatever I want, when I want.”

What Lillie enjoyed most was her free weekends of dining and dancing. (Who knew?) I was surprised to learn that there used to be a ferry or some kind of ship that sailed from Norfolk to Baltimore and back on weekends, leaving Friday night and returning Sunday. Live music and dancing and food all night and all day! Passengers could rent a room on the boat. It was small and not a bit luxurious, but Lillie did not care. After all, she was there for the dancing.

Lillie Killeen 1930s
Lillie Killeen 1930s  https://jollettetc.blogspot.comAnother reason Aunt Lil’s sisters were supposedly jealous was that her money was her own to do with as she wanted. By all accounts, she dressed very well.

Lillie must have made good money working for a doctor. I used to think she was a nurse. After all, she dressed like a nurse. 

However, she was actually the bookkeeper. She was asked to wear a nurse uniform so that she could join the doctor in the examining room when he had a female patient. 

Lillie Killeen at work
Lillie at work - judging by the
shoes and hose, a uniform is
under that coat

Lillie became a valuable and trusted employee as she colluded with the doctor in other ways, too. She kept two sets of books (read into that what you will) and two calendars. Why two calendars? The good doctor had several women on the side, it seems, and the calendars helped cover his tracks. I have to wonder how Lillie felt about that because the doctor’s wife gave Lillie lovely gifts at Christmas and on her birthday. Oh, the guilt Aunt Lil must have felt, being the good Catholic that she was.

Lillie did find love. She dated one fellow a long time but saw no future with him. “He drank too much,” she said. She had seen too much alcoholism in the Killeen and Walsh families to put up with one more alcoholic.

Lillie Killeen and boyfriend 1944
Lillie and boyfriend 1944
Virginia Beach Boardwalk

Lillie was not the sad little creature that I saw from the viewpoint of a child. In a time when women were expected to marry and raise families, she chose to go it alone. She chose to be free and to dance.

Note to self: Dance on over to Sepia Saturday for more stories of girls in white dresses.

© 2017, Wendy Mathias.  All rights reserved.


  1. Good on Lil for being proudly independent back in the days when it wasn't expected of women. Her boyfriend in 1944 looks little older rhan she does.

  2. Here, here for Aunt Lil! I had an Aunt Rosie who was also a bookkeeper and never married, but she lived with family rather than on her own. So Lil was bold in that sense, too. Who knows, maybe the married doctor's double books and cheating ways underscored her decision not to marry.

  3. Good for Lil. She seems to have cultivated a chameleon-like persona to accommodate her life as a single woman. This makes me wonder about my own spinster aunts and what they did with their spare time.

  4. What a life she lived! The secrets she kept for the doctor, wow! I'm sure he paid her well to do so. Its neat that she chose to go solo, so to speak, rather than take a conventional way and then perhaps be miserable by doing so.


  5. It is interesting to read about the two different sides of Aunt Lillie.

  6. I love learning surprising facts about my relatives. We all have more than one side.

  7. A fine tribute. I like Aunt Lil's boardwalk bicycle snap as it seems to conveys more personality.

  8. There's something to be said about not having to cook for others, or plan what you want to do around what others want to do. And it she apparently had some nieces and nephews - but perhaps not to spoil? There are some real perks to living alone if you know how to do it so your life is still full, and it sounds like Aunt Lil knew how to do that quite well!

  9. Isn't it interesting when we learn about another side to the "old" folks? That's exactly how I feel as I've learned about my grandmother as a young woman.

    And how future thinking it was for the doctor to have Lil available to come into the room when he was with a woman patient. Something I'm not sure many thought about at that time.

  10. Lately I've been thinking of how different life as an old person looks to an old person living it as opposed to youngsters who often have a very superficial view of same.

  11. What a gal! You’ve made me think twice about my maiden great aunts now; they always seemed happy, but who knows? I do like the photo of frilly Lillie.

  12. A lovely profile of your Aunt Lil - she sounds quite a character. She reminds me very much of my aunt and godmother - my feisty Aunt Edith, an infant teacher with lots of entertaining anecdotes on her teaching days. She travelled to the USSR at the time of the communist era, and married for the first time st the age of 73.

  13. As a single woman who's raised her family, divorced, and lived most of my life on my own, I can sure empathize with Lil. I also had a maiden great Aunt Margaret, who taught High School math in San Antonio TX, and I loved her to bits.

  14. I've been studying the photo of Aunt Lil on the boardwalk. It's quite intriguing and surprisingly intimate. I wonder who took the photo.

  15. It really makes me wonder about all of the perceptions we have of others, especially the ancestors we've never met, but just tried to piece together from documents we've found. I suspect we get it wrong more often than not. I'm glad you've taken the time to record what you've learned about her here, especially since she didn't have any descendants to do that for her.