Emily Williamson and Taylor at home. 2004.
An Untold Life: Emily Williamson
By Maggie Nicholson
When Emily Williamson was a child, she resided with her family in a small, cabin-like home on Bainbridge Island. She was often alone as a young girl, and solitude forged within her an insightful commune with the world. Her mother ran an arts and crafts store in Bainbridge and sculpted colorful figures out of Play-Doh. Emily would sit alone in the woods atop tree stumps by the muddy water and reflect on the lives around her. She saw not only beauty in the world, but a purpose and meaning for all within it.
Emily had a thoughtful nature and gave her full attention to a number of creative projects, seeing her riotous passions through until they shed light upon something new. She sewed multicolored dolls of fabric cloths and rags, deepening the color of their cheeks with red paint. She wrote two full-length fiction novels. Her paintings and doodles are scattered through West Seattle like patches of native grass. At certain points in her life, Emily had an inexhaustible artistic energy, and she flitted from one medium to the next like a butterfly.
When she was twenty-five, she joined a women’s group run by Mary Bell, the owner of West Seattle’s ‘Many Moons Trading Company.’ Emily sewed her fabric dolls at their meetings. It helped her to retain focus. The group was held in a relatively unsafe area, and at nights as the class dissipated, Mary’s friend Scott helped the women to their cars, and sometimes escorted them home.
Scott and Emily soon fell in love and moved in together with Mary and her housemates. The house is occupied by a group of artists that share one mutual intention: bettering life on earth. Emily was a chatterbox, and despite Mary’s initial reflex to distance herself from the talkative blonde who seemed never to leave her alone (following her even to the bathroom), the two women grew to be inseparable.
They had clandestine conversations with one another, shrouding their words with secret and meaningful veils. Mary hired Emily at her store. Talking with Emily, you felt as if you were the most important person in the world to her. For this reason, she was adored by her customers. ‘Many Moons’ became the epicenter of her universe. She sold clothing at the trading company, but also listened to her customers, helping them and consoling them on their life journeys. Mary jokes that the company acts only as a façade of a thrift store. In truth, it is more than clothing. It is a home, a base. For Emily, it was exactly that.
She enjoyed her privacy. She painted an octopus in the corner of her room, just above her bed, and kept the area exceptionally tidy. Her home-space was neat and simplistic. A single print from Austrian painter Friedensreich Hundertwasser hung on one of the walls. In others’ spaces, she was not as compulsively neat; her car, too, was cluttered with belongings.
She was astoundingly intuitive with children. She had no problem crawling in the mud with them or playing dress-up as Ellie the Elf, a fellow princess or even a giant chicken. She would walk the Junction in West Seattle in her giant chicken costume, leading a band of children behind her waddling feet. She was Alice in Wonderland: one of them.
Mary’s young granddaughter, Taylor, was fond of and very close with Emily. They’d often snuggle in bed together beneath thick blankets, reading illustrated books during moonlit sleepovers.
Emily cared for an Easter cactus for ten years, a gift from Scott. She loved passionflowers: an aggressive plant, a vine. Mary planted the flowers in the garden near to their home for her. Emily’s favorite meal was Nana’s spaghetti and meatballs, and on her birthday, she asked for a giant meatball instead of a cake.
When Emily grew sick, her five housemates, among them Scott and Mary, cared for her. Mary, who Emily called “Moons,” cooked apple and squash soup for her and acted as nurse. Emily was given an estimate of six months to live after her diagnosis. She went on to live for eight more years. Emily was mentally uninhibited in a healthy and joyful way, even after her diagnosis. She had a deep fragility and innocence about her. When she started chemotherapy, she had her housemate Royal shave her head. Taylor, who was four at the time, pattered her way over to Emily.
“What do you think of my new hair?” asked Emily.
“I don’t think you should let Bobba cut your hair anymore,” said Taylor slowly. Emily laughed, motioning Taylor over to her. She let Taylor paint her head with blue watercolor flowers.
Emily loved music, arranging bands for Native American reservation benefits in South Dakota with Mary and housemate Royal. Her all-time favorite was West Seattle local Robert Weinberg. She could listen to his music endlessly. When she grew ill, she switched from music to books on tapes, returning weekly to the West Seattle Library to rent novels in rapid succession.
In her illness, she grew compulsive about her artwork. She spent day after day inside the small art studio she shared with Mary at Ginomai. She’d paint for hours and then sleep for hours, curled up among the plants and wooden tools. She would wake and continue painting. The studio was extremely warm, a cocoon on cold days.
At Mount Saint Vincent, in the thrush of her illness, Emily faced one of her lifelong struggles: a dual impulse between pride and humility. Emily could hardly speak or walk when Moons brought her in. When she woke, she telephoned Moons to come back for her.
“I want to go home,” she said. “And if you don’t pick me up, I’m going to crawl out the window and walk back in my hospital slippers.”
Moons soothed her, said to wait, and that she would come as soon as she could. Emily waded outside of the hospital room into a group of elderly patients. Each had a plastic tray of food sitting before them. They sat in a circle, cloaked in plastic blue gowns: anonymous to each other and indistinguishable. Emily was given a tray, and she sat with them, spooning the pudding slowly into her mouth.
Across from her, an elderly woman stared over, earnestly. The woman patted the table in front of her three times, then raised her wrinkled wrist and beat her chest. Emily looked around, and then back at the woman, who continued to stare. The woman gestured again: patting the table three times and then beating her chest, patting the table, beating her chest. Emily realized she being told to put her bib on.
‘The pudding would spill,’ the woman was gesturing. ‘The bib will help,’ said the woman with her hands, which again patted the table.
Emily stared at the woman. The room was blank with the vacuous glare of phosphorescent light. Emily’s chest inflated with a poignant realization. She had always wanted to be known and loved, famous even. Now, in her pale gown, with her pale pudding before her, she felt a knowledge seep over her, amplified by the steady gaze of the old woman, whose hands continued to beat like a drum. Emily took a deep breath and slipped the bib around her slender neck. She knew she loved the old woman before her. Humility bloomed around her heart, quickly and copiously, like the passionflower’s hurried vine. She knew that it was okay to need help, to need a bib, to need someone to make her apple-squash soup. She knew who she loved and who loved her, and she knew that it was enough.
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