Lea Wait, here.
I’ve been thinking about my grandmothers recently. Now that (gulp) I am a grandmother myself (of eight, I might add, for which I take no credit) I realized that both of my grandmothers – born in the nineteenth century – would have had little understanding of the world we now live in. What will my grandchildren think of me someday, I wonder? Some old lady born ‘way back in the 20th century who wrote books and lived in a really old house in Maine and took forever to get a cellphone.
Ah, well. Back to my grandmothers. One I never knew — she died before I was born — and I’ve appropriated her maiden name, Cornelia Kidd, as the pseudonym for my new Maine Murder Mystery series, debuting June 12 with Death and a Pot of Chowder. I’ll be writing more about her in another blog. But I hope she’d like that her name will be spoken so many years after her death.
My other grandmother, Caroline Eleanor Patterson, I knew well. I lived with her for a year when I was a toddler, and when I was ten she and my grandfather moved in to share a house with my parents, summer and winter. Their summer home is where I live now, sleeping in the same bedroom she did. She loved reading, was a dealer in antique dolls and toys, and valued books and history. She was very proud when I went to college, a lifelong dream of hers she was never able to fulfill. She didn’t live to see me graduate, but I think she knew I would. If she’d known I was going to write books she would have been thrilled. After all, she was the first person to take me to a library.
Cornelia and Eleanor (as she was called) both had their pictures taken at about the same time, sometime between 1900 and 1910. Those pictures tell their own stories.
Cornelia was thirty-two in 1910. She lived in Montgomery, a town in Orange County, New York. She’d been married for twelve years to a wealthy farmer twenty-two years older than she was, and given birth to three children, one of whom had died. Her picture shows her dressed elegantly (puffed sleeves and ruffles!), perhaps even flamboyantly, perhaps to show off her husband’s stature in town.
On the other hand, Eleanor was twenty in 1910, and still living at home in Boston. Her parents had been married in Edinburgh, Scotland, ten months before she was born, and she was the first of their seven children. (One of them died at the age of five.) Eleanor had been ill in her teens, so had graduated from high school a year later than her peers, and her dictatorial father would not allow her to attend college, or even to leave her home without the protection of one of her younger brothers. She had just convinced him that she be allowed to attend secretarial school, which would at least get her out of her house.
Her portrait is much simpler than Cornelia’s. Her dress is much plainer, and she’s wearing on only simple pin — a cameo she was given when she was eighteen, and which years later she gave to me on my eighteenth birthday. Although both women are pictured in studios, the chair next to Eleanor is simple compared with the elegant high-backed chair Cornelia is sitting on.
Why the differences? Perhaps the ten years difference in the women’s ages. Perhaps the perceptions of their families. Perhaps the difference between Boston and rural New York State.
In any case, I look at those pictures of my grandmothers and wish I could ask them questions I never even thought to ask the grandmother I knew. Were they in favor of women’s rights? Did Cornelia love books, as Eleanor did? What were their dreams? Their frustrations? Their aspirations? What were they thinking as those pictures were taken?
I’ll never know, of course. But whatever they were thinking when those pictures were taken, they’ve now become part of my history. And I cherish both of their portraits.