Monday, March 18, 2013

I love PARIS in the Spring Time!

Lately, I've been living vicariously through one of my college students as she made a springtime trip to Paris. be in Paris, again.
I love that city - I've been obsessed with it since high school French class. My friend, Cathy, and I were so Paris-crazed, that we talked her parents into inviting a foreign-exchange student to live with them. He was French, indeed, but did not live up to our teenage fantasies of the cute Parisian boy. He was averse to showers and a bit of a grouchy loner.
Just after I was married, I finally took a trip to Paris with my husband. We rode the Metro, visited the Notre Dame, and ate croissants in a cafe. Paris was everything I'd imagined and more. It was a bit gritty - a tad decadent - and so, so, so gloriously cool.
We loved the Rodin museum with its enormous front lawn and statue garden. We listened to jazz on a boat docked at the Seine. We ate anchovies on pizza in a dark alley-side cafe. We sauntered through book stalls and climbed the steps of Montmartre. I felt like I was Audrey Hepburn.
This Christmas, Milt gave me this little vintage travel book to add to my growing vintage Paris collection. It is from 1960, probably given out at the airport for tourists.
Now, while I loved Paris in the early 1990s -
I can only dream of what it must have been like in the 1960s... J'adore!
The book highlights things to do and places to see - some of which are no longer around.
Of course, there are the Paris women - tres chic!
But, I've saved the best part for last. In the back of the book, tucked away like little memories of a glorious trip, were mementos.
A ticket to Sainte Chapelle Exposition and another to the Tombeau de L'Empereur. An airplane cocktail napkin, soft and faded. A card from the Oberon paris - "Do Your Shopping." And a receipt from a restaurant at the Hotel Lutetia, 43, Boulevard Raspail, Paris...
For now, I'll tie on my vintage scarf and pick up my glittery Paris bag, and pretend (for just a moment), that I'm about to leave for my favorite city in the world.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Researching My Eight Women: Nettie McCormick and Her Fortunate Life

This week, I traveled to Madison, Wisconsin, to visit the Wisconsin Historical Archives collection on the McCormick family. Nettie McCormick, wife of the inventor of the reaper - Cyrus McCormick, is one of the eight women in my book.

The building is being restored, but the interior is gorgeous. Filigreed windows, marble floors and a winding staircase. Fueled by Starbucks, I started up the grand steps.

The Wisconsin Historical Society Archives were granted the McCormick collection in the 1950s. There is a massive amount of information, 12 million pages, kept in files about the family and their businesses. 

Cyrus McCormick changed the landscape of farming worldwide with his invention of the reaper.

The couple changed Chicago and the world by giving millions of dollars
to religion and educational institutions.

What struck me as I requested box after box, was how odd it would be to have your life documented in this way. There are files of interviews about Nettie - collected by a woman who was specifically hired by the family to document her life. This woman, and her staff of helpers, interviewed dozens of people about Nettie. They typed the interviews, outlined information, contacted every institution to which the McCormicks donated. Their records are meticulous.

Some files contained lists of items Nettie would pack for her trips to New York, Paris, or Egypt. She would mention that they needed to bring a white lawn blouse or a grey silk evening skirt. There were scribbled notes that seemed to be household reminders. There were lists of her jewelry and calling cards with doodles on them. There were letters to "My dear husband" from "Your devoted wife." She worried about him as he traveled and about her children when they fell ill. Telegrams and checks were piled into folders - each one kept - although most were probably nothing of significance.
Some of the items were so old and fragile they were falling apart.
I felt as if I was peeking into the private life of someone I did not know . . . a very wealthy and very powerful woman. People mentioned her gracious manner, her amazing memory, and her meticulous care for her details. She had enormous wealth, but also a kind and gentle heart. She was well loved.

One story was told by a woman whose husband was the president of a small Southern college. Nettie had given a great deal of money to the college and had come down for the dedication of a new building.
Before the event, she met with the wife for tea. Nettie told her that she had just been shopping for a dress for the event and thought that, perhaps, the wife had not had time to purchase a new garment for the special occasion.
"I hope you don't mind," said Nettie. "But I purchased one for you as well. It will be sent by this afternoon."
The woman smiled. She had no money to buy a new dress and was going to iron an her best calico to wear to the special occasion. Nettie knew that, of course, and wanted to give the gift in the kindest way possible.

Nettie wrote: "Yes, money is power.
But I have always tried not to trust in it,
but rather use it for the glory of my Master."

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Clues in the Clippings

I love a good mystery.

I enjoy peering into clues from the past, like my childhood hero, girl detective Nancy Drew, and putting together pieces of a story.

My love of research has been useful in my current project. I am writing about the lives of eight women for my book - that now has an offical title:

When Others Shuddered: Eight Women Who Didn't Give Up.

These women all lived more than a century ago - so I can't talk to them. I can only read about their lives on dusty old pages and microfilm. They grew up in small towns across the country. Some of them were members of wealthy families - one was the child of slaves. Many of them had tragic events, briefly inserted into reports of their life stories, that certainly impacted who they became.

Right now, I am researching wealthy philanthropist Nettie McCormick - wife of Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the reaper. While Nettie had all the money she would ever need, she faced troubles with her family. Two of her children developed severe mental illness that prevented them from leading normal lives. As I read the biographers' words, I am certain that these incidents, often reported so casually, broke Nellie's motherly heart.

In my own family's history files, I found this newspaper clipping. It is actually a fragile part of a yellowed newspaper article-describing an accident involving my great grandmother.

The article reads: "The impact of the wheel on the railing badly shooke up the occupants of the car, but it was at first believed no one was injured. Mrs. Benson [my great-grandmother] and Gerald [my grandma's brother] remained quiet in their conrer, and it was only after the party investigated their silence that they were found to be hurt."

The story goes on to say, "Physicians were called and worked over Mrs. Benson for several hours, but were unable to save her. It was found she had a fractured skull and three broken ribs. It was believed her injuries resulted from striking the side of the car body. Gerald, whose condition this morning was doubtful, si thought to have been hurt in the same way."

Reading this brief story left me sad and puzzled. I had never heard about this accident from my Grandma Storms. To me, she was just my grandma -  not Elsie, the daughter of Anna Edens Benson, who had died very tragically and unexpectedly in this accident.

I wish I could ask questions: Where were they going? Was my grandma in the car or at home? How did she learn that her mother was killed? What happened to her after her mother died? Was she raised by her father? or by relatives?

I am certain there was a tremendous impact on my grandma's life from this one single event. It probably shaped her personality - which could be very serious and controlling. She probably felt that her life, which had spun out of control in one single moment, could not be trusted.

As I write my book and sort through remnants of people's lives, I am mindful that each article, each clue, gives me only a tiny window into what happened.Some of my women, like Emma Dryer, destroyed the evidence of their lives. Before she died, Emma burned her diaries.What did they contain? What did she hope no one would ever read?

How about you? Do you have any unsolved mysteries in your family history? Are there any chapters left unfinished? Did you ever discover a clue that made you want to learn more?