Monday, November 2, 2015

The Flapper in the Family Tree

2015: the flapper.

My ten-year-old struck a pose with a black feather headband and sleeveless dress lined with fringe. I was exactly her age when I wore a shinny blue version of the same iconic shift, performing as a chorus member in Thoroughly Modern Millie for the school variety show. My own mother had a black version of the outfit, a standby for costume parties in the 80’s. But let’s go back, way back, to my maternal great-grandmother, Ceil McCoy, née Miller, in this photo.

An original flapper.

She hung out with guys like this:

And in modest “cabins” like this:

What I know about Ceil is limited to my mother’s stories, a few old photo albums, and the collection of postcards passed down to me after my grandmother died. I have two memories of visiting Ceil. Once, when I must have been in third or fourth grade, my mother and I took the train to see her in Ohio. It was a long, slow ride and the woman in the seat ahead snored and belched all the way. But my great-grandmother had a pantry full of Campbell’s Sirloin and Country Vegetable soup, a gastronomic revelation as far as I was concerned, which made the journey well worth it.

Another visit involved my entire family stopping by her mobile home. I remember my father somehow locked us all out using the sliding door. And I remember pickles.

But now, here we are, nearly 100 years after some of these candid photos of my great-grandmother were taken in Cincinnati Ohio.
Ceil married Bob McCoy, a musician, shown above with members of Gregory’s band: Jack King, Bob Luig, Buss Shriver and Bill and Red Ruck, according to the green script on the back. Later, Bob would sell Electrolux vacuums to make ends meet. It was while doing this that he died in an accident. For Ceil, with three young boys and my sixteen-year-old grandmother, the music ended.

Ceil never remarried. From what my mother tells me, she’d take a yearly trip to New York City to attend a function held for the wives of salesman. And she’d visit my mom in Madison each summer, wearing long braids pinned to her head, perhaps a tribute not to the bobbed hairstyle of her flapper days, but to her mother, Emma Miller, née Gueth, whose photos are also in the album I’ve been sifting through and whose obituary, yellowed from age and the size of a stamp, I found loose. The flapper’s mother was born in 1877 and died on December 5th, 1959.

A 1940 census record shows a snapshot of the flapper’s life. Born about 1902. Married to Bob. Four children ages 15, 11, 9 and 1.

That fifteen-year-old is the one I hitch my story to. Patricia Jean, who met an officer in training, Ritchey T. Porter, during the war. His family album I also have, and it shows a photographic history of a slightly more privileged upbringing, although a Victorian stoicism dampens any sense that they were enjoying themselves all the more for it.

College was in Ritchey T.'s future, and a good job at Oscar Mayer, where he wisely saved and bought stock options and did what a company man was expected to do.

The lives of the women, Ceil, Pat, Linda, Sarah and now Heidi are somehow connected in this family tree that has endured harder times. I thought a lot about that as I ordered my daughter's flapper dress from a website. Surely Ceil would have shook her head and told me I could have sewn the thing myself. That's what she would have done, and skillfully, too. 

My daughter pulled the dress out of the box and held it up to let the fringe shake free. The earrings dangled like sparkling globes—so fancy compared with her usual tiny studs. We added black satin gloves. A feather band around her hair.

Two histories merged, through wars, jobs, marriages, deaths and births. And all in the blink of a century.

Thanks, as always, for reading. 
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