Foreshortening

It started with Stella Atkinson’s skirt. On the first day of school, she walked straight to the first desk in my art classroom with a two-inch black panel hanging like an afterthought at the end of her hem. I had her march right back into the corridor.

“Stella, your skirt violates skirt code.”

“I’m sorry, Miss Wheatland.” Her cheeks reddened as she spoke. “I had a growth spurt over the summer. Mother did the best she could.”

“Well, why on earth didn’t she take you to Jessop’s for another?”

Stella’s eyes fell to the speckled gray tile of the classroom. When she finally looked up, her gaze didn’t rise higher than my chin. I noticed a mended tear on the shoulder of her simple blouse.

“Daddy says people will always need food. It’s only temporary.”

I understood. Atkinson’s Grocery, southern California’s grocery franchise and Stella’s family’s business, was usually full to brimming with neighbors chatting about produce and cuts of meat. But that had all changed. The aisles had grown quiet. I was convinced on my last visit that I had entered one of those “other dimensions” the pulp magazines were always writing stories about. Instead of people, cans of soup and cantaloupe occupied the aisles. The bins of vegetables were stacked higher than I was tall. The newspaper said that grocery stores were experiencing a surplus of goods on account of the stock market crash a few years ago. People just weren’t shopping there anymore, and the white collar business owners here in Whittier were beginning to feel the repercussions of what the newspapers call “the Depression.”

“I see. It’s fine, Stella. Go back to your desk and sketch the still-life I’ve set up.” I smoothed down my own plaid dress, folded a pleat in my favorite cotton cardigan.

Later, I broached the subject in the teacher’s salon. We discussed the little things they’d noticed. Miss Frankenfield said she’d started turning a blind eye to the students grabbing third and fourth servings during luncheon, and Mr. Petty told us of Norman Reilly, the student whose family pulled him from school without notice.

“It’s probably best if we relax the rules until the situation improves, Ruth,” Mrs. Grassell whispered as we walked back to class together.

Relaxing the rules proved easy as 1933 progressed. The dress code violations became too numerous to enforce, so we focused on other things: the talent of this year’s tennis team or Dorothy Gibbons’s prize science project. We let the signs of the Great Depression recede into the background. I thought about that on the day I taught my students about foreshortening—the illusion of objects receding from our perspective.

This story was written for Amy Johnson Crow’s #52Ancestors and is based on research I’ve done for a great-grandaunt, Ruth Wheatland, who was a “spinster” teacher well into her 30s. I saw that she had taught high school art at the begining of the Depression and tried to imagine what that time would have been like for her.

(Click for genealogical sources.)

Christiana Chamberlain Court Affidavit and transcript

Screen shot 2015-06-12 at 2.32.02 PM

Screen shot 2015-06-12 at 2.32.16 PM

Transcription:

Reproduced at the National Archives

(writing here is the original researcher’s notes, Doris Wilson Gibbs)

State of Kansas

Sumner County

On this 17th day of December AD 1888 personally appears before me a County Clerk in and for said County of Sumner Christianna Chamberlin aged . . . years who is a respectable person and entitled to Credit. Who being duly sworn deposes and says that she is well acquainted with Emily C. Wilson wife of Thomas Wilson a pensioner on the Pension Rolls at Washington D.C. No. of claim No. 78617 Deposer further deposes and says that she was present on the 17th day of June AD 1843 at Mascedonia, Ontario Co. State of N.Y. and saw Mr. Thomas Wilson and Emily C. Wilson and heard the marriage ceremony performed as they were then and there pronounced man and wife by a Justice of the Peace. She further deposes and says that she has no interest direct of indirect to any Pension Claim to which this affidavit may refer and is not concerned in the prosecution of any such Claim And that her Post Office address is Wellington, Sumner County, Kansas.

Sworn and subscribed to before me this 17th day of December 1888

Wm. Berry Co. Clk.                                                C Chamberlain

The Trouble With Women (it’s not what it sounds like)

Whenever my partner enters the room while I’m digging into the past, I’m either bent over the laptop taking notes, furiously typing another search into a search engine, or, and most likely, I’m muttering to myself. I’m sure, to him, I have the same constipated look on my face as Russell Crowe’s characters in 80% of his movie.

But concentration is necessary. I am resurrecting lives after all.

Chamberlain affidavit
Christiana Chamberlain’s affidavit. I love how flowery the language is, but the editor in me wants to take a red pen to most of it!

Case in point: reviewing the document at left that was in the pile of papers my family received from my Genealogical Fairy Godmother.

On December 17, 1888, a seventy-year-old woman named Christiana Chamberlain trudged into the office of a county clerk in Wellington, Kansas, and asked him to write an affidavit. She swore an oath to the man that what she was about to say was absolute truth. The lawyer reached for a piece of lined paper and his quill pen and began to write.

Christiana tells the lawyer that she was present at a wedding some 45 years before in a place called Mascedonia, Ontario County, New York. (Click here for larger version and transcript of the affidavit.) Pretty straight forward, huh?

The reason she took the trouble to tell a lawyer this was to help a widow reclaim money from her late husband’s Civil War pension. That widow happens to be my 2nd great-grandmother, Emily Chelesta Patterson. I knew very little about Emily’s life before she married, just maiden name (Patterson), the state in which she was born, and a rough birth year. And I knew even less of Emily’s mother or father, nor any siblings she may have.

That’s the trouble with finding our female relatives’ stories: they’re as integral as the men to the plot lines of our families, but their childhoods are hidden behind their husbands’ last names.

Up until scrutinizing this old letter, my family agreed that Emily’s husband, Thomas Wilson, had been married twice. The snippet below from the 1850 Census lists a woman named Anna living with Thomas and his children. Every census after that lists Emily as the woman of the house and mother to George, Mary, Ambrose, Joanna and Emogene. The names Anna and Emily are different enough and different ages and places of birth were listed for them. We had each looked at this record and assumed Anna had passed away, and Thomas had married Emily to help him care for his 5 children. But Christiana’s statement verifies that Emily was Thomas’s wife when the 1850 census was taken. So Anna was Emily, and I had the happy task of erasing a name off my To Research list.

One simple misunderstood name set the researchers off the track for years.
One simple misheard name set us researchers off track for 10 years. Source: 1850 United States Federal Census, New York, Ontario County, Manchester town, p. 71

But then it occurred to me that the 45 years between the marriage in 1843, and the affidavit written in 1888 was a mighty long time. Christiana lived in Wellington, Kansas, at the time she gave the affidavit; Emily lived in Shiawassee County, Michigan. They must have been very tight for Emily to have asked such a favor from so far away. Seems like Emily could have asked younger family members to attest to the marriage—siblings or cousins who might have attended. The two women would have to be as close as sisters to maintain such a friendship for so long. Sisters? Wait a minute.

So, I started researching Christiana, tracking her and her family back in time from Kansas and sure enough, I eventually found a marriage record that a Christiana Patterson married a man named Chamberlain in Illinois. After living in Kansas a while, the Chamberlains moved to Orange County, California. When Christiana passed away in her home in 1908, her niece Joanna (Emily’s daughter) lived in a house around the corner. Ha ha, success! I still have to do the work to prove that my theory is correct, but I now had strong clues to follow to research my enigmatic great-grandmother.

(You might be thinking: Why didn’t the affidavit mention their relationship? Well, the statement goes on to attest that Christiana had no personal stakes in Emily receiving her husband’s money. Mentioning their relationship could have marred her integrity.)

That’s what I mean by resurrecting people’s lives. I had to go back into the “fantasyland of the past” to get into the circumstances of the people involved in that affidavit in order to piece together that Emily and Christiana were sisters (allegedly, probably).

And to think if I hadn’t gone through my Fairy Godmother’s papers for the 101st time I might not have ever made that important connection. It really is so gratifying to solve another piece of the family history puzzle, like Sudoku only using people to fill in the boxes instead of numbers!

*This post was inspired by the DPWriting Challenge, whose prompt this week was to teach something.