Life After…Go figure

A Narrative of Life Outside The Box

My great-grandparents liked to neck in the grass.

I have a picture of my great-grandparents making out in a field. Because it was taken circa 1900, they’re really just necking, but conversely, for the 1900’s, they’re having a lot more fun and relaxing more on camera than other images I’ve seen from the turn of the century. (Although one should never pretend ignorance of pin-up girls, risqué soap posters and floozies in 1900. Especially floozies. How often do you get to say that?)

Great-grandmother Rose Stern was born into a family of Jewish merchants in upstate New York. Her father had been born in Prussia. I’m still tracking down her mother, Carrie’s birthplace. we have one photograph of Carrie in a dark dress, severely pinned curly hair and a very stressed and strained expression. Finding out more about her is a bit more difficult because Carrie died of TB and Rose was so distraught over the loss–which occurred in her childhood–that she would not discuss Carrie much. Rose was apprenticed to a milliner and her future seemed set in the direction of so many young girls of her generation, work and possibly a marriage within the ethnic and religious community she had been born into.

Great-grandfather William was a WASP. I suppose I should spell out the letters but what would be the point? Howell? DAR? Episcopalian? I had to come to terms with this in my rebellious late teens; it’s one thing to take pride in your ancestors who worked their way up under the rich and then gained their own independence and success. It’s a bit of a shock and a wonderful historical irony to find out you’re also descended from the people for whom they scrubbed floors and ironed shirts. But there you are. The Howells prospered enough after the Civil War that I suspect they fought for the Union–but I am also still tracking that story down. William’s family had traveled north to the town of Plattsburgh for his father’s health; like Saratoga, Plattsburgh was a fashionable resort and recovery area. The town was on Lake Champlain and offered a cool escape in the summer with plenty of fresh air–two factors people considered vital to regaining and maintaining good health in the late nineteenth century. The Howells built an opulent hotel in Plattsburgh and prepared to go on about their gilded age business.

Then one day Rose and William met at a baseball game (or possibly a football game. With two sets of ancestors meeting at sporting events, the details have blurred). She was almost as tiny as her mother had been, somewhere in the 4″9 range with thick wavy dark hair and a very solemn expression (that apparently hid an unstoppable sense of humor). William was of middling height, potentially stocky, with sandy hair. No stories of ‘love at first sight’ have survived, but Rose knew how to dress and how to make the most of the era’s fashions–literally, making clothes if she couldn’t afford off the rack.

According to family lore, they wooed each other through their stomachs. William brought Rose elaborate desserts from the hotel kitchen and Rose roasted him chickens.

William’s proposal to Rose may have run into much more opposition, or at least effective opposition if his father hadn’t died before their courtship had begun. As it was, his mother Mary rolled out a full attack of the vapors, wept, stormed and protested on behalf of her former status as the belle of Washington DC society. We don’t know how many, or which ugly words might have escaped her lips. Her obituary, long after this tumult had ceased, painted her as restrained and generous, but somehow nobody in my family believes that she showed Rose those particular virtues.

William overrode all protests, exhortations and temper tantrums and married Rose at the Episcopal church in Plattsburgh. There is no evidence in our family letters or papers that he required her to convert. Among our older possessions, we have a Passover Haggadah, untranslated, and my mother and cousins’ memory of her attending Temple from time to time.

Rose went on to treat the family hotel to its first experience of the Irresistible Force and the Immovable Object simultaneously. She found a former army cook and trained him to become a gourmet chef. She ran the hotel gift shop as an antique store and earned more money than William did from the main enterprise. And somehow, she found time to be photographed on a picnic, in the vast green and sun-splashed laziness of an upstate New York summer, the grass and sky bright even in the black and white dustiness of the picture. Rose and William are smiling slightly, but gleefully and halfway between tackling each other.

I’ve always loved their story for the bravery and the example of tolerance and adventure it held. But the picture that inspired my story here made them real for me, young, funny, and very much in love. And yes, their truth beats Titanic into the freakin’ ground.


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