Wednesday, July 22, 2015

It All Begins With Great

My great grandmother had a confusion of names.  In one document she's Alice Maud Vinson, and in another she's Maud Alice Vincent.  After marriage she was referred to by the newspapers as Mrs. A. N. Eastman, or Maud Eastman or Alice Eastman (sometimes all three in the same issue).  And after her second marriage she was known as Mrs. King.

But to the kids of my generation, of which there were quite a few, she was known as "Great."

The first great grandchild dubbed her that, and for most of my life I never knew her as anything else.  Great towered over the family as a legend (albeit one whose main superpowers were pastry and a sense of humor).  She's also the oldest member of my family whom I have personally met.

Great was a storyteller, a prankster and a pioneer, and an unparalleled cook -- in particular a pastry chef and baker.

But for me she is also (like all legends) an incomplete puzzle.  I'd heard so much, but the details were missing.  And the elderly, frail, tiny woman I knew didn't do any of the things she was famous for any more. When prompted she might come up with a story, but not the endless stream I had heard about. She didn't cook, or prank any more. She certainly didn't climb trees or run restaurants, or wrangle teenaged boys.

Were the stories about her true?

On one level, I don't really care if they are true.  They are the myths and legends of my youth.  But I still want to touch them, to find evidence of the germ of truth, if it's there.  I'm like those 19th century German archaeologists, digging madly to find the lost city of Troy.  It's enough to know that part of it's true. It's enough to be able to stand on the place where it did (or did not) happen.

In The Kitchen at Three

(For clarity, I'm going to try to remember to call her Maud from here on in, but I don't know if I'll succeed.)

I know two things about Maud's childhood.  One is that she began her career in the kitchen at three years old, standing on a box in a lumber camp, doing dishes.  (The lumber camp aspect may be an embroidery - it could have been she was doing dishes at home while her mother was cooking for all the lumberjacks, of which her father was probably one.)

Gramma (Naomi), who followed in Maud's footsteps as a marvelous cook, did her own dish washing as a toddler, though not as a career move.

One Thanksgiving when she was about five years old (or younger - I don't recall what she said) all the adults had retired to the living room to digest their meal. So Little Naomi decided to do the dishes for holding each dish out for the dog to lick clean.

I'm not sure that Maud did much better of a job.  She could take shortcuts with the best of them.  One time, says Gramma, they were preparing butter for market, when they dropped it on the floor.  Money was scarce and butter was a cash commodity.  Oh no! They couldn't afford to lose any of it.  So... Maud picked the butter back up, and with a conspiratorial wink at her daughter, refolded the butter so that the dirty part was inside.

The Drunken Lumberjack

The other thing is the only thing Gramma told me about Maud's parents: Her father was a "terrible drunk." (This may be literally true, or it may be a redundancy -- Gramma was a prohibitionist, an elector for the Temperance Party convention right up into the 1980s.  She described all drunks as terrible.)

Though Gramma never said specifically, I had the impression that Maud's father was a lumberjack (perhaps because of the story of Maud doing dishes in a lumber camp). And that he was possibly French Canadian.

And because of him being a terrible drunk, Maud's mother wanted to get her out of the house fast, and married her off to a sober Congregationalist as soon as possible.

So That's My First Quest

I have these little glimpses into little Maudy Vinson's childhood, up until she married.  I need to find the touchstones of that life.

Unfortunately, those years were spent in a bit of a black hole in my best research tools.  Even the U. S. Census lets me down, because most of the 1890 Census was destroyed long ago in a fire.  All the same, it's amazing how much you can find, even with the minimum genealogical tools.

So next time, we'll build what we can from what I've found out about her parents and early years.

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