Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sepia Saturday: The Merging of Fact and Fiction

(Our latest participation in Sepia Saturdays.
Be sure to check the link to other great posts.)


How much of our family history is fact, legend or pure fiction? I've learned that mine is a pretty wild mix of all of that, and some of the "narrators" of our family's journey have been of varying reliability. Yet, I know that there is some truth embedded in some of the most outlandish tales.

The above photo is of my maternal great grandmother Eva Bell Cheuvront Coddington Cain and her son Claude, taken around 1891 with her son Claude. Here are the facts that I do know about them. She was born ion Montreal in 1867, the eldest of five children. In 1886 she married a man named Frank Coddington and moved with him to Mankato, Kansas.
This is the only photo I know of them as a couple. Their son Claude was born in 1889. They divorced shortly afterward, one of the first in the young state's history. Why they divorced has always been murky, but my grandmother always described Frank as a man with a reputation of being "dangerously handsome and downright dangerous when he was angry, especially when he was drinking".
Being a divorced, single mother with a strong French accent, no alimony and hundreds of miles from home must have been a daunting prospect. But Eva took solace in her "little prince", books of Plato and Baudelaire and memories of home.
In 1900, she remarried a man many years her senior, Maurice Cain, who had also arrived on the US prairie from Quebec. Together they built a new life that included my grandmother and three other children.

Being a dozen years older than the new brood of children, Claude apparently always felt in an awkward role but was especially admired by the three women of the household, and I always heard stories of his amazing singing voice and love of poetry and art. Sadly, none of his work was ever passed down through the family. My grandmother spoke of his dreams of going to New York or even Europe, but he only got as far as Kansas City where he worked as a streetcar conductor until dying suddenly at the age of 29. It was an event that forever shattered Eva. When my mother looked at the photos of the beautiful, poised young Eva in Victorian finery, my mother said it was hard to recognize her as the grandmother she knew -- a hunchbacked woman with goitre, half her teeth missing and smoked a corn cob pipe. Years of hard farm work and dashed dreamed took their toll on her.
My grandmother and her sister would sometimes speak of Claude in hushed tones, his life as what they termed a "confirmed bachelor" and the night he drowned in the Missouri River. As a child, I always wondered why he would go swimming at night. Only towards the end of her life did my grandmother share that he jumped into the river but would then refuse to share more details. When I pressed for answers, she would either turn silent or my parents would tell me that I was being rude.

My instincts and imagination have filled in what I think might have been Claude's story. I don't know how much is fact and how much is fancy. I've long wondered why I he has held such a fascination for me. Other ancestors have had more heroic or dramatic histories. In fact, he is only my "grand half uncle" though I can see a shared bloodline when I gaze on his face in the above portrait of him in his uniform. There is a familiar mix of grace, arrogance, melancholy and longing for what is beyond the immediate horizon. Was he composing a sonnet in his head as the shutter snapped or dreaming of what was beyond the flat Kansas landscape, envisioning himself dancing somewhere in a salon in Paris?

What is most perplexing is that I think I may be the only living person who knows that Frank ever existed or possesses photos of him. Even my sister, who is dedicated to preserving family history, can't remember hearing stories about him. I've asked extended family members about him, and they don't even seem to know that our great-grandmother had a first marriage.
The video below is something I created a few years ago, my imagining of what Claude's story may have been. I know that I probably got several of the facts incorrect (he died in 1918 not 1912 as stated in the video and some of the names are changed), but I hope it honors the truth of his life. I want to believe that this lost soul is not forgotten and that the sweet young prince that brought solace to his mother more than a century ago left behind a wisp of poetry on the prairie, still floating in the cornfields of the sunflower state.

Labels: , , , ,

29 Comments:

At 2:37 PM, Blogger willow said...

...a leaf that fell in summer heat...

This is a hauntingly beautiful tribute to your great uncle Claude. The Desplat in the background is just perfect.

Kansas City is one of my old stomping grounds, so this piece was especially poignant. Hope to see more Junk Thief TV in the near future! Bravissimo!!

 
At 4:31 PM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

Willow - Glad you recognized Desplat, a true film COMPOSER who has written so many gorgeous scores that work perfectly with just about any image.

We should compare notes on KC and see if we have any common ground there!

 
At 7:02 PM, Blogger Bachelor said...

I am simply in awe. You have done a marvelous tribute to you great uncle Claude. I am so impressed. Thank you for sharing your ancestry in such a beautiful creative fashion. When I go into antique shops and see the dozens of old photos, I wonder what ever became of those photographed and why would their desendants rid themselves of the history at least in picture form. Have a great weekend! Thanks again! :) The Bach

 
At 8:34 PM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

Bach - Thank you, sir, for such kind words. I have the same feeling about "homeless" photos and wonder how anyone could throw them out, even if they are of distant family members. I'm glad I've been able to memorialize Claude, who died nearly half a century before I was born, in a way that is worthy of his short life.

 
At 8:52 PM, Blogger mouse (aka kimy) said...

bravo!!


i do believe this is my absolute favorite episode of junk thief t.v. - oh my heart is breaking over uncle claude and his fate.... ah was he born 70 years too early...

bittersweet and poignant .... what a wonderful family story.

this year I was a screener for the upcoming cleveland international film festival and let me say this vid was better than 60% of the shorts I reviewed.

an incredible cache of photos you inherited.

wonderful contribution to sepia saturday junk!! bravo, bravo!!

oh and what a name ol' eva had!!!!

 
At 9:08 PM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

mouse - Thanks. I keep saying I would like to make a "real" video of this story someday, and there is so much good material to build from.

Good luck with the film festival. We're going to have a presence there again this year.

 
At 2:47 AM, Blogger Alan Burnett said...

That is truly outstanding : one of the finest Sepia Saturday posts I have ever seen. The video was the rich icing on what was a most satisfying and creative cake.

 
At 4:25 AM, Blogger Poetikat said...

What a story! That last scene with the young man climbing the stairs is rather haunting.

What a shame he never realized the dreams he had.

Stunning film, Ladron. I greatly enjoyed the telling and viewing of this family tale.

 
At 8:22 AM, Blogger L. D. Burgus said...

Wonderful old photos and the stories are great. I love the family stories the may have been or maybe not. I have a cousin that thinks we are part Native American Indian because she found some one named Lightfoot in the family tree. I don't have the heart to tell her that it was a common English name years ago, and it just another British relative. Enjoyed your blog and that old photo of the model T.

 
At 8:27 AM, Blogger Betsy said...

Junk Thief ~ a wonderful tribute to your great uncle Claude! What a handsome man he was and obviously loved. What a tragic end to his young life! You do have some lovely photos of him. I'm glad you are joining us in the Sepia Saturdays...you have some great contributions! :)

 
At 8:46 AM, Blogger Pat transplanted to MN said...

outstanding with all the photos and additional video! Gives me comfort that others share my frustration in not knowing all the missing information about our ancestors...

 
At 8:56 AM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

Alan - The video was made long ago, but I have several from the past I may share for future posts.

Poetikat - The last scene is from a Buster Keaton film, but it felt somehow appropriate when I picked it.

L.D. - Thanks. I've been watching the Henry Louis Gates series about ancestry which seems sort of relevant to this and how African Americans often convinced themselves they have Native American blood even when it isn't true.

Betsy - I think he was loved, and I hope I have honored him appropriately.

Pat - There is always some mystery about our ancestry, but it is heartening when we do make small discoveries.

 
At 9:37 AM, Blogger R. said...

Amazing compilation Gregg. The music, the imagery and the 'panning' effect. It's truly fantastic to be able to travel back in time, just for a glimpse... I don't know if it's because of my different cultural background, but seeing photos and footage like these is very 'foreign' [in a good way] and yet welcoming to me. Again, great job on putting all this together. It's no easy feat.

Have a great weekend Gregg.

 
At 9:59 AM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

Robert - Thanks for the kind words from someone who knows photography and design so well. I think the past is a foreign land regardless of one's culture.

 
At 10:09 AM, Blogger MuseSwings said...

What an amazing post! A great tribute to your uncle, and a perfect sepia post.

 
At 10:41 AM, Blogger Lorenzo said...

Just beautiful, Ladrón. This is superb writing, superb feeling and even superb TV-making! I'll be on the look out for more episodes of Junk Thief TV.

 
At 10:44 AM, Blogger The Clever Pup said...

Do you use Ancestry.com? The Drouin collection has millions of church records from Quebec. You should check it out. Very interesting tale.

 
At 11:01 AM, Blogger willow said...

JT, yes, let's compare notes. Wouldn't it be amazing to find some connection? Every thing IS up to date in Kansas City, you know!

Send me some of your family surnames.

willow.willowmanor@gmail.com

 
At 11:28 AM, Blogger Meri said...

Fascinating tribute. Since the term "confirmed bachelor" sometimes meant that a man was homosexual, I wonder about Claude. Could his despair have been attributable to feeling so far out of the mainstream? Or was he a depressed straight guy who never found anyone to adore him as much as his mother did? And like the others, I weep in my mind when I find vintage photos and albums in antique stores. In fact, I may post some photos that I've added to my collection simply because I couldn't bear the fact that they had been orphaned by families that didn't appreciate their heritage.

 
At 12:25 PM, Blogger Barry said...

This is a wonderful post and a haunting tribute to your great uncle.

 
At 1:44 PM, Blogger tony said...

Lord You Have Got Under The Skin Here.....Often ,Family History can be dry & rose-coloured.We forget the depth Darkness & Ectasy that Living Brings.History Should Be 3D, & your achieving it here,Keep Digging! BRAVO!

 
At 1:46 PM, Blogger John Hayes said...

I agree with Alan--this is truly outstanding--the thought of your great-grandmother reading Baudelaire on the prairie & your poet great-uncle's flight to Kansas City is a remarkable story. The film was very well done.

 
At 5:35 PM, Blogger PattyF said...

How incredibly poignant! By creating this video, you've managed to do something which I know I struggle to do every time I come across a family photo or a tidbit of information -- you've made Claude real. He's not just a two-dimensional face in a photo, but he's a real person, with foibles and quirks and desires. Kudos!

 
At 6:33 PM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

MuseSwings - Thanks.

Lorenzo - Would enjoy your feedback on other episodes.

Clever - I do want to do a family history journey back to Montreal.

Willow - Names are in the (e)mail.

Meri - I wanted to avoid speculating too much about what "confirmed bachelor" meant. It may be that he was just a loner. His younger half brother led a similar life (though he lived to be 87) but definitely had an eye for the ladies. Those topics just weren't discussed back in the day.

Barry - Thanks!

Tony - I fully agree. I think admitting the shadow side of our ancestry is part of it's beauty.

John - Poetry is sometimes the best way to cope with life on the prairie.

Patty - Since he died so long before I was even born, I will never know for sure if I captured him. But I certain saw the impact he made on his siblings' lives.

 
At 10:15 PM, Blogger Megan said...

I think my comment got et. Darn.

 
At 11:38 PM, Blogger subby said...

Your opening question poses a great point, sir. There are many family secrets we are never told and will (probably) never find out, yes?

 
At 1:30 PM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

Megan - Sorry it got et. I bet it was a great comment.

Subby - And there are some secrets we wish we didn't know.

 
At 3:26 PM, Blogger Stephanie said...

Wow - you did a whole lot of work. With excellent results. Good story.

 
At 10:47 PM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

Stephanie - It sort of wrote itself, in a way, a story that needed to be told. Thanks for dropping by.

 

Post a Comment

<< Home