Sepia Saturday: The Merging of Fact and Fiction
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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.