Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Something isn’t right

Cora and Floyd Jenks, married November 10, 1915

One of the amazing things about the last couple of days has been the giant box of photographs uncovered at my grandmother’s house. I guess a couple of my cousins, maybe my aunt, knew it was there, but I don’t think any of us knew how many of them there were. We’ve discovered letters and photographs from the 1800s, full scrapbooks with handwritten notes, my grandmother’s high school yearbook with all of her friends’ inscriptions. The story that’s captured all of our imagination, though, is that of Cora Douglas and Floyd Jenks.

I grew up hearing the stories about Cora, my grandfather’s mother. She was beautiful, and artistic, and musical. She sang a perfect soprano, and would bail on chores in order to draw pictures in the apple orchard. Looking through the box of photographs, hers is the presence that has come most alive. We’ve found her paintings, and a photo of her with her camera in hand, the baby book she made when her first son was born. She seemed to have thought of herself as a delicate flower, and took pictures of herself and her sisters in elaborate poses.

"The last rose of summer, blooming alone" --Cora's inscription

She and my great-grandfather Floyd were desperately in love. They married when she was twenty and he 24. Under a picture of the rose-strewn bower where they were married, Cora wrote “Where two hearts were made one.” She and Floyd would harmonized together during hymns in church, and moved to their own farm, five miles from her parents. She became pregnant, and named her first baby Douglas, her own maiden name.

Then she became pregnant again, only ten months later, in 1918. She contracted influenza, while pregnant, during the epidemic of 1918, and died only three weeks after my grandfather was born. He always blamed himself for her death, and evidently his father and brother did, too. The baby boys moved back to live with their grandparents, and spent the first five years of their lives being cared for by Agnes, Cora’s older sister. Agnes was eight years older and unmarried, a spinster.

Five years later, Floyd married Agnes, the woman whom my grandfather always called “mother.” She’s the one who made both boys boiled-egg sandwiches, on bread smeared with an inch of lard, every day for lunch before they walked to school. She’s the one who kept the Belding farm together, who made the butter, who cooked and cleaned. She’s the one who had a fifty-inch waist, according to family legend. When I hear farm wife, I think of her.

Floyd couldn’t go to church after Agnes’s death. When he heard the hymns they used to sing together on the radio, tears streamed down his face. When he died, a year after Agnes, he chose to be buried next to Cora.

My grandparents now rest beside Agnes, in a little graveyard beside a potato field, beneath a maple tree. Both women have become real people in my imagination. I imagine they loved each other, and that they both loved the boys. I imagine that Floyd loved both of them in different ways. He loved Cora with youthful fire, with passion. He loved Agnes with the day-to-day love that comes from hard work, and sacrifice, and steady, regular habit. Which is better? I don’t know. Cora remains 24 years old forever in our memories, but Agnes is the one who got a lifetime of contentment and companionship.

Agnes and Floyd, married 1924


Anonymous said...

Melissa, I'm so sorry about your grandparents. But at the same time, I'm loving your stories about them, about Cora and Agnes and Floyd. I hope the rest of the people your grandparents left behind are able to find joy in their passing, as well.
Off topic: I've been farming my tail off lately and my mind keeps wandering back to you and your quest for land, and I have a wonderful mental image of you living off your land (and probably doing a much better job of it than my family is). I'm not clairvoyant or anything, but it's still a happy thought that my mind touches on now and again! Hope you are well--

Melissa said...

Thank you so much. I've fallen a bit in love with Cora myself--I keep finding myself thinking about her and what she'd be doing now. There are later pictures of her with her oldest son looking a bit more homesteader-ish, and I feel like I can channel her in my own farm life. I feel like I've found a bit of a temporary (and maybe permanent) resting place in Maine, but I'm so chary of permanence that I'm never quite sure. How is your garden going?