Toby, Elaine, and the Lord

This story starts out being about me. Facebook reminded me this morning that it had been five years since my brother, Clay, and I went to visit the Art Institute of Chicago. It was quite inspiring for me, and probably more so for Clay, an artist who paints with oils.

One of my favorite paintings was of a woman lying on a bed in a boat, her long blonde hair fanned out around her. She appeared to be asleep or dead. The caption accompanying the painting led me to believe she was being returned to her home by boat for her funeral. A man piloting the boat was dressed like the Grim Reaper. I remember the details of the painting were sort of romantic and haunting. I took a photo of the painting with my phone but failed to note the name of the work or the artist.

Which has bugged me ever since. So today when Facebook nudged me with the photo of the painting once more, I did an online search for the painting using words I would use to describe it such as funeral, boat, dead blonde. I have done this same search numerous times, and I have never found the painting.

I gave up on Bing and tried Google. Then a pop-up appeared suggesting I could upload an image to search. Would that work? I took my low-resolution image that Facebook saved and put it in the image search box. Voila! Immediately it found the artist and the name of the painting. It was called “The Beautiful Elaine.” Wouldn’t have gotten that in a million years.

It turns out I am not the only one who was haunted by “Elaine.” The artist, Toby Edward Rosenthal, was born in West Prussia in 1848, and his family moved to San Francisco when he was ten. His artistic talent became apparent early in his life, and he was sent to Munich at age sixteen to study at the Royal Academy. His artistic style was true to the realism of the nineteenth century, and his dramatic portrayals often hinted at stories of romance, danger, abandonment, and death. You can read more about the artist here: Tobias Edward Rosenthal | The Society of California Pioneers.

T.E. Rosenthal

While Rosenthal studied in Germany, he sent some of his work back to his parents who exhibited them at art fairs in San Francisco. This led to a commission by a wealthy San Francisco banker, a Mr. Parrott. He wanted a portrait based on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s epic poem, Idylls of the King. Tennyson was the British poet laureate during Queen Victoria’s reign. I remember Lord Tennyson’s distinctive mug from playing the card game “Authors” as a child.

Idylls of the King included a story about the legendary Elaine, who died from her unrequited love of Lancelot. Yes, that Lancelot, whose obsession with Queen Guinevere mucked up King Arthur’s Camelot and the Knights of the Roundtable.

I also ran across an earlier version of this Elaine, which I prefer. Her Daddy had his own castle, and Lancelot showed up to compete in a tournament, fighting against King Arthur’s men while in disguise. He wins but is wounded, and Elaine helps him get back on his feet. She is smitten, but his heart still belongs to Guinevere, so she tricks him with a magic potion or two, and he ends up marrying her and fathering her children. The eldest becomes a more successful knight than even Lancelot. Of course, this version doesn’t end with her floating on a barge down the Thames toward Camelot clutching a farewell letter and a lily.

This is not the only legend, poem, or painting dedicated to Elaine. She is sometimes called the Lady of Shallot.

I digress. Back to Toby Rosenthal’s painting. His benefactor, Mr. Parrott, grew tired of Toby’s delays and demands for more money, so he commissioned another artist to paint what he wanted. Rosenthal sold his finished painting to a Mrs. Johnson, who paid several times the original commissioned price. The painting was later exhibited in San Francisco, and large crowds lined up daily for twelve days to see the dramatic painting of the tragic Elaine. Rosenthal’s proud parents were in daily attendance at the public frenzy surrounding the exhibit. Then the painting was stolen! The crowds lined up to view the empty frame. You can’t make this stuff up.

The thief was caught, the painting returned, and over ten thousand people viewed it. The painting won a gold medal at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876. Eventually, it was purchased by Mrs. Maurice Rosenfeld, a Chicagoan, who donated it to the Art Institute in 1917 where I saw it one hundred years later.

If this doesn’t read like a Historical Romance novel, I don’t know what does. No wonder I couldn’t forget the image of Toby Rosenthal’s painting, and I didn’t know half of the story. Perhaps this is the reason I put a nineteenth-century painting in my latest novel in progress.

Claudia J. Severin


1968 is calling…

I’ve been writing a series of books set beginning in the late 1960s. The first, Catch It Spinning, was published recently. One of the fun things for me in writing in this era is to remember some of the ways that world was different than the one we now inhabit.

In 1968, in the middle of my high school years, a telephone was just a telephone. It was a communications instrument hard-wired into the wall, or if you had extensions in various rooms, as my parents did, into several walls. Electricity was supplied to the phone through the wires, so even if the power in your house went out, you could still use the phone, assuming the central telephone office still had power.

When you wanted to call someone, and teenagers did that frequently even then, you usually went through a gatekeeper, mostly the other teen’s parents. If someone was using their phone, you got a busy signal. You had to wait until their line was free. Or possibly they took their phone off the hook, accidentally or on purpose. Not everyone was aware that there was a way around this scenario. I found out by dating a boy whose mother worked as a long-distance operator. You could call the operator and ask to have the line verified or interrupted. The operator could actually go in on the line and hear if there was conversation. If so, she would tell the person inquiring that the line was in use. If nothing was heard, the phone could be reported out of order and a repairman would be dispatched to that location.

Another option was that the line could be interrupted by declaring an emergency. The person declaring an emergency was supposed to come up with a reasonable explanation such as “I’m in jail and this is my one phone call.” If the operator deemed it an emergency, she would go in on the line and advise the parties talking that she had an emergency call for number 432-1234, and ask the parties to hang up to receive the call. Then the inquiring party could make their call.

If there was no one at home, or someone just didn’t answer their ringing telephone, you had no recourse other than calling later. At that time, you could let someone’s phone ring for hours though, so if you thought they were ignoring you, you could annoy them at length. The good-mannered rule of thumb was to let the phone ring ten times, in case the party was in the shower or unable to get to the receiver quickly. I wouldn’t think of getting out of the shower now to answer my phone even if I heard it ringing.

We got an Ericofon like the one pictured above when I was a kid. It was fun and very space-agey. But for practical purposes, it was a little heavy for the long phone calls I made when I was a teenager, because the dial was in the bottom. Plus, ours was in the kitchen where anyone could hear your very private conversations. Better to hide out in the parents’ bedroom where you could close the door and sit on the floor by one of their twin beds. It was easier to cradle the receiver on your shoulder using their rotary phone when you wanted to talk to a boy. The conversations that went on for hours could probably have been condensed into ten minutes if you deleted the repeated stories and dead air. The point was that you talked to him for hours, not that either one of you had something significant to say.

If you wanted to call someone you didn’t know well, you looked up their father’s name in the phone book. Everyone had several phone books, depending on how many extensions you had. These were supplied by the only telephone company in town. Almost everyone’s father’s name was in the phone book, although you didn’t always know the name of the father of the classmate you were calling. You looked up the last name and called every phone number associated with it. Then it was a game of “Is this the residence for Susie Snodgrass? No? Then do you happen to know Susie Snodgrass and what her father’s name is?”

When you were out shopping, sometimes you had to use a telephone. There were payphones near every store, on street corners, sometimes in clusters. These were usually in phone booths with folding doors. Often payphones had been vandalized and were not working. Sometimes the dimes just got stuck in the coin slot. But when they worked, it was a handy way to get mom to approve a purchase you wanted to make at a store downtown, or tell her you missed the bus. Again.

Another thing that was different about the phones then is that people could transmit emotion using them. Happy people would often play with the coiled cord connecting the receiver. Angry people could slam the phone receiver down and make a loud noise in the listener’s ear. Try that trick with your Android.

Phones came in different colors. For a princess phone in your bedroom, you might choose a coordinating color with the carpet or bedding. The Ericofon came in several bright and neutral shades. Your phone could make a fashion statement in your home or it could also make a statement that you didn’t care about that.

What a phone wouldn’t and couldn’t do was tell time or give you the forecast. There was a number for that you could call to hear a recorded message. It couldn’t give you any games. There were plenty of board and card games at home. It certainly didn’t connect you to the internet since that wasn’t invented yet. No email. No social media. No podcasts. No audiobooks. No online banking. No calculator. None of the other zillion applications you have on your palm-sized device. A phone was for making calls. And as a teenager, you had to wait your turn.


Some Degree of Happiness

“And they lived happily ever after.” Is this just a fairy tale? I tried to end each of my four stories in my book, HERside of HIStory—Finding My Foremothers’ Footprints on a positive note. However, I don’t think I have seen anyone live every moment happily. At some point, we all have to die, and that may involve some pain which I would interpret as unhappiness. I think the best we can hope for is “mostly happiness.” That’s what I should start wishing people, a life with mostly happiness, or more good than bad.

One of the first things you read as a newly minted author is that conflict makes the story. Conflict reeks of unhappiness. I certainly found that it was more fun to write about people arguing or undermining each other than those who were always pleasant and agreeable. One could even argue that a certain degree of unhappiness is necessary for happiness to occur. A cosmic duality, yin and yang if you will. You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.

So you have to expose a problem or two when writing a novel and show how your heroine overcomes the adversity. And grows. Or yes, this experience is supposed to make her grow in some way. I don’t know about you, but in real life dealing with adversity just makes me tired, and cranky. Or it makes me grow older. Not so much wiser, but maybe I am selling myself short.

In that vein, I am going to add some “outtakes” from the aforementioned book. The section “Nellie” contains the most conflict. I omitted this part of the story when I was trying to cut back on the content. Stephen King suggested reducing your book by 10% in the second draft, and I took his advice. This was on the cutting room floor, so to speak:



This scene takes place in Brewster, Kansas, in 1919 after Nellie and Ben had been dating awhile, and she realized they kept having the same argument:

She knew it was time to be as honest as she could with Ben, and hoped he would do likewise, even if it meant they had to stop seeing each other.

“This is not working for either one of us,” she told him a few days before Thanksgiving, as they were walking to the Cochrane house, where she was picking up her sister, Zella. “I think we are getting too old to go out partying every weekend. For one thing, it is too expensive. If you are ever going to have anything worthwhile in life, you have to save your money to buy a house or a farm, something that is an investment. I know you say that you don’t want to turn into your father, and have all those responsibilities, and that is your choice. But going forward, I think that is what I want for my life, to have a business or a job, be able to have some sort of stable home life, with children, and just do what other people do. I think we just want different things. Maybe we are wasting our time trying to be together.”

He was clearly a little shocked. “You’re telling me after all this time, you don’t wanna be with me? Now you want someone like your daddy. I think you would just get bored. Maybe I won’t want to be a free spirit forever, but I am still sowing my wild oats after being cooped up in that so-called army training camp for almost two years. But, hey, if that is what you want, I guess it ain’t me.”  With a note of sarcasm he added, “See you around, Sweetheart.”  Then he turned on his heel and walked the other way, back toward the store.

By Thanksgiving Day, she had gotten past the initial pain of breaking off a relationship, but she had not gotten up the nerve to mention it to her family. It was easier just to not think about him at all. She was in the middle of making her favorite chocolate meringue pie when she heard a racket outdoors and looked out to see her young brother, Verner, and her nieces Lazetta and Beth all laughing over a dark furred puppy that Ben was holding out to them. Oh no, she thought. Why is he here?  I suppose he was invited weeks ago, maybe Mom even mentioned it to him, but surely he realized that everything has changed now.

Just then, five-year-old Beth came running into the kitchen, cradling the dog, followed by the others. “Aunt Nellie, look. Look what Ben brought for me!  Isn’t he just adorable?  I’m going to call him Gobbler cuz I got him on Thanksgiving. Do you want to pet him?”

 She gave the dog a pat, and had to admit he was very cute. Then Beth raced off to show the puppy to her grandfather, who was in the living room. Nellie gave Ben a questioning look, but he simply acted as though everything was fine, and he went to talk to her father about the dog. That just made her angry, as she was two days into forgetting about him, and he just showed up as though nothing had changed. At the dinner table, she didn’t speak to him unless it was to ask to pass the potatoes, but kept glaring at him while he tried to entertain her family with his witty anecdotes. No one seemed to notice except for Zella, who began to look back and forth between Nellie and Ben. She confronted Nellie when they went back into the kitchen while clearing away the dishes.

“You two had another fight, didn’t you? No, NO…you broke up with him? And he still came to dinner?” Zella asked, reading Nellie’s face.

She hadn’t expected her tears to betray her, but she wasn’t able to stop them. She reached for her heavy coat hanging on a hook in the hallway. “I’m going outside. Would you ask him to come talk to me?”

“Aren’t we having dessert?” Ben called out, when he found her on the back porch.

“Dessert?  No, this is the part where you explain why you are here. Why did you come to Thanksgiving dinner with my whole family after we broke up? I thought you agreed that we didn’t belong together.”

“I don’t do explanations or apologies, I thought you’d figured that out,” he muttered. “But I’m here, I want to be here. I’m willing to try it. Can’t you just see that?”

“What do you mean, you are going to try?  Are you saying you’re going to settle down, stop going to the clubs, save your money, plan a future?  What is it you are trying?” she asked, wiping away a warm tear from her frozen cheek.

“Whatever you want. I am trying to be what you want. I want to be with you, and if that is what you want, I will try.” She smiled then, not quite believing her ears, and wrapped him in a warm embrace.

“Can we go have some pie now?” He sounded like a little boy.

He was serious about changing his lifestyle, Nellie soon realized. He stopped going to Goodland, unless it was on an errand for Mr. Horney, or to take her to a picture show. He mentioned that some of the clubs had closed with the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment, which had started nationwide alcohol prohibition. In Kansas, the speakeasies were even under more scrutiny because of the strong presence of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union there. He spent more time at her parents’ farm and even begin asking her father for advice on setting up a dairy business.


You will find the rest of Nellie and Ben’s saga in the soon to be published book.

Who’s Writing Now?

It was inevitable that there would be artificial intelligence programs capable of creating essays, novels, and all sorts of written material. Robots can vacuum your floors and drive a car. I’m still holding my breath for that hover car they had in the Jetsons. But I decided it was time to test drive ChatGPT, an automated language model. I asked it how I should attribute its work, as I didn’t want to plagiarize.

The response was,

“If you want to attribute a quote to ChatGPT, you can simply write ‘ChatGPT said,’ followed by the quote in quotation marks. Since I am an AI language model and not a human being, you don't need to provide a full name or any other personal information.” 

As a demonstration, I wanted to see if ChatGPT could create a story for my Time Travelers Writing Group. We’re not talking about SciFi; it’s related to writing about ancestors. So, I asked it, Can ChatGPT write stories about my ancestors?

“Certainly! I'd be happy to write a story about your ancestors. Please provide me with some information about your ancestors such as their names, where they were from, and any significant events or achievements that you would like me to include in the story. Additionally, please let me know if you have a specific type of story in mind, such as a fictional tale based on your family's history, or a more factual account of their lives.”

Here’s the command I put in the text box: Write a story about Ellen Hotopp McCracken’s life, based on these facts:

  • born in Elk Grove, Illinois in 1857
  • Saw Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train procession.
  • Family moved to Marshall, IA probably due to father’s job as a railway mail carrier
  • Married John Robert McCracken in 1879 at her parent’s home
  • Bought 160 acres near Kingsley, IA, and moved to a farm there in 1885
  • Had 11 children
  • Fay, Clifford, and Grover, all preceded her in death
  • She put on a black dress and went out to work as a midwife
  • Suffered from a type of dementia at the end of her life

(This ancestor was my great-grandmother, but she died before I was born.)

Within a second, ChatGPT started spitting this out, one word at a time, as if I was watching an old teletype machine back in the 1970s—

“Ellen Hotopp McCracken was born in Elk Grove, Illinois in 1857. As a young girl, she witnessed history when she saw Abraham Lincoln's funeral train procession pass through her hometown. Ellen was in awe of the solemn procession and the respect shown to the fallen president.
“When Ellen was still a child, her family moved to Marshall, Iowa, likely due to her father's job as a railway mail carrier. It was here that Ellen grew up and received her education.
“In 1879, Ellen married John Robert McCracken in her parents' home. The couple moved around quite a bit during their early years of marriage, but eventually settled down in Kingsley, Iowa, in 1885. There, they bought 160 acres of land and started their family.
“Over the years, Ellen gave birth to eleven children, though sadly three of them - Fay, Clifford, and Grover - preceded her in death. Ellen was a devoted mother and wife, but she also found time to pursue her interests outside the home.
“In fact, Ellen put on a black dress and went out to work as a midwife in the surrounding towns. Her knowledge of botany and chemistry came in handy when she helped women during childbirth. Ellen was a comforting presence during a time when many women did not have access to medical care.
“As she grew older, Ellen began to suffer from a type of dementia. It was a difficult time for her and her family, but they remained by her side and cared for her until the end of her life.
“Ellen Hotopp McCracken was a woman ahead of her time. She pursued higher education, worked as a midwife, and ran a farm alongside her husband. Her love for learning and her dedication to her family and community inspired those around her. Even in her final years, Ellen's legacy continued to live on, and she is remembered as a remarkable woman who made a lasting impact on her community.”

This all reflects the information I fed the AI except for the part about botany and chemistry. I wasn’t sure where that came in. I decided to give the ChatGPT free reign. Did it have an imagination?

So, then I requested—Write a story about Ellen Hottop McCracken born in 1857 in Elk Grove, IL. Not a lot to refer to there. Here’s what it came back with:

“Ellen Hottop McCracken was born in 1857 in Elk Grove, a small town in Illinois. Her parents were farmers and Ellen grew up with a love for the land and a deep appreciation for hard work.
“As a young girl, Ellen was quiet and reserved, preferring to spend her time reading books and learning about the world around her. She was particularly fascinated by science and the natural world, and would spend hours exploring the fields and forests around her home.
“Ellen's love of learning eventually led her to pursue higher education, something that was still rare for women in the late 1800s. With the support of her family, Ellen enrolled in the University of Illinois, where she studied biology and chemistry.
“After graduation, Ellen began working as a researcher at a small laboratory in Chicago. She quickly made a name for herself in the field of botany, and her work on plant genetics and breeding earned her international acclaim.
“Ellen's research took her all over the world, from the rainforests of South America to the deserts of Africa. She was known for her tireless work ethic and her passion for discovering new things.
“But despite her success, Ellen remained humble and grounded. She never forgot her roots in Elk Grove, and she always made time to visit her family and friends there.
“As Ellen grew older, her health began to decline. But even in her final years, she never lost her love of learning and her curiosity about the world. She passed away in 1929, but her legacy lived on through the countless scientists and researchers who were inspired by her work.
“Today, Ellen Hotopp McCracken is remembered as a pioneer in the field of botany and a trailblazer for women in science. Her passion, dedication, and love of learning continue to inspire generations of researchers and scientists around the world.”

Well, that settles it. ChatGPT, you are writing my eulogy.

Social Media in the 1890s

Homesteading in Nebraska social media group posts:

Bill Johnson-2 days ago-What was at the corner of Apple and First Streets before the blacksmith moved in? Post a drawing if you have one. Even if the post is just a hitching post. LOL.

Mavis Johnson-1 day ago-Bill, stop writing nonsense to that Homesteading mailbox. You know half the town can’t read. We need to build more schools. And git to work. That field ain’t plowing itself!

Horace Kleever-6 days ago-Here’s a tintype of my civil war buddies taken last year. The itinerant photographer dropped it by last week. Sadly, only four of us out of twenty showed up. Three died and the rest either got lost on the way to Omaha, or they were bitten by Gold Rush Fever and continued on to Colorado.

Sponsored – Luxury Living in Trenton, Nebraska. Good house, stable, outhouses, cellar, fruit trees and vines. Large residence lot fenced, good well with force pump. Nice shade trees, coal sheds and chicken house. Price $1400, one third cash, one third in one year and the balance in two years.


Sylvia Mansfield – 2 days ago- I received a letter from my sister, Ann, whom many of you know. She commenced a suit against that no-good husband of hers, Elmer White. They were married in Council Bluffs three years ago. She accused him of nonsupport, cruelty and drunkenness. I wish I could have seen that. Ann is likely to return to the family farm once this business is settled.

Genevieve McDonald is inviting you to an event-4 days ago-The ladies of the Congregational church and society will give an apron string-tie social at the church on Wednesday evening, February 14. Unhemmed aprons will be supplied for the benefit of the gentlemen, the one doing the best work receiving a prize. Each gent is requested to bring his own thimble. Every lady is asked to bring an apron with hem basted, and a string tie of like material. After aprons are finished, they will be placed on sale. Lap supper and amusements to follow.

Suggested for you: The Perkins Wind Mill is not the cheapest but the best! Warranted not to blow down, unless the tower goes with it; or against any wind that does not disable substantial farm buildings, to be perfect, to outlast and do better work than any other mill made. Visit Hitchcock & Moore, the storefront behind that huge windmill in the center of town.

Rev. Orville Newell –8 days ago – Must Church Socials Go? There has been some debate growing among church workers that socials and entertainment for amusement’s sake were entirely wrong or at least questionable. As in other matters, sides are taken with extremists and those whose views are less positive. Please keep your comments productive!

All comments>

Rev. H.R. Murphy – 7 days ago- To my mind the selling of ice cream or confectionery for a profit is perfectly legitimate and right. For persons to depend on such means for the raising of money to the neglect of paying according to their ability is wholly wrong. The social feature is very desirable when the entertainment is kept within proper bounds.

Mrs. H.R. Murphy – 6 days ago – What my husband meant to say is that questionable games, lottery schemes and the like cannot be too strongly denounced. If the society obtains the money by honorable means, and gives an equitable return for the money received, it is theirs, and comes into the church treasury backed by the best of motives.

Rev. L.L. Luther – 5 days ago – There should be parlors, separate and distinct from the other parts of the church, so that there will be no running from one to the other when a social is held. Young people are apt to forget the sacredness of the place. No socials are held in our church. I believe in the social side of human nature and that only Christian people have a right to laugh, but it is dishonest to hold all kinds of entertainment in the church building. It is not necessary to get the Lord’s money in this manner.

Miss Constance Moline – 4 days ago – If you show people that you are interested in them socially as well as morally, you will have a greater influence. Children in these mission districts have nothing in the way of entertainment unless we give it to them. Religion is no sanctimonious affair; I do not think. Don’t go about it with a long face.

Hammond Wright – 4 days ago – The Butler Avenue Church started as a series of social events held weekly. These proved profitable in every way. They gave way to a literary and musical entertainment with a friendly social gathering held at intervals. The church now holds regular church services and is flourishing. No one argues against socials in our organization.

Butch Holstead – 7 days ago – What do you miss most about the 1870s?

All comments>

Homer Whittaker – 2 days ago -Getting my first horse, Thunderhead. He was a beauty.

María Mason – 4 days ago – walking home from school through the fields of poppies in May. I don’t miss freezing in the schoolhouse when the stove went out.

Sylvester Devonshire – 5 days ago – I miss the social life of my youth in Boston, Massachusetts.  Living on a homestead is very isolating in comparison.

Abigail Templeton – 6 days ago – Nothing! Life only gets better. Women will be given the vote soon and will make sure everyone is properly cared for.

***Content largely extracted from newspapers of the era.

Are We There Yet?

Photo by Bich Tran on Pexels.com

It’s been two long years. We thought 2020 was cursed. Everyone wanted it to just end. But 2021 was not much better. The Covid nightmare went on and on. I feel like we are finally back to business as usual. But not normal, unless you call it the new normal. People are still testing positive for Covid, but it’s mostly mild, not deadly.

Over 900,000 people have died from the virus in the United States, according to NBC news. This greatly exceeds the first estimates, which seemed extraordinary at the time. In the first year, my three children, three grandchildren and I tested for Covid at least once, all negative. In the second year, my pregnant daughter and her son tested positive, but she had been vaccinated and they both had relatively mild cases. Only my husband avoided even a Covid scare because he became a hermit.

Now that the dust is settling, I think we can agree that these two years have made some striking changes in our society. We might have hoped that fighting a common enemy, like a deadly virus, would have united us and quieted the political infighting. But no, there were new debates, whether to require masks and vaccines, whether to send children to school in person, whether to even believe the Centers for Disease Control statistics.

Compared to many other people in different stages of life, I know I have been lucky. I was already retired and could stay home. Our family was lucky that we had no weddings or other major events scheduled in 2020 or 2021. Students who had looked forward to activity-filled senior years and socially-filled college experiences had their calendars reduced to academic matters. In that scenario, I might have been tempted to quit school and go to work until this thing blew over. But wait! Many jobs disintegrated too in the pandemic, with restaurants and other contact businesses being forced to close or reduce capacity. How many brick and mortar stores have been shuttered in the past two years because they couldn’t survive the pandemic? And why, now that businesses are reopened, are they often short-staffed?

On the flip side, those employees involved in “essential services” were working more hours than they wanted, and often under more stress than usual. Healthcare workers suffered burn out and were more exposed to the virus than other people. Teachers were sometimes trying to teach in person and online at the same time or on alternate days. Students were not getting the attention they needed to keep up with their studies. Parents were often torn between trying to work from home and helping their children attend school online. Those who had younger children in the household at the same time must have been pulling their hair out.

Retirement homes didn’t fare any better. Visitors were banned, leaving seniors who counted on family visits stranded. Residents were restricted to their rooms at times when staff tested positive. And of course, until the vaccines were available, the members of this population were most likely to be dealt a fatal blow.

Many Americans report that they have felt like they’ve spent the last two years waiting. Waiting to have their wedding, waiting to have a child, waiting for that dream vacation, waiting to buy a house, waiting to start living again. When things seemed to be improving, along came the Delta and the Omicron variants, only to dash hope. Maybe the pandemic should have taught us not to wait for anything. Live for today, do what you are able to do today and be flexible. Alas, we are not wired that way. We want to plan, want to control our destinies.

In spite of the omnipresent dismal Covid forecasts on the news programs, it should have been a great time to stay home and watch television. With the addition of many new streaming services, that seemed attractive. Except that many shows were delayed for the same reasons that disrupted the rest of our lives, they couldn’t film during the cautionary months of Covid-19. I started calling it C-19, as it became more familiar and warranted a nickname. And some show writers thought it was appropriate to base storylines around the current conditions of the country, and write Covid into the scripts. Especially medical programs, who could resist all the risk and stress involved? No thank you. I still refuse to watch the whole last season of Grey’s Anatomy when they afflicted poor Meredith Grey with Covid. I don’t care how many dead previous co-stars she saw on that beach when she was in a coma.

There were some advantages. Zoom worked great, providing you had a fairly new computer and a decent Wi-fi connection. Although this may have been yet another thing that excluded elderly people. Many workers working from home took advantage of the early days of Covid to do some home improvements, even though you were not supposed to shop for non-essential products. We got government checks that no one expected. Unemployment and under-employment payments helped booster finances. With nowhere to go, I noticed my bank account swelling in the past two years until recently when inflation took a big bite and my retirement funds shrank.

I noticed something else strange about being restricted to home more. I got used to it. Instead of getting stir-crazy, I didn’t mind being a homebody. I am happy that it isn’t permanent.

The Boy, the Painting & the Heirloom

The boy sat on a low iron stool, the youngest in the family portrait taken in 1909.  Clifford Landon McCracken had six sisters, and two brothers living at the time of the photograph. His oldest sister was thirty. He was four years old: a little tow-headed tyke wearing a big collared two piece “wash suit” with dark knee hose. The studio lights caught the wrinkles as his stockings gapped at his knees and ankles. His brother, John Clayton McCracken, who was three years older, had graduated to a Russian hassock shirt and knee britches.

That same year, his father, my great-grandfather, John Robert McCracken, sold the farm where Clifford had been born a mile from Kingsley, IA. The family moved to Sioux City, Iowa.

The following year, in the summer of 1910, Clifford died of infantile paralysis, three days after he first showed symptoms.

But the family story has it that he had been photographed wearing a similar romper and a matching hat about six months after the family portrait had been taken. A painting was supposedly done from this snapshot. But was that part true?

Studio portraits were commonplace by 1909, and often very clear images have been saved. I know from personal experience as a studio photographer that it is hard to keep a child still to take a good portrait, let alone get them to smile too.

Would my great-grandfather have had a camera in his possession by 1909? Eastman Kodak was selling Brownie cameras in that timeframe. Although he wasn’t a wealthy man, he might have thought so at the time. He made a big profit on his farm sale of nearly twenty-six thousand dollars. I believe he thought he and his wife could live on that the rest of their lives, as it appears he did not take another job, although he was only fifty-five when he quit farming. He probably didn’t plan on living until he was nearly ninety. But if they took any snapshots, they didn’t survive to be passed along to their heirs.

The painting, I was told, was given to Clifford’s parents on the occasion of their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. That was clearly incorrect. Their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary was a year before Clifford was born. It may have been given to them on their thirty-fifth anniversary in 1914. But the date the artist recorded on the corner of the portrait was 1910, shortly after his death. So it seems logical that they received it in 1911 on their thirty-second wedding anniversary, if the anniversary part is even true. I am assuming that my grandfather, Clinton Claude McCracken spearheaded the commissioning of the portrait. He was a take-charge kind of guy, the oldest surviving son, twenty-two, single, and still living at home in early 1911. His older sisters had generally married and moved out.

The interesting part about the painting is the artist. Elizabeth Honor Dolan was a well-known artist in Nebraska. She spent her childhood in southeastern Nebraska and attended the University of Nebraska in the 1890s.  She studied for a year in Des Moines and in October of 1912 she enrolled in the Chicago Art Institute. In 1914 she became a member of the Art Students League in New York City. She lived in New York for eight years supporting herself with her paintings, including those of children, and designing stained glass windows for Louis Tiffany.

In 1924 she received a $500 scholarship to study art at Fontainebleau outside Paris, France. She learned fresco painting from Francis Garguit and was one of three students in a class of twenty-five to receive a diploma in fresco painting.

When she returned to Nebraska, she received a commission as a “decorator” earning $100 a week to paint frescos on the new Morrill Hall walls. She painted the east and west walls of Elephant Hall, seventeen feet high and seventy feet long, in addition to the north and south walls, first and second floor wall cases and the backgrounds in the Hall of Nebraska Wildlife. It took fifteen months. She painted directly on the plaster walls, giving the work a three-dimensional effect. She has been called a genius for her fresco work.

Her oil on canvas work, Spirit of the Prairie was painted on site at the state capital in Lincoln, Nebraska. She donated the painting, and only accepted a fee to cover expenses. I remember a large painting she had done that was displayed at Miller & Paine department store when I worked there in my youth. It is now located in the southeast quadrant of the state capital in the Supreme Court ladies’ lounge.

She also was commissioned to do paintings for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the New York City YWCA, the Lincoln YWCA, the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the University’s Student Union, Lincoln’s Unitarian Church, the University Club, the Lincoln Public Library, and Lincoln’s Masonic Temple. My grandfather would have been active in the Lincoln Masonic Temple in 1934 when she was asked to do nine large paintings. Coincidence?

The older brother, my grandfather C.C. McCracken in 1892

The heirloom ended up in my hands when my mother died in 2003. It had long been known in my family as “Baby Cliff.” But what were we going to do with him? We left him in the house when my sister sold off some of the furnishings and household items that were not wanted by any of us three children. She reported that buyers offered her money for the frame, which is an ornate gold leaf. But no one recognized the value of the artist’s work, and certainly no one else cared about a little boy lost at a young age. Somewhere along the way, the canvas had been damaged. I believe my mother inquired once about repairing it, but the estimate was more than she wanted to spend.

I began to wonder where he had been since his parents died in the mid-1940s. Baby Cliff’s painting probably remained in their home as long as his sisters Elizabeth McCracken or Sylvia McCracken lived there. Sylvia died in 1968. But perhaps he journeyed to Lincoln to reside with my grandfather before he died in 1956. Sometime in the 1960s he had made his way into my grandmother’s possession, and I would guess he became my mother’s ward when my grandmother moved out of her large house in 1969.Like many family heirlooms, it seems wrong to part with him, other than giving it to another family member. I guess he will hang in my guest bedroom, waiting for someone to offer a handsome price for an original Elizabeth Dolan. – Claudia Severin July 2020

Resources for information I used on Elizabeth Dolan:




The Day After Infamy

December 8, 1941 Lincoln, Nebraska     

Maryellen McCracken woke up early on her twentieth birthday so she could have breakfast with her brother and sister. As was their tradition, she had candle on her pancake, and there was a rush of activity. Her sister, June, age sixteen, was headed to Lincoln High School, while her younger brother, Dale, age fourteen, was going to Irving Junior High. Her other brother, Bob, age eighteen, was attending Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Missouri and wouldn’t be home for Christmas for another ten days. Maryellen was a sophomore at the University of Nebraska, but her first class didn’t start for two hours.

Before the children piled into their father’s car to transport to school, their father, C.C. McCracken, held up his hand for quiet.

“Before we go our separate ways, there is something you need to hear,” he began. “I got a telephone call early this morning. It appears that Japanese bomber planes and naval destroyers attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii yesterday morning before dawn. They took our base by surprise and there were many fatalities and injuries. The President will be addressing the nation and Congress. Mother is going to stay home and listen to the radio for updates, but you will probably hear more about this today. I expect this means we have entered the conflict.”

Maryellen sank into a Chippendale dining chair. “It’s happened. We’re at war? On my birthday?” Her eyes darted from her mother, Hannah, to C.C. as her hand flew to cover her mouth.

Her father ushered June and Dale out to the garage.

 “Mary, where is Melvin?” Hannah, asked. “And when was the last time you heard from him?”

Maryellen knit her brows. Why is she asking about my boyfriend? “He’s been at Camp Robinson in Arkansas for almost a year. He’s a squad leader, you know that. I got a letter Saturday, do you want to see it?”

“He hasn’t mentioned anything about being deployed to the Pacific?”

“He’ll have to go now, won’t he? Mel and probably all those men at Camp Robinson will be sent there to fight.” Tears filled her eyes but it was too unreal to grasp. “What about Bob? He’s taking military training right now. Do you think they might start drafting younger men?”

“We don’t know any of that yet, let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Hannah said, folding her into an embrace. Maryellen broke away and ran up the stairs to her room. She heard her mother turning on the radio, but she couldn’t listen. She flung herself on her bed and sobbed.

This was not the way any of this was supposed to go today. Her parents always bought her something lovely for her birthday. She was planning to celebrate with her girlfriends later. The President was supposed to be negotiating with the Japanese and solving this whole war problem. Melvin was supposed to come home, not go off to war. Why did any of this have to happen on her birthday?

She looked around her room. She loved this room, and this house on South Fortieth Street. They’d moved in here when the house was built when she was nearly eight years old, and it had been full of happy memories with her family. But she thought she’d be moving out soon. She thought she’d be getting married.

She went back downstairs in time to hear President Roosevelt on the radio addressing Congress. “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” Hannah was sitting on a chair next to the radio in the living room. Mary crossed to her and sat at her feet with her head in her mother’s lap. Hannah laid a hand on her hair.

The president went on to say that Japan had pretended to be in peace talks while planning this attack for weeks, and that several other islands in the area, including the Philippines and Guam had also been attacked in the past hours. He asked Congress to declare that a state of war existed between the United States and Japan.

They talked about the news in the two classes she had that day. She stopped by the Gamma Phi Beta sorority house on her way home, and found several girls crying, not knowing the fate of their boyfriends who were stationed near one of the affected locations.

By the time she got back to her family home, the first of the evening papers had been delivered and was sitting on the table.

“WAR DECLARED BY U.S. 3000 KILLED, WOUNDED IN JAP ATTACK ON HONOLULU” the headline read. She shook her head. It seemed like a bad dream.

Hannah was busy in the kitchen, frosting a cake, Maryellen’s birthday cake. A ham was baking in the oven, and potatoes were peeled, ready to boil and mash.

“Mom, you’re still planning my birthday dinner? Even with everything that is going on today?”

“Of course, Darling. It is days like this that remind you how important family is. Our family began twenty years ago today, when you were born almost a year after we were married. That is not a day that will live in infamy but a day we will always treasure and celebrate. We need a little fun and comradery today. This war may affect us in many ways in the next months and years. But today we are still standing as one. Today is still your twentieth birthday. We have time to make good memories.”

My mother, Maryellen did marry my father, Burl Melvin Johnson about ten months later before he was deployed to the Philippines during World War II. Her brother Bob was deployed to India. Younger brother Dale served at the Great Lakes Naval Academy but was not deployed overseas. All survived the war.

Claudia Johnson Severin

The Era of the E.R.A.

I didn’t expect to like Mrs. America, the new miniseries on Hulu. What I remember about Phyllis Schlafly was that she was a thorn in the side of feminism. Honestly, I didn’t know much about her. But why would an actress of Cate Blanchett’s panache want to glorify her? So far, in the first five episodes, I’ve learned a lot.

Program creator Dahvi Waller quickly demonstrates how Phyllis yearns to achieve greater heights than being a busy mother of six and a wife to an estate attorney. Cate Blanchett stars as Phyllis and John Slattery plays the husband, Fred. I keep hoping he is going to rip off his chauvinist mantle and whatever makeup prosthetics they put on his face, and give me the wise-cracking Roger Sterling from Mad Men.

When she decides to regroup after a failed bid at a congressional seat in Illinois, Phyllis shows off her knowledge of the nuclear arms talks, and is invited to speak to Senator Barry Goldwater in Washington. In that meeting, as she is revving up to make her point, the men suggest she take notes, after they have already dismissed the secretary, who was prepared to take notes. This relegates her to a nonparticipant role, of course, and she is quick to recognize it. With impressive nerve, she then changes the conversation back to the Equal Rights Amendment. Golly, the men will have to listen to her now, she’s the only one invested.

As the series progresses, it becomes clear that Phyllis Schlafly didn’t always know what she was talking about, but she was very good at appearing to know what she was talking about. I’ve never seen anyone like that, have you? She was adept at organizing at the grassroots level, and proved her point that women who had the same opportunities and financial backing that she had might not need a constitutional amendment. At the same time, she runs into opposition from her husband who tells her she is too old to go to law school. In fact, she managed to get a MA in government from Radcliff and a J.D. from Washington University in St. Louis, and write twenty-six books. Her successful husband became the lesser known spouse.

And in one poignant scene, she tries to convince her wanting-to-emerge-from-the closet son that he could quit his problematic behavior. If she could quit smoking, he could overcome his attraction to men. By that time, it was pretty obvious where the political tone of the show landed. And Cate Blanchett bestows a smug smile on us.

Life was hardly a bed of roses for the featured feminists. The stellar cast includes Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem, Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm, Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug and Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan. Between the political infighting and the shaky support system they provided each other, they weren’t always united.

The Equal Rights Amendment guaranteed “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” It was expected to invalidate laws restricting women’s rights involving buying and selling property or conducting business, abolish different ages between men and women to obtain legal majority or the right to marry, give women the same eligibility for tax-supported retirement plans, assure the same admissions and curricula in schools, and possibly affect alimony, child-support and the draft. However, the ratification process died on the vine.

But like most historical dramas I’ve seen, this caused me to go back and check the actual facts behind the story. Some of that was more shocking to me. The Equal Rights Amendment was passed by the Senate March 24, 1972 and sent to the states for ratification. Mrs. America deals with the aftermath of that. The overwhelmingly male Congress is portrayed as being “afraid” of a backlash of women voters if they don’t pass this legislation. Or maybe it was their wives they were afraid of, it is not clear.

But to my surprise, Nebraska’s unicameral ratified the Equal Rights Amendment unanimously the very next day, the second state after Hawaii to do so. Hawaii probably had the advantage of the time zone delay and their legislators were probably still on the job when they heard it had passed in Washington.

So I wondered, how did I miss this? I was undoubtedly down the road about ten blocks attending the University of Nebraska, majoring in political science and journalism. You would have thought that even if I was too absorbed mid-semester in my college life, one of my male journalism or political science professors might have brought it up in class. But no. It was a non-issue apparently.

Until buyers remorse set in the next year. By mid-March 1973, the Nebraska Unicameral rescinded their ratification. Never mind that no state had ever done that in the history of America, and it was questionable whether it was legally binding. There were a thousand people, mostly women, crowding the unicameral corridor that day, with differing points of view.

Senator Richard Proud, the speaker of the unicameral, outlined his concerns about the E.R.A. in an editorial. He somehow made a leap that women might suddenly wear topless bathing suits because men were allowed to. And that women would be forced to join the workforce and abandon their children at home, who would become juvenile delinquents. There was a lot of concern about drafting women into combat even though the draft was ending by then.

Suddenly learning about Nebraska’s sullied role in this debate, has peaked my interest in Mrs. America more. And it points out the dangers of ignoring history in the making. Because the women who would have benefited from the E.R.A. were not the comfortable housewives or political strategists. They were the struggling women who were too busy to be heard, while trying to make ends meet at a wage that was significantly less than their male counterparts.

It’s Census Time Again

I received my notice from the government to complete census information online, so I dutifully did so for my husband and me. As empty nesters, it was not very exciting, I must admit. I am used to looking at census forms on ancestry websites, where they are handwritten, a little torn at the edges, hard to decipher, and sometimes, not even all that accurate. It made me wish they would ask more creative questions, such as “What is the biggest problem facing the world today?” Well, I guess right now, that would be an easy one, (COVID-19) but how would people have responded to that in 2000 or 1910? Or how about “What does your household need the most right now?”(Toilet paper?) Or this, “How has your household changed between 2010 and 2020? If someone left your household in the past decade, who was it and where did they go?” That would have been invaluable in doing genealogy research a century ago, especially when the 1890 census was all but toast after 1921.

            Thinking about the census got me looking back at how we did the census in previous decades. The first census was done in 1790. Pretty impressive for a country just getting hitting its teenage years. Of course, there were a lot fewer Americans to count back then. The census-takers listed the name of the head of the family, and tallied free white males, sixteen years old and upwards, and free white males under sixteen, then all free white females, all other free persons (?) and then slaves. Not sure where the indentured servants were counted. By 1800, there were more age categories for both men and women but there was still that odd category of folks who were not male or female but considered free persons. Indians were specifically excluded as it was noted they were not taxed.

            Someone with an eye for detail must have designed the 1840 census. They still just tallied people, but there were many more age groups, and they identified slave owners and whether the slaves were male or female, and listed “free colored persons” by age categories. They listed foreigners who were not naturalized, and the number of deaf, dumb, blind and insane persons. They also wanted to know the ages of revolutionary war pensioners, and occupations, and who could read or write.

            Finally in 1850, they started listing the names of every Tom, Dick, and Mary, and there was often more than one Tom, Dick and Mary per household. They now asked about birthplace, race, whether a person attended school, and whether the person was idiotic, a pauper or a convict. This was on top of the previous questions.

            By 1850, the government had separated enslaved individuals into something called slave schedules, which unfortunately for genealogy purposes, didn’t include individual names. Also in 1860, the enumerators who did the census were given written instructions, which probably improved the accuracy of the data collection. Another new question in this census was the value of real estate. The separate slave schedules disappeared in 1870 understandably, but most of the other information remained the same.

            Finally by 1880, the question was asked about how each person was related to the “head of the household.” The 1890 census, which was mostly lost to a fire, asked a few new questions such as whether the race was black, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, Chinese, Japanese or Indian. They also asked if the person suffered from a chronic disease, and if so, how long had that affected them. They also asked if there were any homeless children in the household. It seems to me that if someone was claiming a child in the census, by definition they were no longer homeless. But I have seen mysterious names show up in censuses in this era that don’t seem to be related to the families.

            By 1900, they asked the very helpful question of mothers: “how many children have you given birth to, and how many are still living?” Also included were questions about how long the person had been married, and the birthplaces of his or her parents. They asked about citizenship, whether they lived on a farm or in town, whether the home was owned or rented. A new question in the 1910 census was whether the person was a civil war survivor.

            Skipping forward a few decades, in 1930 they asked who owned a radio set. If we did that question today, I suppose it would be a smart phone. In 1950 they asked how much money was made in various types of income. By 1960 there was a question about whether the person was married more than once, and what kind of transportation did they use to get to work. They started asking about Latin origins in 1970, asking if the person was Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American or other Spanish.

            In 2000, they first asked for your phone number. Interesting that they asked about radios way back in 1930, but did not ask about telephones. It looks like there was a division of the census being centered on people in the past thirty years or so, and there were separate questionnaires trying to capture home details and lifestyle questions. Now we seem to be back to something simpler.

            But one question from the current census still remains from the census origins. They are still asking “What is this person’s ancestry or ethnic origin?” To me, it is still asking “where were your ancestors born?” How long does anyone have to live in this country to be considered an American and nothing else? I would be interested to see how others responded to that.

            If you haven’t done the census, go online and do it. You’re probably stuck at home anyway. The government sent you something in the mail with a code you need to use. Deadline is April 1, 2020. Your great-grandchildren will appreciate it.

Living in Snowbirdia

View from the Target store exit here.

I’ve lived in Nebraska my whole life. Generally, I like the weather there, or the results of the weather at least. I like the first few flakes of snow that make the world look clean. I like the buds on the trees and flowers that burst into new life with excitement. I love the rains that turn the trees and ground green on green. I love the fall foliage turning multiple shades of fire orange, gold, and red. I don’t even mind the humidity most of the time, when I remind myself it is good for my skin and sinuses. Most of all, I like the fact that not that many people demand to live there, so you can pretty much live life without having to wait in line on the highway, a restaurant, or anywhere else you want to go.

            I was perfectly happy. Until I decided to try Snowbirding. There is really only one thing to say about that. It is Winter’s idea of Heaven. I am staying at an AirBNB in Southern Arizona for six weeks, writing the next novel, visiting my daughter’s family and spending time outdoors, something I deliberately avoid back home this time of year. The casita I am living in has heat and air conditioning, but mostly I haven’t needed either. I have opened the window and doors to the fresh air, which oddly is devoid of insects.

            I brought my heavy winter coat and a jacket, but so far here, I have only encountered sweatshirt weather and tee shirt weather. If it wasn’t so darn sunny outdoors, I’d move my computer out onto the pergola covered patio. Yes, that’s another heavenly thing. The sun shines brightly almost every day. In February. It’s almost alarming. But not really. It’s Heaven after all.

            I’ve done a little hiking, but my knee complained, even using my Native American inspired walking stick. So now I am riding on the excellent bike paths in the neighborhood. The bike paths don’t seem to suffer the same wear and tear from the summer heat here that the roads do. Flying down a bike path is a lovely way to experience the weather in Snowbirdia.

            If that wasn’t enough, there are mountains surrounding the city. Walking out of Target yesterday, (and I wouldn’t call anywhere Heaven if there wasn’t a Target) I was struck by the beautiful view. I would like to bottle that and deliver it back to our local Target. Every so often, just walking or driving around, I have been struck by the majestic and changing view of the mountains. When you are not used to them, they seem contain the mysteries of the ages.

            The other amazing thing is that seniors are not marginalized here at all. I had a ninety-year-old man approach me at the gym when he saw my Nebraska license plate. The merchants love seniors, mostly because they are plentiful enough to support whole areas of businesses. Everywhere you go, even on the bike path, I have found people older than I am. That’s always good for your outlook, once you hit retirement age.

            Of course, like most good things, my time here will end. I will come back home to experience spring all over again. I know only too well what Southern Arizona is like when they turn up the heat. But it is not like that yet. Now it is still Snowbirdia, a little slice of Heaven.