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Cornelia’s portrait: While I grow older, she grows younger

My great-grandmother grows younger

4 minute read
While giving birth, she held off an Indian attack.
While giving birth, she held off an Indian attack.
Remember Dorian Grey, whose portrait aged as he remained amazingly young all his life? I know this kind of magic, only in the opposite. The portrait of my great-grandmother, Cornelia Gifford Stevens, which has hung on my walls all my life, gets younger every year.

When I was a child, this woman seemed very old. She was, after all, a great-grandmother. When you're five or ten, anything older than Mom is really old. According to my mother— Cornelia's granddaughter-in-law, that is, not a blood descendant— Cornelia Stevens, born in Baltimore, moved to Dakota Territory with her doctor husband sometime around 1880. When she went into labor, my mother said with just the slightest scorn in her voice, her husband rode for help. Why a doctor needed help to birth a baby is lost to history, but he did, and Indians attacked, and Cornelia held them off and had the baby without him. Mother's tone was triumphant here.

Soon after, the Stevenses moved to a more civilized Wisconsin. I have no idea how they got to Philadelphia, where my grandfather was born and met his second-generation German wife, Gertrude Hannefeld, but now they lie snug beside each other in a Germantown cemetery.

Disdain for the DAR

I'm not very interested in all the details my ancestors' lives— where they were born, married and died— so I've never poked around genealogy records. But I loved my mother's stories, which included admiration for strong women and an equally strong disapproval of the Daughters of the American Revolution's refusal to let Marion Anderson (or anyone else of color) sing at the DAR's Constitution Hall. My mother was very proud that Eleanor Roosevelt stuck up for Anderson in 1939 and arranged for her to sing instead at the Lincoln Memorial while Eleanor herself quit the DAR on principle. My parents were small d democratic Republicans. Finding illustrious ancestors was de trop.

My mother felt the DAR, for example, was a mean-spirited organization gilding the inferior status of nouveaux riche wannabes. Mother understood the real clout of the New York 400, the Old Money power class that ran the country, Harrimans and Delanos, and sniffed at the second level Main Line Philadelphians with their pretentious racquet clubs— where I would dance, later, with my fiancé, who was every bit as upwardly mobile as any DAR dame, partly because his mother was second-generation Irish.

Our family has never had money or fame or any other claim to class. Well, my mother's father paid a thousand dollars for a hunting dog around World War I. But that's another story.

In my 30s, the happening babe

As I grew up and began my adult life, the portrait Cornelia stayed old. With her dark hair severely drawn back and her small hands folded in the lap of her red brocaded dress, white lace collar and an ambiguous Mona Lisa mouth in an oval face, she looked stuffy— not wild and crazy, the way I looked in my 30s and 40s. Woo hoo, I was a happening babe.

How could this pale-faced Miss Prim in a tight corset have even conceived a baby? Yet, according to my historian Mother, Cornelia had ridden a wagon into wild and woolly Dakota Territory.

Not so severe after all

Now that I'm a whole lot older than Cornelia was when someone loved her enough to pay a painter, she looks positively youthful to me. Probably not as severe as she looks. In my mind's eye, she lets down that dark hair, widens her prissy mouth into an easy smile and pats the cushion beside her. "Let me tell you how it happened," she begins.

And I know how long my life has been. When I look into the mirror, I see a trace of her somewhere in my nose or the tilt of my eyebrows. Or I imagine I do.

The time has come to send Cornelia down the line to my own grandson. She'll do her ancestral duty on his walls. He'll think she's extremely old and then, when he's my age, he'll find out she's young enough to be his granddaughter.♦


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