Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Those Six Degrees of Separation

I have reached the beginning of the twentieth century in my first rough draft of the third volume of the Grenville Sagas. The next notable event was the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. Naturally I had to stop and do some historical research.

McKinley was in his second term of office. On September 6th,  he attended a public reception at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY. A young anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, shot him at close range. Czolgosz was an American citizen, a steel worker, and the son of Polish immigrants. The shot was not immediately fatal, but the president died of gangrene eight days later, and was succeeded by his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt.
I was thinking about various current events, and also wondering what my characters, who had also lived through the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, would have thought about another act of violence. But first, I needed to deal with creature comforts. Its a cold, cloudy, damp morning, and although I know it's November, I'm not ready to turn on the furnace and admit that winter is here. So I decided to switch on the gas fireplace for an hour or two to take the chill off. I walked into the living room, as I've done thousands of times in the past eleven years. I glanced at the mirror above the fireplace out of long habit. (Who doesn't sneak a look when they pass a mirror once in a while?)

Then it hit me. The mirror I was looking at once also reflected the image of William McKinley. How did that happen? The story, once again, goes back to those eight McCaskey sisters. The McKinley family was from Canton, Ohio, which you may only know as the location of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But for the McCaskey girls, Canton was a tempting destination. It sits across the state border from North Sewickley. It was a booming metropolis founded by a bunch of wealthy steel magnates, while North Sewickley had remained a backwoods settlement. It was where one went in search of fame and fortune, apparently.  One by one, the McCaskey girls found a way to move there.

Now we fast-forward to the nineteen forties. My mother had managed to marry the boss, and for the first time in her entire life, she had money to spend. She had left many of her friends behind, but there were always family members near by. She was particularly close to her sister Florence's second daughter, Helen, and the two of them enjoyed shopping sprees together. There's a whole story here about Helen that I can't relate because I don't know the details (maybe Helen's daughter will fill them in.). What I do know is that Helen had married someone who was related by another marriage to the McKinley family. And when the McKinley family mansion and its contents were finally put up for auction, Helen and my mother had wrangled tickets to the show.

Now my mother was one of the original "material girls." Because she had grown up in great poverty, she valued THINGS. And at that auction, she fell in love with an antique mirror. And she bought it. I have no idea how much she paid for it, or even how she managed to get the thing home. It's about four feet square and surrounded by a frame of gilded (Naturally! this was the Gilded Age) plaster of Paris roses.

The mirror hung in the living room of my childhood. When my mother died, I inherited it,  and I entrusted it to a whole succession of Air Force movers who shuffled us and our belongings back and forth across the country. The plaster of Paris framework is cracked at all its weakest points, but the cracks are clean and almost invisible unless you happen to grasp the mirror at the wrong point -- in which case a rose will come off in your fingers until you tuck it back in. The silvering on the back has held up remarkably well. And here it still hangs, over a century old, providing a link between me and a historical event I knew almost nothing about until this week.

My mother's niece's husband's cousin's family's  . . .  Six degrees of separation, indeed.

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