A Woman's Voice from 100 years Ago

A funny thing happened yesterday, the first day of Women in History Month. While copying something from a book I have, a handwritten letter fell out. It was six small pages in pencil dated March 5, 1918, exactly 100 years ago by a woman named "Cora" whom I have no knowledge of. It came from Chico, California and was written to "grandma."

I bought the book it fell out of new. I know that books bought used or at garage sales make it easier for readers to find my books but I also know the author's of a used-bought book don't receive any royalty. Hopefully, the buyer is just so happy with their purchase they spread their joy word of mouth so others might actually buy the book!  But I digress.

Since the book was new, I have no idea how that letter got in there to fall out onto my printer!  But here's the part I want to share in this month of celebrating women: "Cora" was a young bride far from home, wherever home was. She apparently had bad eyes as they were going to travel to "Willows" to see an eye doctor.  Her husband "Charlie" worked 10 hour days for $2.50 and she was pretty happy about that. She was also happy about a surprise shower her sister and friends planned for them. I loved reading about it. Let me quote:

"Charlie said he knew their surprise made him 10 years older. They brought a lunch and each one gave us someting. Sister gave us a cedar mop. We have a painted floor and have to have one of those. Mrs. Witwer gave us a large aluminum kettle and the others two pie tins, a large tin drinking cup, an aluminum kitchen salt shaker, gem pans, frying pans, cake tins and a bath towel and wash rag. Aunties made three cream cakes and they had pineapple and bananns and whipped cream for lunch.  Mrs. Witwer gives us a jar of fruit or jelly nearly every time we go over there. They are the best people I have ever saw."  Mrs. Witwer later asked Cora's help in identfiying weeds in the back yard and they were mustard greens. "She don't like them so I picked a lot and brought them home and we had them for supper."

Gem Pan

A gem pan, by the way, is a castiron muffin tin. I had to look that up!

These are the types of details that make a writer's heart go pitter-patter. Sweet references to everyday joys, the gathering of family and friends and the importance of neighbors, community. I've had the privelege of writing about historical women for many years now and I never tire of imagining their lives, wondering how they spent their days, where they drew their strength from. It's always my hope that I pass on what wisdom those musings offer to readers.

Cora ended her letter with a description of the funeral of Mrs. Bidwell, wife of a well-known John Bidwell, pioneer, politician, philanthropist who led the first emigrants into California, the Bartleson-Bidwell Party of 1841. Annie BidwellHe founded Chico and his wife Anne, was apparently beloved. Her funeral was attended by the entire town, Cora tells us, "You couldn't turn around only when the crowd did." She described what she wore, the carnations she held and that school children lined the road from the mansion (which can be visited today!) to the graveyard, holding flowers "they were going to throw in front of the caskdet as they drove along but just before they came it started to raining and they had to throw their flowers in the street and go home."

Cora also invites grandma to visit. "We have a spare bedroom and two extra beds, they have mattresses on them and have three extra quilts and it wouldn't take much to get a blanket and sheet and maybe your could stay a week before you got tired. I'd love to have you." She also described her garden and that she missed her cat. "Oh how I wish I had her here. I have a stray cat here I can pet a little but I want mine." She signs off with "love to all from Cora" with a little ps that says "Write me all the news."

This little visit from 100 years ago has made my day, reminding me of the ordinary, everyday women and how they lived their lives. That it's possible to visit some of the places today that she mentioned -- the Bidwell Mansion -- just makes her letter all the more fascinating.  I'll do that the next time I'm in Chico and I suspect that in each small town in America -- and big cities too -- there are places where those stalwart women made their marks with ordinary women like Cora taking note of their passing. Maybe you'll take some time this March month to seek out some of those sites and say a word of gratitude for the women who once walked there and the contemporary "Friends of....." who keep parks and museums going so women's voices and stories aren't forgotten.

Maybe the name of the book this letter fell out of will interest you as well: It' was Jan Richardson's Sacred Journeys: A Woman's Book of Daily Prayer." And so I got to take another journey, this time with Cora.  I hope you've enjoyed this journey too.  Jane