These two amazing images are photos of photos, expertly shot by my cousin Joe. They depict my grandmother Jennie Coffin dressed up in some really classy outfits and balancing a tightly restrained typhoon of hair on her head that we can only imagine in its wild, unfettered magnificence. (Don’t hold your breath; it is doubtful that any photos exist of Jennie’s tresses unpinned. She was a Victorian, and Victorians were smart enough to know that the world is too fragile for the full potency of a woman’s hair.)
Jennie married my grandfather James Ezra Fleagle, who as it happens had his own formidable coif, but I believe both of these portraits were taken before Jennie and James were wed in 1916, and furthermore my cousins and I think they are both from the same sitting, jacket notwithstanding. The second one is surely from the same sitting as the one I posted in July here.
Given that she lived with us for a the lion’s share of a decade, I’m surprised that I didn’t know until recently that Jennie had terrible eyesight and like me, suffered from migraine headaches all her life. This I have learned through phone calls and other correspondence with my Aunt Miriam, the elder of Jennie’s two daughters. The headaches prevented Jennie from finishing high school. She missed so much school on account of migraines that she bailed out in her last or next-to-last year.
According to Miriam, before she was married Jennie worked in a printer’s shop and as an operator in the telephone exchange. Some time after her father, Joe Coffin, died in 1914, she went to work at “Mr. Spear’s dry goods store” in her native Genoa, Nebraska (I assume this is the E. M. Spear Co.), the gruffness of whose owner did not stop Jennie from thoroughly enjoying her job “selling dresses, fabric material, shoes, etc.”. On at least one occasion she traveled to Chicago by train to assist in buying merchandise for the store. She apparently exulted in this adventure and would have liked to have followed a career as a buyer, but she gave it up to raise her family. She loved fine clothes and pretty things, Mim once wrote.
Jennie’s most significant life work ended up being cocreating the James Fleagle family and household, but as great a contribution to humanity as that is (its subsidiaries continue to multiply as I write), she had even more to offer. She continued educating herself by reading books when she could, some of them designed for correspondence courses. Decades later she gave me a couple of them. One was a book full of short biographies of celebrated historical figures — statesmen, philosophers, inventors, explorers — with quizzes for self-testing. I don’t recall the other book (it may have been the writings of Cicero). Her way of pronouncing the word literature as “liddy-ture” was one of her midwestern turns of speech that struck me as odd and adorable.
Late in her life (but not very late, considering its great length) Jennie returned to working outside her home. Her obituary called her a retired occupational therapist. I never heard her call herself that, but I do remember her frequently talking about teaching crafts at “Silver Cross Home”, which I assume was the Silver Cross Home for Epileptics in Reisterstown, the Baltimore suburb where James and Jennie raised their family. Granny (as I knew her) gave me her copper-pressing gear when I was a young teen, and I think my leather punching kit also came from her. These, I now realize, were the tools of her trade.
There’s lots more to tell about this lady — her love of baseball; the way she responded with the chipper trochee “hoo-ooo!” when you went to her room to call her for dinner; the time she sneezed suddenly in the back seat of my parents’ car and nearly sent them all plummeting off a mountain road — hopefully there will be time to record those anecdotes. We can only beseech our Maker for time… time both to live in the present with our friends and family and to get our stories straight about the past. – mdf
Image archive ID:
Top image: 20150921_002_jennie_jacket
Bottom image: 20150921_001_jennie_white_dress
About the physical photographs:
Top photo: Unframed photo in old studio folder. Nothing written on the back.
Bottom photo: Framed photo. Nothing written on the back.
Both original prints photographed from collection of Nancy Stake-Reynolds.