"When was the last time you played cards with a wounded soldier?"
Clara Coleman Naddy quoting her mother Jeannette Moffitt Coleman
On the wall in the hallway outside my bedroom, above a desk and chair hangs a wooden box lined with velvet. Inside the box is the monogrammed baby silver of my great grandmother, Jeannette Moffitt. The J and the M are in a flowery, old fashioned script, clearly of the 19th century. Obviously hand engraved, the monogram is not perfectly precise on each piece, the letters lay closer on the knife than they do on the fork or spoon. They are silver and small and fit for a child's hands. The spoon is most worn, the fork tines are a bit used, the wide, round knife looks new. Based on my math, Jeannette was born in 1875 so she probably touched them most often in the late 1870's.
Next to the baby silver hangs her father's discharge papers from the Civil War. Although his home was in Louisiana, he enlisted in Indiana and fought for the Union. Throughout Jeannette's entire life she never called her father, nor heard her father called anything but "Captain Moffitt" (even though his discharge papers indicate William Moffitt's rank was that of Private). This included her mother, who never referred to him or addressed him in any other manner other than Captain or Captain Moffitt. Jeannette's father called her mother "Mrs. Moffitt" for their entire marriage. Jeannette was allowed to call her mother, "Mother" when addressing her mother directly; but always referred to her as "Mrs. Moffitt" when speaking of her mother to others, including Jeannette's siblings and children. The South, in the 19th century, had a complex set of social norms.
And these were indeed southerners. Born and raised in New Orleans for generations. Captain Moffitt owned land outside the city which was leased for farming (Jeannette's older sister, Lena insisted to my grandmother that the farm outside of New Orleans was used to smuggle slaves from the south to fight in the Union Army during the Civil War, but my grandmother was skeptical of this story).
William Moffitt's father had been a pirate or a privateer as had his grandfather (who sailed and fought the Battle of New Orleans with Jean and Pierre Laffite) and his great-grandfather who contracted with the Revolutionary forces and disrupted England's trade in the colonies. Clara assumed this was where the title "Captain" originated.
I believe the pirate/privateer stories. I also have hanging in my house a set of china doll dishes that my grandmother, Jeannette's daughter Clara, convinced me was loot from piracy. The wooden packing case they were stored in was marked England, 1756 and the cotton batting around them still had husks from the cotton attached. Neither my mother Rita, her mother, Clara nor her mother, Jeannette were ever allowed to "play" with the dishes...which were, after all, over 100 years old when Jeannette was born.
As my son, Andy says..."some families have heirlooms, we have booty!"
Next to the Civil War discharge papers hangs Jeannette's maternal-grandfather's ("Mrs. Moffitt's" father) naturalization papers. George Clammens, from Prussia, arrived in New Orleans in 1844....about 90 years after the Moffitts.
According to her daughter, Jeannette was about 5'5" tall, had long, beautiful auburn hair and "the biggest brown eyes" in New Orleans. Jeannette was born to some privilege and modest wealth. She was educated and loved to read. She had idle time only the wealthier girls of the era were allowed. She filled the time with her reading or embroidery or "tatting" lace. At my wedding I carried a handkerchief edged in her hand-made lace.
Jeannette met and married big, handsome, James Coleman around 1895 in New Orleans. Jeannette and her family were what my grandmother called "Baptist/Catholics." Originally Catholic, they found acceptance as Baptists in the south and left Catholicism, except of course, for the clandestine Mass said in their home every Sunday morning at dawn.
The couple moved to McComb, Mississippi when James became the executive in charge of maintenance for the Illinois Central Railroad.
The Coleman's produced nine children, Anna, Clara, Merrill, Henrietta (Rae), George, Floyd, Leona, Jim Jr. and Katherine (Kitty). James Sr. (called "Gentleman Jim Coleman" because of his rule against the use of any cursing in the rail yards during his years of management) was promoted and transferred to Chicago in 1911, their two youngest children, Jim and Kitty were born in Chicago. The entire family returned to Catholicism upon arriving in Chicago, with the older children "converting" to their covert religion.
James and Jeannette moved into a large house on the south side of Chicago, not far from the South Shore Country Club (where my mother's parents met for the first time in 1915). The house is long gone, but it had rooms for James and Jeannette, each of the children, a live-in maid's quarters and a separate suite for guests (where my grandmother and her children lived after she was widowed at 29); the same suite in which Captain and Mrs. Moffitt came to spend their elder years.
The entry hall was large enough to be used for dancing during parties, with a piano rolled into the foyer or during big celebrations a band positioned on the landing of the stairway. I have always pictured the home as a combination of the sets of "Life With Father" and "You Can't Take it With You" with kids running everywhere and sometimes long-term-live-in-guests (wounded servicemen, musicians who would play the piano on Sunday afternoons for the family or family from New Orleans looking for new fortunes in Chicago). Clara told me that the dinner table never had less than 16 people sitting at it, many more on Sundays when dinner was a buffet and there was always a pianist present to entertain after the meal.
Jeannette was fun and lively with more energy than her 9 children combined. She ran the house, took care of the kids, managed their off-beat social life and kept the door open for anyone she perceived as needing some support. Jeannette seemed to attract wounded servicemen. She found them on streetcars and in the library and the rail stations, she invited them home for a meal with the family and as mentioned before they often ended up staying for extended periods while she pushed and prodded her husband to find the veteran employment in the rail yard or offices.
After a few years of ad hoc involvement in the plight of disabled veterans, Jeannette discovered the brand new Hines Veterans Hospital and began making weekly pilgrimages to "Speedway Hospital". She would load up as many shopping bags as she could carry with supplies for the men: socks, playing cards, candy, tobacco, paper and pens, stamps, razors, etc., travel by a complex collection of streetcars and trains and then spend the day talking with the veterans, playing cards, helping them write letters and bullying the staff to provide better care.
No one who came to the house left without making a contribution. Jeannette's children were all pressed into service for the cause. When the boys had paper routes or part-time jobs they were "taxed" by their mother for help with her passion. Clara left high school in 1912, when she was 14 to go to work as a phone operator at AT&T. A portion of Clara's earnings went to the support of her mother's volunteerism. Pianists who entertained the family on Sunday were dragged up to the hospital on Monday to sing again for their Sunday supper by entertaining the patients.
The family faced setbacks, James Sr. drank a bit and his career stalled, Clara was widowed in 1927. She and her three young children, Rita, Dick and Tom returned to the family home where she delivered her fourth child, Jack, 4 months after her young husband's death. The crash of '29 took most of the residual family security, Anna and her husband moved to Colma, California. But, whatever challenges faced any member of the family, if they complained or whined, Jeannette would ask "When was the last time you played cards with a wounded soldier? It would be good for your soul!"
In 1932, during Kitty's 17th Birthday party, while the band was playing on the landing and Kitty's friends were dancing in the entry hall, Jeannette went to her room with a nosebleed...and died of a cerebral hemorrhage. She was 57.
Jeannette's funeral procession was 13 miles long. The longest on record up to that time for a private citizen in Chicago. The hearse had arrived at the cemetery long before most of the procession left the front of the church. Most of the procession was disabled veterans. Car after car of men who had been touched by this sheltered southern belle who opened her home and her heart to them. These men served their country and then been forgotten by almost everyone.
Everyone but Jeannette Moffitt Coleman.
There is a legacy here. It intimidates me. But as I look around at my family...my grandmother, my mother, my aunts, my sister, my cousins, my nieces and my grand daughter I recognize the legacy of independent, fun and giving women Jeannette left behind her on earth.