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Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 8.1 (2006) 37-43
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Cleora on Ice
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| Figure 1 |
lige, a corting to promise I wil rite a fiew lines . . . you want to know what is the reason I do not want to live with you I wil not deceive you any longer for you have told me a hndrd times that I did not love and I now tel you planely that I do not.
My great-great-great grandmother, Cleora Stickney, penned this letter, in the summer of 1865, just weeks after the Civil War ended. Sepia-saturated ink on yellowed paper, it was somehow saved and passed down from generation to generation until it reached me faded, cracked, and only two-thirds complete. As letters go, it is not particularly articulate or profound. Yet, from the moment I read it 15 years ago, I was hooked. I come from one of those rare American families that believe in "until death do you part." I knew of no divorces in my family at that time. None. And this one happened in 1865, a time when only 1 percent of the population divorced. I was particularly intrigued by the reason for the divorce: Cleora's adultery. My upbringing is steeped in Midwestern virtues of politeness, humbleness, and discretion, yet here was my great-great-great grandmother who [End Page 37] espoused none of these qualities. She couldn't vote, own property, or hold most jobs, yet she chucked all security to escape a loveless marriage.
I was foolish to marry you but I was young then and I have livd in misery for forteen years and now I do not think it is my duty to live so any longer.
Cleora married Elijah Wakefield in 1853. She was 18; he was 24. They lived in northern Illinois and were both of English descent—dating back several generations in the United States. According to Civil War records Elijah had blue eyes and brown hair and stood five feet and eight inches tall. A Civil War tintype of him reveals just a man in a uniform. The son of a wealthy landowner, perhaps, Elijah's economic potential appealed to Cleora.
They married and within a year had a son, Adelbert. The family of three moved to south-central Wisconsin along with the rest of the Wakefield clan. Cleora's older sister, Orril, had moved to Reedsburg, located 60 miles to the east, a decade before. The Indian wars were over, the rich land was going cheap, and Wisconsin had joined the Union. Elijah's father gave Cleora and Elijah a section of his land to live on just miles from the Mississippi River where the army had fought Blackhawk for the last time. They cleared the land in this hilly driftless area—a region the glaciers missed and therefore didn't flatten. They had three more children.
In 1864, Elijah, perhaps tired of farming or family life, or driven by patriotic duty or economic need, volunteered for military duty. The South and North had been fighting each other since 1861, and had one more year to go. With a promise of $16 per month and $100 for every year he enlisted, Elijah left the farm in August. I have stood on the rolling hills where he lived. I have tried to imagine their life, including the day he left. Elijah walking through fields of unharvested hay and corn, Cleora standing stoically at the doorstep. Or maybe she cursed and called him names. Cleora must have thought about the farm chores, her children, and the winter coming on and felt the urge to walk away herself.
I have talked with Mother and she says she has hurt that we always livd in a quarrel and she thinks it is beter for us to live a part and if I can't live here in peace I wil go to some other county where she says I can have a home with her as long as I want one . . .
Written in copybook style lettering...