Ready For a Soap Opera

I’ve been ruminating on the good ol’ days as I did this card — you know, the America we’d like to return to, when every man had a job and came home to his wife, to whom he was happily married with 2.5 children, and she’d made him dinner. Except that I’m a grownup and I realize that that America existed for almost nobody almost never. In this particular case, we have some disruptive evidence about the sanctity of marriage way back when.

In this “way back when,” which is 1907, Clifford went to Atlanta, and he sent a card back to a lady named Maude. It says:

I am afraid you will think I am a poor correspondent but never mind, that letter will come yet. Now see if it “don’t.” I do most of my writing on cards. Hello, Opal, how are you? Thanks for all the pretty cards you sent and come again real soon. Sincerely, Clifford.

So this is the context in which I learned that the City of Sacramento had street-by-street telephone directories all the way back in the 1880s and they’re all online with some degree of OCR. I was therefore able to find Mrs. Maude E. pretty quickly, and the street directory listed her middle initial, which is O. So I read this card as being weirdly written to a woman named Maude Opal to whom Clifford referred as “Opal” alone. Then I started trying to find out a bit more about Maude and realized they’re two people.

Maude was born in 1881 in Indiana, the first of five children to long-time Indiana farmers who moved to California sometime before 1889. In 1900 she married Hjalmar E., the son of Swedish immigrants who came to Sacramento from Sweden via Kansas. But by 1909 she…

Okay, the other day, my mother told me that one of my blog posts was hard to follow. And this gets hard to follow. Which is my point! These people were marrying each other right and left. Maude was married a grand total of three times, unless she remarried Hjalmar when she moved back in with him in 1926 in which case it’s four. Hjalmar (that appears to be pronounced “Yalma” or “Yalmar,” as he’s known in most U.S. documents) was married at least twice, the second time to a woman who’d been married before and was married twice thereafter. Maude’s sisters were married multiple times. And unlike if you go a bit further back in history, these aren’t deaths causing this rearranging, it’s straight-up divorce, because the spouses were all remarrying too, and there are a host of children listed in various places with various last names.

Here, tidied this up for you:

And this is just these three. You’ll have to trust me that their various spouses and siblings were marrying and divorcing all over the place. And the craziest part is that they all lived within the same several-block radius, sometimes in the same building, for all their lives… and then they were nearly all buried in the same graveyard! Sacramento in the early 1900s was apparently a happening place, y’all.

How I actually did this one is a little bit interesting, I think: Maude has a very comprehensive Social Security death record with her several married names and the middle name “Oriole.” So who the heck was Opal? I went back to the directories and looked up everybody living at Maude’s various addresses, and bingo, there was an Opal.

Searching the general records for an Opal R. got me some family. I was pretty sure this was a family because c’mon, Opal and Pearl living at the same address? Cheesy but helpful.

And then the 1910 Census sealed the deal: Opal living with a woman named Maude who was listed as her sister. So I built them a family tree with sisters Maude, Opal, and Pearl and father William (that was a guess; he could have been a brother), and the rest was downhill.

So that leaves one burning question about this card: Who’s Clifford? I’m not sure. There’s a Clifford of about the right age, living down the street, who worked for the Southern Pacific railroad, as did Yalma and all his brothers. But he appears to have been happily married (the only one!) and I can’t find a reason he’d have been in Atlanta. There are a couple Cliffords in the family tree, too, but they’re mostly the wrong ages. I may never know!

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