She was born in January, 130 years ago, and though I never met her, I feel a strong connection to her, through my mother and grandmother, of course, but also because I've learned so much about her by the photographs and letters and assorted ephemera she left behind in the attic of the old farmhouse three miles west of Oneida, Illinois.
I've been wanting to get back to the project of organizing those things--many of which now live in my attic--and this weekend, I did make some progress.
Born to parents who came of age during the Civil War, the granddaughter of pioneers from New York who staked out adjacent land grants in the largely unsettled prairie of western Illinois in the mid-19th century, Cornelia was born on the family farm in Ontario Township, Knox County, Illinois.
|Cornelia Alice Mosher, born January 1883.|
|The family home in Ontario Township, Knox County, Illinois.|
Cornelia went to the local rural school until the 9th grade, when her progressive parents, who wanted their two daughters to get the best possible education, sent her to high school in Galesburg.
|Cornelia, left, and her older sister, Grace.|
|Kittie, during her Knox years.|
After college, Cornelia was an assistant principal at Oneida High School until 1909. She was needed at home and there were expectations that she marry and start a family.
|A draft of Cornelia's resignation letter from 1909.|
|Joseph Jay Clearwater|
|From left, my grandmother, Hester Clearwater Nelson, and her parents, Cornelia and JJ, around 1924.|
This bright mid-century postcard caught my eye this morning as I was packing up Cornelia's things to go back into the attic.
After a week of sub-zero temperatures topped off by a gray day of freezing rain, a pop of Florida sunshine seemed quite appealing. But it also made me laugh a little, both the juxtaposition of this 1950s postcard next to her early 20th-century letters, and the knowledge that the kitchen was not our Kit's forte.
Cornelia didn't clip recipes. She wrote poetry and doodled about Shakespeare and bird migration. Beyond her specialities of homemade doughnuts and cottage pudding, she was not known for her culinary expertise. When she lived in the old farmhouse with her daughter's family, she was not the culinary matriarch patiently stirring things at the stove. She was the reluctant sous chef, relegated to peeling potatoes in the corner. She was accidentally putting salt instead of sugar in the tapioca. She was inspiring my mother, to this day, to describe culinary failures as "just like grandma used to make."
In other words, I'm sure she never made this recipe. I'm sure no one in my family ever did, but that it's been preserved in the attic for the better part of a century made me think I should give it a try.
It's like a lemon meringue pie, of course, but with chunks of fruit mixed in with the juice and the sugar and the cornstarch, then cooked over low heat and poured into a baked and cooled shell.
It looks nothing like the pie on the postcard, either, and it was a bit runny.
But no matter. Topped with an enthusiastic meringue, it made for a bright addition to a rather bleak January day.
And I'm just going to pretend that Cornelia held on to this postcard because the mere image and idea of a Florida Orange Meringue pie were enough of a sunny solace to her during a dreary Midwestern winter that she need not bother rolling out the crust, juicing the oranges, and grating the rind.
Happy birthday, Kit.