Those Six Degrees of Separation that Connect Us All
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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Those Six Degrees of Separation that Connect Us All


About this time last year, I was writing about the beginning of the twentieth century in my first rough draft of the third volume of the Grenville Trilogy. One notable event of the period was the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. Naturally I had to stop and do some historical research. 
 
McKinley was in his second term of office. On September 6th,  he attended a public reception at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY. A young anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, shot him at close range. Czolgosz was an American citizen, a steel worker, and the son of Polish immigrants. The shot was not immediately fatal, but the president died of gangrene eight days later, and was succeeded by his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt.   

 This year, as I read through the final page proofs of Yankee Daughters, I‘ve again been thinking about various current events, and also wondering what my characters, who had also lived through the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, would have thought about another act of violence. But first, I needed to deal with creature comforts. It’s a cold, cloudy, damp morning, and although I know it's November, I'm not ready to turn on the furnace and admit that winter is here. So I decided to switch on the gas fireplace for an hour or two to take the chill off. 

I walked into the living room, as I've done thousands of times in the past twelve years. I glanced at the mirror above the fireplace out of long habit. (Who doesn't sneak a look when they pass a mirror once in a while—not my mother’s daughter, certainly!) Then it hit me. The mirror I was looking at once also reflected the image of William McKinley. How did that happen? The story, once again, goes back to those eight McCaskey sisters. 

The McKinley family was from Canton, Ohio, which you may only know as the location of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But for the McCaskey girls, Canton was a tempting destination. It sits not far across the state border from North Sewickley. It was a booming metropolis founded by a bunch of wealthy steel magnates, while North Sewickley had remained a backwoods settlement. It was where one went in search of fame and fortune, apparently.  One by one, most of the McCaskey girls found a way to move there. 

 Now we fast-forward to the nineteen forties. My mother had managed to marry the boss, and for the first time in her entire life, she had money to spend. She had left many of her friends behind, but there were always family members near by. She was particularly close to her sister Florence's second daughter, Helen, and the two of them enjoyed shopping sprees together.  

Helen had married a man who was related by another marriage to the McKinley family. (Helen’s daughter Sharyn, my own cousin once removed, provided me with the hand-written family documents that detailed the relationship.) Helen’s husband was a second-cousin-twice-removed of ida McKinley, wife of President William McKinley.  Since the McKinleys had only two daughters, neither of whom survived past childhood, Ida's cousins were her only living relatives. And that’s how Helen and my mother managed to wrangle tickets to the auction where the McKinley mansion and its contents were being sold off.

Now my mother was one of the original "material girls." Because she had grown up in great poverty, she valued THINGS. And at that auction, she fell in love with an antique mirror. It's about four feet square and surrounded by a frame of gilded (naturally! this was the Gilded Age) plaster of Paris roses. So she bought it. I have no idea how much she paid for it, or even how she managed to get the thing home. (Knowing my mother, I’d bet she just batted her eyelashes at the nearest fellow with a truck.)

The mirror hung in the living room during my entire childhood. When my mother died, I inherited it,  and I entrusted it to a whole succession of Air Force movers who shuffled us and our belongings back and forth across the country. The plaster of Paris framework is cracked at all its weakest points, but the cracks are clean and almost invisible unless you happen to grasp the mirror at the wrong point -- in which case a rose will come off in your fingers until you tuck it back in. The silvering on the back has held up remarkably well. And here it still hangs, over a century old, providing a link between me and a historical event I knew almost nothing about until last year.

My mother's niece's husband's second cousin (twice removed)’s husband. . .  Six degrees of separation, indeed.