Thursday, April 3, 2008

Bird in a Gilded Cage

(Sunday Scribblings prompt: photograph)

In this 1906 photo of my aunt Rose, she is posed with her oldest brother, Charlie Sitzler. She is dressed in her wedding finery, bought for her by her soon-to-be husband, “Doc” Rudolph, physician and surgeon, a rich man in his forties. Rose is sixteen years old. Her brother will walk her down the aisle, since her father died many years ago.

This photo is one of the saddest I have ever seen. Look at the expression on Rose’s face. Does she look like a happy bride? It is probably the most miserable day of her young life.

Her mother, my usually wise Grandmother Sitzler but raised in a different culture in 19th century Germany, has told Rose that this marriage is a wonderful opportunity for her. How else could she get the musical training that her lovely voice deserves?

My grandmother, with her seven children, was barely making ends meet on the family dairy farm near Baldwin, Kansas. The oldest two, Charlie and Ida, had to leave school to help. But Grandma is determined that the younger ones, at least, will have better opportunities. Dr. Rudolph has promised to see that Rose has excellent voice teachers and that she can go to the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where he lived and had his practice.

Dr. Rudolph obviously adored his young wife. He showered her with jewelry and every other luxury. They took trips to Europe, bringing home works of art and antique furniture. She did, indeed, complete a degree in musicology at K.U. Uncle Doc arranged recitals to show off her talents.

She had maids, and the means to send spectacular gifts to her relatives, most of whom eventually moved to California. I remember one Christmas when my gift from Aunt Rose was a beautiful German doll with bisque head and eyes that opened and closed. That year she sent my mother a tortoise-shell vanity set.

I don’t know how much older Uncle Doc was than Aunt Rose, but it wasn’t surprising that he died while she was still in her forties. And suddenly she was free! She could move to California to join her mother and siblings. She admitted that, on the train to the west coast, she flirted with a handsome younger man, flashing her expensive diamonds to dazzle him. Before they reached the west coast he proposed to her, and they were married even before she joined her family.

This time it was true love for Rose, but it was a disastrous marriage. He rapidly went through her fortune. When her family attempted to intervene, she vociferously defended him. Eventually he simply abandoned her. The easy life of a rich man’s wife had not prepared her for the real world. She settled down miserably to wait for his return. Maybe she died of a broken heart, although the official cause was pneumonia.

My grandmother confessed to me that she had made a mistake by urging Rose to marry a man she didn’t love. By that time, in the 1930s, Grandma was thoroughly American, having even forgotten the German language (although she never lost her German accent).

I inherited boxes of sheet music from Aunt Rose. I was the only one who was interested in the old “art songs” that had been a large part of her repertoire.

And among them was the song I will always associate with that sad photo: “She’s only a bird in a gilded cage...”.

56 comments:

CHEFDRUCK said...

Beautiful photo story with a nice close. That picture is truly haunting. She does look so sad. Her brother looks very dapper and intriguing too.

SusieJ said...

So many things I love about this story. I have so many of these kinds of old photographs, and no one knows who they are... we guess, no details about why they look so sad. You know, and it's such a poignant story about the way life once was for women.

Rosie said...

It is wonderful to hear the real story behind a photograph...

Shyam said...

She doesnt look happy, but she does look pretty. Thank you for writing the story behind the photo.

Marianne said...

Beautiful photo... it's a shame though, that along with that wonderful education in music she didn't learn also about 'dark hearts' and swindlers...

rebecca said...

she was beautiful and, unfortunately, she experienced heartache like many have before and after her. "doc" apparently was smitten with her and treated her well but it appeared more of an arranged marriage than a marriage of the heart. when she was free, in her forties, it is not surprising to me that she immediately fell "in love" with the first man she saw for, though 40, she was still very innocent as she had been protected from the heartaches of life. what a shame.

but what an interesting yet sad tale...i love old pictures of yesteryear that gives us a glimpse into a different life, a different place, a different era....

i have some of my mother when she was a tot (early 1900s) and some of my maternal grandparents (though young at the time, appearing very somber)...i often wondered why they didn't smile: was it considered not proper or was it just that they had nothing to smile about? either case, it's very sad...

Strawberry Swirl said...

That's so sad. It's a shame that something like that still goes on today. No I have not read "Three Cups of Tea"? What's it about?

Bethany said...

My breath caught in my throat at "sixteen years old." I've seen similarly sad photos of my grandparents and great-grandparents, but none with so sad a story, such a heartwrenching lack of love. That song lyric almost sounds like an epitaph...

paisley said...

a magnificent photo,, and the accompanying words heartbreaking... can it be that we have come so far,, and yet learned so little.......

anthonynorth said...

Marvellous story and photo. It is so sad to experience two relationships that are the exact opposite, yet equally disheartening, in a way.

Leonard Blumfeld said...

What a story!

arboleda said...

that situation happened often in the past...very sad indeed!

dailypanic said...

My oh my, I don't even want to think of marrying off my daughter- but she is getting a little expensive...and she could use some music lessons--just kidding!
But she was never one to hide a scowl or wear a hat.
We all can feel a bit of romance in the way they were dressed for the photo even though no romance was there except for the groom- not pictured.

Devil Mood said...

Wow, what a moving story!
And how the times have changed so rapidly. Between the two weddings, it's hard to choose what must have been more traumatic.

I'm looking at the picture and noticing the difference in the tone of her face and her hands. Have you noticed? People must have worn hats all the time back then.

Devil Mood said...

Oh and lots of powder in the face!

murat11 said...

Thanks for visiting over my way. Sad though the free bird story may be, I loved the image of Rose flashing her diamonds to dazzle...

for rose (with borrowings):

soon-to-be finery
the bird has flown
unusually wise
so many years ago
how else
to make ends meet
her lovely voice
deserves
the means to send
showers

sad tortoise
flashing in the disastrous mist

dazzling repertoire
true love is never saddest
no matter the cause,
no matter the twist.

myrtle beached whale said...

Great description of a photo giving us a glipse of how things once were.

Greyscale Territory said...

O I so love stories behind photos. You have related this one so well. It certainly was another world back then!

Your story would be a great example for those who believe in the "good old days". Like all traditions, there are exceptions!

Gemma

Robin said...

What a sad story. It makes me so very grateful that I was born in an era when women have choices.

Jon said...

I love these old photographs. Every time I see one I wonder what the story is behind it. Yours is a sad story, but I feel it makes the photograph even more fascinating.

kiki. said...

The picture is absolutely beautiful but haunting. Even in her eyes you can sense the sadness. Thank you so much for the story behind it!

Retiredandcrazy said...

That is so sad. We moan about the way things are now, but really we should be grateful that we have choices and freedoms our ancesters would never have believed possible.

Joy said...

A moving tale and very well written.

Becca said...

I felt as if I were reading a wonderful novel! Isn't it amazing the fascinating stories hiding in the midst of our family trees?

Autrice DelDrago said...

What a lovely young woman! She is perhaps wearing ten button gloves (undressed kid or colored) that were all the fashion during this era. Her high button boots might have been either black or a dark brown color. I doubt that her face is pale due to powder, as the Victorian era held cosmetics in contempt as "the devil's making", associating them with prostitutes and women of questionable morals. If powder was worn at all, it was a zinc oxide, which would not render the face as eerily white as the powders of the era before. She simply has beautiful skin unfettered by the chemicals of today's foods.

It is a poignant story and my heart goes out to your aunt.

Your blog is wonderful! (Please forgive my wordy comment - I adore the Victorian era.)

Tammy said...

What a sad tale Granny. It reminded me of Rose in the movie "titanic."

Aunt Rose was a beauty!

nonizamboni said...

Touching and it might go without saying that fact is stranger than fiction. I enjoy reading your writing so much. Such a telling photograph of Rose.
My (German) mother was pushed toward a marriage at 18 with a farmer twice her age but rebelled, got pregnant with me and the rest is another sad story.
Thanks for sharing such a rich story.

Rena said...

What a moving and fascinating story. What a tiny waist she has!
The story of people's lives contains such drama. I never would have guessed so much from the simple photograph.

Blondie said...

Thank you so much for your lovely comment on my Blog. I've been "lurking" on yours for awhile, and I find you to be wonderful...and talented...and wise...and I'm SO glad you Blog!

Photos hold a thousand words, but only if someone speaks for them.

Your Aunt had the 2 extremes--being adored and pampered, and then being the adoring one and getting "taken." Don't we all want to have something in the middle? Hindsight tells me she was probably better off with the First Husband, despite the look on her face in her photo. She hadn't experienced true HURT yet--she didn't understand how much better off she was at that moment. Or maybe not.

I have decided it is unwise to trust any man who can proclaim adoration and propose marriage in the same train ride. Words to live by!

Jo Anne O. said...

oH MY, how sad to live that life, but how wonderful that her story lives on through you! How fortunate too that you would be able to own a piece of her through her music and her photos. Thank you for sharing with us!

Lucy said...

granny.. that was such a moving, sad story. Poor Rose. Her life wasn't her own. You told it as beautifully as her sad eyes did.

Inland Empire Girl said...

Old photographs tell so many stories. You must treasure the sheet music collection.

Betty C. said...

This is a fascinating story, with some elements of things similar to my family heritage (not the fortune, though, LOL!)

Maybe she wasn't happy, but wasn't it also the style not to smile much in pictures back then?

forgetfulone said...

What a beautiful photo and such a sad, yet well-written story to go with it. Granny, I always enjoy what you write!

GreenishLady said...

Wonderfully-told story. If I was sitting with you, I would be following up with dozens of questions... Fascinating family history! Poor Rose.

amy said...

I want to see the film of this story, starting with you opening the boxes of sheet music! Beautiful, heartbreaking and you told it so well.

Cricket's Hearth said...

As I read your story, memories of my own wedding at age 16 appeared as if it were only yesterday. And like Aunt Rose, I was not a happy bride. It was 1968 and I was pregnant, thus a wedding was the remedy for the situation. I was so hoping Rose would find true happiness in her second marriage - I guess some birds are just meant to live in a cage, with or without diamonds and jewels.

I so enjoy your writings. I would like to invite you to visit my other blog, Slice of Life Sunday (http://sliceoflifesunday.wordpress.com) and consider becoming one of the contributing writers for this project. Thanks for such a lovely story.

Patois said...

The stories behind the photographs intrigue me so much. I'm glad you'll be able to keep this story alive for all who follow you.

Mary Beth said...

Thank you for sharing the story behind the photo. She looks sad but very beautiful! Getting married at 16 - Wow! Different time, different era.

tumblewords said...

Thanks for sharing this story. Times have changed so much! And she does look sad ~ her shoulders droop ~ but she is beautiful!

Jennifer Hicks said...

what a wonderful story about the importance of freedom. god bless your aunt rose for teaching you (and us!) that valuable lesson!

Hey Teach! said...

Your Aunt is beautiful though unhappy. It's such a sad story which you told beautifully.

keith hillman said...

Oh Granny , what a sad sad tale. You wrote it so movingly.

Remiman said...

Granny,
The story is always in the eyes isn't it? Those were the days where the glass ceiling was so low that the choices for young women of less than modest means were few.
You held me captive 'til the end and that is a good thing.
rel

Vic said...

Wonderful old photograph and interesting story. So sad that them an she loved used her like that.

Thank you for visiting my blog and leaving a comment.Vic

Cariboo Ponderer

Overeducated Twit said...

What an interesting story. It sounds like the plot of a book I'd pick up, but it's fascinating to find out it's a real story.

Karen said...

This is such a beautiful entry...and such a sad photo. This one is going to haunt me for a while...

Skyelarke said...

So fascinating to imagine what was going on behind those eyes, to enter into her thoughts with her music. Too bad everyone does not keep a journal!

LN- Nickers and Ink said...

Marvelous musings here!

Lovely story.

Robin Westphal said...

I love your site Granny. Thanks for your kind comments on mine. We all have an "Aunt" like Rose in our family trees - which is a blessing!

Miss J said...

Such a wonderfully written yet sad story. Thanks for your comment on my blog! I really enjoy your writing, and your blog. I'll visit often!

J

texasblu said...

Oh that IS a heartbreaking story. Thank goodness you have preserved the stories for others! Thank you for sharing this with us. :)

Maggie May said...

Such a really sad tale & its all true. She looks so sad & sixteen is no age to be tied down like that.

Maggie May said...

There is an "award of distinction" waiting for you at my place!

Medhini said...

A beautiful picture with a touching story to tell... Thank you for sharing it.

Geraldine said...

A beautiful photo and touching post.

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