The Mysterious Flemings
During the Second World War we did not travel much. The government imposed gas rationing, not because America lacked gas, but because it had no domestic sources of rubber. Our Armed Forces gulped up all the tires we could manufacture; the folks at home could just stay put and cut out any weekend gallivanting and leisurely vacation trips.
My parents managed to save up enough ration coupons to wrest about one trip a year out of those lean years between 1942-1946. The destinations alternated between the Hermsen relatives in Seattle and Bellingham and the Flemings in Portland, Oregon.
My mother had two maiden aunts there.
Cora and Daisy Fleming in their backyard in Portland
Bernice Fleming–everyone called her “Daisy”–was born to Michael John Fleming and Mary Jane Lynch Fleming on June 24, 1875 in Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island. Her youngest sister, Cora, born on January 16, 1889, somehow got herself delivered–unaccountably to me in my youth–in Portland, Oregon. During the years in question, therefore, Daisy, sixty-seven to seventy-one, seemed ancient to me, as one might expect the perception of a seven to eleven year old. Her white hair, long dresses with high necks, and a life centered, I thought, around growing roses clearly reinforced that perception. Cora, though fourteen years younger than Daisy, acted just as old. She wore her brown hair short and curly or in a bun, dressed in muted colors, stood ramrod straight, and, though nice enough, seemed dangerously closer to a frown than a smile: almost a caricature of a stern school-marm. Although I had no acquaintance with, nor experience of, the term “Victorian” at the time, today I would summarize my take on them as fine, old, Victorian ladies.
Of course, I knew them when I did and only on a few occasions. A Hermsen aunt, Mary Jane, my mother’s youngest sister, had this picture in her photo album. It shows Cora dressed up for a studio picture. She appears to be about fifty; if so, she posed for this picture in the late 1930’s:
A Dressed-Up and Posed Cora Fleming
A memory of a visit with them underlines their Victorianism. Dad and Mom went out for the evening. They left four-year-old Lynn and her seven-year-old brother in the aunts’ care. One of Mom’s last instructions: take a bath before you go to bed. As that witching hour approached, Cora filled the tub in preparation for our cleansing. When she left the bathroom, Lynn and I stripped, got into the water together, and as siblings do, began horsing around. Suddenly the ladies appeared, Cora in the lead. I can still see, or at least imagine, her astonished face, hand to mouth, and a torrent of words that propelled us apart, one of us wrapped in a towel, the other (me) bathed in chagrin. I did not know what I had done, but it sure must have been wrong.
I knew that these ladies had two sisters. One, my grandmother Amelia Fleming, the wife of Joseph Hermsen, had died in Bellingham, Washington, in 1937. Being only two at that time, I had no direct memories or experience of her. The other, Aunt May, came up now and then in conversation. Also born in Dunedin, on June 22, 1881, she had married George Shelton of Washington, D.C. in 1902. They lived in Portland as did their two daughters, Caroline Jane and Mary Louise. I do not recall ever meeting May, her husband or family. We did not visit them on these trips to Portland. Strangely, for me at least, they never joined us at Daisy’s and Cora’s home. Was some family estrangement playing itself out?
Year later, after I had become interested in family genealogy, I came upon records that astounded me relative to this Fleming family. Instead of only four girls (Amelia, Daisy, May, and Cora), six others made up a family of ten children. I had six great aunts and uncles about whom I had never heard!
The first information came from the 1900 federal census for Portland, Oregon. I will reproduce the record here:
In middle of page to the left, read “Flemming Bernice.” Below are named the following: Marcella, May,Gus, Cora, Clara, John, and Henry
Both parents now deceased, Bernice “Daisy” is designated as “head” of the residence. The others are identified as sisters and brothers. Until this discovery, I had never known about Marcella and Clara, John and Henry. In this census Amelia is missing as being married and living with Joe Hermsen in Bellingham. My great aunts and uncles now numbered nine.
Among a series of Portland City Directories during the 1890’s, I came upon one other Fleming son, Michael Joseph, also called Joseph. The 1895 listing clearly differentiates him from his father, Michael John:
Michael J. Fleming, Shoemaker; Michael J. Fleming, Jr., Clerk
The family dwelled at 211 Harrison, the same address given in the 1900 census. I later confirmed the discovery of son Joe. I obtained a copy of his baptismal record from St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Dunedin, New Zealand. His parents married there on September 14, 1870; their first born, Michael Joseph, was baptised in that church by Bishop Patrick Moran on October 22, 1871. Sometime around 1900 Joe married and moved from Portland. He died in Salem, Oregon, on September 16, 1907. He was buried in the family plot at Mt. Calvary Cemetery in Portland three days later. I received confirmatory information from the records of the funeral home:
Funeral data of Michael Joseph Fleming
Michael Joseph or Joe died at age thirty-six in 1907. I find it easy to understand why he would not be mentioned over forty years later. By that time his presence and his absence represented old news.
I then sought to learn more about the lives of the three just-unearthed uncles. Except for the 1900 census, I have been unable to ferret out any records about the supposed twins, John and Henry Fleming, both born in 1874. The Diocese of Dunedin, New Zealand has no register of their baptisms; the censuses of 1910 and 1920 and 1930 do not enumerate them as I can find them; their graves do not dwell, finally, with other of their family in Portland’s Mt. Calvary Cemetery. I can only conclude one of two things: either the census-taker erred in calling them “brothers” (perhaps they were just visiting cousins?), or I am left, quite simply, with a mystery.
Gus has left an identifiable trail. In response to an inquiry made to the New Zealand diocese, I received the following as taken from their baptismal records:
Birth and Baptismal Dates for Fleming Children in Dunedin, New Zealand
Augustus Frederick arrived in this world on August 11, 1877 and received baptism just over a month later. As I will explain more fully in a forthcoming article, he immigrated with his family to the United States in 1881. The family settled in Portland, Oregon. At the age of 31, on September 21, 1908 he married, in Portland, Martha Agnes Kelley.
His WWI draft registration card specifies that Gus and Mattie Fleming on September 12, 1918 were living at 564 4th Street in Portland, and Gus was working at the local Oregon Marine Fisheries Supply as a salesman. On July 17th the next year Mattie died. In the 1920 census Gus is living with his sisters Daisy, Clara, and Cora. He reports himself as widowed.
In the 1930 census , Gus reports that he remarried in 1923. He took as his second wife Eleanor Grace Mack. His funeral record– he passed away on May 5, 1950–named his wife as being “Eleanor G.”
Some years back I talked on the phone with this couple’s son, Augustus Francis “Frank” Fleming. He confirmed his mother’s maiden name to be Eleanor Grace Mack. When I mentioned that I never knew about his father, nor did I realize that the family lived in Portland during the years I had visited there, he said that was because his father had divorced his first wife and then remarried. According to the available records, this divorce would have to have been finalized between September 18, 1918 and Mattie’s death on July 17, 1919. This certainly seems possible, if somewhat improbable. I find this a more probable explanation. In the 1920 census a thirty-three-year old Eleanor Mack, born in Nebraska, is rooming in Helena, Montana. She is single, but also divorced. If the family were to get upset about her eventual marriage to Gus, it seems most likely that they objected to his marrying a divorcee. Whatever, Frank Fleming underlined for me that a decided distance existed between Gus and his sisters, because of somebody’s divorce. This does explain the silence about him, as well as our paying him no attention on our Portland excursions.
The New Zealand civil registry of births tells us that Marcella Emilda Fleming, daughter of Michael John Fleming, a bootmaker, and his wife, Mary Jane Lynch Fleming, was born on Hanover Street in Dunedin. It gives January 24, 1879 as her birthdate. The baptismal registry (reproduced above) for St. Joseph’s Catholic Church lists her baptismal date almost a month later, February 23rd.
With her family Marcella immigrated to the United States in 1881. Her first official record here, the 1900 census for Portland, shows her boarding with her siblings at 211 Harrison St. Unmarried as yet, she makes her living as a clerk.
Sometime during this period–Marcella turned twenty-one in 1900–she met James J. Collins. The Portland City directories for 1897-1901 list him rooming, at first at 528 Railroad Avenue, then 427 Stark. Western Union was employing him as a telegraph operator. As we learn from the later 1910 census, James J. Collins, now married to Marcella A. Collins, was born in England in 1871. The census in 1920 reports that Marcella married at age twenty-three, that is, in 1902.
I don’t know what took the newly married couple to Winslow, a small town in Navajo country, an hour’s drive east of Flagstaff, on the highway heading toward New Mexico. Perhaps his job drew them; he is working as a railroad clerk there in 1910.
Between 1910-1920 James Collins died. By 1920 Marcella is living in Los Angeles, a widow, and a saleswoman in a department store. During the next decade she moved back to Winslow; by 1930 she manages a hotel there. In that year she was fifty-one. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, Marcella continued to live in Winslow and died there on June 30, 1946:
Government Record of Marcella’s Death in Navajo County, Arizona
Only two of the Fleming children were born in the United States: Clara V. Fleming on December 29, 1883, and Cora, the youngest, on January 16th, 1889. Neither married, both supported themselves as business women, both started out as sales clerks, with Clara moving up to the position of department manager. After she moved to San Francisco, Clara managed a gift shop; when she died on February 16, 1932 she held the position of assistant buyer for Hale Brothers, a retail store. Cora left the retail world in favor of Multnomah County Government. She clerked at the courthouse; at her retirement she was serving as deputy assessor. Clara died at a relatively young age, being only forty-nine. She was battling breast cancer; she died of a heart attack. Cora also had a heart attack. She passed away on June 28, 1960 at the age of seventy-one. I do not know what took Clara to leave her hometown, Portland, in favor of San Francisco; on the other hand, Cora, from the time of her Father’s death in 1898, lived with Daisy until this lifelong companion had a cerebral hemorrhage following upon a progressive cerebral arterioscleoris in 1957.
I remember well my last two visits with Daisy and Cora. The first one occurred in August of 1953. I had graduated from high school and had resolved to join the Jesuit Order. A school chum, Don Sharpes, decided likewise. We had to enter on August 14th at the Jesuit Novitiate located in Sheridan, Oregon, fifty miles from Portland, about halfway to the Oregon coast. Dad drove us from Yakima, through Goldendale, down the Columbia River gorge to Portland. We stopped to have lunch with the two elderly aunts.
As could well be expected in August in Portland, the weather was steaming. The aunts did not have air conditioning; they relied, instead, on large floor fans. They did the job if one happened to be sitting in the cooling arc of forced air. Before lunch, Don and I shed our shirts in a vain attempt at relief.
As it happened Don had been working all summer with the forest service, so he had had many sunny and shirtless days. On a lark, he also had put strips of tape on his back, so as to bring out non-tan, white initials of his at-the-moment girlfriend, H M C, Helen Marie Carroll.
Aunt Daisy, all seventy-eight years of her, noticed the bold script. She inquired: ” Don, what are those letters on your back? Let’s see? My, they are H M C!” Don, never much at a loss, but especially not for words, took her up on it. “Why, yes, Aunt Daisy. They stand for Holy Mother of Christ.” While she seemed both satisfied and impressed–how appropriate for a fledging seminarian–Dad and I tried desperately to maintain a reverent manner in lieu of bursting in glee.
The sequel came about four years later. Don and I had survived our two years of novice asceticism and had completed two years of collegiate liberal arts studies. We were with our class now assigned to finish our undergraduate liberal arts course and pursue graduate learning of scholastic philosophy in Spokane, Washington. Dad drove down from Yakima; my brother, thirteen-year-old Jim, accompanied him. On the journey home, we stopped again to visit Daisy and Cora.
While Cora was preparing lunch, we sat with Aunt Daisy in the front room. In the course of the conversation, she recalled our visit four years earlier. “Oh, how is that nice fellow, Don Shar–pes? Remember? He had sunburned letters on his back. They were I H S. When I asked about them, he said, ‘Oh, Aunt Daisy, they stand for ‘I Have suffered.'” We all gasped. Hardly missing a beat, Jim responded, “Sure, Aunt Daisy, her name was I-leen.” This time, I’m afraid my father and I lost whatever decorum we might have exercised. We howled! Aunt Daisy just smiled.
She died that December, on the 23rd. She was buried four days later at Mt. Calvary Cemetery.
On the occasion of her thirtieth aniversary working for the Portland Agency of the Mutual Insurance Company of New York, Walter Goss, a field underwriter, penned the following tribute. The Company newsletter, in announcing Daisy’s demise, reprinted it. In bringing this article to a close, I can demonstrate no clearer affection:
I’m just crazy ’bout Miss Daisy/And the purpose of my song
Is to tell her why I love her/Just be patient–‘t won’t be long.
She can cut most any caper/She can dance and she can sing
She can cook and she can figure/She can do most anything.
She’s about as nearly perfect/As I ever hope to see
Cheerful–smiling–always plannin/Helpful things for you and me.
Ain’t you crazy ’bout Miss Daisy? /She’s our champion–she’s the Dean.
No wonder that your children love you; /They can’t help it–You’re the Queen.