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Columnist Barbara Cloud: A case full of family history

Sunday, October 18, 1998

By Barbara Cloud, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

I would have liked Aunt Myrtie. I never knew her. But recently I found bits of her life in a faded and dilapidated suitcase.

In it are letters from Helen Keller, her signature carefully printed in blue ink block letters, outlined in yellow. There are notes from the White House during the terms of both Roosevelt and Coolidge.

She was really something, Aunt Myrtie. I sense a bond.

Do you ever wonder how you became who you are or if knowledge of your ancestors might show you why you are doing what you are doing?

A son or daughter might follow in a parent's footsteps career-wise, almost in natural succession, but when you are separated by generations, it is indeed odd to discover a relative you never knew about, and then to learn her interests were so close to your own.

I sat down at the kitchen table with my late Aunt Edna's son, Jazz, and the object of our attention was an old suitcase with ripped sides and a rusted handle that he had found among his mother's belongings after she passed away in January at age 90.

He said much of it was news to him as well, especially since most of the clippings and photos contained in the suitcase were of a woman we never knew. We weren't even sure of how we were related as we read the papers, but we finally decided Myrtle Miller McMaster was our late grandfather's sister.

Our mothers were two of 13 children fathered by Elwood Miller and Elizabeth Cleaver.

I never knew either grandparent. In fact, my mother never spoke of her parents. She was sent to a foster home when it became too difficult for her mother, a nurse, to raise all those children.

Now I was learning about someone who would have been my mother's aunt, someone she probably didn't know at all. She certainly never mentioned Myrtie Miller to us as we were growing up. My sister and I only learned we had all those uncles and aunts when we were about 16 and 18.

So here was all this information about Myrtie, and some of it was mighty impressive. She obviously married well. Alexander McFall McMaster was a physician, and they lived in Washington, D.C., for some time.

Aunt Myrtie corresponded with the White House it seems. There are several letters on White House stationery, answering inquiries from her, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was in office in 1938.

She was interested in a variety of causes, and she was religious and caring. There is a card from President and Mrs. Coolidge thanking Aunt Myrtie for her expression of sympathy to them. It is dated 1924, the year their son died.

She was born in 1878, and her maternal grandmother was Barbara Ann Lightkep, born in 1811. That would have been my great-great-grandmother, which could have been someone I was named after, although the woman my mother was raised by, whom I knew as Nana T, also was named Barbara. She was Barbara Tomlinson.

I was never told for whom I was named. I have no idea where my middle name, Louise, came from.

But I was learning more than I had ever known about a relative, even a distant one, and primarily that Aunt Myrtie was an actress, traveling with the Riggs Comedy Troupe in 1908, and a writer who had many of her articles, poems and songs published.

Among the papers in the suitcase were 1909, 1913, 1925 and 1926 copyrights from the Library of Congress for periodicals, a book and songs with words and music by Myrtie Miller McMaster .

She seemed to do it all.

She often wrote letters to the editor, one in which she expressed dismay at the bobbed hair trend, stating "it lends an appearance of coarseness, grossness and mannishness that should be entirely foreign to the feminine feature."


I would love to have heard the song titled "I've Lost My Thimble" and another titled "Tuck Me Away on Thy Bosom, Mother."

When she married Dr. McMaster, their names were often on the society pages. In 1926, the distinguished jewelers, silversmiths and stationers, The Bailey, Banks & Biddle Co. of Philadelphia, invited them to be represented in their volume of 200 "Armorial Families of America."

In 1927, Aunt Myrtie copyrighted a piece called "The Gateway to the Physical," in which her lead sentence refers to a woman's uterus. Shocking!

That must have turned more than a few bobbed heads.

I instinctively like her, having only this cardboard suitcase of papers as an introduction. A life summed up in tattered and yellowed clippings and photographs in a cardboard suitcase. Sometimes it comes to that.

I'm glad it found its way to me.

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