Out on a sparsely populated prairie, there once was a girl called herself “Maud
Fenstermaker.” The daughter of Germanic immigrants, she grew up in Basil, Ohio,
a village that no longer exists. As a girl, she studied grammar from Reed &
Kellogg’s Graded Lessons in English Grammar. One day, perhaps idly passing a
dull school-day, she recalled a bit of a verse from a poem from an annual
reader for children called “Chatterbox.” In pencil, she wrote down a
couplet, misremembered as a quatrain, onto the flyleaf of her grammar book. On
another Fall day, she wrote out her name and the date in confident
Copperplate strokes, recording her name and the date: October
14th 1891. On another day, with another ink, she seems to have
revisited her signature and made a few delicate adjustments.
One hundred-and-twenty-five years later, I bought her grammar book and began
pulling at the thread of this life that ended before my own began. I’d like to
share what I know about Maud(e) or Mathilda thanks to the internet. In her
story I found a story of America and Americanness.
Note: Storytelling based on genealogy is a series of likely guesses. Is it
possible the writing was done by Maud’s mother, sibling, or teacher? Possibly.
Was it possible her name was Maude versus Maud? Possible as well. Spellings,
especially in immigrant communities, were famously changeable as literacy and
Americanization worked their effects. Accept this as a work of speculative
This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there
to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the words of
others. — Yaa Gyasi