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Shirley and Theodore Miskoe, Cleveland, OH, 1975

Shirley and Theodore Miskoe, Cleveland, OH, 1975

Like many Americans around the 1976 Bicentennial, my grandmother Shirley Garey Miskoe began to document her family’s genealogy in the United States, knowing that it went back well in the eighteenth century. She pooh-poohed the idea of being able to join the Daughters of the Revolution, although one could immediately see its order and sense of propriety appealed immensely to her. My mother provided a twist to the family line by marrying a nice Jewish doctor.  She enjoys her status as the black sheep of the family, and thought it would be very funny to have her Jewish daughters qualify for the DAR.She lent Shirley her formidable research abilities, and, together, they discovered that they had not one but two ancestors who served—in some capacity–the Revolutionary War effort.

The Irishman Jack Carney had better documentation than the other ancestor, so he was our chap. Carney was a victualler, which we figured translated to “rum runner,” and, as he provided for soldiers, qualified him to sponsor future members of the DAR. My grandmother, who thrived on absolute clear lines of authority, cleanliness, and order, eventually became Regent of the illustrious Shaker Heights chapter.

When she died at age 87, having not been able to tend a meeting in over a decade, two elderly, white women wearing their DAR pins came to the house. Over small plates of cookies and ham, they praised her firm hand with her chapter members. One fixed me with a meaningful look and said, “Your grandmother knew how to run a meeting,” as if the Regents that followed her had been founding wanting. I was impressed. A few years later, when my grandfather died, women from the DAR came again to the house.

I moved to New England in 2007, and, as a born and bred Midwesterner, found this region strange, and often very foreign. New England seemed to be performing itself, like some watered-down version of Robert Frost. Stone walls really do cut through forests and divide farms—we even had one at the back of the backyard. We took the children to apple orchards and reconstructed nineteenth-century villages. They came home from school deeply indoctrinated in Johnny Appleseed, Paul Revere, and cranberries. Even the streets of Worcester, our unlovely, post-industrial city, bore its colonial past, with street names like George, Queen, and Cumberland.

Everyone was related to everyone here, and the legendary New England brusqueness proved to be real. Other mothers in the school yard ignored me; most of them, it seemed, had actually gone to this particular elementary school themselves. One, after learning that my husband was a professor, abruptly turned away and never spoke to me again. The Jews in my ostensibly Reform synagogue practiced what sure looked like Conservative Judaism to me, and found my German Jewish ways as strange as I found them.  After a while, the characters in John Irving’s novels began to make more sense to me, and that wasn’t a good thing. It seemed like an excellent coping mechanism to put on my junior anthropologist badge, learn something about my grandmother, and join the DAR.

The DAR, which is the largest women’s organization in the United States, barred Marion Anderson from singing in their Constitution Hall in 1939 on account of her race. Finding itself abruptly on the wrong side of history, the DAR has spent the next seven and a half decades trying to make up for it, including hosting Anderson in Constitution Hall several times afterwards and supporting chapters of the DAR made up entirely of African American women. I scoured the DAR website, New York Times articles mentioning the DAR, other blog posts about it, and found nothing in their literature or activities that would damage my progressive political credentials. I could be both a Life Member of Hadassah and a Daughter of the American Revolution.

My mother provided me with the remaining documentation: my grandmother’s DAR number and copies of every birth certificate, death certificate, and marriage certificate between my grandmother and my children. I filled out the website contact form, and along the way discovered that my friend Chris also qualified as a “potential member,” and more importantly, was willing to come along to investigate. Together, we drove to “The Oaks,” the 1774 house that now belongs to the Worcester Colonel Timothy Bigelow’s chapter of the DAR. Located across the street, now, is AdCare, a hospital that solely treats drug abuse.

Because what else does one wear to the DAR if not pearls and black leather pants?

Because what else does one wear to the DAR if not pearls and black leather pants?

The world of a DAR meeting is not one I knew existed. It is totally without irony, and manifests itself almost entirely out of procedure. Never have I seen Robert’s Rules of Order observed so thoroughly. The Regent presided over the meeting with a flinty authority I remembered well in my grandmother, and it ran as if it was the year 1925.

We said the Pledge of Allegiance and recited the DAR pledge, which had been written by a man. The chair of the Travel and Music Committee led us in the first verse and chorus of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The message from the President General was read, word for word, to the assembled members, as if a single copy had arrived by post. She urged upon the Daughters a new goal of 10 million hours of volunteer service, and there was a bit of collective groaning. A very elderly woman wearing enormous, gold-colored American eagles as earrings read “The Indian Minute,” a brief bit of historic lore about the Native Peoples that is part of every meeting. We learned about Squanto and the Massasoit Tribe. Someone recommended a recent book on the Revolutionary War, noting with marvel and wonder that there was a whole chapter about how women had contributed to the war effort.  All the while, the Recording Secretary sat at a small, marble-topped table, and took notes by hand.

My son later asked me, “What does the DAR do?” and I could only respond vaguely, “No harm?” The mission involves historic preservation, education, and patriotism, but the activities seem to be primarily raising money for college scholarships, and, in the case of the Worcester Colonial Timothy Bigelow Chapter, to maintaining the Oaks. All of their volunteer hours for any organization are tracked: “our service is our contribution to our country,” I was told. There is a very active colonial dressmaking sewing circle, and they keep an heirloom herb garden for visiting school children. The chapter sponsors a summer camp for children they consistently refer to as “Native American,” making the “Indian Minute” even more odd. The Regent shared news of members who had died, or were ill. Sympathy and get-well cards were circulated for signing.

We had endless committee reports, and a presentation of the proposed 2015 budget. I was far from the youngest woman in the room, and one of the few actually residing in the city. Most of them lived in the small, rural towns in Central Massachusetts, and they looked forward to their gatherings and field trips to various historic sites around the Commonwealth. Discussions for fundraisers involved target goals of $500; one idea involved sewing white muslin mob caps to sell on the Worcester Common. Despite the notion that the DAR is full of wealthy, aristocratic women, such laborious effort suggested strongly that no one in the room was in a financial position to simply write a check and save everybody the effort. Rather, several women in the room appeared to make their own clothes, and no one wore anything but sensible shoes. I suspected a great deal of canning and preserving in their households.

After a lengthy presentation of eighteenth-century intaglio printmaking by a local artist in period costume, we repaired to the oak paneled dining room and kitchen for tea. As it was George Washington’s birthday, we ate an astounding and delicious array of cherry-pie themed desserts off of the house china. At this juncture, I presented Ginger, the Membership Chair with copies of the documents required to prove that I was my grandmother’s granddaughter. Ginger was taken aback with pleasure: “You have it all ready! And you want to join!” They’d expected longer consideration, I suppose, or more hesitancy over committing the $65 annual membership fee, which, they noted with some bitterness, the National Society kept all but $11 of. Despite Ginger’s enthusiasm, “DC” would need to review and approve my papers.

paperwork for DARIn the end, it wasn’t the DAR’s hopelessly unfashionable reputation or Marion Anderson that gave me pause. It was the emphasis on my bloodline and the papers to ascertain it. What Ashkenazi Jew doesn’t pause a moment at the idea of being asked for their papers and to prove their provenance? This was already a subject of irritation for me. My mother didn’t technically convert to Judaism until after I was an adult, meaning that many Jews would not consider me to be a Jew at all.   I simply don’t have the paperwork.

Finally, I have a conflicted relationship with sororities. As a college freshman, I was “cross-cut” during rush at Northwestern, which meant something along the lines of the house I chose first choosing me second, and that I should rush again. I declined to do so.  To my everlasting shame, I chose to be initiated as a “Little Sister” of Zeta Beta Tau, which involved no awful misogynist rituals, but struck even my eighteen-year-old self as inane and patronizing.  I could not muster any enthusiasm for my new status, and never returned.  As an adult, organizations dominated by women, such as the PTA and the religious school committee tended to irritate me, as their meetings were usually more digressive and far less entertaining than those with men in attendance. And here I was, waiting to see if “DC” would approve my paperwork so I could join the country’s largest and least cool sorority. At least, I wouldn’t have to wait long.

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