“When my mother moved into assisted living in 2007, several old trunks and boxes that I remembered from the attic of my childhood home came to the surface. I stared at the massive bulk of these artifacts that once belonged to my long-dead father —no one else in my family wanted them. Their fate hung in the balance. The horror of sending them to a landfill, unexamined, haunted me, and I reluctantly volunteered to take them in.
“The oldest trunk, an old embossed leather Saratoga, belonged to my father’s grandmother, Cora Keck (1865-1921), who first used it when she left her home in Iowa to attend Vassar from 1884-1886. This was already unusual. How did she come to attend college in an era when most people did not even bother to finish high school?
“Then, according to a four-page brochure that I found tucked between the pages of Cora’s Vassar diary, I discovered that her mother Mrs. Dr. Rebecca J. Keck was not only a physician, she was also the proprietor of Mrs. Dr. Keck’s Palatial Infirmary for All Chronic Diseases, a private clinic located in a magnificent Victorian mansion at 611 Brady St. in Davenport, Iowa. In fact, Mrs. Dr. Keck made herself into one of the wealthiest women in Iowa as a famous patent medicine entrepreneur. How did that happen? Why has no one heard of her remarkable career today?
“I grew tense with excitement at my role in recovering this information, so casually clawed back from the edge of oblivion and quit my editing job. I took over the ping pong table in the basement for sorting as I began to pull one fascinating item after another out of the boxes. The stories of Cora’s life at Vassar and her mother’s astonishing career were revelations to me. As I opened the wrappings that cradled each item, I felt like I was receiving an urgent message sent to me from a vanished time, from real people who actively wanted me to know about their lives.
“Soon, the ping pong table was covered with photos and books spread out next to each other so that I could figure out who was in them and what they were all about.
“More than a century later, Cora’s entertaining personality still shines from her ‘historical artifacts.’ She was easy to like; she was full of talent, life and humor, and not very different from many young women I know today. As I began to research and write her story, I connected with Cora as a person; she came to occupy a mysterious zone half-way between a dead great-grandmother and a living, fictional character in a romance of my own making.
“I realized that the Kecks’ story is a way to explore the source of the freedoms enjoyed by modern American women from a new perspective. It comes from “fly-over land,” far from the metropolitan world of America’s eastern aristocracy, yet not part of the “wild west” either. It is the kind of story that does not often get told but that should be: it is amazing, it is funny and it is unusual.
“I was discovering how much we have in common with what is often poorly understood, or dismissed as a dusty, irrelevant past. It is not the past, it is our past. We all need to own this kind of story in order to understand ourselves.