Difficulty: Engaging (click for info)
On the facts of the case, it would be easy to tell Maxine's story as a pure tragedy. Certainly the sad parts come thick and fast. She was the eldest in a brood of eight children, and would have inherited some caretaking duties even before her mother, Ida Falk, divorced her father, James Elliott, for adultery. Ida is intriguing to me: the daughter of a first-generation Prussian father and a New York-born mother, she was solidly built and oval-faced. In photographs she looks no-nonsense, but kind. My grandmother (Maxine's daughter) remembers that Ida always made her feel welcome and wanted, something at which her own mother didn't excel. On the 1910 census from Charleston, West Virginia (Maxine's birthplace), James lists his profession as "Laborer," which he has crossed out and replaced with "Army Recruiter." In 1920 he is still in the picture, listed as a recruiter in West Virginia. But by 1930 Ida and all her children have moved to Vallejo, California, and Ida herself is listed as head-of-household; judging from the ages of the children, the split could have come as early as 1922. Whatever the case, Ida continued to support all her children, and at least one of her grandchildren, for many years to come.
Maxine left home early, leaving high school to marry Paul Atwell at nineteen, and giving birth to my grandmother at twenty. The marriage was short and unhappy; by the 1930 census, when my grandmother was only two, there is evidence that it was on the rocks: Maxine and "Margie," while listed as part of Paul's household, are also listed as living back home with Ida and all Maxine's younger siblings, suggesting a relationship in the process of disintegration.
By her mid-twenties Maxine had remarried, this time to a navy man named Lou Hurst. In 1936 he was stationed on the island of Oahu, in the then-territory of Hawai'i, and mother and daughter lived with him there for two years, in military housing on the Honolulu side of Pearl Harbor. My grandmother, a second-grader at the time, remembers taking a ferry across the harbor to attend her elementary school. (Coincidentally, Marge's future husband was growing up on the Pearl Harbor Peninsula as well, although they never met as children.) In 1939 Hurst was transferred to Shanghai, on a boat patrolling the Yangtze River during the escalation of the Sino-Japanese War. Incredibly, Maxine followed with Marge in tow. Maxine's photo album from the months she spent in China intersperses shots of picnics and garden outings with pictures of armed guards, sandbags, and corpses floating in the river. The detonating Japanese bombs were audible from the Russian-run boarding house where mother and daughter stayed alone for long periods while Lou was out at sea.
But Maxine's sojourn in Shanghai, which must have been terrifying and lonely, was at least short-lived: after nine or ten months she contracted tuberculosis, and shipped back to California with her daughter. Once there, Marge was again sent to live with Ida, while Maxine checked into a nearby TB sanatorium; shortly after this ordeal, Maxine and Lou divorced.
As World War II approached, though, Maxine remarried, this time to a man named Ernie. My mother remembers Ernie as the love of Maxine's life. She (my mother) still wears the wedding ring that Ernie bought for Maxine at a pawn shop in Vallejo, upon Maxine's request that for her third marriage she'd like a diamond. The couple was able to buy a small house near Mare Island Naval Shipyard, where they both worked – Maxine as a typist, and Ernie as a laborer in the shipyards. Maxine and Ernie stayed together twenty years, but even this more stable relationship had a sad end: when Maxine started to get sick in middle age, Ernie abandoned her. She died in her late fifties, from a combination of heart trouble and smoking-related emphysema.
Yet between the lines of these sad events, there are occasional clues that Maxine's life wasn't all tears and heartache. Her photo album from her years in Hawai'i, for example, is filled with playful-looking photographs of Hula lessons and beach picnics, and dedicated from a woman friend "To Dearest Maxine, To remind you of the 'balmy air and tropical seas' of Hawaii. Love and best wishes. Aloha!" Many of these photos show off Maxine's goofy side; looking at them, a person gets the sense of a strong, edgy sense of humor at play in Maxine's mobile face.
There's also a streak of strong-mindedness on Maxine's side of the family. Ida's ability to divorce her philandering husband and make her own way in the early part of the twentieth century, when dissolving a marriage was unusual and women were generally dependent on their husbands or male family members for survival, shows definite strength of character. When Marge was pregnant for the first time, and my grandfather was suffering cold feet about his ability to provide for her and the coming twins, Maxine got tough with him, threatening to descend on my grandparents' house and collect her daughter if he didn't give her the proper support during her pregnancy. Later, Maxine became great friends with her son-in-law; they would get together for card-games and cocktails, and my mother remembers him talking about how she loved to joke and have a good time. The friendly relations between them were only compromised by Maxine's advancing alcoholism late in life.
There were countless aspects of Maxine's life I hope to avoid: the divorces, alcoholism, and spotty parenting, for a start. But there are also gifts she has passed down to my family: her love of gardening is carried on by my mother, and I like to think I've inherited a bit of the tough adventurousness it must have taken to sail across oceans and live in strange, foreign locales. The Maxine Elliott Shell plays on my great-grandmother's love of ornamentation (she always liked jewelry), and her fun-loving, free-spirited side. Hearkening back to the mid-1920's, when Maxine would have been starting to sow her wild oats, the drapey, beaded bias-knit panels and clean, Deco-inspired lines make for a flattering, youthful garment. Worked in a hand-dyed silk/merino blend, it represents a kind of luxury to which Maxine could probably only aspire, but which she definitely would have appreciated. The rows of simple crochet finishing give a period feel, and the shell as a whole strikes an appealing Jazz Age balance between boyishness and femininity. Better yet, the sleeveless construction and intuitive pattern make this a quick, fun knit – and Maxine's love of fun should definitely be remembered.