I often reference the burden that carrying your family history entails. I usually dwell on the mental load, how it requires — and can drain — your time and energy and spirit. But other times, I’m talking about an actual, physical burden.
I’m talking about Gertrude’s window.
This stained-glass window currently lives in my dining room. I haven’t found a better place for it. I have somewhere in mind, but first, a little history.
As I’ve mentioned, my great-grandfather James Kurtz Shields was a pastor and prohibitionist here in Chicago. I think he was a man of tremendous ambition. Around 1891, he arrived in Chicago as a Pennsylvania farmer’s son. By 1906, he was running the Illinois chapter of the Anti-Saloon League. In that time, he also graduated from Northwestern, got married, started his family, founded a church, was widowed, and got remarried.
The church, Joyce United Methodist, stood at Byron and Seeley for more than a century. Were it not for the shifts of time (declining enrollment + developers + 2000s real estate boom), it might still be there.
I was lucky to see the church twice and go inside once. By the time my sister and I visited in 2007, membership was so low, the church was open only part of the week. The water-damaged ceiling was going unfixed. The linoleum was about 40 years old. They let us take hymnals because no one wanted them anymore. The church was at its end.
By some stroke, the people who ran the church kept my contact information. So when demolition was planned, they contacted me. Would I like one of the stained-glass windows? Why sure, I said, imagining a small, pretty round window that I’d seen over a doorway. Or maybe a small piece of the memorial window. “I could have it made into pendants for my family…” I imagined.
What they delivered was… not that. And I was not ungrateful, believe me. But this is a very different window.
More history. This is what I know about Gertrude Graff Shields, James’ first wife, the woman to whom the window is dedicated.
She and James grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. They were married there. She came to Chicago to be his wife and support his ambitions. When James told her that he wanted to switch his schooling from engineering to divinity, despite the lower income it would mean, she reassured him by saying, “I can make soup from bones.” (I love that.)
They had one boy, Wendell. And then, sometime around 1898, Gertrude got very sick with an intestinal abscess. She suffered for more than six months, finally dying in February 1899. She was 29. This window is her memorial. It hung in the church that she helped found but didn’t live to see finished.
About a year later, James remarried, to the woman who eventually became my great-grandmother Bessie. They moved away. The window, of course, stayed.
Then I showed up.
That is why, for the last 13 years, I’ve been storing a four-foot-long memorial window for a woman who is not technically my relative.
It’s pretty, and I like what I know of Gertrude. But it’s also gloomy. You’re not going to put this up in your living room. Maybe you would. Not me. Instead, it’s been in storage, in my closet, and now in our dining room.
The window requires space and caution. It’s 30” by 48” and weighs around 30 or 40 lbs. The last time we moved, the window got its own special trip, along with the family china. The demo crew was kind enough to nail it into a wooden frame, which helped. And I love that my family understood why it needed a special trip.
But it’s still a burden.
I can’t keep this thing forever. I don’t have children. I need to get it to a better place, preferably this year — that’s my task.
Selling it seems weird. I’m not keen on that.
I’ve contacted the historical society in Gertrude’s hometown. Their response was tentative but positive. If not them, the local Methodist church might (might) want it.
But I have to get it there.
I’ve requested quotes from companies that crate and ship antiques. I’m terrified at what numbers they might send back. Would a bake sale cover some of the cost? Should I do a GoFundMe? Do I saddle my family with helping get the window on its way?
Window photos by author.
James and Gertrude photos from family.
Photo of Joyce Methodist Church