Living with our past
“Birds do it. Bees do it. Even educated fleas do it.” –Cole Porter
No, not love, I’m talking about intuition. Research shows that humans may be born with our ancestors’ emotional experiences already imprinted in our genetic makeup. I mean, if we inherit things like eye color, bone structure, and mannerisms, why not emotional conditioning? In theory, this would make each generation better than the last, giving us the psychological tools to cope with anything our ancestors had already overcome. (Of course, we’d still be at a loss with Presidential Doughboy, as no one has ever seen anything quite like this before…)
I think there is an emotional blueprint of sorts, for living on Earth and navigating the myriad complications of daily life here. We are born with a map, so-to-speak, but in early childhood we’re taught to only trust the experiences we can all see, hear, taste, and feel. Imaginary creatures retreat under the bed as we train ourselves to ignore our imagination and conform to society’s version of reality. Me, I have always had a hard time conforming. In fact, I come from a long line of non-conformists.
My great aunt Charlotte (Kingo) was definitely not into conformity. She and Portia Mansfield (a professional dancer) started a dance and theater camp near Steamboat Springs in 1913. A decade before Alice Paul wrote the Equal Rights Amendment, Kingo and Portia opened a summer camp for girls to dance, act, and ride horses in the mountains of Colorado. Today, the Perry Mansfield Camp is the longest running performing arts camp in the country, thanks in part to the citizens of Steamboat, but back then the residents of the small mountain town had their doubts about a bunch of wild women dancing around the woods in their shifts. In the days of Vaudeville, Kingo and Portia forged a new path, knitting together modern dance, theater, and performing arts, all the while camping in the Rocky Mountains.
Growing up, I rarely heard about Kingo or the camp. There were whispered innuendos in the family that Kingo and Portia were lesbians; the only apparent basis for this rumor being that neither of them was married and Kingo had graduated from Smith College. Back in the 1970s, I guess, the rural consensus was that going to an all-women’s college meant you were a lesbian. I mean, why else would someone choose a women-only school, when the majority of women were only attending college to get their MRS degree anyway…
I have to admit, I was proud of the rumor, as it lent some deviant romance to the family history, which mainly consists of mining, skiing, and pack trips. So last year I decided to try to find out, once and for all, whether or not Kingo had indeed been a romantic outlaw in our family’s past. I invited my friend Caro to join me on a caper to Carmel, California, to meet Ingrid Wekerle, a dancer and young protégé of Portia Mansfield’s. Born in Germany, Ingrid emigrated to the US as a young child in 1936 with her benefactor, Hedwig Wekerle. (She later took Kingo’s mother’s maiden name as well, and now goes by Ingrid Matson Wekerle.)
Caro and I sat down to a wonderful French dinner with Ingrid, and two bottles of wine later, I was asking her all of my burning questions. She answered them with candor, sharing stories about the summers she spent at the camp and lending her perspective into the lives of these pioneering women. Ingrid told us about the book Dancers on Horseback by Lucile Bogue, and she told us that Kingo and Portia were not partners, except in business. Kingo had a male suitor, and Portia had many, but they chose the camp over marriage at a time when most women did not work outside the home. Back then, becoming a wife meant moving to wherever your husband lived, and putting away your own dreams in a box under the bed.
Today, I cannot imagine having to choose between marriage and what I love to do. Luckily, I know I don’t have to make that choice; I can have both. Thanks Kingo.