Speaking of Daisy

By Melissa Ballard

Photography by Leeta Harding

Most of the women in past generations of my family, including my mom, stayed home with children, even when money was tight. They had a term for it: when they got married they “went to housekeeping.”  

In 1972, I wasn’t likely to be going to housekeeping any time soon. I had lots of opinions, and didn’t hesitate to voice them. My anger about current events increased as I read each issue of Ms., a new feminist magazine. In it, make-up, fashion, and hair style articles were replaced with titles like “Gloria Steinem on Sisterhood” and “Women Tell the Truth About Their Abortions.”

After graduating from high school two years earlier, I had moved two hours from home to Toledo, Ohio. I studied fashion merchandising—this was the mixed-up era of white vinyl boots with hot pants, peasant blouses with patched jeans—and planned to conquer the retail world. I soon realized this was not something I wanted to do indefinitely.

Now, tired of dead-end jobs, I had moved back in with my parents. I was trying to save money, maybe for college. I had no idea what I would study. My cousin, five years my senior, was the first in our family to get a degree; she was a teacher.

I loved to read, especially mysteries, biographies, and historical fiction, but I didn’t consider an English major. My parents and I agreed that I needed to study something practical that would lead to a “real” job. 

My love of words never waned, but I couldn’t have imagined it would one day lead me to the forgotten story of a female ancestor.  

***

Seventy-two years earlier and 206 miles away, another young woman, Daisy Burtch, resides in Dayton, Ohio, one county away from the small town of Greenville, where she was born. Single women rarely live on their own, and Daisy is no exception. While in Dayton, she boards with a steel worker, his wife, and their eight-year-old daughter. Daisy is a graduate of Dayton’s business college, where she learned shorthand.

Two years later, Daisy is appointed court stenographer for Darke County, of which Greenville is the county seat. She almost certainly moves back to her parents’ home when she starts her new job; perhaps she misses the relative freedom she experienced in Dayton.

Daisy sits at the front of the courtroom, below the judge, stage left. Tall and slim, she has perfect posture. She wears a white blouse with a high collar and lace trim, and a long, dark skirt. Her light brown hair is piled in a loose knot. Daisy’s hand flies over her notebook page, forming lines of loops and swirls, symbols that represent sounds and words. From her seat on the court’s stage, she is the silent witness to and recorder of everything spoken.

After supper on Saturday, September 11, 1902, the same day Daisy’s new job is announced in the newspaper, she and her sister Catherine walk to the Opera House to see a play. It is Ladies Night, and tickets are ten cents. The seats fill up quickly. Soon, women begin to line up in the aisles, and along the back, where they will stand for the entire show.

It is warm in the overcrowded space, and Daisy fans herself with her program. She becomes involved in the rhythmic cadence of the actors’ voices as they speak their lines, and barely notices the heat. When the play is over, Catherine nudges her, and Daisy is startled, not realizing for a moment where she is.

Daisy and Catherine file out, eager for a glass of lemonade. As they stand in line, Daisy notices a handsome man with dark hair and a slightly crooked nose, gesturing as he talks to a small group. He must be telling a good story because all at once everyone is laughing. He looks across and meets Daisy’s steady gaze. As he excuses himself and begins to walk toward her, she feels the sudden need to sit down. It is only the heat, she thinks, and her need for cool liquids.

***

I didn’t learn about Daisy until I was in my 50s, when family history research led me to her. I felt an immediate connection, even though we lived at opposite ends of the 20th century. She had moved away from home, gotten training and a job, all as a single woman. I began to quiz the older members of my family. Nobody knew anything about her. Our family had forgotten Daisy, but I would not. And I had more to learn.

***

When my high school friends were half-way through their junior year of college, I began attending classes at the state school closest to my parents’ house. They paid my tuition and I worked part-time at a billing agency to earn money for books and other expenses. I lived at home and took the bus to classes. 

I had considered teaching as a career, but settled on speech-language pathology because I liked the idea of working with children one-on-one. To do this, I needed to go to graduate school; luckily, the university I attended had one of the few state-approved programs in Ohio. I had no idea how I’d pay for it.

***

Just shy of a year after meeting the dark-haired man from the theater, Max Arnold of Pittsburgh, Daisy stands at the back of a massive church. She marvels at her instant and improbable bond with a man who travels the northeastern part of the country ahead of a small theater company. He arranges publicity, lodging for the cast and crew, and a myriad of other details, in the hope of one day being promoted to manager of the company. Sometimes, as he did in Greenville the previous year, he stays for opening night.

Max probably arranged for this notice in Billboard magazine on August 19, 1903:

Max A. Arnold, advance agent for the Keystone Dramatic Company and Daisy G. Burtch, court stenographer, marry at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Covington, Kentucky.

Daisy’s sister, Catharine, is a witness. Max, is 32; Daisy, 27.

***

In 1975, I was a junior in college. I got married during winter break, to a man who thought women should have opinions. I found my dress on clearance at Casual Corner: full-length cotton unbleached muslin with long sleeves, a high collar and a bit of lace trim. My hands and voice shook as I stood on the raised altar in front of friends and family; I did not like being the center of attention. The Unitarian minister gave us several options for the ceremony, and I blended them, adding a few words of my own. 

***

June 25, 1904: Daisy resigns her position as court stenographer. By 1906, she is acting in the Keystone Dramatic Company, now managed by her husband, Max. It is easy to imagine how her family reacts. Theater, especially the small companies that tour constantly, is outside society’s norms.

Still, Keystone is a “refined repertoire company, with high-class Vaudeville between acts.” Daisy is the leading lady, and the newspaper ads read:

Keystone Dramatic Company
Supporting
Daisy Burtch

When she stars at the Opera House in Barre, Vermont, in late October of 1909, the Daily Times writes that Daisy is “possessed of a remarkable amount of personal magnetism and a thorough knowledge of human nature, enabling her to sway her audience from light to shadow from smiles to tears, in a way that demonstrates the true artist.” 

A month later, in Saratoga Springs, New York, Daisy sits in a tiny, dimly lit room at the Broadway Theater, her face close to a small mirror. She has softened her stage makeup with a candle flame. Not too much, or the makeup will melt and run. Theaters tend to be cold and drafty in the winter and stifling in the summer. She applies the foundation carefully: more than she would prefer to wear, but it must be seen from the back row of the theater. 

She reaches for the dress she has worn for too many shows. She sniffs it, and dusts herself with scented powder, hoping to mask the slightly sour odor. As Daisy leaves the dressing room, she hears the applause for Eugene Meranger, one of Keystone’s high-class Vaudeville acts: his body covered in bronze paint, he poses as various famous statues.

Some of the actors come from theater families; they grew up doing odd jobs before earning the right to stand on stage for small parts with no lines. So, there is some grumbling about Daisy’s quick rise to leading lady. Still, nobody can deny that she is attractive, at ease on stage, and loved by the audiences. And she knows her lines, every time.

Daisy’s secret is that she thinks of the pages and pages of dialogue as court testimony. As she speaks, she sees the swoops and swirls she used to make on her stenographer’s pad. They appear in front of her eyes, and she simply reads them.

As always, Daisy will be slightly startled when the play ends, and the applause begins. Still on display, as she was when she recorded court proceedings, she can now move about, and she is no longer silent.

***

I earned a tuition scholarship for graduate school. After my first year, I took a summer job as a speech-language therapist, filling in for someone on maternity leave. She didn’t come back to work after her baby was born—Mom would have said she belatedly went to housekeeping—so I kept the job, and finished my degree part-time. At work, I helped children find their words, put them in order, and use them to communicate. Finally, I had found something I was good at and loved doing.

Later, I taught college classes in study and reading strategies. Now, I enjoyed being in the front of the room. Many of those students struggled with writing and, as I tried to help them find their voices, I began to do more of my own writing, mostly about the work I did. 

Several years before I retired, I began to attend writing workshops in creative nonfiction, slowly learning how to write my own personal essays. The forgotten women in my family haunted me, and eventually found their way into my writing.

***

Sunday, October 14, 1906: Keystone schedules an actor’s benefit in Rutland, Vermont, a concert of sacred music that will raise enough money for Max, Daisy, and their touring company to travel to their next performance. But, the mayor forbids a Sunday concert. The Barre Daily Times does not mention how Keystone copes, but cash flow is often a problem for these groups, as they perform for three days before moving to another location.

The New York Dramatic Mirror, January 1910: Keystone cancels a three-day appearance at the Sherman Opera House in Newark, and “fails to appear” in Lyons, New York.

Some venues are starting to advertise a week of live theater followed by a week of motion pictures. Touring theater companies are on the wane, and some actors make the transition to silent movies, others do not. The paper trail on both Daisy and Max thins; Max does some theatrical booking work, but I cannot find any evidence that Daisy continues to act. Maybe she is tired of touring. 

***

By 1920, Max and Daisy are settled in Cincinnati. She works as a stenographer again, and she is listed in the city directory as “Daisy Arnold.”

She also becomes active in the Order of the Eastern Star and, ten years later, when she is fifty-four, she is endorsed for a position at the state level, due to her “ability as a deep thinker and eloquent speaker.”

Daisy has retained her perfect posture, but she is a bit more solid. She wears round metal-rimmed spectacles, her hair is streaked with grey. She wears a short string of pearls with her dark dress. She touches them as she waits for her turn at the podium, remembering a longer string of milky white beads made to look like pearls. She swung them when she spoke some of her lines as Betty Brindle in “Betty of the Bowery” when she was 33. 

When Daisy’s name is called, she steps up on yet another stage and places her notes, which she will not need to consult, on the podium.

Finally, she is speaking in her own voice.

Author’s Note: Max Arnold’s father and my second-great grandfather were brothers. I learned about Daisy’s life from public records and newspapers. I imagined scenes and Daisy’s feelings, informed by my research. Special thanks to Carolyn Fisher at the Greenville Public Library.

~~~

Melissa Ballard studied fashion merchandising, worked retail and was a bank teller and a public school camp counselor before attending college. She worked as a speech-language pathologist and a college instructor before she retired. Melissa has written essays for Belt Magazine, Gordon Square Review, Under the Sun, and other publications.