Ann’s Sequins

I had just moved to Ventura, California to be the curator of the Ventura County Historical Museum and had bought an old Craftsman bungalow downtown. Soon after I moved, I was giving it a thorough cleaning. As I was sweeping and scrubbing, I discovered a few sequins on the floor of my bedroom closet I thought for a moment about the woman who had lived here before me, a unknown woman with sequins on her dress.

Time passed and I settled into my job at the museum. One day while rooting around through my closet for a favorite pair of sandals, I saw more sequins on the floor. I picked them up and thought, that’s odd, why didn’t I see them when I cleaned the closet? After a bit more digging around, I found my sandals and dropped the sequins in a decorative, little dish on my dresser.

About a month later, I found more sequins on the closet floor. That moved this mystery beyond odd and into weird. I knew that the sequins weren’t there the day before. Maybe a truck had rumbled past my house and jarred them loose from some hidden stash of dressmaking paraphernalia. I added those sequins to the little pile that was building up in the dish on my dresser.

It was October now, and the museum hosted a Halloween Harvest Moon party for the historical society’s members. We held it in the museum’s courtyard on the night of the full moon. It was a gala event, with live music, catered food, and a minimum of fundraising speeches. The next day, when I was putting away the evening bag I had carried at the party, I found more sequins on the closet floor. Maybe the spookiness of Halloween triggered the thought that the sequins seem to show up about once a month, and usually around the full moon.

By this time I was convinced that someone was playing a peculiar prank on me, though I couldn’t imagine who or why or how. No one but me had keys to my house; I had changed the locks and installed a security system when I moved in.

The next day at work I decided to learn more about my house. Who had lived there before me? The house was about one hundred years old, so many women and men had spent time in the rooms I now called mine. Children may have been born in my house; people may have died there. I don’t believe in the supernatural, but perhaps the history of the house would give me a clue about who was sprinkling sequins on my closet floor.

I searched the assessor’s records and newspaper files and learned that the house was built by Julian Henry McCarthy in 1906. Julian and his wife, Martha, had a daughter, Ann, who was born in 1910. Julian lived there with Martha and Ann until his death in 1939. Martha and Ann were listed in the phone book until 1950, and then it was just Ann until she passed away in 1995. One other family, the Foresters, had lived in the house from 1996 until I bought it last year. Somehow I knew that the sequins had something to do with the McCarthy family. Nothing about the Foresters set my spidey sense to tingling!

I didn’t give the McCarthys or the sequins any thought as the museum’s social season moved into high gear. By Thanksgiving, I was ready to leave Ventura for a few day’s visit with friends in San Francisco. When I returned on Sunday night, I unpacked my bag and, as I was hanging up my jacket, I saw sequins glittering on the closet floor. The full moon was shining in the bedroom window and picking up the facets of the sequins. I was spooked and more than a little angry. How dare someone keep doing this to me? I determined that I was going to dig deep into the history of the McCarthy family and figure out what was going on.

The best way to learn about people is to talk with those who know them. Given that Julian and Martha had died before most of the folks in Ventura were born, I decided that researching Ann was my best bet. I asked the head of the museum’s docent group, Mary Johnston, who I could talk to about Ann McCarthy. I already knew from the phone books and assessor’s records that Ann had not married — in her generation keeping your maiden name after marriage was not done. Mary suggested that Joan Dye was my best bet. She and Ann were near contemporaries and she still had her wits about her. I made an appointment to meet Joan at the Pleasant Valley Assisted Living Center.

Joan was more than happy to talk with me about Ann McCarthy, and here is the story she told.

“It was in 1927, in the summertime. The country club was putting on its big summer soiree and everyone in town — well, everyone who counted — was going to be there. Steve Dalton, that’s Steven Wickham Dalton, III, was home from Princeton and planning to ask Ann McCarthy to go to the party with him. The McCarthys were a good family, though not at the same social level as the Daltons. Not as much money, not as much of a family history. Still, Ann was a very pretty girl and she and Steve had been writing to each other since he left for college. Ann and Martha had decided to make over Ann’s high school graduation dress for the dance. The dress was very fashionable, with a drop waist and scoop neck. The fabric was a light cotton in the prettiest shade of pale blue, sort of an ice blue. Ann and her mother added a sash that sat just at her hips and sewed hundreds of sequins on the sash and around the neckline. You may wonder how I remember so much about the dress, but that will be obvious in a minute or two.

Well, the night of the dance came and the full moon was casting light on all the beautiful women and handsome men. All the jewelry sparkled and so did the sequins on Ann’s dress. Everyone agreed that she and Steve made a lovely couple. As you might expect, there was a fair amount of drinking going on, it being the country club set. Steve and Ann had a few cups of rum punch, like all the young people, but Steve also had a flask of rum from his father’s liquor cabinet. He and Ann spiked their punch with it and pretty soon neither one was completely sober. They shouldn’t have been allowed to drive off at the end of the evening, but we didn’t think so much about things like that back then.

Anyway, apparently Steve and Ann decided that rather than going home, they’d take a drive up the Conejo Grade to look at the full moon. Now this part I heard from Ann’s best friend, Marjorie Schulte, years later. Ann confessed to her that she was egging Steve on to drive faster and faster. He was willing and his car, a Stutz Bearcat, seemed to be made to speed along country roads in the moonlight. As they came up to the railroad crossing at Castaic, the Sunset Limited was running parallel to the road. Ann wanted Steve to race the train and get across the tracks before it came through. He was just drunk enough and young enough to think he could do it.

The small, two-seater and the train ran parallel to each other for a couple of miles, then the car pulled ahead. As they neared the crossing, Steve swung the car toward the tracks. The inevitable slowing as he started the turn brought the train dangerously near. The Bearcat leapt onto the raised crossing and Steve accelerated as hard as he could to clear the tracks. They almost made it but the train clipped the tail of the car.

Ann probably would have been thrown free but her sash snagged on the door handle, slowing her momentum. In the second before the sequined sash pulled free, Ann saw that Steve was not going to be able to escape. The impact at the back of the car had turned it around and rather than sending it away from the train, the car slammed sideways into the wheels of the engine. The momentum of that second impact launched Ann away from the train, down an shallow embankment, and into a field. Steve was torn apart by the powerful steel wheels.

The train’s engineer had been braking hard since he saw the little car begin to climb the crossing but it was still a mile or more before the Sunset Limited came to a stop. As the conductor and porters ran back to the accident, they saw pieces of the bright yellow Stutz. Even with their lanterns it was too dark to see the remains of the driver. That sad task had to wait for daylight. They did find Ann, broken in body and mind, in the field. The conductor stayed with her until the ambulance arrived from Ventura.

It was weeks before Ann’s broken bones healed well enough for her to leave the hospital. Her plans for college, marriage, and a family ended that full-moon summer night. While her sadness and guilt over Steve’s death seemed, for awhile, to lift, soon she was unable to speak of anything else. As she sank further and further into sorrow and remorse, she stopped leaving her home and eventually no one came to visit. You could see her, though, either in the parlor or on the front porch. She was always sewing sequins onto piece of ice-blue cloth.

Her father died before the war and her mother passed just after the war. They had left Ann well enough off that she could keep the house and didn’t have to worry about money. The years went on and Ann grew old. She was always, at least since that night in 1927, reclusive, but you knew she was still there because you could see her sewing. Then one day in the mid-1990s we stopped seeing her. A couple of days passed before anyone thought to go into the house. Her body was there, sitting in a wingback chair in the parlor, with her sewing basket at her feet and scraps of rotting ice-blue fabric covered in sequins clutched in her hands.”

I thanked Joan for sharing her memories of Ann McCarthy and my little Craftsman bungalow. As I drove away from the assisted living center, my first thought was to call my realtor and put the house on the market. By the time I pulled up in front of the house, though, I had decided that Ann and I could live peacefully in the house together. She was a quiet tenant who only made herself known to me through the gift of moonlit sequins. I could live with that.

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