I’ve been spending a lot of time in her room lately, up at the top of the house. There’s a finished room with plaster walls on the third floor, 40 feet off the ground, and the house sits on a tall limestone ridge. I can see for miles when the air is clear. It’s a quiet and peaceful place.
When this old money pit was new, a nameless young woman slept here. Nameless to me, anyway. A poor girl, making her way.
It’s been fixed up. I’m sure the floors then were bare boards only, with maybe a threadbare area rug.
The plaster walls were unpainted, probably. No money spent on servants. A metal bed with rough ropes for springs. An old, scratched bedside table and chair. A shallow closet with wire hooks held one or two of her things. There may have been a simple dresser, hand-made.
She must have gazed out that window—dreaming of another life when the work was done.
I’ve tried to imagine what it was like up here then.
I wonder what she saw out these windows? What she thought in the coldest days of winter, with no insulation in the walls? Or when the room roasted in the summer? None of us have known a life like this.
Lincoln had been dead for 17 years. Things were changing, but not everything. Men in their 30s and 40s, missing legs, arms, eyes—sanity, in some cases—sat on benches on the courthouse lawn and reminisced the days away. The cannon that had mowed down Virginians and Alabamians at Gettysburg 20 years before dotted the grass, helped them remember other times.
She walked past them every day to and from visits to her mother in the worker’s houses on the other side of downtown, or when she ran errands to the shops downtown. The crippled, damaged men told the old stories over and over, of youth and glory and horror in the great struggle. Their eyes spoke more, though, things they could not speak aloud.
But the girl heard their stories. She also overheard all the talk in the dry goods store when the other servant girls chatted and gossiped about people and things they’d overheard their betters discussing over the morning paper. There were political arguments made out in public, and six partisan weeklies shouting at each other.
The owner of the mansion next door had been an officer at Gettysburg, Chancellorsville and several others. He lost a leg in battle near the end of the war, a general by the time he came home. Later on, a governor of Pennsylvania.
Another girl like her worked for him. His home loomed up outside one of her windows, a different world of wealth and power and privilege. His carriage crunched down the gravel lane between the houses to the carriage house in back. On warm days, she saw him sitting in a wheelchair on his porch, reading, or walking on crutches, or on his wooden leg. She saw distinguished guests step down from carriages he’d sent to the train station for them. She knew he was an important man, and hurried past him on the street with a quick, shy greeting.
Sitting Bull had surrendered the previous July, at Fort Buford in Montana.
President Garfield had been shot the summer before her mistress had moved into the house. The news and gossip was full of nothing else for a while. Mark Twain published “The Prince and the Pauper.” And, oh, Bob Ford had killed Jesse James in April.
She probably couldn’t read the papers, though. She made an X for her name.
She was an immigrant, maybe Irish. Or German. Or Italian. Or from Bohemia. One of the floods of wretched that came in after the war for the jobs, the lands out west. Her family was here, too, but she was farmed out as a ladies maid/cook/char woman/nurse…(Whatever they called her, she probably did it all.)
Her father was a quarry worker, breaking the limestone into blocks and powder with a sledge hammer and muscle. A teenaged brother worked at an iron foundry in town. Another in an iron mine owned by her mistress’s in-laws. Her mother had two babies on the hip, the twins. There was another sister, too young to work for cash yet.
The young woman took care of a wealthy widow in a house on the hill. The old woman’s daughters had married mine and iron foundry and stamping mill owners, second-generation Irish and English, Quakers, movers and shakers making the stuff of railroads. Bridges. Guns.
I imagine her young. Unmarried. A heavy brogue, perhaps. Up before dawn every day to light the fireplaces, make the breakfast, empty the bedpans, clean the house, trim candle and lantern wicks, clean the glass chimneys. Before that, though she would take medicine and comfort to the old woman, who was not well. The old Quaker was stern, but could be kind. She was teaching the girl to read. It was only practical, she would say. The only way to rise above being a wage slave for the rest of her life.
Annie was the old woman’s name, and she would live less than a year. After that (and the girl knew it was coming), she hoped she could get another job, unless the spinster daughter of the house kept her on. The money she earned was needed at home. Maybe she would meet a boy and get married, and start having children like her mother had.
But on spring nights, when the air was soft and the incredible perfume of the blooms of a Black Locust at the corner of the house filled her room, she pulled a single wooden stool over by the window to watch the moon rise over the mountain. She allowed herself to dream of something better. She may have picked up an old McGuffey primer and labored over the pictures and strange shapes of words, lighting a kerosene lamp when it got dark
And now I use her room to write. Sometimes, I can almost see her sitting by the window, looking off into the distance. I wonder whether she ever found that boy, and whether she learned to read.