Harriet

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Harriet Putnam Means. Graduation from Bangor Piano School 1905.

 

 

 

Harriet sat before the piano with a straight back, her dark brown curly hair gathered in a tidy bun. Her hands glided across the piano keys as her body leaned in and out of the music. Dressed in a soft grey dress with a ruffled high collar and sleeves, she began the evening with Mozart, Adagio and Allegretto in C major: the soft sounds of Piano Sonata No. 2; a playful rendition of No. 10. She moved effortlessly into Beethoven’s romantic Moonlight Sonata.

Music filled the three-story clapboard house on Fourth Street in Bangor, notes lilted in the corners of the dormered rooms under the mansard roof. A fire crackled in the fireplace of the parlor, a pine garland covered the burnished mantle. In the corner between the windows, a spruce tree stood tall and lush decorated with ornaments in a multitude of bright colors, shapes, and sizes, among strings of beaded cranberry. The heady smell of balsam mixed with pipe tobacco filled the air. Mrs. Johnson sat on the Victorian sofa wearing a red dress, hands in her lap, skirts primly tucked in around the edges. Her husband, perched beside her, barely filled his dark blue suit. Their faces held a look of deep contentment. Despite their childless home, their lives were full. On the opposite end, Sophie was a bit tousled as she always was, brown hair hastily tucked in a bun with fringes escaping around the edges. Tonight she was dressed for a special occasion in deep brown that accentuated her green eyes. Curtis and Zeke sat in high-back armchairs, both men dressed in their Sunday best but exact opposites in appearance. Zeke was of medium build and height, had neat blond hair, piercing blue eyes and the sculpted face of a Scandinavian. He was Mr. Johnson’s nephew. Curtis was tall and broad-chested, black hair parted in the middle and slicked down. He was not handsome. His eyes roved the room until settling upon Christy who sat demurely beside the piano. Her blond hair was coifed in a stylish upsweep with curls that encircled her face and blue eyes; she wore a deep green dress that fit like a glove but exuded an air of sophistication. Her full lips smiled as she intently watched her best friend at the piano.

Impromptu gatherings around the piano happened often. This was an unusual boarding house for Harriet resided in it. After an hour, sweat beaded on her brow as she played Liszt’s passionate La Campanella, her hands rapidly moved up and down the length of the keyboard,  at times passing over each other, as her long fingers struck notes with exacting precision in a crescendo, her body now at one with the piano. Applause resounded in response to her finale: The Nutcracker, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Harriet rose from the stool, turned and bowed with an air of formality, standing with hands out from her sides, palms forward, in the pose of an actress accepting praise for an outstanding performance. Her face held a soft smile as her hazel eyes scanned the room from face to face, rested briefly on Zeke, then she took a seat beside Christy. Mrs. Johnson went to fetch hot cocoa and sugar cookies. It was Christmas Eve 1907.

Harriet did not possess the classic beauty of Christy but she was striking. She had strong facial curves, a small perfectly aligned nose, a deep dimple in her right cheek, and lips that pouted regally. Her cheeks were flushed, one might think from her energetic performance, but tonight this was not the reason. Zeke had proposed today. She was sure she would burst from happiness but only Christy knew the secret.

At every opportunity, Harriet and Zeke plotted and planned their future. Harriet knew she must defy her parents. She was in love. Given time, they would forgive her. It wasn’t possible to be away from Zeke, no matter what they thought. She had introduced the idea to them during the summer, tried to hint about her feelings, but her pleas met deaf ears. Her father, William, had heard that Zeke moved into his uncle’s boarding house where Harriet lived. He did not approve. Yes, the girls’ rooms were close to the Johnson’s, on a different floor than the men. But the whole arrangement was not proper. There was trouble ahead. She was forbidden to have any relationship with Zeke Johnson. He was from Kennebec, the wrong side of the river. He recently acquired work as a clerk in the Bangor railroad office but had a checkered employment history. That summer, William made his impetuous eldest daughter promise to abide by his wishes. It was their “agreement.” She had established her own studio and must attract more children eager to learn piano as her students. She was 23 years old and held a degree in music and Fine Arts.

William and Nellie Means had arranged for Harriet’s training as a pianist four years earlier. They sent their daughter to Bangor to study under the renowned Frederick Mariner who had a summer home on the Penobscot River. Mariner’s studio was in NYC but he accepted gifted students at the Bangor Piano School. Harriet was recommended by her elder cousin Grace who lived in NYC and had established a promising career at a well-known publishing house. Grace rubbed shoulders with high society and had more connections than one could count. It was a golden opportunity, her father pointed out, and Grace was single and not the least bit interested in marriage. Aunt Thirza had married well, was a hat maker, and owned a popular millinery in Machias. Harriet could marry one day, once she established her own career, a man of a social class that ensured financial security. In this family, women were expected to be educated and independent. She had completed her training in music with awards in excellence, then held the prestigious position of instructor at the Mariner Studio. The year before she had returned to Machias and established a Studio but soon prevailed on her father that she could better further her ambitions and career in Bangor. Her Studio would gain more recognition there. Besides, she needed more skills in business and wanted to complete night classes in typing and shorthand.

One hundred miles from Bangor in the shire town of Machias, the Means family lived in in a large, stately home on the corner of 24 Broadway and Gardner Avenue with a two-story attached barn for horses and hay; a series of stout buildings for the carriage and lorries lined the drive. As a baby, Harriet wore white gloves when she was pushed about by a Nanny in her pram. William was a successful businessman of note who bought and sold real estate, he and his father were Republican legislators. Nellie was a teacher before marriage and their four children were born. Her father was Marshfield Getchell, whose family gained prominence in grain trade and built the Grist Mill on the Machias River, the largest in the county.  Her family traced their heritage back to the “original 10” settlers of Machias and the first white child born there. The Means and Getchell families were staunch protestants and Republicans with a proud history to uphold.

A month had passed since Christmas. Her father had visited on his last trip to Bangor conducting business. Harriet wasn’t sure what rumors he might have heard but he asked a lot of questions about Zeke. Once again, William made her promise to honor their agreement. If she would not return to Machias, he suggested that she go into business with Christy and find a place for the two of them to live. Christy had a solid head on her shoulders and a degree from Iowa State College in music. Harriet had sorted through all the options and knew that her plans with Zeke must remain secret until there was no opportunity for family intervention. She typed a letter to her father.

Bangor Maine, January 31, 1908

My dear Father,

I received your letter this noon when I went to dinner and was glad to hear again. It is strange that you should think that Christy and I could join work for I was going to write and tell you that we are intending to do that way. She and her sister played at my recital yesterday, and they did finely and where she has no children to have any of her own it will be pleasant for her to hear mine. I don’t know how soon she will do this but no doubt before long. 

I am going to send Murray Bridgham an acct. of the recital, and you will see it in the news. I don’t know as I can get her to room with me but perhaps so. She is going to Houlton to give a recital next week. One of the boys that graduated from the University where she did is Secretary of the Y.M.C.A. up there has gotten it up for her then when she comes back we will arrange about her coming here.

Yes, I have kept my agreement with you that I made while you were here and have been so busy all the time I have not thought of it much. I do not find it hard at all. I do not have to have any company home from night school and I do not have anyone. He doesn’t go to night school and I do not meet him on the street very often. I did not say anything in my last letter about it because I was in a rush when I wrote.

Christy has just come in and will have to stop now. It has been very cold here for a few days and this morning it was 10 below zero. I have been making up lessons all this week and I am tired of it but Sunday comes before long. I will write more next time. I am feeling all right now and am glad to hear that you are also.

Much love to all.

Your aff. daughter,

Harriet

P. S. I like typewriting very much and my shorthand is doing well. 

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