Papa’s Letter

william“I find myself trying oh so hard to find some excuse for you, some way to reassure myself that you did not fully realize what you were doing, but when I read your letters that you have written since and see that you are yet to realize that you have done anything out of the way, I can only say in explanation she had a brain storm, a monumental fit of insanity or she, my Girl, would never have done what she did in the way she did….” 

~ William Gordon Means 1908

After the excitement of the whirlwind wedding and the trip West, Harriet gradually realized her life had changed drastically. She had no Studio and no students. She was a pianist without a piano. She had hoped her Father would send her clavier [stringed keyboard instrument] so she could play music. He did not. She was Zeke’s wife now and they lived first in Vancouver, then Portland, with a family where Harriet did all the work, cared for the children, did the laundry and cooked the meals. Zeke eventually found a job in construction in Portland but they did not have enough money to live on their own. In return for money loaned for their passage West, Harriet was obliged to work until Mattie, pregnant again, was well enough to care for her own family. In mid-April, two months after her journey West, a letter arrived from her father at last. Harriet opened the letter slowly, and counted the seven pages as she stared at the familiar, well-loved handwriting that filled both sides of lined notepaper. She took a deep breath and began to read. She missed her family, especially her younger sister Elsie and brother William. Truth be told, her heart ached. She had written a second letter to her father in late March with no reply until now.

She missed Papa – and Mama too – even though they might never speak to her again. Harriet could see Mama working in the kitchen, boiling sheets in the giant pot on the wood stove, stirring as though it was dinner, sullen, not saying a word. Casting that dead eye look about that made you want to fall through the floor. She saw Papa in his library at his desk, books lining the walls ceiling to floor, a toasty fire below that dark carved mantle that said sit a while. Most of all, she missed the home where she grew up surrounded by family. The Sunday gatherings after Church in the parlor, duets on the piano with Aunt Thirza, the sweet sound of her fingers on the zither. She longed for the seaside excursions in the lorry to the Port and Roque Bluffs. The smell and sound of the sea, now so far away. And, oh, the annual Fair at Sylvan Park. Machias might be a small village but hundreds from all over the County flocked to the Fair and crowded the bleachers for the horse racing, milled about displays of livestock and baked goods, cheered at the childrens’ flour sack races, and thronged to the plays in the evening. She had not realized just how much it all meant to her. Tears fell onto the pages of her father’s letter in her hands.


Machias April 9, 1908

My dear Daughter,

Your letter dated March 30th reached Machias April 6th. It has been read by me and the family at home, by me more than once. It found us well and getting along much the same as we always have. We are having the usual Spring weather since a day or so ago, then rain and snow and wind in plenty. This A.M. the ground was white with snow a lot though wheels are in use. Sunday we had our lorry out. William and Elsie are going to school. This is Elsie’s last year in the grammar school and William only has one more year in the high. It only seems a short time ago that you and Otis were going to school. I would give a good deal, if I had it, if you and Otis was back to that age again. But such is not a possible thing, and it’s no use to wish for the impossible. Your Grandmother is in her usual health and so is Aunt Thirza. They get along very nice and comfortable in their sunny home. Otis we hear from regularly, and he is busy about his work, having lost very little time. He was home soon after your departure for 3 days and we enjoyed having him, only the time was too short, and it seemed only a dream after a few days.

Well, Hattie, I am going to make a reply to your letter realizing full well that nothing I can do or say that is not in accord with your ideas or way of thinking will be rec’d by you in the Spirit I wish it might be. It makes no difference now what I say, conditions will remain the same. You have chosen your path yourself and no one, no matter how much they may want to change it, can do so at this time. I am not going to belittle Zeke or say anything for or against him, only this, that I think that he should have acted in a more manly way in his courtship and marriage. He should have at least asked for you and then if refused he could have felt he did the manly thing and was turned down. You do not appreciate our feelings and our position in this affair, you only look at from your side. It is a long story dating back to opening your studio in Machias that this attachment for this young man formed and your life of deception was begun towards your parents, a life that has been the cause of more tears, more distress, more harassment of mind on your part than any empty stomach ever caused you, say nothing of the anguish it has caused your father and mother. Since the climax of this attachment, we have learned much more than we ever knew before what was going on here under our nose. I’ll admit we were blind. I am more to blame than anyone. I had unbounded faith in my family. I saw no occasion for worrying about them. I was, as you well know, applying my head and hands to earning the money to keep our bills paid, and allow something for the extra things we were all having. I think our children had their share of those extras and in order to do that, not having anyone else to fall back on to ask for help, “I had,” as I thought no time for watching out for prevention of those meetings that ought not to have been and that changed your whole life and feelings towards your own family and your friends.

I can see why now Machias had no attraction for you, why you were so anxious to go away to Bangor to pursue your chosen vocation and satisfy your great ambition for a position in life where you would amount to something. It was, of course, your infatuation for this young man for whom you were ready to give up your life’s desire in the musical line, give up your home, leave your parents, your other relatives all in sorrow at the way you have done. It is beyond my conception to know after the talk I had with you in Bangor, after the promise made to me, by you, when sobbing on my shoulder in your Studio how you could continue to carry out plans made before then and consummated after that time. I find myself trying oh so hard to find some excuse for you, some way to reassure myself that you did not fully realize what you were doing, but when I read your letters that you have written since and see that you are yet to realize that you have done anything out of the way, I can only say in explanation she had a brain storm, a monumental fit of insanity or she, my Girl, would never have done what she did in the way she did. You judge your mother and I wrong when you express the wondering thought whether we was mad when we found it out. We was far from mad. I wish I could have felt that way.

When your Aunt Dora called me up that Monday A.M. and told me what had happened, we had not been to breakfast, your mother was washing. Of course I had to tell her and the children. Could you have seen her face, I don’t think you would have said it showed anger, but such grief as only a mother’s face can show. None of us could eat. I got ready and took the train and went to Bangor, saw Christy at the Studio, she was in a chaotic frame of mind, not knowing what to do or how to do it. It was a mean way to leave her. I then went to the Methodist parsonage, from there to Mrs. Johnson’s and heard all and saw all I did, not eat a meal that day. I found out as far as I could you had paid your bills and was thankful you did that. I came home and told all to mother who had been in mental anguish all day. She was as well as your grandmother who said when told; oh, how could she of done such a thing? How could she? We still find ourselves asking the same question no answer as yet received can satisfy that question. Now you speak of Aunt Dora as if she had insulted you. Now you know down in your heart that she had only your interest at heart, only for your good, your future welfare, and this came to her in a double way. You were there away from home and somewhat under her care. There ought not to be any necessity for care or watchfulness of the moral conduct of a woman 23 years of age, who had the advantages you had, but it seems in your case we ought to have had them to a much greater degree than we did. And not let ourselves think it was wholly your love of music or advancement and that caused you to stay in Bangor, when in fact it was Zeke and nothing else.

When your Aunt Dora learned that he boarded at Miss Whittles and passed your door to go to his room nights, do you wonder she was so shocked? And then both of you to shift to Mrs. Johnson’s, you give up everything and everybody for him way along months ago, he to come home and go back with you, you to meet him here and to have his letters come in care of Mattie. You certainly can’t look back to the life you led with any pleasure. I am writing this in the Office and am interrupted so much it may be disconnected, but I want to say a word about Otto and Mattie. I have the right to feel and do feel that they are the direct and indirect cause of this affair. You had help from Mattie last summer and no doubt encouragement, it is easy now to see why you spent so much time with them. You got the money from Otto to pay either your way or Zeke’s to Oregon, you both could not have gone unless you got the money from him and sold out your Studio. You had their home to go to which made it possible for you to carry out your plans. Don’t you think Otto and Mattie having children of their own ought to have first found out whether your father and mother sanctioned your going so far away from home?

Whether or not they knew you contemplated making such a trip, we certainly on a receipt of a letter from Mattie from Jonesboro did not show our lack of interest in her and her children’s welfare. You have got sense enough to see you gave the public here at home and in Bangor a great chance to talk and say, no doubt she had to get married and you can imagine in a way how such talk would effect your relatives. While they did not believe such things, they had no chance to deny the many things caused by your indiscretion. When I think that you left your music to go to Oregon to be a servant for Mattie I can’t but help saying would she of done all she is doing for her mother, sacrificed her life work to come home to do for us. I am in doubt, great doubt if you would have done it. I note what you say about struggles in Bangor and have this to say. If this that has occurred was the cause of all your troubles, the direct case for which you were working and the results point strait way, why should you speak of this?

Your being in Bangor was of your own choosing, you left a comfortable home, had you have had the interest in home that I would like to have seen you had, there was no occasion of you leaving it. You certainly could have accomplished as much in the development of your musical education here in Machias surrounded by your loving relatives as you have accomplished in Bangor in doing what you have done. Well, I could write and write and then not say what I want to, you are in my mind daily. I have a father’s interest in your welfare. I hope you and Zeke may meet with success in whatever you undertake that is right, that no ill fortune will come to you and that you may have your health and he his. That the unusual work that you are doing won’t cause you to get sick. Remember you are not over strong and from what I saw of Mattie, she is perfectly willing for someone beside herself to do the work. Kiss Elizabeth for me. I hope her parents won’t have done for them when she grows up, they have done for us and I do hope that you won’t have the care of any children of your own as yet for all to come out well. I will close. May He who doeth all things well keep and preserve you until we meet again.

Your aff. father
W. G. Means

Harriet folded the letter carefully, tracing the creased lines that her father had made, and put it back in the envelope. She sobbed as she stood, went to her travel trunk and placed it in a velvet bag where she kept keepsakes and closed the drawstring. She thought back to the last time she saw her father at her Studio. The day she sobbed on his shoulder…

••••••
There was a soft knock at the Studio door. She opened it to find her father. It was very cold and snowing fitfully.

“I came up to Bangor to meet perspective clients, looking for housing for their men. And I wanted to see you.”

Harriet smiled and stepped back so he could enter out of the cold and snow. She wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tightly as she always did.

“Oh, Father, I’m so happy to see you!” she said, even though she was filled with a sense of dread of what he came to say. The Studio was empty of students that time of day. They sat down beside each other in the parlor chairs beside the wood stove. She poured him a cup of tea from the pot that simmered and added a spoonful of sugar.

They talked about the weather, then about family, neighbors, the illnesses about. Her father sipped his tea. He sighed, then looked straight in her eyes.

“I’m worried about you,” he said. “I have heard that you are spending time with Zeke. You promised me you would not.”

Harriet’s heart skipped a beat. They had been so careful.

When she moved back to Machias last year, she had seen Zeke for the first time in ten years. His elder cousin lived just down the street from her parents home. They weren’t much interested in each other then, and he was five years older.

She had gone to the Johnson’s to buy eggs, and rewarded herself with a few pieces of candy and licorice for a penny. When she left the shop at the side of the house, Zeke sat with Gene in the dooryard discussing the horse equipment, both just back from the barn.

Harriet stopped in her tracks, blushed, and said, “Good afternoon, gentlemen. Isn’t it a fine sunny day?”

The men smiled and nodded. “I thought you lived in Bangor, Harriet. You come back home?” Zeke asked.

“Yes, for now.” she replied.

“Now that’s a pleasant surprise,” Zeke said softly.

She smiled and tipped her head to take her leave. It took effort to walk steady down the walkway and up the street toward home. It didn’t take long for her mother to notice how eager Harriet was to buy the eggs and how long she was gone. Two weeks later, Nellie stopped her daughter in the kitchen with a long, cold stare as soon as she returned.

“We have two dozen eggs in the pantry, Hattie.”

“I thought it would be nice to have extra, Momma. Boiled eggs are tasty in the supper.”

“You think I’m blind, do you? Zeke is staying with Gene and Judy this summer. You’re down there talking up a storm, acting one of those young fillies in the barn. You best hear me. Zeke Johnson is from Kennebec, his family farms, barely gets by. He’s not had descent work since he left school. He is not a proper beau. You are to stop this behavior immediately. I will get the eggs from now on.”

Nellie made sure that Zeke understood the family position. She didn’t return his hello when she fetched the eggs and shot him a look to send shivers up the spine.

Harriet got a message to Zeke anyway. They had mutual friends in Jonesboro, Otto and Mattie. She had met her mother’s pronouncement with feigned disinterest. She had other things to do. She made regular visits to help her friend with her two children. There she met Zeke. They could talk, walk about the fields and picnic. By the end of the summer, they had a plan. Harriet would return to Bangor in September and relocate her studio there. Zeke had found a job in the railroad office. They separately found rooms at Mrs. Whittle’s boarding house. They did nothing improper, for Harriet was a lady and Zeke a gentlemen. They had sought and found that which was most precious, time together.

That cold January day when her father visited the Studio, Harriet was scared but replied to her father’s words resolutely.

“Papa, I’m busy with the Studio and the night classes. I have no time to see Zeke and I’m not interested. I pass him sometimes on the street when he returns from work at the station. We barely speak. Whoever told you this is mistaken.”

“Promise me, Hattie, that you will honor our agreement that you not see Zeke. He is not a proper suitor for you.”

At his words, tears filled her eyes. They both stood up. She hugged him and sobbed on his shoulder. “I’m so upset that you don’t trust me, Papa. I will honor our agreement. I always have.”

He patted her head. “I know you will. Stop your tears.”

As her father left, Harriet stared at him as he walked down the street back to the Union Station. She knew that it would not be long before she and Zeke were discovered, just as their plans for marriage neared completion. They must leave soon.

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