“We all carry, inside us, people who came before us.” ― David Mitchell, The Cloud Atlas
“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.
Union Street Station, Bangor, Maine. 1908. Completed in 1907, the entire country opened up for residents of Maine. It was a new world. Anything was possible at the turn of the century.
Little more than two weeks after receiving Harriet’s reassuring letter, early on Monday morning February 17th, William received a call from his sister-in-law Dora who lived in Brewer. Hearing her news, he left his breakfast untouched and caught the train to Bangor. He met Dora at the Union Street Station. They walked to Harriet’s Studio where they found it and Christy in disarray, then visited Mrs. Johnson at the boarding house. Harriet was gone. They arrived too late. William returned home to Machias broken-hearted. After a long day and not a bite of food, he sat in his library lit by lamplight, stared into the darkness that loomed outside the windows. Alone at last, he put his hands over his face and quietly cried. That same day, Harriet wrote to her parents. She was on a train bound for the West Coast with Zeke. They were on the adventure of a lifetime. This letter, hand-written in pencil on lined notepaper, was mailed from Vancouver, Washington on February 27th, the same day she wrote to her little sister Elsie. Soon, she sent a letter to Christy. What did Father say once he heard the news? We just escaped by going Sunday didn’t we?
On the train.
February 17, 1908
My dear Mother and Father,
This letter will be the biggest surprise I know you have ever had from Harriet. First, I will say Father I could not keep my agreement to you any longer regarding Zeke. I understood how you felt about it and still love him too dearly to be away from him long. I had that if I got Christy started at my Studio in June I would come home. I could give up my music for good but in the last wk. everything has changed and I am beginning a new life and I am happier than I ever was before. Otto wrote from N.Y. and asked me if I would like to go West and stay until June with Mattie and he would pay my bills to go out as he could not go out quite yet. Well! it was a hard thing to decide for I knew what I wanted to do and I knew also what you wanted me to do. It is an education in traveling which I knew never would come my way again as I am on my way out to Portland, Oregon then to Vancouver, Washington. I knew when I came to leave I would have a hard time without going home first and yet if I came home to see you all I think so much of you I could not leave; so unless the news has traveled by wire you will not know until you get this letter. When it came time to leave I found I could not leave Zeke behind and so we were married Sat. Eve at 8:30 at the Parsonage on Union St. by Rev. T. S. Tessendeau. We were published a wk. ago and got a license Sat. A.M. We had a nice wedding supper which Mrs. Johnson prepared to all those in the house and Marie Stewart and Mr. Blanchard; Marie belonged in Machias you know. It was your birthday, a day I decided to be married on as it seemed all the better for me. It is leap year Mama and I am the same age you were. Our wedding was a very pretty and happy one and if you had only felt as you should toward my marrying I should have loved dearly to have had you all there. You will feel badly as no doubt Mrs. Johnson will also for they do not know until Zeke writes them that we are married. I have the dearest and best boy in the world for a husband, you can say what you like as to it but within five years you will decide in my favor. He has plenty of ambition, no bad habits and will take good care of me. We are young and happy so please think the whole thing over and see if you can’t forgive me for it. We left Bangor at 1PM Sunday and arrived in Portland at 5:30. Zeke sent a dispatch to Mr. Coombs and the whole family came to meet us with Lewis Palmer who is in Union Station. We stayed with Mr. and Mrs. Coombs until this A.M. at 8:50 and now are on our way to Montreal. We go thro’ the White Mountains and on to Chicago there take the Union Pacific to Portland Oregon – Just think what a fine trip – Christy or none of my friends knew until Sat. I was to be married so don’t blame anyone but me. I tho’t if I went West alone I might be better contented to live in the East. Mr. Harden has given Zeke a fine recommendation and his chances are as good as in the East but we start with little and I think we can hold our own. We can surely come back as well as we went out. I sold my furnishings to Christy and got cash for all and got full as much as I paid for them so I tho’t I had done well. I collected nearly all but from Addie Cousins and as soon as I write her she will pay me so I have enough to last a while. Tell everyone that I had a good opportunity to go West and that I am married and if you don’t mourn they won’t talk long. I shall write as soon as I arrive and let you know how we are situated and all about it and I hope you will not shed a tear for I am far better off than I was before and shall never regret this. Go down and read this to Gram and Aunt Thirza, write Aunt Dora and all feel glad if you can and when I come back which will be before long. I want you to think as much of Zeke as you do of me. It was very sudden the whole thing but sometimes what we don’t plan on comes out better. May God bless and keep you all. Much love to you all from us both.
Your aff. Daughter,
1314 Chumasero Ave. Thurs. P.M.
Vancouver, Wash. February 27, 1908
My dear Elsie: —
I will write you a letter now I am actually out here and have gotten a little rested from my long trip. This is all so strange out here that even the houses look odd to me they are so small. Zeke and I arriv’d at Mattie’s Sunday A.M. at 10 o’clock and find her in a very cozy new house built like Mrs. Dinsmore’s only I like it even better. I was greatly surprised to see how nicely it was furnished but a school teacher built the house and furnished it and run in debt so much she was obliged to leave it. Mattie rents it all furnished so it is dandy. She and the children were delighted to see us and they talk of Elsie because she sent them Valentines. Fritz says you owe him a letter but I told him you never write to me so I doubted if he heard from you very often. We had a fine trip out here and I never shall regret seeing this part of the country. They have just room enough to live comfortable and the kind of house Mama ought to have now. To give you an idea I will tell you what this one is like. There is a front hall, sitting room with arch between that and the dining room, kitchen and pantry and back porch and front piazza downstairs then upstairs there is a bathroom and three sleeping rooms. It is painted white half way and room and upper part stained green. Otto’s people are very pleasant and have been over quite a little and they have a pleasant home here. Of course you were surprised to hear that Zeke and I were married and that we came West but I hope Elsie you will write me real often for I am just as interested in home as I ever was and want to hear all the news. The weather is fine here and seems like May at home. The grass is green and no snow this winter here and the rose bushes and trees are budded. It is a great country so far but I haven’t had time to look around much. Yesterday I washed and today I have ironed and there is quite a little to do. We had lettuce for dinner and strawberries last night for supper. I must close as Zeke and Fritz are going to the Garrison the largest in the U.S. is here. Much love and write soon.
Your Aff. Sister,
#570 Union Ave. North
March 18, 1908.
My dear Christy: —
You will surely think it’s time I wrote you but somehow each day has gone by since I arrived and I have written no letters. We had a nice trip out but was very tired and half sick as we were a day late on acct. of snow in Michigan. I think the West is great out thro’ Iowa etc. and I never saw such nice farming land – We went right by Iowa State College. Mattie was very glad to see us and I was lucky on her acct. to get here for she is not well at all. I am doing all the work and taking care of the children so I work very hard but it is a change and having Zeke with me we are certainly very happy and I am very glad we were married when we we were. This is a very cozy new house Mattie has and nicely furnished so we are comfortable. Zeke is going over to Portland to make final arrangements with a Mr. Arthur Architect and Contractor for whom he begins work to-morrow. I think he is lucky being a stranger to get a good position so soon. I suppose we will all move over to Portland very soon and there are so many good positions for me open that I am going to work as soon as Mattie is alright again. We stopped in Chicago a day coming out and visited Papa’s friends but it was because our train was late. I just had a grand time and am not sorry it happened so. Well! Christy how are you getting on with my pupils? I hope alright but I am anxious to hear from each one. Mrs. Johnson wrote me that Papa and Aunt Dora called on her the day after I left and that she told him how happy I was and all about my wedding. But she didn’t say one word about what he said so I am crazy to find out more. He must have called on you so do write me what he said and how he took it etc. You see I have not heard one word from them for no doubt they are too mad. Tell me if there was an acct. of my going or anything in the paper. It seems so long to get letters out here that I am tired of waiting so long to hear from folks. We just escaped by going Sunday didn’t we?
Well! Christy two weeks ago I began this letter and I am almost ashamed to send it now but I will tell you what has happened since then. Zeke and I went house hunting over in Portland and found what Mattie wanted so I have been moving her and getting settled. We have a 6 room cottage with bathroom all on one floor and I find it much easier to do the work than before. A wk. ago I stuck a splinter in my 3rd finger on my right hand and it swelled and matterated so I had to go to a Dr. and have it lanced and today is the first day I could hold a pen. I always have something come to me but I am O.K. now. I have been lonely here at times because I haven’t felt like writing letters and I haven’t heard from any but Mrs. Johnson. It takes so long to get a letter East and get an answer back, that I haven’t gotten used to it yet. I have sewed quite a lot for the Mattie’s new baby and today I have done a large washing. Usually after supper Zeke and I go for a little walk so the days are full. Portland is a very pretty city and I know when the roses are in bloom here it will be beautiful. I can imagine you hustling at the Studio in the cold and snow and I wish you were in a climate like this. I can see tho’ just why you like the East where it is such a change from Iowa. I suppose Papa tho’t I was crazy coming out here and I imagine they have said all kinds of things about me but it seems the best thing I could have done for you see they would not come to see me in the East for a while so I am better off out here where I know ’tis too far for them to come. I long so much for my clavier but it has not come yet so I can’t practice any. I think of every one I left behind me Christy and wonder how they are etc. and still I didn’t care for any of them but I did like you and Rolf. Write me what he said and how you and he are coming Much love and best wishes. Tell Miss Reynolds I am going to write to her soon. Zeke sends his regards. Yours as ever,
Harriet Putnam Means. Graduation from Bangor Piano School 1906.
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,
P. S. I like typewriting very much and my shorthand is doing well.
The Means home. 1896. L to R. William Jr., Elsie, Otis, William and Nellie, Harriet. Descendants of William and Nellie Means lived in this home for 120 years.
I grew up in the house on the corner of Broadway and Gardner Avenue, built by Nathan and Ruth Gardner in 1869. My great-grandmother Nellie Getchell Means bought the house in 1887, not long after her marriage to William Means. The home was inherited by my maternal grandmother, Harriet Means Johnson in 1937. My mother and father bought it from Harriet’s estate in 1948 and moved in just before I was born in September of 1952.
This visit to my childhood home, I was cleaning and organizing the sprawling home and barn, filled with 90% junk, 10% priceless family heirlooms, my history. Dad was gone, a stroke victim. Mom could no longer come upstairs, her mobility limited by osteoarthritis. It was my task now, or all would be lost.
The attic was stuffed with cartons and boxes amid glorious, old wide boards and beams, another universe. The outgrown clothes of all my five children rested in a corner under the eves waiting for my grandchildren. Beside the old wooden stairs, I found the petticoats I dearly loved as a five-year old, the insulated skipants and jacket I last wore in the 60s, my mother’s square dancing outfits. How will I ever sort this stuff? I kept the baby clothes and blankets for little ones and my skipants, then packed the rest to donate to a non-profit. By one of the chimneys, I opened one of the old shipping chests of my great-grandparents and gazed at their wedding clothes, well preserved. I moved to another chest, dug deep under school work by me and my two brothers, and found a trove of old letters dated 1908. I carried them downstairs to my bedroom, lined them up according to their date. Each night, I read the letters written by my grandmother Harriet who died before I was born. For as long I could remember, I longed to talk to her, imagined she had written something that told me what she thought about, her struggles, hopes and dreams. It was as though I knew the letters were there, waiting to be found. Through her words, I got to know Harriet and realized that she was a lot like a younger version of me. She fell in love, took risks, defied her parents. Born into a prestigious family, she eloped in 1908 with Ezekiel Johnson from Kennebec, the wrong side of the river, and traveled to Oregon by train without telling her parents.
In 2015, I transcribed Harriet’s letters to share with my family. And, I began to write about the grandmother I never knew, weaving my mother’s stories with the letters written in 1908. To read these eight posts in sequence, begin with “Harriet” and end with “Home at Last.”