The Lyric-less Song
Angela was enjoying an unusually cool and sun-kissed late summer’s day, sensing some hope and excitement as she walked along the street lined with stately mansions and carried the box of precious Belgian lace, shielding it carefully from the mud and manure splashed by passing carriages. The recently wealthy Mrs. Whitcomb had purchased the lace as part of Mr. Hoover’s war lace program designed to alleviate the suffering of the Belgian people caught in the riptide of the Great War’s trade embargo. Sixteen-year-old Angela would help her Mama sew the lace into a beautiful wedding gown custom ordered for the Whitcomb’s eldest daughter. Wouldn’t their landlord be surprised when they paid their rent ahead of time!
The slight, dark-haired girl had been enduring a very hot and sticky summer in the 3 rooms that she shared with her six siblings and parents. Mama was pregnant again, and Angela and her sisters worked diligently, helping with the younger children, housework, and Mama’s dressmaking. Papa worked as a day laborer unloading shipments of produce. Many of the other recent immigrants worked long hours in the garment factories. Her neighbor Nicholas’s aunts and elder sister had perished a few years ago in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Having heard the tales about the women jumping out windows plunging to their deaths, Angela was very glad that Papa was able to buy a sewing machine so that her mother, a talented seamstress, and she and her sisters could work in their cramped apartment and fill custom orders for wealthy clients. Her younger brothers carried the heavy bolts of fabric up several flights of stairs.
Angela suddenly heard a commotion outside a fine residence. A woman dressed in maid’s clothing was guardedly calling up into the branches of a pear tree as if she was trying to get someone’s attention without anyone else hearing her. The late summer sun was in Angela’s eyes as she gazed up at the tree, pregnant with nearly ripe fruit. A large tabby cat was perched on the lowest branch, but the maid’s attention was focused on another figure hidden behind the tree. Angela spied a small, hunched over girl making unintelligible sounds at the cat. She was clothed in a fine dress, but her blond hair was disheveled. The maid was trying to rush the girl indoors to no avail. The child grunted and whined at the cat and refused to comply. Then Angela noticed the unusual shape of the distraught child’s face and slowly realized she was what people called “feeble-minded” or “Mongoloid.” The maid began to strike the child with a broom several times in an effort to shoo her inside.
Pity rose in Angela’s heart and, without hesitation, she laid her precious bundle on the low stone wall surrounding the fine house, scaled that wall, and climbed the pear tree to recover the cat. Then she presented the tabby to the child and took the girl by the hand, guiding her gently toward the house. A middle-aged lady in silk appeared at the door, looking both upset and relieved. She scowled at the maid holding the offending broom but then turned toward Angela. “Thank you, miss! You have been most kind and helpful.”
“Ma’am, I had a baby sister named Rosa. She never learned to speak. I helped my Mama take care of her, and Mama always said I knew her language without using words,” Angela said as she gazed into the older woman’s eyes with understanding.
“She is blessed to have a gentle sister like you,” the woman complimented the teenager.
“Rosa died before her ninth birthday. Mama said God was sparing her trouble in this life by taking her to Heaven early,” Angela continued.
“Life is often cruel to the most innocent creatures. May I trust that you will use your discretion and not tell anyone about the poor child’s condition?” the woman asked.
“I will not tell anyone about your business,” Angela promised.
“Good,” the woman smiled satisfactorily. “I would like to give you a reward, dear girl. Wait her for a moment while I fetch my purse.”
“Ma’am, I’d be happy to just be able to take a few of those pears from the tree home to my mother,” suggested Angela.
“Help yourself to as many as you can carry, but I’ll be back in a moment,” said the mistress.
Angela began to gather as many pears as she could in her hobble skirt. The fruit looked soft and delicious, but keeping the package of lace safe was still her first priority. She placed the fruit in a pile on the low stone wall and waited what seemed like an eternity. Finally, the woman came to the door and asked Angela to step inside, leading her down an ornate hallway filled with paintings and marble statues.
Angela was in awe of the beautiful paintings and hesitated in front of one of a young girl with a bowl of pears.
The woman noticed that the painting had captured the teenager’s attention and commented, “Yes, it’s a lovely work. Hundreds of years ago artists painted pears to represent divine sustenance, abundance, fruitfulness, and femininity. Your name, child?”
“Angela Conti, Ma’am.”
“Angela, my name is Mrs. Harrington. My husband's family helped build the railroad. I am going to give you a dollar as a reward for your assistance today, but I would also like to offer you a position here at our home. I feel my maid Agatha is not fit to look after the poor child and better suited to polish my silver and use that broom on the stairs. I will pay you $10 a week to look after the child, helping her with meals and seeing that her needs are met. Her name is Marie. You can return to your family on Sundays, but you will be given a room next to Marie’s on the third floor. Your meals will be provided as well, so you may send your salary home to your family if you like.”
Angela was overwhelmed by the unexpected offer of employment and stammered, “M.M... Mrs. Harrington, that is a very generous offer, but my Mama is expecting a child soon. I help care for my younger brothers and sisters and assist with the dressmaking.”
“Your salary will pay you enough that your mother will not have to make as many dresses, Angela. You may go home and discuss it with your parents. Then they may come here on Thursday at three o’clock and see that we will provide you with a respectable position for a young, unmarried girl. Now, here is my calling card on which I will write my offer of salary,” Mrs. Harrington said as she took a fountain pen and wrote $10 per week across the back of the card. “And here is that silver dollar so you can head home.” The middle-aged woman pressed both the card and the coin into Theresa’s palm just before the girl bid her goodbye, descended the front steps, and gathered the pears back together in the folds of her skirt.
On Thursday afternoon the very pregnant Mrs. Conti interrupted her very busy schedule to walk with Angela to the Harrington mansion and meet with the lady of the house. Unlike her eldest daughter, Anna’s English was limited. She dressed in her best clothing as she hoped to ensure Angela’s acceptance of such a profitable position, but, having endured the trip across the Atlantic in steerage and seen the abuse of many young women, she was determined that her daughter never be so mistreated.
Anna did not speak English as fluently as Angela, so her daughter helped translate the conversation. Mrs. Harrington served her guests tea in a delicate china cups and assured Mrs. Conti that Angela would be well paid on the condition that she never mention Marie’s disability in public. Convinced that her daughter was being given a good opportunity, Anna agreed to release Angela to the Harrington’s service six days a week and thanked her benefactress.
As they descended the front steps of the Harrington estate and reached the street, Angela asked her mother, “How will you finish the wedding dress by yourself if the baby comes soon?”
“I won’t finish it by myself. Your younger sister Theresa is fourteen and old enough to help me with the baby and younger children so that I can work on the dress. Your salary alone will allow me to buy good quality fabric and lace for more custom dresses for rich ladies,” Anna asserted.
On Monday Angela arrived at the Harrington House and was greeted by Trudy, the downstairs maid. Even though Angela had carefully dressed in a clean blouse, skirt, and stockings, Trudy spoke disdainfully, even rudely, of the “dirt, disease, and filth of immigrants in tenements” and escorted Angela to a washroom with indoor plumbing and ordered the young lady to scrub. Angela dried off with a large towel and found a sort of gray domestic uniform, complete with new stockings and petticoat, laid out for her to dress in. Then Trudy marched her up several staircases to a bedroom adjacent to the room in which Marie lived out her existence.
Angela could barely believe her eyes. Although the room was not very large, she had it all to herself, including a high bed covered in fresh linen, a wardrobe, a dressing table with a chair and mirror, and a small hearth. There was even an electric light.
Trudy unlocked the door to the large turret room, which was illuminated with sunlight from a tall window and filled with soft cushions and toys. There was a table with the remains of a half-eaten breakfast, and Marie sat cross-legged on the floor, clutching a rag doll and looking intently at her new visitor. Trudy explained that Marie was to be taken to the water closet on schedule so she would not soil her clothing. She was not to be left alone there as she would pull the chain incessantly. A meal for Angela and her charge would be prepared and brought upstairs at noon and again in the evening, and Marie was to be in bed by 8 o’clock. Angela could use any of the toys or books on the many shelves, but Marie must not leave the room.
After Trudy left, Angela slowly gained Marie’s trust by speaking softly to her and encouraging the child to play with a wooden doll house. She also read books to Marie, showing her the lovely illustrations. Under the window, they worked with a huge toy trainset reminiscent of the railroad owned by Mr. Harrington.
Meal times were both wonderful and challenging for Angela. After living on soups made from second rate vegetables and the butcher’s scraps, she was feasting on chicken legs and even a rich desert. Yet, Marie kept losing interest in sitting at the table to eat, so Angela kept bringing her back and trying to get her to eat her vegetables. Angela’s own food grew cold.
However, bedtime proved to be the most difficult part of the day. Angela felt as if she had to wrestle Marie out of her clothes and wash her up only to struggle more getting her to put on her night dress. Marie then danced about the room laughing while Angela steadfastly directed her to get under the covers. Angela finally noticed Marie yawning, and began to sing her a sweet lullaby.
Unbeknownst to Angela, Mrs. Harrington had quietly unlocked the door to the turret room to check on Marie and her new caregiver. As Marie had finally succumbed to Angela’s directives and fallen fast asleep, Mrs. Harrington marveled at the beautiful sounds emanating from Angela’s lips. She had a voice that could be trained for the opera.
Mrs. Harrington whispered, “Angela, you truly have the voice of an angel. You must join my friends at the piano after dinner on Friday night, after Marie is asleep.”
THIS IS THE FIRST CHAPTER IN ANGELA AND MARIE'S FICTIONAL STORY ABOUT LIFE AND DISABILITY IN NYC DURING THE EARLY 1900's. I AM CONSIDERING WRITING A CHAPTER THROUGH MARIE'S EYES.