TWO BLOSSOMS ON A SINGLE STEM
TWO BLOSSOMS ON A SINGLE STEM
By GWENETH HOWARD MAHONEY
Illustrated by ELIZABETH HOWARD CARNES
This is for my family: those who came before me and those who carry on ahead
Copyright © 2015 Gweneth Howard Mahoney
All rights reserved.
Part One: This Is My Father’s World
1 All Nature Sings 1
2 Of Distant Lands 9
3 Of Clouds Above 15
4 I Rest Me in the Thought 19
5 The Lord is King, Let the Heavens Ring 26
6 Of Rocks and Trees 35
7 Why Should My Heart Be Sad? 42
8 The Rustling Grass 45
9 O Let Me Ne’er Forget 49
10 Round Me Rings the Music of the Spheres 58
11 The Mourning Light 63
Part Two: Of Skies and Seas
12 Lizzie Askin 65
13 The Steamship, California 69
14 Tea on the High Sea 76
15 Three Boys, One Dog, and a Brave Girl 83
16 A Change of Name 91
17 Ellis Island 99
18 Mabel King 109
19 New York City Views 112
Part Three: Though the Wrong Seems Oft So Strong
20 Miss Peartree 115
21 Supper for Nine 119
22 Some Light in the Dark 127
23 A Day’s Labor 129
24 Tea for Three 136
25 Sunday in Stamford 142
26 News From Home 150
27 August 1914 154
28 July 1919 161
29 Mrs. Kowalski 166
30 Hints of Harold 170
Epilogue: Wonders Wrought 176
Part One: This Is My Father’s World
Corbally, County Tyrone, Ireland
All Nature Sings
A rough hand clamped around Winnie’s throat, draining the air from her lungs. A scream lodged itself deep inside her aching throat. She was falling through a dark earthen tunnel with no bottom.
Eleven-year-old Winnie Weir awoke with a jerk. Another nightmare!
Still shaking, drenched in perspiration despite the early morning chill, Winnie pulled away a scratchy blanket from her neck. Across the small farmhouse, Winnie could hear wee Tommy stirring on his mattress beside Ma and Da’s bed. From the corner of the bed she shared with her two sisters, she scanned the room.
Beside her, fourteen-year-old Annie breathed evenly, sound asleep. Sixteen-year-old Emily was already out of bed, standing before a dingy mirror, splashing water from a basin onto her face.
Winnie burrowed deeper into the warmth of her bed. She’d been plagued by these nightmares ever since her family had suffered through the terrible scarlet fever. Now, three years later, Winnie could not forget it.
Previously, the family had lived in Clabby, County Tyrone, in cramped quarters behind Da’s shop. One by one, the fever had attacked each family member. All but William had survived.
Poor William, just five years old. Winnie remembered the pain on Da’s face when he’d found William dead in his little cot. Cradling William’s limp body in his arms, the lines on Da’s face deepened and his body quaked. Winnie had never seen a grown-up cry before.
And she remembered how Ma’s face had shut tight like a cupboard. Ever since William’s death, Ma had gone inside herself. Before the scarlet fever, Ma had been a stately woman with regal carriage, proud of her British Protestant heritage. But now she was a shadow of a person. She had locked out everyone except Da and Emily. Da said this was Ma’s way of grieving and that she’d get better.
He had moved the family a few miles away from the shop into this old farmhouse in Corbally, abandoned when a farmer’s widow had died. The new life on a farm was supposed to cure Ma of her sadness, but Winnie wondered. Ma had given birth to Tommy two and a half years ago and was expecting another baby this winter. All she could do was drag herself out of bed to sip a little tea and nibble some toast. Then she went back to bed. Emily, Annie, and Winnie were left to tend wee Tommy and the house, while Da worked in the pasture.
Emily looked over and said, “Come along, Winnie. Annie, time to get up!”
“I’m coming,” Winnie said, reluctantly kicking off the blankets. She scurried to the closet and pulled on an old dress and stockings. Glancing at Emily, she admired her oldest sister’s long honey-colored braids and lace at the collar of her dress. She looked just like a fairy tale princess. Winnie’s eyes dropped down to her hand-me-down shift. She looked like a scullery maid.
“Annie,you’ve got to get up,” said Emily. “You need to start the fire.”
Leaving Emily to coax sleepy Annie from bed, Winnie dashed out the scullery door, bucket in hand. Breathing in the sweet damp summer air, she ran to the well the family shared with several neighbors. The dewy grass tickled her bare feet. She was too impatient to put on her worn black leather shoes, hand-me-downs from her sisters. Besides, wearing them was nearly the same as having bare feet, the leather was so worn, especially just below each big toe. Her sisters had inherited bunions, an affliction that plagued the Weir family, and all of their shoes had a worn circle on its side. Winnie herself was starting to show signs of a bunion, and her foot fell into the worn pattern of the leather quite naturally.
After drawing water from the well, Winnie walked back to the house, trying her best not to splash. This fresh water would be used to make the tea and boil the eggs. Water for washing was collected in barrels beneath the overhanging tin roof.
Next, Winnie dashed to the hen house, her favorite chore.
“Clucky, Clucky, tch, tch, tch,” Winnie called. The hens were locked in the hen house for the night, safe from foxes. As Winnie unlatched the rickety door, the hens circled and squawked in anticipation of the grain she would pitch to them.
“What have you got for us today, Clucky?” Winnie asked the oldest hen. “Ah, I spy a lovely brown egg for my breakfast! And how about the rest of you? Have you got something for Da and Ma as well?” Winnie hummed a tune as she collected a basket of eggs. She was disappointed to find only five eggs today. That meant that there’d be less than one egg for each family member.
She reminded herself to tell Emily how many eggs were laid today, since Emily was so good with numbers. Emily had a special talent for calculating figures, and she enjoyed finding out how productive the hens were. Winnie preferred words, reading, and most of all, a good tale told by Da.
Through the back door, Winnie delivered the eggs to the scullery, where Annie was slicing bread.
“Morning, Winnie. Looks like you were in a mighty hurry to start your chores. Where are your shoes?” Annie scowled down at her. A full head taller than Winnie, she had the look of a young colt. She had not quite grown into her long legs, but she knew how to use her height to her advantage when it came to scolding Winnie.
“Annie, it’s summertime. No need to be so proper. It’s not as if we have to dress for school.” Winnie shrugged. She was used to Annie’s admonishments.
“Go on, then, Winnie, get yourself dressed for breakfast. I’ll put the eggs in the pot to boil.” Annie looked into the basket Winnie had delivered and frowned. “Only five eggs today? That’s not enough.”
Winnie set her hands on her hips. “You’ll need to bring your complaints to Clucky, not me.” She was in motion once again, scurrying through the front room of the house. Winnie could run from end to end of her family’s rectangular cottage in a blink. Still, even with a scullery the size of a closet and two small bedrooms on either end of a main room, this house seemed a palace compared to her last home. Living here in Corbally was a step ahead, Da had said, but sometimes Winnie wondered how far they’d actually stepped. Da worked so hard from dawn ‘til dusk, yet meals seemed as scant as ever.
On her way through the house, Winnie glimpsed Ma moving with great effort to sit at the table. Winnie paused. Maybe today Ma would feel better. “Good morning, Ma.”
A flicker of acknowledgment passed through Ma’s face as she rested her hands on the top of her belly and said in a hoarse voice, “Morning.” Winnie dipped down to kiss the side of Ma’s cheek. How she longed for Ma to kiss her back.
Stepping in from the scullery, Annie said, “Still haven’t fetched your shoes? And before you leave the room, put some more peat on the fire.”
Winnie sighed. Had Annie meant to interrupt her quiet moment with Ma?
She headed to the hearth to tend the fire. Hanging from an iron hook above the flames, a black kettle dangled over the fire, the water within just beginning to steam.
On the floor before the hearth sat little Tommy. At two years old, he was always into mischief, and someone, probably Emily, had set out a spoon and several wooden bowls for his entertainment. Winnie paused to watch him stack the bowls, and without waiting to admire his tower, swing his spoon with great gusto, knocking the stack down. He clapped his dimpled hands and looked up at Winnie for approval.
“Oh, Tommy, what would we do without your racket?” Winnie patted his silken hair and proceeded to her room.
The girls’ bedroom was sparsely furnished with a wooden bureau and a cast iron bed. Winnie snatched her everyday shoes from the closet and stuffed her feet into them hastily. A cardboard box caught her eye. Bending down, Winnie opened the box to inhale the rich smell of new leather. Her Sunday shoes were carefully polished, wrapped in tissue paper, and stowed away in pristine condition until next Sunday. Da said that his wealthy American sister had been so kind to send these shoes to them and the girls should be deeply grateful. Sometimes it was hard for Winnie to feel deeply grateful when the stiff leather pinched her bunion, especially during a long Sunday sermon.
Next, she stood up and gave herself a brief assessment in the small mirror, frowning at her over-sized front teeth. Her thick brown hair had escaped from the braids she’d plaited yesterday. Not one to dwell on appearances, Winnie reached for a book of poems upon the bureau and started to read.
“Breakfast is ready!” Annie called.
Using a hair ribbon as a book mark, Winnie closed her book. She rushed to the wooden table the family used for every meal. Sitting across from Da, who had just come in from milking the cows, the girls squeezed together on a bench. Little Tommy sat high on a chair Da had built when Emily was a toddler.
“Let us pray,” Da said, and the family pressed their hands together. Once the prayer was over, everyone but Ma plunged their spoons into soft-boiled eggs.
“Please pass the toast and jam, Emily,” asked Winnie.
“Do you mean, ‘May I please have some toast beneath my strawberry jam?’” teased Emily. Da and Annie joined in good-natured laughter, as Winnie blushed in embarrassment. It was true that she adored strawberries.
Tommy spent most of the meal banging his spoon against the table, but somehow managed to consume a tin cup of milk, half an egg, and a bit of toast.
Ma hadn’t finished the other half of his egg, and as usual, she didn’t seem to have much of an appetite. Winnie thought it odd that pregnancy made Ma sick to her stomach. How would the baby inside her grow if Ma didn’t eat?
They washed down their breakfasts with strong Irish tea, which was a little too bitter for Winnie’s taste as there were only a few grains of sugar stuck in the bottom of the sugar bowl. No matter, the girls were eager to begin their day.
“It’s off to the fields for me. One of the cows has taken sick. Needs some tending.” Da stood up and smoothed his wavy brown hair. He adjusted his worn jacket across his broad shoulders. Winnie noticed that his sideburns and mustache were sprinkled with a few gray hairs. Since when did Da look so old? Da seemed to feel Winnie’s eyes upon him, and he winked, his mouth breaking into a contagious big toothed grin. “Be sure to tidy up for Ma, girls.” He stood behind Ma’s chair and wrapped his arms around her from the back, his large hands gently patting Ma’s belly. “Make sure you get some rest for that new baby, Isabella.” Ma angled her head towards him, a faint smile on her face. Da
reached for his tweed cap hanging from a nail in the wall and left the house, heading for the tumble-down barn.
“Let me wash up.” Winnie claimed her preferred chore.
“All right . . . I’ll dry the ware if you wash, but please don’t spend so much time playing with the water,” said Annie.
Winnie sighed. She knew she had a bad habit of lingering over the dishes, splashing in the water, lost in a daydream. What Annie did not know was the magical world that came alive as Winnie undertook the boring chores of the house.
As Winnie ran to fetch water from the rain barrels, she thought about the fairies. In a large tin tub, she mixed rain water with warm water from the kettle, and added washing soda to soften the water. Winnie remembered how old Mr. Gargin, the postman in Corbally, had entertained the girls with stories of shy fairies who often played mischievous tricks upon humans. Winnie had invented a few stories of her own and they came alive as she dipped the silverware and dishes into the washtub.
“Oh, save me, brave Winifred . . . uh, brave Evelyn,” called a fork. Winnie had decided that her middle name, Evelyn, was more elegant than her first. Besides, Evelyn began with an “E,” just like her older sister’s name, and Winnie would do anything to be more like Emily.
The silver forks were the queen fairies with spiked shocks of hair. A wicked knife fairy had cast a spell upon the whole dish world and caused a huge storm to flood the land. Now it was up to Queen Evelyn to save the good fairies, one and all.
One by one, the dishes were drowned and then heroically rescued by Evelyn the Great. The job of washing the dishes was done in no time at all.
From the front room came the sound of Tommy tapping his wooden spoon against a kettle and Emily’s soft voice chanting a nursery rhyme to his beat. Winnie smiled. Soon she’d be out the back door to play hopscotch.
“You’re not done yet, Winnie,” said Emily. She had come to the scullery to check on her younger sister.
Her blue eyes scanned Winnie.
“Well, I’ve washed all the ware, and Annie says she’ll dry them,” said Winnie.
“Yes, but you need to come back to the mirror. Your hair hasn’t been done properly,” said Emily.
The Weir girls were all blessed with thick wavy hair that varied in color from Annie’s dark mahogany to Emily’s honey blonde. Winnie’s hair was in between: chestnut brown.
“Stop pulling my hair. You’re hurting me!” complained Winnie as Emily pulled a brush through her tangles.
“If you’d just sit still for one minute, we’d be done with it. You certainly are a spitfire, aren’t you?” said Emily. “There now, you look like a proper British young lady,” said Emily. In happier days, Ma had taught them that as citizens of Northern Ireland, they were British,proud members of the United Kingdom.
Emily braided Winnie’s hair into two long ropes and tied them off with a bit of twine. With an impatient stretch of her shoulders, Winnie hopped off her perch beneath the mirror and skipped off towards the more important task of throwing pebbles onto the hopscotch pattern she and Annie had drawn in the damp soil.
Of Distant Lands
“Annie, Winnie, come! Mr. Gargin’s heading up our lane with the post!” Emily shouted from her stool. She set down the dirty clothes she had been scrubbing at the washboard, and stood tiptoe to watch the postman approaching.
Winnie dropped her lucky pebble into the pocket of her pinafore and peered from around the corner of the house. She had just started a game of hopscotch with Annie, but post was far more exciting.
“Come, look, Annie!” Winnie exclaimed. She spotted the postman working his way up the lane, seated atop an old bicycle. Wearing a black cape that caught the breeze and enveloped the handlebars, from a distance Mr. Gargin looked like some legendary god with dark wings. If his jerky steering were not so comical, his dark silhouette would have been rather frightening. Nonetheless, it was a big event to have the postman deliver a letter in Corbally. Winnie and Annie scrambled to the front of the house to get a better view.
As Mr. Gargin got closer, Winnie amused herself with the thought that his face resembled one of the characters from the tales he told. His protruding ears enclosed his gnome face like a set of parentheses.
“Good day to you, lasses.” Mr. Gargin tipped his tweed cap as he slowly wheeled up the front yard, one hand on the handle bars. “I’ve got a letter for your da and ma.”
“Good day to you, Mr. Gargin. Where’s the letter from?” Emily stood up and shook his hand, taking the letter.
“From the looks of the stamps and the return address, it surely must have come clear across the ocean from America, lass,” said Mr. Gargin.
Emily rushed to the house to deliver the letter to Ma, as she was the family letter writer.
“Dreaming about America, are you?” Mr. Gargin asked Winnie. He lifted his cap to scratch the top of his bald head.
“No, Mr. Gargin, I like it here just fine,” replied Winnie.
“Well, some say the streets are paved with gold, but I don’t think so. Long time ago, ‘twas the dark days of the potato famine, my Uncle Paddy, he took a coffin ship, he did. Made it to New York City. Never heard from him since. Think he might have worked building those skyscraper buildings they have over there. ‘Tis quite a sight to see a building tall as a mountain.”
“How do you know what skyscrapers look like?” asked Winnie.
“Seen many a postcard from kin of folks ‘round here. Many a lad and lass from these parts have taken off for the hope of a better life across the western sea.” Mr. Gargin coughed urgently and reached for a cloth in a pocket of his cape. When he spit into the rag, Winnie politely looked away for a moment.
As he recovered, Winnie said, “Well, I’d rather stay here.”
“Ay, ‘tis a good home you have, though times are hard. Still not enough food and not enough work for the young lads. Suppose a pretty girl like you won’t have any difficulty snaring a rich husband.”
This made Winnie laugh. The thought of herself grown and married was a million years away, and of no concern to her. She suddenly remembered her parent’s lessons about courtesy to elders. “Would you like to come inside for a cup of tea, Mr. Gargin?”
“No, thank you, lass. I’ve got a lot of ground to cover today, and the sky is threatening rain. I’d better be on my way, Miss, don’t want the fairies to find me. Don’t want to crush one under my wheels, you know. ‘Tis very bad luck, to disturb a fairy. Must be off now. Good day to you and your family!” He kicked up his bike stand and set his bow legs on either side of the bike. Winnie watched as he wobbled his way across the front garden.
“Good day to you, Mr. Gargin!” Winnie called.
His dark triangular shape disappeared around the bend in the lane, and Winnie shivered at the thought of fairies lurking in the meadow. But today, even fairies could not keep her away from the mysterious letter.
She leapt across the front door threshold. “Emily! Annie! Who sent us the letter?” Taking a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim interior lighting, she found Emily and Annie sitting on the edge of Ma’s bed. Ma sat propped up in bed, holding the parchment stiffly, as they all huddled together, straining to read the looping writing.
Tommy circled Ma’s bed yelling, “Post! Post!”
“Hush, Tommy,” Emily said.
Ma held the paper close and said, “‘Tis from your Aunt Mabel King in America, a town called Stamford. In a place called Connecticut.” Ma unfolded the foreign-sounding names carefully on her tongue. “She visited us in Clabby several years ago.”
Winnie conjured a dim memory of a stern American lady.
Ma had a faraway look as she silently read the paper. Waiting for her to speak again was unbearable. Winnie thought her heart would pop right through her chest. Finally Ma said, “Mabel says she would like to pay the passage for Emily and Annie to come and live with her. Says she could use help in her boarding house and the girls will have an opportunity for education, jobs, and maybe find a suitable American husband.”
The girls exchanged startled looks with each other, unsure of how to react to this offer. Tommy, bored by this discussion, waddled out the front door to chase a barn cat.
“Ma, do we really have to go?” Annie’s face reddened.
“Your Da and I will need to talk about this.” Ma looked past the girls, out the tiny bedroom window. The girls knew better than to ask further. This was one of the longest conversations they had had with Ma since the scarlet fever. Ma beckoned for Emily to come closer.
“What is it, Ma?” Emily bent to put her ear near Ma’s face and listened.
Winnie glanced at Annie who glared back, hugging her arms tight against her chest.
When Ma was done whispering, Emily turned to face Winnie and Annie. “Annie, you need to tend to Tommy. He’s a filthy mess. Winnie, you need to deliver Da’s meal to him at noon. He won’t have time to break for dinner at home. Take him a picnic to share at the crossroads.”
“Oh, yes!” Winnie loved the idea of picnicking with Da. She’d have him all to herself and surely there’d be a good tale to hear.
Annie stomped past her and out the door.
Before leaving the room, Winnie paused to watch Emily continue whispering with Ma. What was this secret world? She watched as Emily handed Ma a paper and pen. How Winnie wished she could read the letters Ma wrote.
Emily darted a look at Winnie, “Come now,off you go.”
Winnie skipped off to gather food for herself and Da. There was a pint of milk in a ceramic jug, the heel of brown bread, and a piece of cheese, a little dry at the edge. She picked up a handful of gooseberries and laid them in a tin cup. That should make a good-enough dinner, she thought, as she placed the food in a bucket.
Since noontime was still an hour away, she searched for Annie to resume the game of hopscotch. She found Annie standing beside Emily outside near the rain barrels. Tommy was dirtier than ever, having discovered an irresistible brown mud puddle. Annie’s face wore a grimace. Winnie drew nearer, listening.
“Well, I do not want to go,” stated Annie.
Winnie inched closer.
“Come now, this is America we are talking about!” declared Emily, looking at her sister intently. “Annie, you are fourteen years old now, nearly a lady. Heaven knows you are as strong as an ox, and just about as stubborn, I might add. Look around you, there’s no money to be made in these parts. You know as well as I that all the young people are leaving. Remember Eileen Mann and Katie Rutledge? They’ve all gone off to America.”
“That’s fine for them. . . but not me.” Annie kicked a pebble and Tommy darted after it.
“I don’t have to tell you that once a girl is done with the eighth class, she must find a position. You know,a servant for the upper class. Either that or go to nursing school,but Lord knows we don't have the money for that. You cannot expect to stay here forever.”
“I don't care.I’d rather be a servant here than go to America.” Annie set her jaw. Her dark hair framed her face like a curtain.
Emily drew in a deep breath. “Da is working his hands to the bone, and Ma’s health is so poor. It’s our only hope. We must obey them. What else can we do?”
“Stay right here in Corbally.” Annie folded her arms defiantly.
Emily shook her head, her face softening. “I know it won’t be easy at first, but Da and Ma will come along in a short while with Winnie, Tommy, and the baby. The other Weir families have all done so well. Why, Da’s sister Mabel is quite an accomplished businesswoman, if her letter is to be believed. She wrote about owning five or six markets and a boarding house. Da has a lot of admiration for Mabel and her business skills. Annie, everyone knows that America is the place to make your fortune.”
Annie looked around to check if anyone beside her siblings was within earshot. Satisfied that they were alone, she leaned towards Emily and said, “If America is so wonderful, why was Aunt Mabel so cross when she came to visit us?” She planted her hands upon her hips, waiting for an answer.
Emily gave a baffled shrug of her shoulders.
“You see? You can have your America. I want my Corbally!” Annie hurled a stone at a tree trunk. She stormed down the lane, her skirt whipping in the wind.
Tommy scurried to Emily’s side, clutching her shins. Winnie searched Emily’s face for a reaction.
Heaving a sigh, Emily led Tommy to the washtub. She dipped a rag into the water and cleaned his chubby cheeks and hands. While she tenderly wiped her brother clean, her mind seemed an ocean away.