Snapshots and Stories:
The Farrington's of Northeast Missouri

 

 

Gertrude

The day starts like any other in the Farrington household. A cold breeze rattles the large house on Baltimore street, two great maple trees in the front yard swaying in the wind.

Hattie awakes at her usual 6:00 AM, coming down stairs to help the hired woman finish breakfast for her husband and three remaining daughters.

"What is cooking this morning, Jessica?" Hattie asks the large black woman standing over the stove.

"Scrambled eggs, sausage, and French toast" she replies, not looking up from her job. Her plump hands move from pan to pan, stirring, flipping, basting. The small flowered apron barely fits around her body, tied in a small knot in back. She turns, smiling at Hattie, pulling off her kitchen mitt.

Hattie ties an apron around her well pressed navy dress. The gold broach hanging around her neck is carefully tucked inside the apron. Frank gave her the broach while they were living in Greentop. It is not the most elegant piece of jewelry she owns, but it is her favorite and worn every day. Her collar is high around her neck, hair pulled back, glasses in their usual place.

"Frank will be down soon. Is the coffee done?"

Jessica just nods and points to the perking pot of coffee on the stove, just in front of Hattie.

"Ms. Farrington, someth’in wrong with you’s this morning. You’s sick or someth’in?"

"It’s nothing" she says, almost embarrassed. "The girls will be down soon. We had better set the table."

Just four short weeks ago Hattie’s eldest daughter had asked permission to move to New York to continue her career and education in piano. Hattie did not like the thought of her daughter moving to the big city, but she supported Gertrude in much the same way Hattie’s mother supported her when she wanted to move to Clarksburg, Missouri. Hattie was devoted to giving her daughters all the independence and education they wanted; the move to New York would serve both purposes.

Frank trudged down the stairs, tying his black tie, a patient’s folder under one arm and his gray wool coat under the other.

"Have to hurry with breakfast today….have to stop by Mr. Jackson’s house before getting to the office," he said, picking up a coffee cup, allowing Jessica to pour him some coffee.

The girls shuffle downstairs. First Isabelle, now eighteen and in her senior year of high school. She is closely followed by Elizabeth, eleven, and Elnora Lee, seven. They eat with vigor, like their father, trying not to be late for their appointments, although none are as important.

"What will you study today in school, Isabelle?" Frank asks.

"The usual. Probably a short piano lesson today." She responds, cutting her French toast into small pieces with her knife. "Mr. McCracken was ill yesterday and probably won’t want to go late. You know, he told me again that Gertrude has more talent in her little finger than John Neff has in his entire body."

"Isabelle," Hattie scorns, "you shouldn’t talk that way about people."

Isabelle puts down her knife, switching her fork to her right hand to spear a small piece of toast. Elnora Lee stabs the French toast with her left hand, cutting with her right and immediately jamming the syrup drenched bread into her mouth.

"Mother, when are we going to teach this little one some manners?" Isabelle demands.

"Leave your sister alone, Isabelle. Elnora Lee, what have I told you about eating so fast."

After the meal the girls are off to school. Frank kisses his wife goodbye and is off to the office. Hattie continues her normal routine: first, cleaning up the dishes from breakfast, then her morning devotions. Today’s Bible reading is from the book of Job. She reads for almost an hour before returning to the kitchen to inspect Jessica’s cleaning.

"Thank you for starting breakfast this morning, Jessica. It was wonderful."

"Tis noth’in, Ms. Farrington," her large arms struggling to find the small knot behind her back. "You’s always compliment’in me on breakfast and meals when I just get ‘em started. You’s the one that does all the planning and shopp’in."

"Nevertheless, you do a wonderful job." Hattie pours herself another cup of coffee, then picks up her gardening gloves and walks to the dining room and her plants. Winter does not discourage her green-thumb. Hattie merely transplants her precious roses and moves them inside. The north windows of the parlor provide the best indirect sunlight for plants, but roses require direct sunlight and must be in the dining room on the south side of the house.

Hattie begins her morning rose pruning when Jessica interrupts.

"You have a phone call, Ms. Farrington."

Hattie puts down her hand spade, walking toward the kitchen and the telephone. She picks up the receiver and her face brightens upon hearing a familiar voice. Hattie talks, general at first, then silence. Hattie’s eyes drop to the floor, weight shifting to her left foot, the right crossing behind.

"If that is what you want," she says, a tear running down her cheek.

The conversation does not last long beyond that sentence. Hattie hangs up the phone and shuffles to the parlor.

"Ms. Farrington. Ms. Farrington….you forgot your gardening gloves…Ms. Farrington?"

Hattie slowly moves through the house, her eyes glazed, staring at the floor. A cat scampers out of her way.

Hattie falls to her knees next to the plant stand, her hands clasped together in her lap, head hung low. The rest of the morning is filled with tears and silent thought. She takes lunch in the parlor and continues her devotions for most of the afternoon.

Elnora Lee and Elizabeth return home from school first. Isabelle will be later because of violin lessons.

"Mother, can you help me put my doll’s dress back on," young Elnora Lee asks.

"Not right now, dear."

Elnora Lee, just seven years old, holds her head low, walking upstairs to the play room and her older sister, Elizabeth, as Hattie continues to sit in the parlor.

"Elizabeth, I’ve hurt Mother," Elnora Lee says, tears welling in her eyes.

"What do you mean? Where is Mother?"

"Sitting in the parlor. I just asked her to help me with her doll and now she is crying," Elnora Lee says, clutching her doll.

Hattie stands, pacing the hardwood floor. "Nineteen twenty-five and my daughter, only 20 years old is getting married," she thinks to herself. "She is too young. John is nearly 15 years older than her. What does she think she is doing? Does she remember that he was once her teacher here in Kirksville? I should have never let her go to New York. Isabelle warned Frank and I that she would be married in a month if we let her go to New York."

Tears again begin to flow down Hattie’s cheeks as she sobs into her hands, sitting again. "What have I done wrong?" she says out loud.

Elnora Lee and Elizabeth slowly approach, their heads low, eyes fixed on the weeping figure.

"Mother…" Elizabeth says quietly. "Mother…what is wrong?"

"Nothing, girls." Hattie says softly. "Let your mother work a while." Hattie stands and slowly begins to pace again. The daughters race upstairs to their play room.

"See, I told you." Elnora Lee whispers in Elizabeth’s ear. "I made her cry. Did you see the tears?"

"Yes, I saw the tears. Maybe it wasn’t just you, maybe I upset her also. Did you make your bed today?….I can’t remember if I picked up my room this morning"

Hattie slowly walks to the dining room. Jessica looks around the corner from the kitchen, a small patch of flour on her nose, the result of an itch. Her face is bright, but quickly shows concern when she spots Hattie.

"Ms. Farrington, you don’t look so well. Can I help?"

"What…Oh, Jessica. Yes, you can help. Could you please ring Mr. Farrington’s office?"

Jessica gets the doctor on the line and hands Hattie the phone, then slowly walks toward the kitchen, trying to hear what Hattie has to say. She cannot, and goes back to flouring pans and preparing for the day’s baking.

Hattie’s conversation with her husband is short and to-the-point. Frank has patients waiting, but listens attentively while he can. The couple agrees to discuss the situation later, but knows that they must tell the girls of their sister’s marriage. They decide on dinner.

Hattie hangs up the phone and walks across the flower patterned rug toward the kitchen. On her way, she notices a picture of herself, Frank, and the very young Gertrude and Isabelle. Her thoughts flash back to Greentop and the brick home on the hill.

"Jessica, I have something to tell you…"

Isabelle arrives home just after four o’clock and is stopped by the younger sisters in the parlor. She is confused by their statements and decides to ask her Mother in the kitchen.

"Mother, Elizabeth and Elnora Lee think that they upset you in some way," Isabelle asks. "Is there anything I can do?"

"Come with me, Isabelle." Hattie walks with Isabelle up the stairs to the children’s playroom.

"Isabelle, Elizabeth, Elnora Lee. I love you all very much." Hattie says, holding their hands. "You have done nothing to make me feel bad. I will let you know what this is all about at 6:00 PM this evening."

"But Mother…" Isabelle begins.

"No…not now. Six o’clock." With that she leaves her daughters to play.

Elnora Lee and Elizabeth still do not quite understand, but are reassured when told they will find out what is wrong at 6:00 PM. They return to their playing before dinner.

Frank returns home close to six o’clock to find his family seated at the dinner table, ready more for Hattie’s news than the meal. He does not enter the dining room, instead, looks to Hattie and, without a word, the two walk to the parlor where the children cannot hear them. Isabelle gets up from her seat to eavesdrop, but Jessica enters the room in time to remind her that dinner is ready. She returns to her seat.

The clock begins its hourly ritual ringing, then the steady clang, clang, clang. Elnora Lee is counting the bells and reaches six just as Hattie and Frank return to the dining room.

Frank walks to the head of the table as Hattie moves to the other end, both standing.

"Girls," Hattie begins, "let us say our thanksgiving for this meal."

The family stands, moving behind their chairs as Jessica removes her kitchen mittens and lowers her head.

"Lord, thank you for this bountiful meal. Thank you for watching over the Farrington family both here in Missouri and in New York. Bless our Gertrude in her studies and look over Isabelle, Elizabeth and Elnora Lee. Thank you for Jessica’s assistance around the home and for all our health. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen."

The girls eagerly take their seats but do not begin to eat. The roast beef and mashed potatoes have an enticing aroma, but the girls are more interested in their Mother’s information. Frank, however, is hungry and begins to pass the serving trays.

"Girls," Hattie starts, "Today I received a phone call from your sister Gertrude. Elizabeth and Elnora Lee, you did not do anything to make me sad or cry. I love you both, just as I love Isabelle and Gertrude." She stops to wipe a tear that has welled up in the corner of her eye.

"You have all wanted a little brother and today, right now, at six o’clock, seven o’clock in New York, you are getting a brother."

Elnora Lee’s face brightens, "A brother, a brother! I have always wanted a little brother. When do we get to see him?!"

"But he is not a little brother, Elnora Lee. He is an all-grown-up brother. Your sister Gertrude is getting married in New York this very hour."

Elnora Lee looks puzzled, Elizabeth confused. The room has a strange happiness and sadness at the same time. Hattie is happy for her oldest daughter, yet sad that she was not able to give her the wedding she had always dreamed Gertrude would have.

Again, Hattie’s eyes look downward as she removes her glasses and wipes her eyes. Frank stands, walks to Hattie’s side to hold her in his arms.

"Let’s finish our dinner in the parlor, girls," Jessica says, picking up the tray of beef.

"No…thank you Jessica, but no. I’m okay. Thank you." Hattie returns her small wire-rimmed glasses to her face, composing herself. "We will eat as a family and be thankful the Lord has blessed Gertrude with a husband."

The rest of dinner is strangely quiet. Isabelle talks briefly about her school day between Frank’s office stories. Elnora Lee and Elizabeth contemplate their new "brother."

The meal is almost finished when Frank stands, picking up his coat. "Let’s go out and get some ice cream. What do you say, girls?"

The girls are ecstatic, leaping to their feet in anticipation. They quickly run to their rooms to fetch their coats, hats and shawls for the half-mile ride to town. Hattie sits at the dinner table, "You go without me."

Frank and the girls are gone when Jessica returns to the dining room after finishing her meal in the kitchen. She begins to clear the table when Hattie motions her to sit down.

"What do you think about Gertrude and John?"

"I’s don’t know what to think, Ms. Farrington. Gertrude’s twenty years old? Do you’s think she’s is too young to marrry?"

"Yes," Hattie says, her hands carefully folding the dinner napkin and placing it over her plate. "I was just twenty-two when I got married, but I had my teaching degree from the university. Gertrude is just beginning her studies. She is a woman in a man’s world. She needs her education."

"Yes, Ms. Farrington, but Gertrude is a smart girl, just as you is."

"I don’t know, Jessica. I had all these plans for a grand wedding. The grandest wedding a mother could give to her oldest daughter. Most of all I wanted to be there, to watch Gertrude walk down the isle, to watch Frank give her away."

"And what about Mr. Farrington? Is he upset?"

"Yes, but he won’t show his emotions in front of the girls. He wanted so desperately to give her away at her wedding, but he seems at peace with this whole thing." Hattie’s eyes again catch a glimpse of the family portrait from Greentop. "My young Gertrude is a woman now."

"Ms. Farrington, you’s did a wonderful job raising them children. They is good kids, even little Elnora Lee who can’t seem to mind you’s sometime." Jessica looks Hattie in the eyes, holding her hands. "Don’t you’s worry none about Gertrude. She will do just fine. She will bring this John Wesley Neff back home you’n and Mr. Farrington and you’s ill like him just the same way you’s liked him before."

Jessica stands and returns to the kitchen, leaving Hattie alone.

Hattie stands slowly, turning toward the family pictures on the shelves. She picks up the Greentop pictures once again, this time holding it to her chest.

"My daughter is all grown up now."

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A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
By Douglas A. Daubert [mail "at" dougdaubert.com]
All Rights Reserved, 2010