The Home for Refined Ladies was an old, turreted, red-brick building converted from a Catholic girls’ academy which had moved to a newer building in a better part of Dubuque, Iowa, up on the hills overlooking the Mississippi. It was run by several Franciscan nuns left behind when the rest of the Sisters moved on with the school. Sister Columba was in charge, and also the cook. This story is not about the nuns, but some of the ladies who came there to live.
Mrs. Belknap was the first to arrive on opening day. She wore a reddish wig (called a transformation then), and had neat nervous lips and a quick young walk. Perhaps it was because of her quick walk that she was first, and thereafter first in everything at the Home: first to get up in the morning, first to enter and leave the dining room at mealtime, and first in great personal sorrow (the loss of her son, a Catholic priest, whose housekeeper she’d been in a dreary South Dakota parish, until he got himself shot — in converting a Methodist housewife to “the true faith,” he’d got himself shot by the housewife’s jealous Methodist husband).
“A martyr if there ever was one,” Mrs. Belknap told the ladies proudly, without tears. “Only wanted the creature’s soul, never gave a thought to her body — fat, ugly, and him such a beautiful man. Everybody loved him, Protestants and Catholics alike. Taken in his glorious youth when everybody needed him so. A living saint. Never was such a tragedy. Everybody wrote me. I can show you the letters.”
The ladies read the letters, the telegrams, the newspaper clippings, all the gory details, their eyes filling with tears of horror at the large loss of this small mother. But she didn’t want their pity, and her own eyes remained dry. She simply wanted their acknowledgment that never had there been such a tragedy as the martyrdom of her pure and beautiful son. And since they had no other personal acquaintance with mothers of saints and martyrs, the ladies gave it to her.
It wasn’t because she hadn’t loved her son in a personal, even passionate way, that her lips would not loosen, simply twitched with a hard nervousness, or that her eyes wouldn’t tear when she spoke of him, only stare ahead, brightly dry. No, it was just that believing hers to be the greatest of their personal losses filled her with a vast satisfaction, a vast comfort of pride, without which she would have found her grief unendurable. In blind hope she had reached out to the one thing stronger than her love for her son — her pride of him.
Never was such a tragedy.
But that was before Mrs. Schlieder came to the Home to die of her awful grief after seeing her husband and two young sons sizzle to death on top of a high-voltage electric light pole. Unlike Mrs. Belknap, she cried copiously, continuously, non-stop, until her tear ducts were in danger of drying up. Over and over she’d sob out her terrible tale in half-strangled whispers: “First the little one, always wanting to climb . . . then the older boy to help him . . . then their papa to save them both. They were screaming so . . . all screaming . . . even now I can hear them. Why don’t they stop screaming if they are dead?” Mrs. Schlieder, in all her black things, even black underwear, the ladies said, which didn’t seem quite sanitary. Mrs. Schlieder, howling like a she-wolf, waiting to die.
The ladies flooded her small room to cry with her, for their own losses as well as hers, until finally the tearful faces of strangers reached her where the more restrained consolations of old friends and neighbors had failed, and sometimes she could stop crying long enough to enjoy a cup of coffee with them. They completely forget Mrs. Belknap’s only son during these hysterically stirring days of Mrs. Schlieder’s whole family. When their former “first” lady stopped them in the varnishy-smelling hallways to report she had found the write-up in the Rapid City Register, and the telegram from the governor, they were on their way to Mrs. Schlieder. “Come along,” they invited. “The poor soul cries, cries, cries. Maybe with all you’ve been through, you can stop her.”
“No, I thank you,” said Mrs. Belknap, readjusting her transformation. “She should be thankful she can cry. With me it’s all locked up inside.”
“Oh, come now,” they urged. “Two little boys, the older one not yet eleven.”
“No, I thank you. Let her come to me.”
So they came to think of Mrs. B. as quite heartless, not realizing what it would have meant to her to acknowledge a grief greater than her own. She grew pale and pinched-looking. No longer first up in the morning, first in anything, she didn’t even take her morning walks. Her lips lost their color and twitched violently. Whereas Mrs. S., far from dying, gained five pounds. Surrounded by so much sympathy from women she hardly knew, how could she not enjoy her meals, the nourishing stews and breaded pork chops prepared by Sister Columba, who’d lost a sister in a Texas tornado.
Then the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped, and the ladies got more interested in reading the newspapers and listening to the radio accounts of it than in going to Mrs. Schlieder. It would be only until the child was returned safely to his parents, she told herself, but when instead he was found dead, and Bruno Hauptmann was put on trial for murder as well as kidnapping, the thing seemed to drag on forever. The ladies came to Mrs. S. only to say, Think of it, a poor harmless little baby not yet out of its crib. Will you not admit this is the worst thing ever, the greatest tragedy?”
Mrs. S. would admit nothing, nor would Mrs. B. when they went to her. And it was then that Mrs. S. went to Mrs. B. and together they sat and brooded. They did not argue over which of their own losses was the greater; it was enough that both were greater than that of the Lindbergh baby.
Now the ladies thought them both heartless. Still, after Hauptmann was put to death in the electric chair, and the papers and radio turned to lesser kidnappings, mostly copycat, concerning people they didn’t know or had ever heard of before, they returned to Mrs. Schlieder. Only now she refused to talk about her loss and had stopped crying altogether. She simply sighed, her flesh spreading about her as she said, “Ach, I got to forget. I got to live a little, too, don’t I? Never had the time before.” They saw she had taken up knitting under Sister Columba’s guidance and had gained another five pounds, maybe ten.
It was then they all went back to Mrs. Belknap. She was standing in her doorway waiting for them, her transformation perfectly adjusted. “How opportune,” she exclaimed, “I just found a batch of letters you haven’t seen yet. Come in, all of you, and I’ll make us a nice cup of tea. I tell you, ladies, the more I think of it, the more convinced than ever am I that never, never was such a tragedy as the martyrdom of my sainted son.”
Of course they all agreed with her, what else? Mrs. S. wasn’t fun any more in her newfound sighful resignation, while Mrs. B. was still as deep into her grief as ever.
Thus Mrs. Belknap came to resume her brisk morning walks, and became first again in everything at The Home for Refined Ladies: first up in the morning, first in and out of the dining room, and above all, first in her terrible tearless grief.
A cripple was Miss Maybelle. Not “handicapped” in the 1930s yet, just plain crippled. She limped so badly, so twistedly, that her walk was really burlesque, but she was always smiling and refused to wear a cane, not even on her long walks downtown to the movies. She would tell you in her soft but emphatic voice it proved she wasn’t a cripple. “Cripples are people in wheelchairs,” she said, “and I wouldn’t be caught dead in one.”
Miss Maybelle was fragile and waxen, redolent with inexpensive perfumes. She was rather tiny except for her large head, piled high with her fine golden hair. “My crowning glory,” she gayly admitted. Her neck was so thin, the ladies feared that someday it might break under its impressive burden. And when she talked endlessly about all the men she could have had if she wanted them, they thought of how easy it would be for some strapping fellow to wring that neck like a chicken’s. They thought it sacrilegious or something for someone in her condition to talk about men, but of course they never told her. Just talking about them seemed to give her so much pleasure, they merely tried to steer her safely onto more appropriate subjects. They asked about the latest movie she’d seen, but she could never tell them much about it. “I see so many, I can’t remember,” she’d say. Then they wondered why she did see so many if they impressed her no more than that.
Like so many of the crippled, Miss Maybelle was extremely cheerful. What with her movies and her talk about the men she could have had, she seemed perfectly content. She was proud not only of her golden hair, but of her enormous blue eyes, which bulged a bit with childlike wonder, the underlid of the left eye blinking, as if to punctuate her remarks. More than one man had told her she looked like Mary Pickford, she said.
Happily she limped from one lady to the next to report: “I could’ve had Jim Dawson, that rich farmer out where I lived. He married Katie Shoots after he got her in the family way, but I could’ve had him. Mama sold his folks apple butter and he would say the nicest things to me. I could’ve had Zienert, who owned the big General Store out there. Why, when I’d go to him for Mama’s cough syrup or a hairnet — !” Her voice grew rich with implication. “He never married, you know. Not even after I came here. And of course I could have the mailman who delivers here every day. Haven’t you noticed the way he looks at me, the way he always offers to post my letters when he can see I’m perfectly able to drop them in the box at the corner. I could’ve had — ” On and on, and then: “But you don’t see me taking any of them, do you? Not I! I know when I’m well-off.”
Miss Maybelle had not always felt so well-off. On the farm with her folks — the ladies heard through a neighbor who sold vegetables to Sister Columba — she’d had fits of hysteria and melancholy. At the advice of a country doctor, her mother had finally consented to her living in town where she could make new friends and see a movie now and then. Living at The Home for Refined Ladies would be just the ticket, where she could take advantage of the good things in city life without encountering the bad. “Just so Maybelle does not get started with the men,” her mother told Sister Columba. “No man really wants a crippled girl, he only wants to make a fool of her.” And when after a month she came to town to visit her daughter: “The city is doing well by my Maybelle. So cheerful and all, city life is making a new girl of her.” As for the men, she saw fewer of them than on the farm, with all the farmhands and such.
That was the way Miss Maybelle got along: the movies and her talk about men to the ladies. “He said I looked like Mary Pickford.” And then that awful day when the manager of the local theater came to the Home to see the nun in charge. An excitable little foreigner, he said with many gestures: “The lame girl. Always she is changing her seat, always is moving next to some man. My ushers, they see and tell me. For a long time now, I say nothing. She is lame and I feel sorry. The men say nothing, do not complain, you know how men are, though sometimes one of them changes his seat. But today it is different, today one of them has complained. If she was not crippled, maybe he would not have, but since he has, it must stop. You will tell her, please, Sister Columba, you will keep her away from my theater, the lame girl?”
The next day Miss Maybelle went back to the country. “Without a goodbye? What happened?” asked the ladies, who were told by Sister Columba only that Miss Maybelle had tired of the city and wanted to be back on the farm with her mother.
That was all they heard of Miss Maybelle until her vegetable-selling neighbor told Sister Columba she had run off with a farmhand, a story even close-mouthed Sister Columba couldn’t quite keep from the ladies. A man who had served in the first World War and had part of his face blown off. No matter, Miss Maybelle still found him preferable to hysteria and melancholy. Maybe he, too, had said she looked like Mary Pickford. The ladies found that ever so amusing.
Mrs. Lally loved her food. She thought about it before meals and talked about it after. And at meals she cut up her meat in little pieces, then whipped it into her mashed potatoes and other vegetables, into a sort of goulash covered with gravy, and ate swiftly, silently, with the greatest relish. She had tall question-mark eyes that glanced furtively about her as she swallowed, in the manner of a cat in mortal fear of canine interruption. Her plate wiped clean with a slice of bread, she would sit back, gazing adoringly at a last piece of meat on the platter at her table, her long bony jaw working in anticipation.
Then suddenly she would spear the coveted morsel with her fork while looking from one to the other of those ladies sitting with her and say, “If nobody else wants it, I’ll take it.”
Of course they’d tell her to go right ahead, partly because it pleased them to appear both generous and ungreedy, and partly because, as they told one another later: “Who wants it after she’s been sticking her fork through it?”
“It ain’t puttin’ a pick of flesh on her neither,” said bulky Mrs. Bolder, puffing and wiping perspiration from her big florid face with the tiniest of handkerchieves.
“That’s on account of she physics herself every night,” said Mrs. Cornhouser, heavy like Mrs. Bolder, but in a looser, less solid way. “Every single night, mindja!”
Long, thin Miss Parrington looked to Heaven and said, “God will smite the gluttonous. He’ll smite ’em in Purgatory, maybe even Hell.”
“I ain’t fat from eating,” Mrs. Bolder. “Maw always said I got it from her. ‘What’s in the blood you can’t change it,’ she’d say.”
“Me,” cried Mrs. Cornhouser, “I’m fat from laughing. It affects the corpuscles or something.”
Each of the ladies thought to herself that the other ate plenty. Even Miss Parrington didn’t subsist on prayer and Bible verses alone, and was certainly no mere nibbler.
But this is Mrs. Lally’s story. Let her tell it as she munches on gumdrops in her room. “I was from a family of twelve. Papa was a poor factory worker before the unions and we seldom had enough on the table. I was always hungry. It was like a big rat inside me gnawing. When I was sixteen I married the neighbor boy. Poor like Papa, he worked in the same factory, but there would’ve been enough for the two of us if we didn’t start right off havin’ all those kids. Not as many as Mama, thank God, but even six was too many, one right after the other. The priest said, ‘Fine, fine, God will provide.’ ”
Mrs. Lally paused to chuckle a bit and take another gumdrop. “God, my foot! I saw all six go to bed hungry some nights, rats gnawing at their little tummies, and the biggest rat of all still gnawing at mine on account of I’d give them kids right off my plate.”
“Now they’re all married. Some of them done pretty good, but they ain’t the ones that got all the babies, and they ain’t the ones that want me livin’ with ’em. Not that they ain’t all good, good as gold — between them didn’t they raise the money to send me here, keep me here? Ever’ month they send with the rent a extra dollar or two just for candy, like I was now their little girl. I love that. Not even to be livin’ with one of them would I go hungry now. My belly is warm and full and there are no rats in it. Oh, food is a wonderful thing. Plenty of good warm food, a soft bed, some fresh air, sun, and flowers, I got it all here, so what more do I need?”
She tore up the empty gumdrop bag and said, “Tomorrow it will be licorice. Each day I go to the candy store, and tomorrow it will be licorice. When I was a child I longed for licorice — it lasted so long. But I seldom had a penny for a stick, so I just looked at it through the candy-store window. Now I can have plenty of licorice. I can have it every day if I want it. It is still cheap and it is good and lasts longer than anything except an all-day sucker. I am a little girl when I eat it. My mouth gets all black and I am a little girl again. Only, not a hungry little girl.”
Friday is Mrs. Lally’s favorite day. On Friday Miss Parrington fasts in her room, as penance, so Mrs. Lally gets her piece of fish and her bread pudding. “Oh, I love bread pudding,” cries Mrs. Lally. “I love bread pudding and I love fried fish, gumdrops, and licorice. I love them all, and every night I take a physic. I am very happy. No more crying kids, no more hunger, no more rats gnawing.”