A college town the week after commencement is about as lonely as the “banquet hall whose lights are fled and garlands dead,” and Evanston winds seemed to have a lingering wail while the summer stillness bred nostalgia in that June of eighteen ninety-five.
When it had been decided that Maynard would remain in Chicago, Mother and I had given up our miniature suite and settled in a mammoth unattractive room on Orrington Avenue. Miss Jones, the owner of the barn-like structure, was a funny old maid, poor and peculiar. The house was a three-storied, frame affair with lots of windows, heavy folding beds and inadequate heating facilities. The stairway, however, was wide and open and my piano was waltzed up with ease and placed in a bay window on the second floor. The chief attraction of Miss Jones’ hostelry was that it had an equally barren but plastered basement with cooking possibilities, and this she let out to roomers under the guise of “light housekeeping privileges.”
The room we chose was well-lighted and fitted with a summer-cottage type of clumsy wooden table and benches. Fortunately it was clean and cool in summer, and with a nebulous future staring us in the faces, Mama and I had gratefully paid our initiation fee and moved in.
The School of Music in its brief years had established a nice clientele of townspeople who came to recitals and acquainted themselves with the faculty and students. I had come to know many of them through my playing and one whose sister I knew hunted me up to inquire if I would give her piano lessons.
“O, I don’t know enough to teach,” I had replied with naiveté. When I reported this to the Dean, he said, “You go back to her and tell her that you will be glad to teach her.”
“But I don’t know how to teach,
“Very well, then I shall show you how,” he said.
She was my first pupil but there were other purchasers of my wares, not many but enough to break me in and I taught and studied through the summer.
Mr. Lutkin was eager to relinquish the teaching of small children and he intimated to me that he would like to turn them over to me in the fall. Because they were children of wealthy and prominent families, he had to use finesse in making the break and his suggestion was that I give seven lessons a month and he give the eighth, a reassurance to parents and to me.
The organ was my nemesis. It tired me frightfully. The church was south and we were north so that I was weary whenever I arrived to practice. Choir practice was held in Chicago and registering on the organ was done with but a few minutes’ practice, giving me a feeling of haste and insecurity. I hung on merely because the Dean wished me to.
In late July a letter announcing that Lilly was ill arrived and we packed Mother off on the train, forgetting everything else because it was impossible to interpret Ben’s message as merely one of anxiety.
We set about our activities as usual, but sitting on our shoulders was the shadow of fear as we waited for Mother. The word when it finally came was far from reassuring. Lilly had peritonitis and we were told to be ready to leave at any moment. For me, having short notice meant that I should have to prepare for a substitute for Sunday services and I hesitated to notify the Music Committee even as I made tentative plans to leave. The message arrived Saturday morning and there was no mistaking its seriousness. It said, “Come at once. Lilly worse.”
We were panicky for a while but we pulled ourselves together. Mayne secured the transportation and at night we boarded the train for St. Louis. The weather was sticky but physical discomfort seemed too trivial to notice. We feared we were facing a life shorn of a dearly beloved one and the spiritual bankruptcy which was bound to follow.
The journey ended at twilight. Ben was at the train and the inevitable “She is gone” seemed like a fantastic and impossible thing. Death had touched us closely for the first time.
I shall never forget that terrible summer drenched in grief – the unnatural white face and folded hands that had so equably kept forever moving in active tasks; the crying children incessantly saying “Where little Momma has gone?” The funeral services conducted by a strange minister; the sounds of earth falling on the lowered casket; Mary and Mama in black with veils over their faces, and I looking in apathy at my swollen face and the folds of black enveloping me.
The postman’s whistle, hitherto a harbinger of joy, became a thing of dread for there were endless letters and tears enough to bring desperation.
At the last Lilly had said, “Start the little boys right for me, Mommy” and closed her eyes. From that moment her words meant one thing to mother. Talks and conferences followed daily, ending with a decision to break up the home and move everything to Chicago. The children were confided to Mother’s care in the hope that ultimately we might all be reunited somewhere in a new life.
On a warm September day, when leaves were blowing and trees looked sere and brown, in a big house on Ridge Avenue in Evanston, we unpacked the varied belongings of two households and set about making two bereft children forget that they had suffered an irreparable loss.