Authors: Judy Blundell
March 30, 1906
I want to say at the very start that I am not the type to do this. Write my feelings down, I mean. We are talkers in my family. If I’m sad or happy or confused, I say it. But suddenly I am finding that nobody is saying anything at all.
You would think, diary, that when your family loses everything, you’d want to talk it over. Wouldn’t you?
How can your whole life change so quickly, so all-of-a-sudden?
Mama just sits and stares, or says,
Not now, Minnie. I’m trying to think.
And Papa is just gone.
Now here is a word I would like to have heard from him.
Now I will record what happened today.
All I knew was that the grand lady, Mrs. Chester Sump, was coming to call on Mama with her daughter, Lily. This required both of us to be wearing our best dresses and for me to wash the good tea set and bring it downstairs to the tavern. Mama and I made sandwiches on thin slices of bread — chicken salad, cheese and chutney, and deviled ham. I baked a chocolate cake.
It is so strange to see the tavern closed on a weekday.
Mrs. Sump didn’t eat any of the sandwiches. She picked up the chicken, sniffed it, and put it down again. When Lily picked up the ham, Mrs. Sump looked at her and Lily put it down.
Mrs. Sump took a small bite of cake and put down her fork as though it wasn’t up to her standards. But then you could see how hard it was for her not to eat it, because I make a delicious cake. In the end she ate two slices. She wouldn’t let Mama cut any for Lily.
“Marriageable girls should not eat cake,” she said.
Well, that is something I never heard before. All the more reason not to marry, I suppose.
Lily didn’t seem to mind. She just looked on, a vacant expression on her face, as though gaslights were lit in an empty room. She had a round face and a sharp nose, but pretty green eyes. She ignored me, but I was not sitting at the table with them, I was fetching and carrying. I did not realize that I was auditioning for the role of maid until I listened at the kitchen door.
In the time it took for me to wash up, it was settled between them. No money changed hands, but I’ve been sold just the same.
“That’s that, then,” Mrs. Sump said to Mama. “I take the girl.”
I pushed the swinging door just a crack so I could peer through the gap. The tavern was empty except for the table we’d set in the corner. Mama sat with her hands folded tightly. She had taken off her apron when Mrs. Sump came to the door. She looked so strange without it. Like any other mother in a dark gray dress with jet buttons. I only know her as the owner of a bustling tavern, always in an apron, usually with her hands full carrying a tray or balancing three plates of hot dishes or settling a bill, making change in two seconds flat and always a smile, even at a bad tip.
Mrs. Sump sat at the edge of her chair as if it would contaminate her hindquarters. Her coat was silk and velvet and her dress frothed beneath in layers of scallops and trimming. Her hat sailed on her head like a ship, ribbons flying like flags. She was someone used to being listened to. I could see she didn’t like Mama’s hesitation.
“You say she’s done washing, and mending, and cleaning,” Mrs. Sump said. “I keep a tidy house.”
“She’s a good girl,” Mama said. “She can even cook. She made the cake,” she added, and if I wasn’t so mad at her, I’d admire the way she said it, so cool, but letting Mrs. Sump know that she’d gobbled up two thick slices and could have gone for a third.
Mrs. Sump’s hat shuddered in indignation. “I have a cook, Mrs. Bonner. I also have a housekeeper, a butler, a groom, and a full staff of servants. I’m doing you a favor, taking your girl off your hands. You won’t have her keep while she’s away, either. If you put that into the pot, you’ll see what a favor I’m doing you. She’s young — fourteen, you say? — still, she’s tall.”
“She’s a good worker, ma’am,” Mama said. She just kept staring down at her hands. She would squeeze one hand, then the other.
All I’ve been hearing for the past two weeks is how kind Mr. Sump has been. How he made us a loan of money that we badly needed and so we signed over the tavern and now he is so sorry but he’s moving all his businesses to California and has a partner there who is making him sell everything here. And so the tavern is gone, and my parents have no work.
And we have no home, because we live above the tavern.
He gave us as much time as he could to make other arrangements, Mama said last night. Truly? I said. A month is enough time to dismantle a life? It went so quickly! Now we have to be out within the week.
Mrs. Sump has a proposition for us, Mama told me this morning. Now it turns out it’s for me to be a lady’s maid for her daughter, Lily, out in San Francisco, where they are moving in less than two weeks.
“She’ll have her duties as a parlormaid, too,” Mrs. Sump said. “Of course, my housekeeper usually does the hiring, but I’m making an exception in this case so that you know your daughter will be going to a good house. I wanted to have a look at the girl. She seems suitable. I will take her on. Our life in San Francisco will be very different. We’ll be moving in the best society. Not that we aren’t now,” she added quickly.
“I’m sure you’re very kind.” Mother pressed her index finger to the inner corner of her eye.
Papa said many people have a “tell.” This means a gesture they make but they don’t even realize they’re doing it, especially when they’re trying to hide something. Mama puts a finger there when she’s trying not to cry.
“And she won’t be grubbing around in a tavern,” Mrs. Sump proclaimed. “I’d say this is a rather better life for her.”
She said it like this —
Mama didn’t answer this. I wanted to pound on the other side of the door. Our tavern had been in the Moore family for over a hundred years. Benjamin Franklin had hoisted an ale at our table. We weren’t a fine restaurant, we were just the Blue Spruce Tavern on Spruce Street, and that was good enough for the neighborhood. Everyone got a welcome who came through the door.
“Mrs. Bonner,” Mrs. Sump said impatiently. “Are you in agreement? Done?”
“Done,” Mama said.
She should have said
Because that’s what she did.
I leave for San Francisco in ten days.
April 1, 1906
I did not wake up this morning and find all this to be a great practical joke for April Fool. My father did not walk in the door, laughing and teasing and saying, “Of course you’re not going to San Francisco, you silly thing!”
No. Instead I am mending what needs to be mended and Mama is packing her things.
Well, what is there to say. Everything we know is gone and soon I will be. I’m to “train” as a maid (train like a horse?) before we leave for San Francisco. Mama has found lodging in a rooming house by the river.
I can’t help what is.
You’re almost fifteen, you’re practically grown now.
Just be a good girl and do what you’re told.
I have no choice, Min!
It’s hard not to talk to someone you live with. Even when — especially when! — you’re so filled up with angry words. Silence doesn’t come natural to our house. Usually I fall asleep to the sounds of laughing and talk from the tavern downstairs. And in our own rooms above we are always telling each other what needs to be done or what was done or what will be done tomorrow. And when Papa was here there was singing and jokes. Now there is nothing but silence.
Papa has always taken off from time to time, but this time he’s gone for good, Mama says.
How does she know he’s gone for good?
She won’t say.
I’m to go to Mrs. Sump’s house to learn how to be a maid and then I’ll travel on the train with Mrs. Sump and Lily. Mr. Sump is already in San Francisco, has been for the past year on and off. Except for when he was here, dining at the tavern. When he first came in we were excited, because he’s very rich and we hoped he’d bring his friends. Well, he did, and something happened and then he had to loan Papa money and then called in the loan, but I’m supposed to be grateful and think he was kind.
I don’t understand any of it.
Mr. Sump built some kind of a palace out there, on Nob Hill. So Mrs. Sump told Mama. The Sump Mansion, she called it. Phew.
I want to ask Mama what Papa will do, how he’ll find her once she moves and I’m gone, but I don’t. I know what she’ll say:
Your father is not coming back.
What about school?
I asked her, and she said,
You’re fourteen, you can leave school to go to work. Just keep up with your reading,
. San Francisco has a library just like Philadelphia — it’s a very grand city, you know. I want you to join the library as soon as you get there. That’s the first place I want you to find.