From Manchester to Manhattan

This is a writing assignment from Mariana, our writing group leader.  I decided to incorporate it with today’s letter “M.” 

My name is Jessica.  My dear father named me.  My mother I don’t remember.  I was but a mere babe when she died.  Papa never took another wife.  He loved my mother dearly and could still tear up when relating stories of her to me in my puberty years.  On my twelfth birthday he gave me a locket with her picture.  It was an ink drawing.  I think one reason he teared up so, is that the older I got, the more I reminded him of Mama.

Papa was a stern businessman, but when it came to me he was a softie and I was quite spoiled and protected from the pitfalls of life in general.  If it weren’t for my dear aunt, Papa’s sister, who could be a bit cranky at times and smiled as if apple seeds were stuck in her teeth I would have turned out quite tomboyish.  She made it her business to make sure that I was a proper lady, a very hard task.  But she had a stubborn tenacity that said she was up for the job.  Since she had no children of her own, she took great pride in making me her prime project, although she had many.  She constantly used the same phrase with me, “if only your dear mother were alive to see you now.”  It just took on different tonal qualities with relation to her degree of pleasure or displeasure.  Papa would rarely interfere, but merely gave me a wink behind her back.

She made sure I was properly frilled, ribboned, and refined at all times, at least while in her presence.  Her greatest issue was with my problem hair.  It was silky fine and dreadfully straight.  In desperation she opted for the only solution that she saw which was to keep it tied up at all times.  I preferred it dangling down in free fashion.  Besides the hair issue, Papa could be slightly amused when I would slip into boyish knickers when she wasn’t around.  He could be totally blind and quite agreeable to my love of the outdoors, when all young ladies were expected to be as pale and dainty as newly formed snow.  I had somewhat of a wild streak the same one he admired so in Mama.  He once told me that I had a free and independent spirit like hers and that I didn’t run with the herd.  I might have run with the herd, but my life for the most part was so secluded, that there was really no herd to run with.  So independence along with a lot of imagination just came naturally.

Sometimes on Sunday afternoons, I would saddle up my horse and ride out to a cliff where I would watch Papa and all his cronies down below.  He rode about, sitting so erect and dapper on his own horse, foxhounds barking off in the distance totally engrossed in the chase.  When there was no one to see I would forsake the sidesaddle and straddle my legs across the horse.  Somehow, everyone knew, and Papa would defend me on this issue to Auntie, as he knew my insecurity in this matter.  Sidesaddles in my opinion required a great deal of faith as I always felt I was going to slide off.

My world was shattered with his death.  I was only sixteen. I was ill prepared.  I had been sheltered on a large English country estate just outside Manchester with servants to attend to my every whim.

My aunt was my sole guardian now.  To console me and herself as well, she insisted we go abroad to America.  Even though she gave the impression of an overly capable and proper gentle lady of the world she had derived a great deal of strength from Papa.  They had been consolation for each other, a more or less platonic marriage, both having been widowed for so many years.

Only the year before the great ship the Titanic had sank, which gave me a most eerie feeling about crossing the Atlantic, but Auntie insisted that lightning didn’t strike twice in one place, so adhering to my aunt’s logic, in the Spring of 1913 we boarded a ship owned by the White Star Line who had also owned the Titanic.  At this time my aunt, who was a number of years older than my father, was waning in health.  Her once watchful and protective eye on me was waning as well.  My father had left me well off which could make me quite easy prey.  I could be rather naïve to all of this.  I wasn’t especially attractive and could be shy to the point of a queasy stomach around the opposite sex.  That fact alone could have been my saving grace and kept everything legitimate and assured my virginity until my wedding night.  My little knowledge of the outside world and men had been mostly with tutors, servants, and my father’s business associates, all who came and went, and seemed as old as Moses.

In America, the land of opportunity, I met a young man of twenty-three, seven years my senior.  He had come to America to seek his fortune.  All was very proper as we walked the boardwalk at Coney Island together in New York.  We were quite the contrast, he with his dark smoothed back hair and olive complexion, me with my sunburned strands of hair falling over my freckled face.  He never told me I was beautiful as did Papa, but he had mannerisms that reminded me of him.  He could be quite charming as was Papa, but I think it was the way he would sneak a wink at me.  At twenty-three, he was already a man of the world with the will and determination to make his fortune.  He had come to America from Italy and had begun at seventeen to work at the docks.  He could convince anyone of anything.  His potential was in sales, and through a dentist acquaintance had moved into distribution of various medical equipment, homeopathic substances and drugs. This to him was a much more respectable business, and could be something he could much easily move up the ladder of success.  We would walk side by side and I would listen to his dreams. I needed his admiration as much as he needed me as his trophy.  In years to come both of our viewpoints would change dramatically.  There is so much to timing in relationships, and he came at a time that I was most vulnerable and he swooped up my very soul.

We were secretly promised, as a proper engagement might have hastened my aunt’s death.  The following year my aunt did depart this world.  It was 1914.  A photographer by the name of Mr. Chapman, an older man who had been a friend of my aunt’s attended the funeral.  I was unprepared, but he insisted on an image of me, one of the last images he would take, as he died the following year.  He had something called a Simplex, a very small portable camera, the latest thing, from America.  If anything he captured my contemplative mood and my hair pinned back as my aunt would have wanted.

I tried to be brave but I was now feeling alone in the world.  I really saw nothing left for me in the Manchester countryside. Before year’s end, our family lawyer and technically my legal guardian arranged a female escort for me, and I returned to America to become a bride.  The wedding was a small affair before a justice of the peace with a few of his friends, mostly Italian dockworkers attending.  My husband would manage all my business affairs.  Things seemed to go downhill fast after the honeymoon.  At the same time my stomach queasiness was easing although I would never truly settle in to being a wife. There are certain moments of reflection when I look back on how things might have been different.  I had such high hopes as he carried me over the threshold to our room on our wedding night.  It was one of the lesser rooms in a truly grand hotel.  With my inheritance from my father and my aunt we could have easily afforded a suite.  Monetarily I was set for life.

Our upbringing was quite different.  He had learned to pinch pennies and was uncomfortable around too much silverware, whereas, I was right at home.  From the third story of our hotel room white lace curtains blew inward giving a whiff of sea salt although the Atlantic was blocks away.  I looked down below to see tennis courts and young men and women clad in the latest fashion of gleaming white loose fitting clothes as they wacked balls back and forth.  There was a built in pool where I first learned to swim.  Even though my bathing suit was the latest fashion, bathing cap and all, and entirely respectable, I sat in the changing room for a solid hour before braving the embarrassment to step out towards the pool.  I got over my shyness.  The pool was a great gathering place.  We mingled with all types, those fresh with wealth, pitted against those of old money, starlets and leading men in theater and the newest industry, the silent movies, soon to be talkies.  Then there were those who could be termed as notorious among our newly formed acquaintances, which my new husband was taking a liking to.  This was more embarrassing to me than my new swimming apparatus.  This was the herd that Papa spoke of.  My husband was extremely at home with them.  I found them interesting yet strangely insecure and remained aloof for the most part.  Small talk about shallow topics was not my forte.  As our two weeks progressed the honeymoon became less romantic and more of a business venture for my husband.

We had rented a brownstone in Manhattan to set up housekeeping.  My husband had to be in the hubbub of things.  I loved the small cafes and fruit and vegetable vendors but after two years insisted on moving farther out where we could have some land and breathe fresh air.  He kept an office in the city.  There were nights when he stayed there even though he possessed one of the newest inventions, a Ford motorcar.  Yet he came home enough that I became pregnant before our second anniversary.  Our first child was a little girl with dark hair and an olive complexion like her father.  She was the apple of his eye.  Americans had now entered the Great War.  A bad knee as a result of dock work kept my husband home.   Italians had a bad time of it in general during the war, but his marriage to me lent him a reprieve from the situation.  Life went on and within three years I became pregnant again.  This time it was a boy, the apple of my eye.

My life and the kid’s lives were becoming more independent, in that we were seeing their father less frequently.  He was consumed with business.  Maybe I chose to be blind, but I never actually knew the full details of my husband’s business.  It seemed to always be changing.  There were characters involved that I would label as seedy and sinister.  I separated, both myself and my children, from that world as much as possible.  We now had a small cottage on the ocean as a getaway.  Accompanied by a servant the children and I would spend a great deal of our summers there.  The marriage was more of a convenience but more often an inconvenience on both our parts.  I was content on centering my life on the kids, but still having a certain freedom to pursue my own interests.  I tended to gravitate towards the more Bohemian types.  Those interests included art, reading and exploring mystical studies, which were coming into vogue at that time.  I found it all fascinating and would even travel to Virginia Beach to get a reading from a physic named Edgar Cayce.  I was developing my own herd to run with, all of which were independent thinkers like myself.

I abhorred fancy parties.  It was at these where my husband was at his best.  Still I played the dutiful wife and could both dress up and jewel up and dazzle with the finest of them.  I had a new haircut and perm. It gave me satisfaction to know my aunt would have now approved of my hair.  Her words echoed in my brain, “If only your dear mother were alive to see you now.” My son was five, and as I descended the curved stairway in flowing gown and pearls, he stood at the bottom of the stairs looking up, clapping his hands and jumping with joy, saying, “Mommy, mommy, mommy, you are so beautiful!”

I had my children.  I had my independence.  I had my interests and Bohemian friends.  I just heard about a yogi from India called Yoganada.  He was giving lectures and a few of us had tickets and would be going to see him speak. Life could be good at times.

3 thoughts on “From Manchester to Manhattan

  1. Jessica I find this story so interesting and compelling, I could write quite a lot but you have written it already. Very Well Done.
    It sounds like your husband was into something you would never be involved in.

    Your story today is Excellent.


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