“I don’t understand why you have to do this, Sterling; maybe your college buddy Cyril Sauvage has something to prove, with his parents coming over from France and all, but you have a family… well, you have me,” Almira’s hand drifted over her mid-section as she stood washing the same dinner plate over and over, through the window at the sink, she watched the darkening of night steal the life from the day.
“It’s not just him, Almira, the whole world is at risk and if Germany defeats France then England is next and then where would our family be,” Sterling Gulch sat at the kitchen table, back towards his wife, staring into the adjacent living room, its wide picture window that looked out over Narragansett Bay was slowly turning into a mirror, as night surrounded the house and the only illumination came from the kitchen as he and his wife fought the not-yet-felt ravages of war.
“You’re so close to having your degree, I’ll be teaching in a year, isn’t that enough?”
“It’s more than enough, it’s everything I could hope for but, I need to do this…” he fell silent as the words that connected him to his wife were stalked and eaten by the wolf of aggression and politics, friendship and fear of not-measuring-up, claiming it’s ransom.
Almira Gulch looked at the window before her, the light of the kitchen created fairytale-like reflections of herself and her husband sitting at the table in the center of the room when a subtle motion drew her eye to the living room picture window in which two people showed, seemingly withdrawing from one and other, farther and farther apart, beyond any true dimensions of the physical space.
A shudder ran through the young woman, a distant calling from somewhere within her fought to be turned into sound, “…Private Gulch, the very first thing you do is determine the range of the enemies weapons and try and stay outside of it, until, that is, your commanding officer tells you to crawl over the barbwire into the next trench, do I make myself clear?”
The summer weather lingered well into September in 1918. Yellow and gold fought with green for possession of the foliage. This seemingly minor shift in hue was a subtle, yet treacherous advance into Winter. The June-warm schoolyard tempted one to believe that this year, Summer would never end. Despite this gentleness of climate, there was something wrong with the sky. The blue that spread from late morning into cloud-ragged afternoon, was, somehow, too blue. It was as if Mother Nature had something to hide, something perhaps more extreme in the way of weather. Jackets and sweaters lay piled by the schoolhouse steps, as forgotten as the lessons of the morning and the Summer only recently left behind.
Ethan McDonough stood alone at the chain link fence that defined the schoolyard of Our Lady of Intercession. A prisoner of that permanent war of childhood, he faced away from the school and the returning clumps of noisy boys and scandalized girls, looking beyond the fence. The recent squall of a recess fight had blown over, the combatants drifted apart, the winner being the one at the center of the larger crowd of classmates. Such fights were common enough, especially among boys at this age, which is not to say that the outcome wasn’t something terribly important to one and barely remembered by the other.
The newest teacher was always assigned recess duty. It served as an opportunity to earn her way into the sometimes vicious, always polite society of the teacher’s lounge. Recess duty in the elementary grades was much like life guard duties in May and September, while the elements and risk of injury (or death) are there, the spirit is, for the most part lacking.
The young woman, not all that much taller than some of the 6th grade boys, walked out into the school yard, against the tide of children withdrawing to the classrooms. The ringing of the school bell every bit an alarm that childhood was over, (at least for the next two hours). The children parted to either side of her as she walked out towards the fence and the solitary child.
“Tell me Ethan. Why were you fighting?”
“They said bad things about you!”
Almira Gulch felt the tendons on her hand tighten and, smiling to herself, reached into her coat pocket instead of to her face. She felt the softly edged paper of the envelope and the impulse to cover her face evaporated as she crouched down in front of the boy.
“And what kind of bad things…”
Ethan McDonough’s face turned stubborn, which in a child of his age is where infatuation is often hidden. The conflict played out in averted eyes and firmed jaw, the more he thought about how he should answer, the more his innate, still un-developed protectiveness showed through in his expression.
Almira thought of her practicum teacher, at the start of her final year in school, ‘You are the adult, they are children. Do not forget that but do not lord it over them. A slave will always resent their master, no matter how kindly they are treated. Children deserve more and will always seek to be treated as equals, even when they know that they are not.’
Almira smiled at the boy and, after a fleeting hesitation, his internal conflict evaporated and his face lit up with a sad joy,
“They said you was a witch and you ride a broom and you can put a curse on people!”
Almira resisted the impulse to laugh. Her own nature would respond to such an unkindness with forgiving humor. She’d learned fairly quickly that such a reaction is misinterpreted, especially by the very young. Children, along with dogs, are surely the most literal-minded of all living things. Instead, she brushed off the gravel stuck to the knees of the boy’s corduroys, battlefield decorations in silver and brown, and handed him his jacket. Her look of appreciation caused the boy to stand straighter and, a sense of pride elbowing away his shame.
Almira began her teaching career as 5th Grade Teacher at Our Lady of Intercession, a parochial school on the East Side of Providence, Rhode Island. The only lay teacher on the faculty of the Catholic school, Almira felt more at home among the nuns than she did the three public schools she visited during her last year as a student. Her placement at the small elementary school was facilitated by the Placement Office of the Rhode Island Normal School. Ranked in the top three of teaching colleges in the United States, graduates of Rhode Island Normal School were always successful in securing a teaching position upon graduation.
Although Almira Gulch scored higher on her Entrance Examination than any applicant in recent memory and maintained a 4.0 throughout her studies, the Placement Office felt that finding a position in one of Rhode Island’s public schools might be somewhat difficult. Her faculty advisor, Mr. Alger, wrote in her student record, as she began her final year, ‘This student is possessed of a certain off-putting manner and exhibits a resistance to proper management. Clearly this attitude is an understandable and inevitable consequence of her facial deformity,’ he went on to write, ‘it is the regarded Opinion of this Office that every effort be made that she might be placed in a private school, rather than a part of the State system. In no way is this intended as a reflection of the effects of her disfigurement on her ability to be an effective Teacher. It would, however be in keeping with best Teaching Practices and Principles to not expose young children to a person of her appearance.’
Sister Aloysius was principal of Our Lady of Intercession and she liked Almira from the very first interview. While Almira’s academic record was very impressive, she was much more impressed by the quiet confidence of the young woman. While her clothing was not only quite appropriate for a lay teacher in a parochial school, it’s quality spoke of a person who wanted to be a teacher more than someone who needed a job. That, the principal smiled, was almost always a good predictor of success in a school setting that was inevitably much more personal and far less burdened with the trappings of a public school system. This impression of personal preference for the values of individuality was reinforced when, looking out her office window before the interview, Sister Aloysius watched as the young woman rode into the school yard on what, she believed, was the biggest bicycle she’d ever seen. As she watched, the young jumped from the bike and spent 5 minutes re-arranging her clothing. This included putting on a hat that was in a wicker basket that was attached to the back of the bicycle’s seat. Completing her preparation, Sister Aloysius watched as this young woman deftly kicked a stray ball quite accurately back to the knot of boys who were kicking up dust with their game of kickball. The enjoyment on her face as she did so ignited a burst of laughter from the children in the school yard. The principle of Our Lady of Intercession smiled and waited for her job applicant to arrive at her office.
The interview went the normal course for a teaching position interview, reading of records, explanation of grades and awards, likes and dislikes. Finally, there came the point in the conversation where there was no longer any information or insight into the candidates schooling or qualifications left un-noted. There was, in fact, nothing left to talk about other than the applicant’s face. Sister Aloysius asked her point-blank,
‘How will you handle the looks and the stares of the more rude people? Parents of children, particularly those children who require extra attention, are not always the kindest of people. Our parish is, in large part, consisted of working poor Catholic families. Does that pose any problems that we should discuss?’
Almira smiled and replied,
“I grew up among the working poor. My husband Sterling is from the other end of the social order, where wants are few and choices plentiful. I believe I will be alright with parents from any background. After all, it is the children who are in my care, not the adults.”
“I believe that you’ll do just fine, Mrs. Gulch, just fine.”
“…they are wrong, Ethan. I am not a witch, although I might find myself cursing them.”
The young woman’s laughter was heard by the very young boy and his expression became that of one who has been offered a part-ownership in a treasure map.
“I understand why you were fighting. You should not get into a fight. Unless you are threatened or your friends are threatened. But why are you crying?”
“Because they all laugh at you when you’re not there and I can’t make them stop.”
Almira stood up and, putting her hand on the boy’s shoulder, turned and began the return to afternoon classes.
“Ethan? I’ll tell you a secret. Having people laugh at you is not the worst thing in the world, even though at first it feels that way. There are other ways that people are mean and cruel and as long as you believe in what you’re doing, there is nothing they can do that will hurt you. So when you see little people hiding around you, coming out in the open only when they think you are out-numbered and afraid of them, know that you have the real power. Just believe in yourself.”
At the end of the school day, Ethan would linger by the door of the 5th grade, a place he’d just spent 6 hours. The boy seemed to look forward to clapping erasers outside on the steps than he did any other part of the day, looking for all the world, the opposite of a coal miner at the end of a day’s shift underground. With the last of the books back in their cupboards and the classroom ready for the new week, Almira walked down the green and white tiled corridor, confident that the boy would follow. This was not such an impressive prediction as, with the focus of his dreams leaving, the hollow rooms and echoing corridors of Our Lady of Intercession held as much attraction for the boy as a crossword puzzle that had been filled in (and crossed out) in the daily newspaper.
“Well, time for me to pedal off for home, Ethan.”
Almira reached into her coat pocket and touched the envelope she took from the mailbox on her way out the door that morning. She’d resolved to wait until after school to read it. Being a Friday, a letter from Sterling (after an interval of 6 weeks since the last), would provide a small celebration. It was, after all, the end of the last week of her first month as an elementary school teacher. The intervals between his return letters grew in a curiously negative inverse proportion to how much she missed him. It was as if receiving a letter was a reminder of the increased absence, more than it was welcome communication from her husband. Accepting the books and lesson planner from the boy who stood next to her bicycle with every bit of the dedicated formality of any royal retainer, Almira put everything in the bicycle’s wicker basket, smiled at Ethan and rode out of the schoolyard and down Lloyd Street towards home.
Arriving home, Almira went directly to the kitchen. Gertrude Rogers could always be found in the kitchen, coordinating the activities of the small domestic staff. A certain self-consciousness still lingered, whenever she spoke to the cook or the maid, as if she was a little girl playing dress up. She accepted her role as the lady of the house, if only by marriage, and approached it the way that she approached most problems. The first step was to understand the problem and second, understand the other person or people involved. Despite her self-consciousness, Almira resolved to act the part of the head of the household to the best of her abilities. The staff took to her in this new role as easily as they had when she and Sterling first returned from Lawrence, Massachusetts six years before. However, Sterling and Almira lived with his parents only long enough to find a place of their own, a small house near the waterfront in the Fox Point section of the city.
Seymour Gulch never quite recovered from the death of his wife Edith who died, the year before, early in 1917. A healthy woman throughout her life, Edith Gulch nevertheless had a flare for the dramatic. Whenever the occasional cold or illness had the gall to appear in the household, she would proclaim, with a bit more enthusiasm than one might otherwise experience, that Death, himself, would soon be calling at 23 Loring Ave. Edith Gulch was, in fact, in perfectly good health up until the moment she died.
Although Sterling and Almira loved their house in Fox Point, his father’s increasing infirmity made moving back into his parent’s home inevitable. This change of residence was hastened by Sterling’s decision to enlist in the American Expeditionary Forces. Almira soon found herself the only woman in the Gulch household that did not wear a uniform. She was, nevertheless, happy to help in the care of her father-in-law. Being wealthy, while not preventing ill-health, did permit it to be suffered in more comfortable surroundings. More importantly, though less directly acknowledged, wealth, at least wealth sufficient to allow for a domestic staff, relieved the members of the immediate family of a great deal of stress that affected all when dealing with terminal illness.
“How was Mr Gulch’s day?”
Almira sat at the small kitchen table, across from Gert Rogers. It had taken several efforts by Almira to establish a less formal relationship with the person in charge of running the Gulch house. Almira’s insistence on sitting and talking with her in the kitchen served to establish that, as uncomfortable as it might be for the staff, if Almira wished to have coffee in the kitchen, it was her prerogative as lady of the house. And so it was.
“He’s still eating. In the afternoon he seems to perk up, especially when Lila is working. He’s quite taken with her.”
Seeing the expression on Almira’s face, she continued,
“But all in all, not well. Each day the night comes sooner and the morning takes longer and longer to start the day. I fear our Mr. Gulch will not see Thanksgiving. If only Sterling were home. Sorry, of all people for me to say that to, you are the one in least need of being reminded.”
“I know. But don’t feel sorry. He’s been my husband for all of six years, you’ve known him for what, 18 years?”
“Yes, ma’am. Mr. Gulch made his fortune late in life, when Sterling was only six years old. But he never let it change him or his family. Fine house, people to take care of it (and them!) sending Sterling off to school, he has always been a kind and considerate man.”
“Well, we won’t be losing him this weekend. What do you think of a picnic out on the patio tomorrow? The weather is still warm, I think he’d enjoy that!”
“Splendid idea, Mrs. Gulch. Something like that is just what the doctor ordered, whether he knows it or not!”
Pulling the envelope from her pocket, Almira placed it in the middle of the table.
“From Sterling, is it?” Gert had a way of sounding 20 years old whenever the topic of discussion focused on Sterling.
“It is. If you have another pot of that wonderful camomile tea, I would love to take some to the library.”
“Don’t give it another thought, Missus. You go ahead while I brew a fresh pot and I’ll bring it right in.”
Almira sat in the library, facing the French doors that opened out into the small garden area. She had one of the doors open, a cooling early evening breeze joined her on the couch. Gertrude arrived with tea and crumpets, set everything on the sideboard and left without a word.
Putting the cup down, Almira read,
They tell us that we’re winning the war. I find that doesn’t make me as happy as I would have thought. Forgive the delay in returning your letters, now that we’re in Europe we spend more time doing less, at least compared to the endless shipboard time getting here. The interval (between these letters) holds greater sway over me than ever would I have imagined. With each day that passes, the world in which you and I are together moves farther and farther away and this world of guns and wounds, explosions and grief grows larger. It fills my world, both awake and asleep, the sounds of death inform most night’s dreams. But I still see you here, among the letters I write and the letters I read and it makes all of the difference in the world. That the girl who could work 10 hours a day in the roaring caves of a textile mill yet, on our brief time together in the middle of the day, eating a rude lunch of bread and cheese, bring to life the subtle thought of philosophers and thinkers, that is the part of my world that I protect from this place around me. And, my protecting this memory of the love we share, in turn protects me. The death I see around me is not all the result of bullets and bombs and yellow gases. What terrifies me more is the death of the soul that I see over-taking more and more of the men around me. It is a despair that no longer even tries to cry out in anguish, silent as the feet that keep moving and the hands and arms that keep firing the weapons that we are given to aim at those they tell us are the enemy. The real enemy is not those men, looking for all the world like the men who are dying around me, only they are on the other side of the battle-torn earth.
There was a time, a moment when you looked at me and I saw a life that would make something as terrible as this war worthwhile. I hold onto that memory. It is my lifeline to a world in which we both might soon return to.
“Mrs. Gulch? There is someone at the door asking to speak to you.”
Almira brushed the single tear from her eye and turned towards Edward, standing in the library door.
“Who is it?”
Edward Fenton managed to have an expression that was at once non-judgmental and yet clearly expressed concern.
“A policeman. He said he was Captain Herlihy from Lawrence, Massachusetts and would like to ask you some questions. Shall I send him away?”
Edward’s expression of concern acquired a certain ferocity that was all the more noticeable for his butler’s uniform.
“No, thank you Edward. Put him in the parlor, offer refreshment and tell him I will join him shortly.”
“What, did everyone take the night off?”
Eliza walked, slightly behind Dorothy, as the two girls crossed the central lobby of St. Mary’s Hospital. Even though it was still early evening, there was no one in sight, not behind the reception desk, at the small gift shop, not even an orderly washing the silent corridor floors. Dorothy continued to walk down the hallway, to the right of the reception area. There was a sign on the wall, it included an arrow, and in black letters it said, ‘Charity Ward’.
As the two reached the end of the corridor, signs of construction become evident. Wiring outlets were exposed and sections of the ceiling had been removed. Eliza stared up at exposed pipes and conduits, those presumably serving the floor above and wondered to herself, ‘They sure are in a hurry!’
Looking back, Eliza saw her friend being swallowed by the double swinging doors under a sign that said, ‘Charity Ward’.