Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Paige from a Love Story

She sits in her chair, straight backed but comfortable for her. The old wooden arm feels smooth and familiar as she runs her right hand over it, preparing herself to pick up the letter on the table next to her. In her left hand, she holds a neatly ironed handkerchief she has taken from the top drawer in her bureau. The letter that she’s kept, the letter she has read and reread so many times, and yet she still needs to prepare herself even after all these years. She knows that it will make her smile and cry and smile again when she reads it, even more than the first time she read it. How could she have know then how much it would come to mean to her as time passed? She doesn’t really need to read it at all because she could recite it word for word if asked. She can close her eyes and see the handwriting on the page, the handwriting so easily recognized as her Jim’s.

Reaching for it now, ready, she opens the page folded in half and begins to read…

Jan 21, 1915
Dearest Ethel

            I will begin by answering your questions about the kidlets who have been awful good. Loraine’s eye is well and she has been out all the time for the past two days and has the roses back in her cheeks. She was so tired tonight that when she was being undressed she said “my, I will be glad when I am in bed”. Burnham is OK. But I will be glad of my regular bed-fellow. Tues. night I awoke and he had both hands in my hair pulling for all he was worth, and although I thought him asleep he spoke of it the next morning.

She smiles at the thought of the “kidlets”. Loraine was four and how she hated to go to bed most nights back then. And Burnham was 6, and still he loved to crawl up into bed with is Daddy. Elinor was a bright little eight year old, in charge of everything. And the baby West was just two. How she had hated to leave him for that time, how she hated leaving any of them. But, her mother had needed her at her side. She gently shook her head thinking of how simple things were then. Her children just like steps, every other year, as planned. She held her hand flat against her stomach, as she had done when she waited for them to be born, remembering that at the time, she didn’t even know little Gordon would be coming in just a year. And again she smiled at the thought of them all.

Elinor is well as usual and said this noon that if you didn’t come home to-day she would have the “bumps.”They know the three days are up that I told them you would be gone and they don’t see why you don’t come home. The baby is fine, follows Lottie around like a little dog and she says does not make her a bit of trouble. I do not think that he has cried once since you left. Lottie has taught him to call her Lottie and about five this AM he woke up and I heard him call “Bot Lottie” but during the night he always calls “Mamma Bot”.
I am about as usual, with a cold added and to-night brought home a bottle of cough syrup.

            She always feels that catch when she reads that line. That moment of panic that is fleeting, but makes her feel, even now, that she should be doing something to fix it. And as quickly as it comes, the feeling is gone and she allows herself to breathe again and the panic is replaced with the sadness she knew would come, too. But she has a compelling need to read on, and she does.
I have written for two seed catalogues, one which Warren Wells recommended so next week we will pick out our seeds and order. Lovetts 1915 cat. of fruits and flowers came today. We rece’d in the mail today an invitation and ticket to an art exhibit in Springfield Sat. To-night is installation of officers at K. of P. and Buckley has been trying to get me to go as he says it is just one year ago since I was last there and that I ought to go once a year but I of course would not go alone.

 I have a piece of very bad news for you, the price of the moving pictures at Blanchards is now 20¢ for the last three days of the week. Won't that grieve you? I am so glad mother came through her operation as well as she did and sincerely hope there will be no set-back. I was called to the long distance at 10 AM today and was almost afraid to answer, when it turned out to be Lawyer Reoutard inquiring about one of his clients I could have cursed him roundly for the scare he gave me. 
When you see mother again give her my love and tell her I think of her constantly and to hurry up and get well and come home.
Miss Bartlett has called Lottie up twice and is much excited at your long stay, wants you to call up as soon as you get home. Guess she misses her meals.

            How Jim loved to tell her news every day when he came home from work. It was always such a special time of day for her and the children when he walked through that door. And they had so many friends and places to go-all those business dinners and church functions and club meetings. But going to the Blanchard was their favorite thing to do. Although they’d been married just over 9 years then, she still felt like she had felt when they first courted and then when they were newlyweds while Jim was still in school in Maine. When he’d come home, and they’d go to a show it was just their special time together. How she loved him. She glanced over to the college yearbook that she had left open on the footstool and studied his picture and read the caption.
"Jim forsook home, friends and civilization in a wild desire for quiet study and education. His manner of getting the latter has been original and unique. The only bright spots in his wilderness existence have been the short glimpses of that other life caught during vacations."
It always touched her to think that he loved their life together so much that it was even obvious to outsiders. When she read that caption it always made her proud. And that was always how she remembered him, young and handsome and ready for life, and so smart. The smartest man she'd ever known. How lucky she had been when he first came into her life. And she shifted her eyes to the bookshelf where that picture of him at Wells Beach sat among his books.

He looked so wistful and pensive. How she misses him. 
I have a good notion not to tell you how lone-some I am, but I am and want my “rib” back and if you stay longer than Monday I shall come down and kidnap you. So, you see I am not only lonesome but selfish and a little jealous and when I wake in the morning and reach out for you dear, only to find you gone, then I am really lone-some. How much a part of me you have grown to be you may not realize. But I want you back now, at once, please come.
            I miss my good-bye kiss in the morning my welcoming kiss at night and those last long kisses before we go to sleep, come home to me dear. I want you.
Dear I am probably selfish but come as soon as you can. It will be so good to have you back.       

            I  must close now as it is ten o’clock. Give my love to grandma and the rest and with a heart full for you, dear, I am ever.

                                                            Your Jim.

P.S. If you need any more money telephone as soon as you get there. Telephone any-way Sat. and let me know how mother is and when you will be home .

She runs her fingertips over his signature, presses the paper to her lips, breathes in the scent, and folds the pages, placing them in her lap. With eyes closed, she leans her head back against the chair and she thinks about what might have been, even now, she thinks of what might have been.

Ethel Marsh Tiffany married James Lonsdale Paige in 1905 when he was still a college student. Jim was born in Southbridge, MA, like Ethel, but his parents moved Jim and his brothers Carl and George to Missouri and then on to Kansas when he was only 2.

He lived there until he was 15 when Jim returned to Southbridge to complete high school. He lived as a ward in an elderly aunt’s home. He was somewhat of a mechanical genius and at an early age, right out of high school, he was hired by American Optical Company, a major employer in Southbridge, the place where Ethel’s father had worked since he himself was a teenager. Jim alternated “periods of work for the American Optical Company with years of study at the University of Maine and the University of Pennsylvania.”  When he returned with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, he quickly became the supervisor of a large department that made the lenses at American Optical, earning a very good living and enjoying a highly respected place in the society of the little town.

In April of 1916, a year and a few months after he wrote this letter, Jim and Ethel welcomed Gordon Hastings Paige into their family, the youngest of the five.
In February of 1917, Ethel lost her father, Harlan Tiffany, with whom she was very close. She was an only child after losing her older brother when she was two. She had been the apple of her father’s eye and it was a sad day for her. But more difficult days were to come for Ethel in 1917.

Jim began to feel ill some time late in 1916 or early 1917. Although he continued to work for a while, when he began to fail so badly that he could not work, Ethel sent for his parents, who came from Kansas to be by his side. His brother George was a physician living in Arizona. It's likely George came to his bedside, too, perhaps before his parents came. And at some point, when it was evident that he was not winning the battle, his mother took an envelope and quickly wrote in pencil the message for a telegram to Jim's brother Carl back home in Iola Kansas. And although his coworkers and friends and family all had expected that he would win that battle, he did not. In his mid 30s, Jim Paige died “at 3:55 AM, Friday July 27 at his home on Chapin Street in Southbridge, leaving a wife and five children.
Carl E Paige
Iola, Kansas
"Yours received. Jim is calling for you. Come at once.

Ethel kept the envelope upon which Jim's mother Clara West Paige had quickly written out the message to be wired. A curious thing to keep, until you turn it over and see the other side of it. In addition to a short grocery list, it contains a curl of littlest child Gordon’s hair which was “cut by mother when he was 10 months."

As if she had not endured enough that one year, little Gordon grew sick and died just a couple of months after his father, not yet two years old, in December of 1917.

Ethel Tiffany Paige lived to be 90 years old. She never remarried.
Ethel Marsh Tiffany Paige and her great great granddaughter Corina

She was my great grandmother.

Elinor, in the letter, was my grandmother.

My grandmother, Elinor, me and my mother.

Great Grandma Paige always seemed stern and cool to me and I was a bit afraid to approach her when I was little. Her home in Stow, MA was neat and clean but we weren't allowed to touch anything, except one game she would get out for us to play with during our infrequent visits. It was a fishing game. Wooden dowels, painted yellow, each with a red string tied to one end and little red horseshoe shaped magnet tied to the string were the fishing poles. The fish were brightly colored metal cut outs of fish. There was a black cardboard folding octagonal enclosure that stood on the floor and we placed the fish inside it. Each fish had a number on it and that was how you accumulated points. It was sort of fun, but it seldom took up the whole visit. We had to sit still and wait for the grown ups to finish talking and that was very hard. We didn't look forward to those visits, really. And the fishing game is all I remember now.

But I have learned so much about her just from this one letter, the only one we have from Jim. Other details about her life I have discovered through research have shown me what a vibrant young woman, she was. She was someone I would have loved to know when she was younger, and I was older. She had a superlative soprano voice which she shared with her community often and was in great demand as a soloist. She was involved in community affairs and a mother of five who ran a happy home with an involved husband. She was a loving daughter and a devoted wife who was most certainly in love with her husband as much as he was in love with her. And although she lived through so much tragedy at a very young age, I think that love must have been what sustained her all those years after. Had I only asked her about it when I had the chance. Truly a love story. Truly.

I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
     'Tis better to have loved and lost
  Than never to have loved at all.
                              Alfred Lord Tennyson