Thursday, December 31, 2009

Chapter 5

The unfortunate women and men in the eastern gallery had a far different task. The windows were a sheer descent, not only of their height above the floor, but of the embankment on which the church stood, and then the way thence to the vestibule, instead of a straight stairway, was around a sharp double angle. And here, in their hot haste, the unfortunate creatures tripped and fell, one upon another, until the hall beneath was choked with a desperate, struggling, writhing mass of humanity. Meantime some had passed toward the rear door that lead to the priest’s house in the rear, but that, too, was speedily invaded by the flames...”

The first toll of the tower bell rang to raise the workers from their beds. Philomene, determined to find work for herself, Armiac, Delina and Fabien, rose to quickly prepare these three children for their first day of labor. Sophia readied herself to receive Calixte from Monsieur Breunier, whom she had offered to care for, along with Theophile and Hermille. She remembered the conversation with Monsieur Breunier during their walk home, “No, Monsieur, you will not pay me to care for your baby, we must all help one another at a time like this. You just bring him to me.”

He had gently held her elbow as they negotiated the crowd, “Fine then, I will bring you bread, eggs, cheese, for I now have fewer mouths to feed. Your needs are great as well.”

Late that night when her mother had returned, she had held Sophia in her arms, “You are such a smart girl! Such a good, good girl to offer Monsieur Breunier your services in exchange for food. We need his help far more than he needs ours. You are such a reliable girl, Sophia.”

Sophia had reveled in the warmth of her mother’s arms, arms that had such little time for nurturing a single child with so many to tend to each day.

The family rushed down the narrow stairs and into the dark street to reach the gates of the mill before the 5 a.m. bell tolled and the gates locked. “Good luck Mama!” called Celina and Angelique as they left the group at the corner of Race Street to head up to the Hampden Mill.

Philomene followed Adele, Charles and Louis to the Lyman Mill, holding the tentative hand of Delina while Fabien and Joseph trailed behind. Never having made this walk with her children, she imagined that with Leopold, the morning walk had been full of chatter and laughter. His absence replaced their animation with sullen silence. “Children, this is a very important day for you, a very special day for you to enter the mills and help your family. I am very proud of all of you.”

The attempt to lift their spirits yielded only shrugs. When they reached the gate, Charles walked swiftly ahead to meet his foreman and ask for a moment to assist Philomene. Monsieur Deri came quickly out to greet Philomene and sent Charles ahead, indicating that he would bring her into the manager’s office.

Lyman Mills had lost only Leopold and two other male workers in the fire. However, many of the families of Lyman laborers were suffering this morning due to the loss of wives and children. Monsieur Deri welcomed Philomene, “Come here with me, up these stairs.”

The children followed their mother up the flight of stairs and into a brightly lit corridor with closed, black doors. Monsieur Deri knocked briefly and opened a door. Placing his finger to his lips, and motioning for the children to sit down in the hall, he turned to Philomene, “Come Madame Messier, I’d like to introduce you to Mr. Barton.”

From behind a desk came a bald, red faced man wearing far finer clothing than Leopold had ever owned. Yet, the rolled up sleeves revealed strong arms from which Philomene deducted that this was a working man, like her Leopold. He spoke in English to Monsieur Deri who translated for him while he extended his hand to Philomene.

Mr. Barton, general manager, acknowledged Philomene’s loss and asked her to sit down. Returning to his desk, he pulled forth a piece of paper and read the details of Leopold’s position and cost of the apartment. Because Leopold was a foreman, Lyman Mills would have to actively replace him as soon as possible. If in order to do this, the apartment was needed by a family who could more readily afford it, company policy would require the housing to be provided to the new employee.

He continued directing his conversation to Monsieur Deri, “Please assure her that alternative, more affordable housing would be made available for her family…. And please tell her that Lyman Mills will cover the final month’s rent– and that they can remain there for the remaining four weeks, at a minimum.”

Mr. Barton stood and encouraged Philomene to take her children home and get through this difficult time without the burden of putting them to work. She, herself was welcome to come back at the end of the week. He was sure that one of the women from the folding room had perished in the fire and in time they would need to replace her. With each kind word that was translated, Philomene looked back at Mr. Barton from Monsieur Deri and whispered again and again, “Merci, merci.”

It was known throughout the community that the owners of the Lyman Mills were good people and Leopold had given of himself to them for years. Philomene felt blessed by their kindness as she ushered her children down the stairs and out into the dark street in the direction of their home.

As they ascended the stairs to the apartment, Philomene heard the familiar 6 a.m. bell toll, signifying that her working children would be allowed their half hour break to eat the bread, sparingly spread with molasses, which she had packed for their breakfasts. While the others scrambled back into Philomene and Leopold’s bed, Delina chose to remain awake in order to help with Calixte. Cradling the baby in her arms, Delina nuzzled his head, emulating her older sister’s actions. With the young ones back to sleep, Sophia and Philomene were left with a moment alone at the table. Philomene explained, “Sophia, we need to begin to plan. The mill will let us live here for the month but we need to prepare to leave by July.”

Sophia’s face relaxed at the immediate news but shared her mother’s concern about their future. Reaching for her daughter, Philomene gave thanks for Sophia, who would be her strength and support as she had always been during their days together raising the babies. She assured her daughter while convincing herself of the same, “We have been through difficult financial times and will, again, learn to survive.”

Startled by a knock at the thin, wooden door, Sophia stood as the door opened with the entrance of Father Bourassa, followed by Monsieur Boudreau, his failing eyes squinting in the dim light. Philomene was instantly insulted by the means with which the Father entered her home unannounced, and further, sat down at her table uninvited. In contrast, Monsieur Boudreau warmly shook Philomene’s hand with both of his and touched Sophia on the shoulder before quickly announcing his business.

Monsieur Boudreau, one of the leading members of the St. Jean de Baptiste Society, held a bundle of papers forward, “I am truly sorry for your loss Madame, Leopold was a wonderful man and an asset to our organization and community. I am sorry to come here on such formal business but this is very important. Here is a copy of the life insurance policy that Leopold purchased. The check will be made available to you on Monday. For your convenience, I have directed the check to be delivered directly to Mechanic’s Bank where it may be cashed or deposited. The amount of the policy, paid off some time ago, will be $1,000.” Further, Monsieur Boudreau explained, “These documents include your policy as well. You should make your eldest aware that this insurance exists, in the event that something should happen…”

Philomene had known of the life insurance policies, however, had not understood how the payout worked. Some years earlier, when the Society was establishing itself and raising funds for a civic hall, Leopold had been approached to invest in the policies. Each month he had paid an installment instead of putting the meager amount into a bank account. Confused, Philomene knew that he had not paid more than $100 for each policy. Still, she did not reveal this to Monsieur Boudreau, fearing she would raise awareness of an error, which she could not afford to do. Avoiding his eyes for fear that the deceit would be revealed Philomene took his hand, “Thank you so much for this. Our loss is great and this will provide for our needs for some time.”

“Well, my business is concluded. Please allow me to be of any service to you with regard to this or any other matter. I will leave you now, as Father Bourassa would like a moment with you.” Monsieur Boudreau bent his head as a farewell and back out of the door.

The door closed behind Monsieur Boudreau, leaving Sophia and Philomene standing closely together, still reeling from the news of their sudden prosperity. Father Bourassa, still sitting at the table, slowly removed two small cotton plugs from his nose and stored them in his silk lined pocket. Not used to the stench of the tenements, the Father soaked almond sized fabric balls in Bay Rum and placed them in his nose when walking amongst the buildings or entering the tenements. Now he made an effort to breath through his mouth in order not to inhale the stench of waste buckets and unwashed bodies crammed into this apartment, which had only one small window.

Sophia and Philomene continued to stare in silence at the Father until he softly spoke, “Madame Messier, may I speak with you a moment in private regarding your situation?”

Philomene turned to her daughter hesitantly, “Would you prefer to take a short walk with Calixte and Delina? The others are still sleeping and the baby would benefit from the air.”

Sophia reluctantly gathered Delina and the baby from within the bedroom and left the apartment. With their removal from the room, Philomene felt cautious and vulnerable in his presence.

The Father had rehearsed his persuasive argument late into the evening. Reviewing the records of the St. Jean de Baptiste Society, Father Bourassa segregated the fire victims’ families who would receive insurance funds from those who would not. Utilizing the church baptism records, he further segregated the families with young children from those with laboring children. The Messier family was in the minority, having lost Leopold, and he anticipated a greater challenge convincing Madam Messier to relinquish the children to him than he would experience with the many widowers within the congregation.

Based upon his records and analysis, Father Bourassa determined the potential funds to be in the thousands if his adoption service succeeded as planned. Without an organized orphanage in the region, the state farm in Monson was the only alternative for impoverished families. Upon entering this facility, most children were separated from their parents and placed as indentured servants. Some were returned with horrific stories of abuse and neglect as there was no system in place to oversee the arrangements with any regularity and standards. His interest in creating an orphanage in Holyoke had led him to observe the recent hearings in Northampton regarding the indentured system. He had compiled a number of specific stories of neglect which he would offer if necessary, in support of his option, to place children in secure, loving homes.

He continued, “Please sit down Madame Messier. I want to speak with you about your family, a large and young family. Have you plans to support all of these children without Leopold?”

Philomene remained speechless and involuntarily shook her head. The Father reached out his cool, white hand and placed it over her warn chapped knuckles, “I am here to offer the church’s assistance.”

Then he retracted his hand in order to pull a small folded paper out of his pocket where he had stashed his nose plugs. Oil from the Bay Rum had created translucent spots on the paper and smudged the ink writing.

“Hmmm… Hermille, just 2 years old and Theophile, 3. Then Prudent, 5, Joseph , 6, Fabien, 8,and Delina 9. I assume the older children are working very hard to help make ends meet. Philomene, I can help you with your six youngest children. There are families willing to take in children like yours. I can place them in very good homes for you where they will be fed, educated and skilled in a trade, a life outside of the mills, Philomene. The hardship you will face with these young ones...” He paused and shook his head in exaggerated disbelief at her plight, “They will never have a chance at a better life now, without Leopold. Because they are young, they can adapt to new surroundings. It will be in their best interest and your own…. And for this, I would only ask for a contribution to assist in the cost of providing for the transportation, some clothing and the legal documentation required for such assistance. My calculations reflect $100 per child for a lifetime of care and assurance that they will be happy and healthy, outside of this squalor. That will leave you $400 of the policy left to insure the future of you and your older children, who are quite sufficient – and I can imagine a great comfort to you.”

Father Bourassa knew that the offer of $100 to place a child was a legitimate charge. During one of the hearings in Northampton, the advocates for the creation of a formal child welfare department complained about the commerce associated with the private sale of children, the rate charged between $100 and $150 per child. His services would be better monitored. He had a connection with a priest in the Berkshires where wealthy families might take these children into servitude. As he looked around the cramped rooms, he tried to envision thirteen children and two adults eating, playing, sleeping… he thought, “They’d all live better as servants than remain here.”

Rage filled Philomene, a welcomed emotion, which paled the pain of her loss. She stood and stared down at the monster she blamed for her loss. “Father, you will leave me with my grief and loss this minute. I will not loose anymore of my family than I have lost already. We will find a way to survive together.”

Then fearing that she has spoken too harshly to this man whom she feared and revered, she lowered her voice as she clenched her stained apron, “Perhaps I am too overwhelmed with grief to recognize your intentions at this time. I would like you to forgive my abruptness but leave me to my thoughts.”

The strength in the diminutive stature of this haggard woman, Father Bourassa had not anticipated. As he stood, Father Bourassa experienced a rage of his own enflamed by embarrassment and disappointment at his failure in his first appeal. Could his ambitions be transparent through his guise of charitable work? He chastised himself for his poor delivery and execution. Turning his rage upon Philomene, Father Bourassa lashed out beneath his breath, “You Madame are worth more to your children dead than alive!”

He slammed the door behind him and hurried down the stairs into the street where he mistakenly inhaled the rot of the sewer in through his unblocked nasal passage and gagged at the stench.

The whispered message he left at the doorway to the Messier apartment echoed within the walls of Philomene’s world as she saw, for the first time through Father Bourassa’s eyes, the “squalor” her family lived in. As her eyes stung with tears and hands clenched a dry rag, she scrubbed furiously at the wooden table, causing no affect, only scraping her knuckles as she bore down on the wooden surface.

As she cleaned, she committed to the changes she would institute so that Father Bourassa could never again insinuate that she and her family lived in filth. The waste bucket sat just below the window, where in the winter months it was emptied twice daily into the courtyard. With the warm months upon them, the bucket was to be removed and dumped before every meal and before bed. The single toilet on their floor had been insufficient for four families when in operation but had been out of service since the winter and they had become reliant upon their waste buckets and the make shift outhouse to the rear of the courtyard. While the warm weather brought stench, it also brought free flowing water from the public faucet located on the street corner by their building. Hence, water frozen in the tap all winter long, was now available for washing and she vowed to scrub her children with greater routine, and their clothing as well.

She turned to the nearly empty pantry and remembering the pennies she had used for the newspaper, could not vow to feed her children better than they had been fed as she did not know where their next meal would come from. Yet, there was the insurance check to come and she, Sophia and Charles would determine how best to utilize those funds in order to maintain the family.

Looking around the small apartment, Philomene fell into the chair and laid her head on the table, washed over by a drowning sense of defeat. Philomene could not envision moving her family of thirteen children back to the one bedroom apartment. The ruminations returned as she considered the wages of her five able children, just barely enough to pay for a smaller apartment. Her future wage added, would barely feed them. To use the insurance money to pay for their rent would be to deplete their future and they would find themselves in a desperate situation once the funds were gone. That is not how Leopold would want them to utilize the money. Philomene’s head ached as she attempted to think beyond what she knew, to stretch her thoughts to a level of comprehension she did not possess. She missed Leopold, his wisdom, confidence and protection…and did not wish life without him.

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