—Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
A young woman finds the most powerful love of her life when she gives birth at an institution for unwed mothers in 1883 Philadelphia. She is told she must give up her daughter to avoid lifelong poverty and shame. But she chooses to keep her.
Pregnant, left behind by her lover, and banished from her Quaker home and teaching position, Lilli de Jong enters a home for wronged women to deliver her child. She is stunned at how much her infant needs her and at how quickly their bond overtakes her heart. Mothers in her position face disabling prejudice, which is why most give up their newborns. But Lilli can’t accept such an outcome. Instead, she braves moral condemnation and financial ruin in a quest to keep herself and her baby alive.
Confiding their story to her diary as it unfolds, Lilli takes readers from an impoverished charity to a wealthy family's home to the streets of a burgeoning American city. Drawing on rich history, Lilli de Jong is both an intimate portrait of loves lost and found and a testament to the work of mothers. "So little is permissible for a woman," writes Lilli, “yet on her back every human climbs to adulthood.”
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1883. Third Month 16
Some moments set my heart on fire, and that’s when language seems the smallest. Yet precisely these bursts of feeling make me long to write. I sit now in a high-walled courtyard, amid the green smells and slanted light of early spring, with that familiar burning in my heart. I’ll need to destroy these pages before returning home, but no matter; for the first time since Mother’s death, words come to me.
I’ve lost more than I’ve gained since Mother died last year, when I was but twenty-two. Yet I wish to tell of some good things. This small courtyard with its carved stone bench, for instance, which fast becomes my refuge. For with spring upon us, there is such a wellness in the out of doors. Crocuses peer from the melting snow. Budding trees sweeten the air with their exhalations. If I were at home, I’d have turned the soil in our kitchen garden today, and planted radish and lettuce seeds besides. For supper, I’d have made a soup from the hardy kale and onions that survived the winter.
But I’m not at home. I’m at the Philadelphia Haven for Women and Infants. I’ve fled the building to this sheltered patch of ground to escape the struggles of my roommate Nancy—who till this morning slept in a bed beside mine and now moans and yells from the birthing table. Her sounds are as guttural and plaintive as those of a dog with its leg clamped in a trap. Even the stoutest girls among us have gone pale from hearing, for each will have her turn soon, and then will return from disgrace only by giving up her offspring and denying its existence ever after—as I will do.
For Gina and me, who share a room with Nancy, the anxiousness began last night with Nancy’s moaning and tossing in her sleep. At dawn she awoke, her thighs and sheets wet with a watery fluid.
“No one came for me!” she wailed as Gina and I wiped her clean. She wasn’t crying from bodily pain—not yet; she cried from understanding, at the age of sixteen, that her daily hope of rescue had reached its end. Her parents had sent her to domestic service in the city, and for three years they’d relied on the money she sent home to their farm. She lost her work due to her pregnancy, which arose from misplaced trust in a fellow servant, as she explained to us one whisper-filled night. Yet though she’d written many pleas, her parents had supplied no aid, made no visit, sent no letter of condolence.
Gina bent her head of dark curls to kiss Nancy’s cheek. I squeezed her hand and eased her into a clean nightgown. And despite the fact that Gina and I are in our ninth months, too, we helped her down a flight of stairs and to the chamber of the Haven’s matron, Delphinia Partridge. At the door, we knocked and waited while Nancy hung about our shoulders.
Soon the bleary matron emerged, clad in a worn blue dressing gown, her silver hair tucked beneath a sleeping cap. We walked tothe delivery room, where she encouraged a shivering Nancy to lie upon the birthing table.
To Gina and me the matron said, “Wake up the cook. Tell her to fetch the doctor.” She motioned with her head toward the door. But Nancy grabbed Gina’s plump arm and held it. Her lips were pale from how hard she pressed them together.
“I can stay?” Gina asked Delphinia. She came from Italy two years ago and speaks well for that.
Delphinia shook her head, unyielding. So we traveled the hall and woke the cook, who pulled a Mother Hubbard over her large form and ran out to fetch Dr. Stevens, a professor at the Woman’s Medical College who attends to us. Then Gina and I joined the other nine pregnant occupants at breakfast, poking at our bowls of oatmeal, after which we went about our chores, with Nancy’s cries punctuating our efforts.
Gina and I had kitchen duty. The cook had only turnips and onions for us to chop for the barley soup that would become our midday meal—not even canned tomatoes, since the winter’s stores were gone, and neither meat nor bones. But scarce rations were not our first concern. As we wielded knives against the stubborn curves of turnips and bit stale bread to keep the onions from stinging our eyes, Gina complained at how Nancy’s suffering pervaded the house. Girls in labor, she said, ought to be sent elsewhere, as it does us no good to be frightened.
The cook appeared too absorbed in preparations to bother listening. But she must have told the superintendent of this comment. For at the midday meal, Anne Pierce sat at the head of the table in a muted gown, her gray-streaked hair pinned close to her head, and reminded us why Nancy labors here. By the disgrace attending our conditions, we are barred from home, where otherwise we’d have given birth. And there exists no local institution but the Haven, Anne said, that will admit a parturient woman who isn’t married—besides the city hospital at Blockley, which houses the most contagious diseases and people far rougher than us, and often discharges them in coffins.
“No one with her own bed and two pennies to rub together would consider that hospital fit for a birth,” Anne said, puckeringher lips as if tasting a lemon. “Besides, I see a purpose to your bearing witness.” She proceeded to give a talk from her end of the table that amounted to this: “Let Nancy’s suffering be an antidote to your passion.”
As if passion alone explained our predicaments. Our being female and unlucky—and, in my case, a near idiot in the ways of amorous men—must be added to that. We heard Nancy call for mercy each time Anne paused and leaned her proud head to sip her tea. Though we hover constantly at the edge of being underfed, few girls had an appetite.
Since then Nancy has made slow progress and been urged along by the doctor to no avail. Her youthful hips are narrow and the baby is large. If chloral hydrate or ergot won’t hasten her progress, the long forceps that Mother said can crush a baby’s skull or cut its mother may have to be employed, or surgery may be called for. A meek woman named Alice, said to be carrying twins, has whispered her worrisome conviction that we’ll all suffer such difficult labors because our babies are bastards.
It might fairly be asked how Lilli de Jong has come to belong in such company.
A memory answers. Bitterness is poison, yes, but I hold a flask of it to my lips and drink.
* * *
One cold night in First Month of last year, barely three weeks after Mother had passed, I awoke in a state of vexation in my slant-walled room in Germantown. I lay on my mattress, waiting for my heartbeat to slow and the tendrils of some frightening dream to evaporate into the air. My mouth was parched from panting; I rose to fetch a cup of water, only to find the pitcher on my washstand empty. So I descended the narrow stairs into our main room and headed for the kitchen. Across the planks I walked, past Father’s bedroom.
Its door was ajar, its bed, empty.
Was Father staring at the embers of the kitchen fire again, too miserable to sleep without his dearest Helen? No; the kitchen was bare of life; its hearth was still and silent.
By the back window, as I ladled water from a bucket to a cup, a quick movement outside caught my eye. Something was moving in front of the outhouse. In air shimmering beneath the moon, a white shape billowed. It became recognizable as Father’s first cousin, Patience. She was a spinster from Ohio who’d arrived two days prior, ostensibly to aid us in recovering from Mother’s death. That woman stood in her dressing gown on the frozen ground, her pale hair loose and stippled with moonlight, her muscular arms clutching my father’s torso. And he, clad in faded woolen underwear, gripped her in return. Their pelvises were pressed together,and their faces seemed joined at the lips, as if consuming one another.
I clapped a hand over my mouth and ran upstairs to the shelter of my quilts. In silence I shivered, half waiting and half dreading for the darkness to yield some noise from that unseemly pair. When they did come inside, their footsteps halted on the first story,though Patience’s steps should have risen to the bedroom beside mine. The door to Father’s chamber clicked shut.
I knew little of such congress then. But I imagined nauseously their protuberances and indentations, their odd bits of bodies covered in curls of hair, fitting together in ways obscure and obscene. I lit a candle and stared at the cracks in my plaster ceiling, trying in vain to find the shapes that as a child I’d perceived as rabbits and mice, looking for the fissures that once had seemed to spell my name. I even picked up my book of Bible verses—but nothing took away the ghastly picture of my father, like a drowning man, grasping at a piece of flotsam.
It is many a spinster’s custom to travel relative to relative, staying as long as she’s needed. But in our little stone house, with its patriarch in grief, Patience had found a way to halt her wandering.
I intended to wake before dawn to prepare our meal. I wanted to witness their emergence from what had been my parents’ room and thereby to impose on them the shame they ought to feel. But I was trapped by heavy sleep till sun came streaming in and overheated me. I dressed and rushed downstairs to find Father, Patience, and my brother, Peter, seated at our oak table. Father and Patience worebland expressions. Their bodies appeared to have softened, like butter placed near the stove. His hand brushed hers in passing the canned peaches, and her thin lips opened to expose her small teeth, then eased into a dog-like smile.
Peter saw nothing amiss, for he kept his eyes on his plate, as he had at every meal since Mother died. He chewed and swallowed bite after bite determinedly, as if taking care not to choke on his own restlessness. And when Father’s gangly, red-haired assistant came down from his attic room and joined our table, he greeted us as usual and fed heartily.
“Lilli,” said Johan, his broad cheeks pink with anticipation, “can we haul those scraps to Rittenhouse town today?”
The bits of linen left behind from Mother’s sewing and the rags too worn for use would fetch much-needed coins at the papermill, and I’d be glad not to perform that sad errand alone. Such an outing, too, would allow Johan and me to share the fruits of our minds. On our return, freed of the sacks of cloth, we could ramble the snowy roads and stop for a sweet at the market, perhaps dangling our gloved hands near, even curling them together.
I had the freedom to accept his invitation. With Patience there, my home duties had lessened, and the students I taught at the Meeting school were on their winter vacation. So I answered Johan in the affirmative. Yet as I spoke, I felt a cramp of fear in my belly in place of my usual tingling anticipation of our heady talk. For in that kiss I’d witnessed, in the hunger that had made the bodies of my father and his cousin press hard into one another, a contagious force had come too near.
I watched as Father ate his sausage and dipped a hunk of bread in the fat, his lips and the surrounding skin growing greasy and slick. He never had been suited to Mother’s refinement. Clearly, Patience was another sort of woman.
Soon that woman bundled her sturdy frame against the cold and left to buy meat at the butcher’s. The three men entered their cabinet-making workshop at the side of our house. I went in a susual to straighten Father’s bed, which had been clumsily assembled. And strewn upon Mother’s pillow, where her chestnut hairs had always lain, was a tangled patch of Patience’s yellow hairs.
I raised the familiar pillow to my face and inhaled, hoping that a trace of Mother’s violet water still lingered. An odor of sweat as harsh as cat’s urine penetrated my nose.
I threw the pillow to the bed, the very bed on which Mother had died three weeks before, and left the room behind.
Dear diary, that moment cut me loose of family and left me rudderless.
* * *
Mother was injured while driving our wagon filled with donated goods to a family whose house had burned. A wild dog frightened our horse and the horse bolted, dragging the wagon across a heap of rocks. Mother was tossed to the rocks, and furnishings toppled onto her.
She was mottled with bruises, swollen in her head and a dozen other places, afflicted by pains that prevented sleep and comfort. To relieve the swelling, our doctor decided she must be bled. Mother, usually outspoken, always fell to muteness in the company of medical men, and bleeding had been a more acceptable method in her youth. For our part, Father and Peter and I had no grounds for doubting. We let the doctor do his ghastly work.
She was sitting up in bed when he began it, cutting a vein inher arm and placing his collecting bowl beneath. He considered the blood loss sufficient when she fell forward, unconscious. She opened her eyes not long after but remained slumped and fragile. I fed her raspberry-leaf tea and beef juice, and by the next morning she could rise. But by then she had head and neck aches so severe that she could hardly walk.
Saying her nerves were damaged, the doctor sent her back to bed and prescribed strong-smelling decoctions to ease the pain. When these didn’t help enough, Father informed him by letter, and the doctor called for increased frequency.
I’m convinced it was those medicines that poisoned and extinguished her.
The morning of her final day was warm. The golden sun was melting the latest storm’s ice and snow, making the roads safer for travel. So Father sent Peter and Johan to a lumber mill with a list of supplies to buy. Watching them depart, I’d wished that I, too, could escape the misery of our house. I wanted to travel in our wagon with those relatively untroubled young men and drink in their vitality. How callous this was! When Mother had been expecting to die, had even asked for paper and pen and prepared her will. Yet none of us believed her. We thought the medicines and pain were turning her mind morbid.
As her daughter, and the nearest thing to her own flesh, I ought to have taken heed. I ought to have banished the doctor and his decoctions and sought out safer ways to ease her suffering. If only, at the very least, I had soothed her grief over dying at only forty-seven, with Peter not yet twenty and me twenty-two, and neither of us settled, and her husband sobbing in his workshop while her strength faded. If only I had found a place of calm within myself and tried, by my touch and voice, to transport her there.
By late that afternoon, Mother was vomiting often, and her mental state had worsened. She shifted from near catatonia to confusion to agitation. Father left, to buy more medicines, he said. Her last hours came soon after, and they seared me like a cattle brand.
I was walking away to fetch a cooling cloth for her forehead when a scream issued from the dearest person to me on earth. I turned to see her once-graceful body convulsing, gripped by unseeable sensations. Running to her side, I grabbed her hand. Her fingers were hot, like rods of fire, as if her remaining life was burning painfully away. Her face was scarlet. Even her eyes were changed, showing little but black. Then she began to make odd sounds I couldn’t recognize as words.
I lay alongside her and curled over her slender limbs, willing her excess heat to transfer to me.
“Shush,” I told her. “Rest easy. All will be well, Mother.” I repeated such assurances and held her for some unmeasured span and hoped Father would come home and prayed to God for mercy as she jerked and moaned and struggled to breathe, her heart pattering quickly against mine, until she ceased to move.
The closest church bell rang seven times to mark the hour when her spirit departed and death weighed her body down. It seemed she had been pulled into a sucking void, a void that drew my spirit swiftly after, rushing and pulling and stretching me forward but never bringing me nearer.
When Father returned from the dispensary, he found me curled about her stiffening body, my wet eyes and opened mouth pressed against her neck and cheek, calling, No, my dearest, come back, Mother. Father pulled me off and carried me before the main hearth. He set me up with a quilt, then left to find the doctor so the dreadful fellow could declare his patient dead.
My life’s order and beauty fell down flat—as if they had beennothing more than painted scenery.
* * *
Mother’s burial took place the next afternoon. Few of our kin remained in the region, having earlier sought land to the west and formed new Meetings. Yet after a silent Meeting for Worship, members swarmed the burying ground, along with dozens of neighbors and persons whom Mother had aided in her decades of charitable work. Old Hannah Purdes stood to my left. She’d been a lifelong friend to Mother’s mother and a ballast to Mother when others had called her too forthright. Hannah clasped my enfeebled body to her more solid one when the coffin bearers approached and laid the heavy box on the ground, and we stared into the gap in the earth that would soon devour Mother’s simple coffin. Reaching beneath my coat and shawl to my neck, I touched my gold locket, with its snippet of Mother’s hair and her tintype picture inside.
In the silence I recalled Lucretia Mott’s burial at Fairhill, when no one could speak until one mourner observed that the woman who’d spoken for us had died.
Two persons did speak at Mother’s burial. The first was Johan. He stood opposite the open grave from me and my family, the sun outlining his lanky frame, and said, “She was that rare human who loves and is loved by kin and stranger.”
This was a fitting tribute. A sigh passed through the crowd. The sun that glowed behind Johan seemed to come from within him.
Then I opened my mouth, and out came words of Lucretia Mott’s that Mother had admired: “If our principles are right, why should we be cowards?” A shiver passed along my spine.
The coffin was lowered; the men with shovels were at the ready. Soon Mother’s body would be covered by earth. All those present walked past the hole and streamed away. Some burst into speech as soon as they left the burying ground, but Father and Peter, Johan and I walked home in silence to face the gloom.
In my narrow bed I fell to staring into the air, and at nightfall I entered a nightmare-ridden sleep.
After passing most of another day in staring, I received a knock upon my door. It was Johan, suggesting that we go to the skating pond. Despite the weight of feeling that pressed me downward, I consented—for I had always loved immoderately to skate on ice.
My outlook remained dismal as we walked to the huge pond by Tulpehocken and Wayne and pulled on our skates—until I planted my feet on the ice, took one step, and sailed away. Oh, I relished that swiftness, the gathering of warmth under my clothes, the reddening of our eager faces in the glow of the lowering sun. Johan and I raced side by side across the pond, then followed its oval perimeter, panting whenever we spoke, our feet rising and gliding, rising and gliding, carrying our willing bodies through air that stung our cheeks and froze our eyelashes. Despite losing Mother, or even more because of it, I rejoiced in that vigorous and gladdening flight.
We stopped when the light grew dim enough to threaten our safe return homeward. As we changed into our boots, Johan held my mittened hand a moment and raised it to his mouth, exhaling heated breath to warm me. At his temples, from beneath his knitted cap, sweat trickled. His lips were wide and dry.
I wondered, Will I kiss those lips?
I thought, My husband.
And then, This foreknowledge can’t be rushed. I’ll live toward it till its prediction comes to pass, or doesn’t.
On that day Johan replaced Mother as my lodestar, the pinpoint of light by which I charted my path. It may be that the explanation for my unwise surrender to him lies herein, that I couldn’t perceive my own guiding star, or find it in the Light everlasting.
Yet something new did grow in me after Mother died—a capacity for cynicism. What was the sense in my mother’s death? Was heavenly justice no more than a fantasy? I kept my doubts and bitterness quiet in myself, but through the ensuing months I observed others to see if they held them, too. When, after silent waiting, people stood in Meeting to speak what came into their spirits, most gave forth consoling messages of love; yet others spoke of hardships, within or without, and the barriers to overcoming them. I no longer shrank from the words of these messengers.
Something else, too, was pressing to have its day. Many nights I couldn’t sleep, convinced that knowledge poured through me—all the knowing Mother had released into my body when she died; in vain I searched for words to give it shape. On other nights I slept excessively, as if this growing power required added rest.
Having always been a Friend and attended twice-weekly Meetings for Worship, I was raised on insights and revelations conveyed by God through willing humans. But the person receiving this wisdom and rising from a bench to convey it had never once been me. Now a newfound force gathered during our silent waiting, inciting me to stand. On every occasion I resisted, fearful to become a channel for God’s truths. The force brought on an elation so strong that I feared, if I surrendered, I might be called to the life of a traveling minister, might have to go from Meeting to Meeting to share what I was given. But what was I given? If I opened my mouth, I feared, it might emerge as an unformed ramble.
In any case, my chance expired. I never did find the words to stand and speak. Our lives were too far altered before my inner battle had its victor.
I last attended Meeting for Worship on a chilly spring morning four months after Mother’s death. Peter and I sat as always on opposite sides of the crowded meetinghouse, one side for women, the other, men. Perhaps Father knew what was planned, which might have explained his absence. But we were stunned when an esteemed elder rose from a facing bench and testified against our father. For soon after taking up with his first cousin, Father had begun drinking alcohol to excess. Then he’d married his cousin, who wasn’t a Friend and didn’t seek to become one, and married her two month safter Mother’s death rather than waiting the required year. All of this was out of union with our Meeting’s Discipline. Father had been treated with privately, the elder told the assembly, raising his arms. He’d been counseled that he and Patience could acknowledge their errors in writing and that she could apply for membership. “Yet way did not open for Samuel de Jong,” the elder said sadly to those assembled. Father had failed to repent.
In shame I rose and left my seat; Peter met me at the doors. We crossed the broad porch of the meeting house and stepped toward home. I reached for his hand, as I had when he was small, and he let me hold his damp palm to my own. Above us spread a blank white sky, a page cleared of its story.
Some days later we learned that Father’s disownment had been approved, when old Hannah Purdes brought a letter stating his right to appeal. Hannah knew Father well; she’d even been a member of the Clearness Committee that had approved my parents’ marriage.
Father was in his workshop and Patience in the yard when Hannah knocked. I unlatched the thick wood door, and she reached her bony arms to embrace me. My face pressed into the long bill of her bonnet until she pulled my head down with gnarled, powerful hands. She kissed my forehead, leaving behind a hint of moisture and a coolness.
“Dear Lilli,” she said. “This is a dreadful shame. If Helen were alive, thee could have remained with us despite thy father’s doings.”
“Dear Hannah, these are trying times,” I replied, unsure of her full meaning. “If Mother were alive, they would not have come to pass. But please, come in.” I pointed to a chair before the hearth, where a fire burned hot. But she ventured only far enough to let me close the door against the unseasonable wind behind her.
“We lost thy mother,” she said in her ringing voice, “a champion of the needy. Now we lose thee from our classrooms! Our most promising young instructor!” Her head shook side to side.
“What can thee mean?” My voice was quavering.
“The School Committee would like to offer thee a respite from thy duties. And we can offer thee a Clearness Committee, if thee desires it.” Hannah’s glittering eyes peered past me.
A respite? I wanted nothing less. And why a Clearness Committee? Why was I being judged as out of harmony with Friends’ ways, when all I’d done was be my father’s daughter?
“Is thy father in?” Hannah asked, just as the door of his workshop opened.
“Who’s come, Lilli?” Father stepped into the room, his work clothes stained and shabby. Seeing our visitor, he rubbed his callused hands together to clean them. “Come in, Hannah!” He reached toward her, his cheeks warming. “Won’t thee join us for tea? I’ll take thy cloak.”
“No, Samuel,” she replied. “I’ve come to express our sincere desire for thy recovery and restoration, and to deliver this.” From the pocket of her plain gown she pulled an envelope of bone-white paper.
Father took it. On its face it read NOTICE OF DISOWNMENT. Unable to speak, he stared at his sawdust-covered boots.
In that quiet, Hannah and I beheld each other. Her wrinkled cheeks held no trace of gladness to uplift them; dark hairs poked forth above her upper lip. When I met her speckled eyes, I sensed her voice in me: Help him repent. For thy whole family’s sake, but especially for thine.
A hard knot formed in my throat. She turned, opened the heavy door herself, and picked her way down our brick path. Father shut the door and fastened it with an iron latch that his great-grandfather had forged. Then he gave out a moan.
Perhaps the full weight of his disownment was falling on him. It fell on me then, for I knew I might never again be considered free enough of his pernicious influence to teach young Friends at the Meeting school. My life’s ambitions had all been staged within that august building.
Holding the sealed envelope, Father paced the room, his lower teeth biting the lip above. His head was low, his black hair unkempt and falling over his eyes. He lowered himself into a wooden seat before the fire and stared without seeming to see. Then, with a flash of his wrist, he threw the envelope into the hearth. It smoked and burst into flame. I inhaled sharply.
“That’s done,” he said, “and I’m relieved. No one can make me feel badly for doing as I wish.” He wiped his outsized hands over his face and looked at me. “It’s deadly to be always aiming for perfection.”
“Especially when one falls so short of it.” My voice was quiet, but he heard. I stared defiantly and trembled as he glared in reply.
But he let his feeling go. A tiredness took its place. “I tried for thy mother’s sake,” he said. “I never was suited to be a dutiful Friend.”
Perhaps—neither was I.
* * *
When all else fell away, one shelter remained. I’ll call it now the house of Johan. I entered it gladly in spring last year, on a Fifth Month evening.
The two of us were traveling a footpath along the Wissahickon Creek, bathed in air redolent with pollens and perfumes. We strolled slowly in our cocoon of silence. My hand was ensconced in his, a signal of our increased closeness since Mother’s death. Children laughed and shoved and teased along the banks of the shallow creek. The sun was falling behind stands of thin trees on the opposite bank; as the air cooled, mosquitoes rose from the dirt, butting against our ankles in search of skin and blood. We came around a curve and saw a pair of lovers seated on a rock that stretched into the water. How earnestly they beheld one another. Perhaps it was this sight that spurred Johan to pull me to a stop beneath a blossoming magnolia. I stood wondering until he spoke.
“I have something to tell thee.” He clasped my hands in his large, callused ones, and his face paled against his locks of red hair. “I’ve decided to leave for Pittsburgh soon. Peter’s coming along.”
His words stunned me. He and Peter had spoken in my presence of leaving to work in steel; they seemed drawn to that new industry like prospectors were to the California gold rush. But I hadn’t been convinced they’d go. Johan had four years left on his commitment to Father’s workshop, and Peter had never spent so much as a nightaway from Germantown.
I stared at Johan’s broad-planed face. But what of me? I thought.
As if hearing this, he answered. “I want thee to be my wife.”
His words relieved me, almost. I dropped his hands. “Why does thee tell,” I said, “instead of asking?”
He flushed with an abandon more to my liking, then reached for the tree and snapped off a pinkish-white magnolia blossom. For the duration of several breaths, he beheld its display of petals, as if gathering courage. And then: “Nothing speaks so boldly as a flower.” He placed the effusive specimen in my hands, his brown eyes beseeching. “Will thee marry me?”
I wanted to say yes. Mother had thought us an ideal match; she’d bent my ear more than once to whisper hopes of a union. She’d seen the reddening of our cheeks at the family table, heard evidence of his fine mind, observed the growing sympathy between us. Several days before she died, she’d even received a leading that he should join our Meeting and we should marry. She’d reported it to me with radiant eyes, clasping my hand, much as he just had. Yet she’d had no chance to season the leading—to find if truly Godhad sent it, or if it was born merely of her wish to leave me settled.
I wanted to say yes to Johan, yet I hesitated; this was likely the most influential decision of my life. Any marriage would lead to both misery and joy. How could I know which might dominate ours in years to come? I examined the magnolia’s veined petals, its many glistening and sticky pistils surrounded by stamens laden with pollen. Truly, a flower is a bold thing, exposing all its offerings to its insect lovers.
My answer burst from me. “I will.” Warmth traveled outward from my heart till my body seemed to swell.
The pleased look on Johan’s face grew ever more daffy, until I craved to touch him. I stepped forward, and he opened his arms to me. With my head for the first time against his muscled chest, my ear pressed to his heartbeat, my body feeling his limbs through the linen of his shirt and pants, I came to understand the meaning of that strange word swoon. I leaned into the cave of his body, which emitted a compelling odor that I decided must be that of a man’s desire. I pressed my nose forward and inhaled deeply at his chest. He let out an involuntary moan.
I stepped away to regain rational capacity, then said, “How are we going to make a marriage happen?” I’d stopped attending our family’s Meeting out of shame over Father and hurt at my unwanted furlough from teaching. And Johan hadn’t joined another Meeting after he’d left New Jersey and come to work for Father. This meant there’d be no committee to assess our readiness, no elders to approve or disapprove our union, no worshipping assembly to house it.
“We could marry with a justice of the peace,” offered Johan.
I agreed, though that might require taking an oath; this was how Father and Patience had achieved their marriage. Yet I wanted Father, at the least, to see the rightness in our union.
“Has my father approved?” I bruised a petal of the magnolia and inhaled its honeyed scent, perhaps more like a woman’s desire.
Johan looked down and scuffed the dust with his boot. “He dislikes me.”
This was true. Father was a less aesthetic man than Johan; he would consider anyone deficient who wrote poetry, as Johan did, and took time to marvel at a flower. I tried to keep the dismay from my tone. “Has thee asked?”
“The answer was no.”
He watched for my response. And Father’s refusal did cause the hot-air balloon of my happiness to sink a bit. But then I cut the ropes that were holding that buoyant balloon near the ground. I let it rise and float.
“I’ll do it anyway!” I cried, elated. “In Pittsburgh!” Excitement swirled through me. I’d build my own life, away from the disgrace and gloom of Father’s.
Johan stood to full height, radiating what I see now as impetuousness but saw then as an admirable power in a man several years my senior. “I’ll do well for us,” he said. “There’s so much growth in steel! But I need time to find a position. I’ll send money for the train as soon as I can.”
What was this? He and Peter would leave me behind? I pulled his arm. “No! I’m coming, too! We can marry as soon as we get there, or even before we go.”
He ran a hand over his stubbled chin. “I don’t want us to start our life together in a rush. Give me a chance to find us a decent place to live and save up some money. I’ve barely got enough for my own fare and a few weeks’ food and rent.”
I had but little money myself. Regardless, I ought to have refused to stay. With the sharp voices of Father and Patience rising to my room each night, the old stone house held little comfort. And without my teaching work, no purpose filled my days. Standing beneath that flowering tree with Johan, I ought to have told him, “I’ll borrow to pay my way. I don’t care if we sleep in an alley. I want to leave as badly as thee does.”
Instead, I agreed to meet the two of them in an undetermined span of weeks or months, dependent on their luck. I gave Johan and Peter the right of their sex to travel at will, and accepted the confines of mine. All that remained was for Father to learn of the young men’s plan.
* * *
Peter had long disliked our family’s simple ways. Our parents hadn’t even brought gas lighting or water pipes into our house, and this separated us from the general crowd of forward-thinking Philadelphians; it even separated us from those many Friends who didn’t hold the testimony of simplicity as near to their hearts. And Peter didn’t intend to spend his life making furniture, as had our father and grandfather. But Peter had always been quiet, so Father had little inkling of his opinions until shortly before his departure, when the two of them were attempting to remove an oversized rolltop desk from our wagon.
They’d fetched it for repair from a Chestnut Hill household and needed to unload it. Our horse was restive; her hooves were caked in mud and most likely uncomfortable. The two men were struggling to remove the heavy desk amid her shifting—but it would have made extra work to unhitch our horse, then hitch her up again to get the wagon to the neighbors’ barn. So Father yelled for help, and I left my sewing to hold the horse.
“There, there, Sarah, we’ll clean your hooves soon.” I scratched the hard place between her eyes, with its white diamond marking. Short hairs and dirt rose around my fingers and clung there. She banged her head into my belly, threatening to nip, huffing her frustrated breath onto me, and this kept her hooves still long enough for Father to pull the remainder of the desk from the wagon. Toomuch weight fell on Peter, however, and his footing faltered. He jerked Father’s hold on the desk away, and it landed on the toe of Father’s boot. Father fell back onto the street, with his foot trapped beneath the desk.
“Bloody hell!” he cried, the worst epithet I’d ever heard him utter. “Between this horse and thee!”
“I didn’t expect that much weight.” Peter flushed as he heaved the desk off Father.
“Thy attention has been poor all week.” Father rose with a grimace. “Thee used the wrong sandpaper, and carved that letter backwards, and applied a second coat before the first had dried.”
Peter muttered toward me. “He never forgets a fault.” His hair hung in his eyes, and with the back of his hand he shoved it away.
I didn’t feel compelled to defend my younger brother at that moment. I hitched our horse to the post and ran inside to gather the items needed to treat Father’s foot. Peter helped Father walk inside and settle into a chair, removed his boot, washed Father’s bloodied toes, and bandaged them. Somehow this struck Peter as an opportune time for revealing his plan.
“Thee won’t have to bother about me soon,” he started. “I’m leaving for Pittsburgh in early Sixth Month with Johan.”
Father shifted in the chair to turn his contorted face to Peter. “This is how thee informs me?”
My brother lowered his eyes to the wood planks, looking younger than his twenty years. “Without Mother here, I’ve got no reason to stay.”
“No reason? How can I keep up with orders without thy help? Who’ll do the carving? And Johan—scoundrel! Was this his idea? He said he’d work five years.”
“I’m going. We both are. It was my idea.” So I had my brother to thank for luring Johan away. Peter swished the bloody rag in the bucket of water and wrung it out. His demeanor remained bland; only the shaking of his hands showed his feeling.
“The two of you are going to ruin me! And thee will never have a better opportunity than taking on this business.”
“I don’t want to live exactly as thee has!” Peter turned to me. “Isn’t this a miserable house to live in?”
I nodded. Father said nothing, but his eyebrows drew together at that unexpected hurt. Then Peter added, “I won’t always be a helper if I work in a steel mill. I can rise in the ranks.”
Father snorted. His neck and face swelled red. “Rise in the ranks? Being the master is far better than falling in with any ranks. It won’t be more than ten or twenty years till thee takes over here and has an assistant or two to do thy bidding!”
Ten or twenty years must have sounded to Peter like a lifetime. And Father’s rage, no matter how reasonable its origins, could no longer affect my brother. Father pressed hard for several days, even offering to pay Peter and Johan five dollars more per month despite their having room and board supplied, but he couldn’t halt their plan. It seems young men don’t like to see sameness too far into their futures. This only increased Father’s misery at his own unchanging future.
As it would have increased mine, if I hadn’t known that soon I would, in secret, follow. Johan, Peter, Pittsburgh, and some sort of teaching work—these were to be the cornerstones of my reconstructed life. It was this belief, along with my own fleshly weaknessand desire to be loved, that opened me to further seduction.
Reading Group Guide
1. How do you think the death of Lilli’s mother affected the course of Lilli’s life?
2. What role do you think Lilli’s religious background played in her willingness to suffer for her choices?
3. Does her faith remain the same or change in the course of the story?
4. How did the diary form of the novel affect your experience of the story?
5. Are there challenges Lilli faced that women still struggle with today?
6. How do you think Lilli’s story might be different if it was set today? In what ways might it be the same?
7. What messages about motherhood will you take away from the novel?
8. Are there choices Lilli made that you might have made differently, in her circumstances?
9. Johan tells Lilli he won’t pry into her secrets. But her mother warns that secrets will corrode bonds. Whose approach do you agree with?
10. What affected you most when you were reading Lilli’s story, and what do you think will remain with you?