Love of Finished Years: a novel

Love of Finished Years: a novel

by Gregory Erich Phillips


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Love of Finished Years: a novel by Gregory Erich Phillips



Pre WWI, Elsa came to America with her eyes wide open, realizing it was up to her to make a life

for herself. Surviving a sweatshop in lower Manhattan, a chance job with a Long Island elite

family opens up her world. Invited in, up to a point, she unwittingly, albeit precariously, crosses

the social divide with her now open heart which puts all she worked for in jeopardy.

What a truly wonderful story! I’ve read it three times, and with each

reading I find myself caring about the fabulous characters and their

lives even more.”

— P. J. Alderman, New York Times Bestselling Author

“From the riveting opening . . . until its gripping conclusion, this enthralling

novel vividly portrays the desperate times of German immigrants

landing at Ellis Island in 1905. A timely read . . . it illuminates the issues

that we are experiencing a century later. . .Phillips reminds us that love,

light, and perseverance can help us find a way to overcome almost any


— Chanticleer Reviews

Gregory Erich Phillips is currently working on his next novel. Inspired by his literary family, Gregory

enjoys researching historical context for his characters to explore. Living in Seattle, he moonlights as

an accomplished tango dancer and violinist.

Gregory Erich Phillips is available for books signings, author events, interviews, guest blogs, and media

opportunities. Please email for more info and to arrange.


ISBN: ISBN 13 978-1-64058-011-4


PAGES: 329

PRICE: $18.95





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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781640580114
Publisher: Sillan Pace Brown Publishing Production Agenc
Publication date: 12/23/2017
Pages: 310
Sales rank: 516,679
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt


An Old German Wedding

September, 1909

The tenement steps were still dark as the teenage girl descended from her fourth-floor apartment. She held on to the shaky banister, quickly measuring the uneven steps. In the last four years, she had climbed down them so many mornings that she could have done it with her eyes closed. She knew each sag, each crack.

Elsa tried to tell herself this morning was no different from all those others, but she couldn't shake the knowledge that if she failed today, everything would change.

As she opened the front door, a faint gray light entered the dusty building. The crisp air of early autumn bathed her face. There were no electric street lamps here on 3rd Street, but she could see the glow from Second Avenue. She headed that way. Despite the darkness, the Lower East Side was quickly coming to life.

Physically exhausted but mentally alert, she pressed on into the city. She was accustomed to weariness — it had become her way of life.

At sixteen, Elsa knew most people took her for an adult. With her brown hair, fair face and broad shoulders, she blended easily into a crowd. Much as she might long for her sister Sonja's slender frame and delicate face, she had begun to appreciate the strength that helped her cope through these times. It was good that Sonja's factory days had come to an end.

The events of this week had pushed Elsa's strength to its limit. These were supposed to be days of joy. Now it was up to her to save her family from another disaster.

The windows on Second Avenue began to show signs of life. Shadows moved around inside unlit apartments. Dawn still came early enough to prepare for the day by natural light. In another week or two, precious cents would need to be spent to dress by gaslight.

Elsa hurried down the sidewalks of the Bowery as the city awakened. The morning sun shot between the buildings to her left, casting a long shadow beneath the elevated railway.

Two boys pushed a cart loaded with lettuce and cabbage heads, as an eager dog danced between its wheels. Soon a second cart appeared, and before Elsa had walked another block, ten or more carts were in position for business along both sides of the street. Shop windows started opening below painted signs or embroidered banners in both English and Yiddish. Merchants in loose trousers and suspenders, most wearing yarmulkes on their heads, appeared in the shop doors. Young boys ran across the street in front of Elsa, their shoulders loaded with fabrics, bound for one of the many family-owned clothing factories that dotted the neighborhood. Soon the horseless carriages began to click-clack down the rough street, carrying the "swells" from uptown.

Elsa's gaze was drawn from the street-front shops to the tenement windows above, where small clothiers would soon begin work in their apartments. She couldn't help wondering whether those family operations would offer an easier life than the shirtwaist factory where she and her mother spent their days. But these smaller shops maintained tight ethnic distinctions. While many of the clothiers had emigrated from Germany, they all spoke Yiddish. A German-speaking girl like her was as foreign as a native-born American.

Even at her factory, Yiddish was the primary language of the workers. But the business was large enough — and diverse enough — to give her a chance to learn the language and culture of her new country. She spent her days among not only Jews but also Italian and Irish immigrants, a handful of black Americans and others. She and her mother were the only Christian Germans. How could they have known they would emigrate just as the majority of the city's Germans were leaving lower Manhattan?

Elsa arrived at the police headquarters on Centre Street just as it opened. The ornate building looked alarmingly out of place amid the humble shops and tenements. She wondered whether that was intentional — an attempt to intimidate outsiders like herself. She refused to be deterred. Her family depended on her. Everything she had worked for could crumble if she let timidity get the better of her now. She marched up the steps between two snarling stone lions and into the police station.

An hour later, she walked out with her mother.

"Was hast du zu ihnen gesagt?" her mother asked.

"I told them the truth," Elsa replied in English. She knew her mother could understand her, even though she spoke little English herself. "I told them your daughter's wedding is Sunday. They did not have the heart to keep you in. Then I told them something that probably is not true ..." She looked pointedly at her mother.


"I promised you would not do it again. Look at this!" Elsa held up the release form she had signed in the station. "Nina Schuller. Arrested for disturbing the peace." She slapped the single page. "You have a record now, mother."

Nina threw up her hands. Elsa couldn't help but laugh, even though she was still upset with her mother for landing in jail overnight. She folded up the page and stuffed it into her skirt pocket.

"Come." Elsa urged her mother forward. "We must take the train. After what happened yesterday we cannot be late."

They paid uptown fair at the nearest elevated station. The factory was a mile northwest of their apartment. It was rare for them to take the train, even in the dead of winter — the daily fare would add up fast. But considering the temperaments at the factory, they were already at risk of losing a half-day's wages.

"Could you not have waited a few more days" — Elsa scolded once they were seated on the train — "until after Sonja's wedding? I was lucky to get you out. You would have been fired."

"I might still get fired today. But everything we have worked for is at stake. You saw what happened yesterday. They beat poor Clara! Was I supposed to just stand there?" She grabbed Elsa's arm. "There will be a strike soon — not only at our factory, but at all the garment factories. A women's general strike."

Elsa scowled. She admired her mother's tenacity and her will to improve life for the women in the factories, but she herself hoped to escape this life another way.

"I am doing it all for you," her mother added. "I am growing old. I do not care for myself. Sonja ... I always knew she would marry. But you ..."

Yes, once again, the reminder that she wasn't as likely to marry as Sonja. Elsa felt the pang every time her mother alluded to it.

"You have prepared yourself for an opportunity in this country. You learned the language and the customs. I was angry at first, but you did what you had to."

Elsa looked across at her mother sitting on the train bench beside her, then glanced down to where her hands rested in her lap. The veins on the tops of her mother's hands were pronounced, her fingertips sharply calloused from the precision of her work. Elsa's own hands would look that way at a much younger age than her mother's.

"You cannot do it alone," her mother said. "America is ready to give women a real chance, but we must fight for it."

"After the wedding. Once Sonja is with her new family, you and I can fight together. If it comes to a strike, I will stand beside you. We have survived together before. We can do it again."

Elsa wrapped her arm around her mother and smiled. After all they had endured in America thus far, a strike, even as winter approached, didn't seem so daunting.

The train ground to a halt at Washington Square. The two disembarked and rushed to enter the factory. They took their places at their workstations: Elsa at the loom, Nina at the cutting table.

The end of the factory shift was only the beginning of that day's work for Nina and Elsa. They had hours of wedding preparations to do and only two evenings to complete them. Nina's arrest on Thursday had hindered their plans. Now it was Friday, and most of the merchants closed their shops at sundown for the Sabbath. They walked the long way home via Avenue B where a German grocer was still open.

The next day, after another full shift in the shirtwaist factory, they came home ready to begin cooking in earnest.

"How many people will be there?" asked Elsa as she began to chop asparagus.

"At least forty. Maybe every German in New York. There has not been a wedding in the community yet this year. No one wants to miss it."

"Darf ich euch beide helfen?" asked Sonja.

"Nein," insisted the mother.

"I will not have you working all night. You must look fresh and beautiful tomorrow. Try to sleep."

Sonja withdrew, but Elsa could hear her sister bustling around in the second room of the apartment. Elsa knew her sister felt restless being made to sit idle as others worked. She would have felt the same way.

She watched as her mother's eyes followed Sonja. Elsa understood Nina's concerns for her older daughter. Sonja had suffered greatly here in America. Elsa had watched her spirit nearly break. Her life would be better now with her husband and his uncle at their uptown bakery. Sonja deserved a good man like Christof.

As the iron pot began to heat on the stove, the smell of asparagus soup permeated the apartment, bringing back nostalgic memories of northern Germany. This was the first time they had cooked asparagus soup in the traditional way here in America, using white asparagus. Christof's uncle, Gerd, had procured it from a cousin's farm, all the way from Pennsylvania. Elsa slowly stirred the broth to a boil, dropping in onions, sausage and kale. As the soup simmered, they prepared the batter for pfankuchen. Every large bowl they owned, plus a few borrowed from neighbors, was filled with batter, then covered and stacked. The German pancakes would be fried up on the churchyard stove tomorrow.

The gaslight burned past midnight in their apartment. Finally, everything was ready.

Early the next morning, Elsa went down to the street to hire a cart. After bartering with an Irish boy, she brought him upstairs to help her carry down the pot of soup and bowls of batter. Together they pushed it four blocks to St. Mark's Lutheran Church. Gerd Steigenhöffer was already there, unloading baskets of bread from his bakery in Yorkville. The Irish boy asked Elsa for a cup of the soup. She refused at first, but finally gave him a ladle-full. He did look pretty hungry.

Nina had almost finished dressing Sonja when Elsa got home. She stood quietly in the doorway, watching as her mother carefully laced up the front of Sonja's white dress, tying a bow at the top of the bodice, below her collarbones. The transparent sleeves draped softly down Sonja's arms, gathering at the cuff. The dress was beautiful, traditional, and hadn't come cheap. Nina turned her daughter around to face her.

"Oh, du bist so schön," Nina murmured, reaching up to touch her daughter's face, then arranging her brown curls over her shoulders.

"Danke, Mutti."

Elsa smiled as she watched the tender moment. She was happy for her sister. But there was also sadness in hearing her mother's words — she doubted she would ever hear her say "You are beautiful," to her. Her mother was always honest, and Elsa liked her that way. And it was true — she wasn't beautiful. She'd been a plain child, and even as the years had brought a woman's shape to her body and more maturity to her face, she remained so. She didn't expect some miracle to suddenly alter the plainness and strength that so contrasted with her sister's beauty and grace.

Elsa forced her thoughts from herself. Today she wanted to take joy in her sister's hopes. Sonja's dreams would be fulfilled. Her own still had time to grow.

Soon a throng of guests poured into the rickety tenement to escort the bride to the church. The procession sang and shouted through the street, to the amusement of neighborhood onlookers, and to the suspicion of several policemen. They arrived at St. Mark's just before the midmorning service. The pastor and all the German parishioners weren't surprised by the boisterous crowd — they had been anticipating this day for weeks. Almost everyone stayed in the church for the wedding ceremony immediately following the usual Sunday service.

Only one of four parents was present at the wedding. In Germany that would have raised eyebrows. But not here. Separation and loss were a way of life for recent immigrants. Elsa knew her mother was grateful for the way Gerd Steigenhöffer took an active role in the ceremony, as if he had been the groom's father.

The loss of Christof's parents along with so many others in the General Slocum steamboat fire five years ago still stung the local German community and St. Mark's parish in particular. Although Christof had remained in his family's Lower East Side apartment after the disaster, he was eager to move uptown after the wedding to help run his uncle's bakery.

After the ceremony, everyone went outside to the tables. Elsa did most of the serving herself. Spargel suppe,pfankuchen, and a roasted boar provided by the groom's family made all who could remember nostalgic for their homeland.

Gerd's cousin pulled out a violin and began to play. Another guest produced an accordion. As soon as everyone had finished eating, they pushed the tables aside and began to dance. Only the older people knew the folk dances from Germany, but everyone joined in on the polkas, even the children. Gerd and Nina had taught the bride and groom how to dance the Kleiner Schottisch, much to the delight of the older guests. When the song ended, they applauded the newlyweds. Then the musicians tore into another fast polka.

Elsa paused from clearing the dishes, watching as pairs of guests joined in the dance. Suddenly she saw Gerd coming toward her with outstretched hands. She held her stack of dishes protectively in front of her.

"Come, Elsa. Join the circle with me."

"Oh, no. I do not know —"

"It is easy." He gently took the dishes out of her hands and set them on the nearest table. "I will show you."

Before she could protest further, he tugged her by the hand into the dance. Her heart beat wildly as she joined the dancing circle. She tried to keep her eyes on Gerd's feet but soon forgot. He flew around the churchyard with agility that belied his years, and Elsa's feet barely touched the ground. She forgot her timidity and laughed with delight.

Gerd clapped happily after her as she returned to the tables. Elsa smiled from ear to ear. She could scarcely remember having so much fun.

Gerd rushed over to the violinist and whispered something. The musicians nodded vigorously before Gerd turned back to the crowd.

"The bride is for sale!"

Two old women pushed Sonja to the center. She removed one of her shoes and placed it on the grass beside her. The men came one at a time to buy their opportunity to dance with the half-shod bride, each dropping something in the shoe.

Elsa was happy for her sister but she would miss her. The Yorkville neighborhood seemed a long way away. Although she and Sonja had grown into very different people, they remained close. She had few other friends.

She felt her mother's arm wrap around her shoulder.

"It is just you and me now," said Nina.

Elsa nodded slowly. They'd come across the ocean as a family of five. How quickly it all changed.

"Lots of changes," said Nina, as if divining her daughter's thoughts. "But look at all the work you have done and where it has brought you. Your courage inspires me. Your opportunities will be different from Sonja's, but they will come. This is the land for it."

Elsa knew her mother was right, but there again was that little sting — one more subtle reminder of the difference between herself and Sonja, which anyone could tell with a single glance at the sisters.

Was America really the land of opportunity? She thought back wistfully to the farmland and green forests of Germany. What a contrast to the smelly ship, Ellis Island, the clothing factory, and the apartment where she had spent her teenage years. Everything on this side of the Atlantic had been strange and difficult. The few native Germans in the neighborhood were moving away as fast as they could, replaced by Slavic Jews, Irish, and Italians. Most of these people here today didn't even live very close. Many she hadn't seen in the pew of St. Mark's for two years now. Elsa heard less of her native language every day. Even her mother was finally learning English, out of necessity.

The afternoon grew late. A slight chill permeated the sunny day. As Elsa gathered the plates and watched the waning celebration, she felt her childhood drifting away from her.

What if her opportunity never came? Might she still be working at the shirtwaist factory at her mother's age? Perhaps she would be lucky and meet a man to take her away from it all, as Sonja had met Christof. But was that even what she really wanted?


Excerpted from "Love of Finished Years"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Gregory Erich Phillips.
Excerpted by permission of Sillan Pace Brown Group LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  1. An Old German Wedding
  2. Ellis Island
  3. A New Career
  4. Shattered Hopes
  5. Winter in New York
  6. The Shirtwaist Strike
  7. Tragedy at the Triangle
  8. Lindenhurst
  9. Dafne Graham
  10. A Forbidden Adventure
  11. Summer Days
  12. Threat of War
  13. Lost in Manhattan
  14. Hal
  15. Time Speeds On
  16. Winds of Change
  17. Courage and Cowardice
  18. Epiphany
  19. The Face of Suffering
  20. Buy a War Bond
  21. O Dream too Bittersweet
  22. The Suffragists
  23. The Price of War
  24. Terror at Chemin Des Dames
  25. Behind Enemy Lines
  26. Companionship
  27. The War to End All Wars
  28. Homecoming
  29. On Moonlight Bay

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