Martha MacCowley Day
Chapter 8 Martha MacCowley Day
Martha MacCowley Day had but one fond wish. It was that one of her children would become a musician. She could but despair for her beloved husband distinctly did not share her hope.
Martha had a happy childhood in Deerfield, a small township on the outskirts of Chicago, Illinois. Her mother, Judith, and her father, Caleb, had four children of whom Martha was eldest. In the fall of 1900 Caleb's last remaining old aunt died. It was necessary that he and Judith travel to Rockford, Illinois to attend to funeral arrangements and settle the estate. Martha was left in charge of the younger children. On the return journey there was a tragic rail accident in which Martha's parents lost their lives.
At sixteen years of age Martha, always a good and responsible child, assumed the responsibilities of a grown woman and began raising her two brothers and sister. They all were extraordinary children. Marcus, at age fourteen, showed a willingness to work hard and had remarkable financial sense. Little James, at age five, could sing like an angel and could play the piano, the ukulele, and the penny whistle by ear. Ethel, age thirteen, was a budding beauty with a sunny personality who never met a stranger.
Wonderful as her childhood had been, Martha's young adulthood was as difficult. Her parents had died in September and by Christmas things were very bad for the family. There was none of their father's money left after the funeral arrangements and still there were debts to be paid. All of the children grieved for their beloved parents and each child reacted in very different ways.
Marcus seemed to become a grown man overnight, efficiently managing the family finances. Ethel became a bit rebellious, a little reckless, and prone to losing herself in fantasies. Little James, always deeply attached to his oldest sister, became withdrawn and began constantly clinging to her. He became listless and had developed a worrisome wheeze that would not go away.
With the Illinois winter upon them and with little cash money for coal heat, much less for buying Christmas gifts, things seemed desperate indeed. It was Marcus who came up with the idea first. One night, after a very meager supper and the two youngest had been bundled in bed, Martha and Marcus had a serious talk. Martha told him that a man who knew their father had written her a letter offering to buy the house.
“It's probably for the best,” Marcus said after some deep thought.
Martha, worried about keeping them all together, replied: “But what will we do, where will we go? We don't have any relatives we can stay with.”
“Yes, we do -- there is one.” countered Marcus.
The only living relative they had was Uncle Apton, an elderly bachelor, their maternal grandmother's youngest brother, who lived down south.
“You don't mean move to Florida, do you?” asked Martha in a quiet voice.
Marcus stared at the floor. “I don't know! What else can we do?”
Martha thought about this for a day or two. When her father's friend came to call she had made up her mind. She would sell the house and use the proceeds to move the family down to Florida.
It took a month to make the preparations. Telegrams and letters to Florida were exchanged and decisions made. Marcus handled the sale of the house like a man twice his age and had gotten a fair price for it. They were just able to pay off their Papa's debts with enough left over for the move. Then, just as things were looking hopeful, there was one more painful separation.
Martha and little James had always been very close. They shared the same birthday and Martha had always considered little Jimbo to be the best birthday present an eleven year old girl could have ever received. Martha's love for music sparked an inborn talent in her tiny brother and she loved to show him off to her friends. Jimbo was her pet and the love of her young life. His wheeze turned out to be pneumonia and despite the doctor's and Martha's best efforts he died three weeks after his sixth birthday.
Little Jimbo was buried beside Momma and Papa. The funeral was a bleak affair. With no other living relatives nearby, only a few neighbors, and some friends from their church, attended. Just as funds were running dangerously low Martha received a letter from her father's lawyer which contained a check. Martha and the children were now the sole heirs of their father's old aunt. The check paid for the funeral and provided the means by which the family would make the move to Florida.
So it was that the three heartbroken children packed up: Mama's and Papa's bed, Mama's linens and lace that still smelled of her; her silver, crystal, and china, the parlor and dining room furniture including Martha's Victrola and records; Mama's exquisite parlor organ, and the beautiful little piano that Papa had bought for Jimbo. None of these things they could bear to part with. In March of 1901 they bought a large wagon and three strong Percheron draft horses and set out for Jacksonville, Florida, to live with an elderly uncle they had never met.
It was a long, difficult but uneventful journey. There was a worrisome time along the way at news of a great fire that laid to waste much of downtown Jacksonville. Pressing on, nevertheless, they ultimately found their Uncle Apton and his home intact and welcoming at the end of their tedious migration. On the day after they arrived Marcus was injured when one of the big Percherons trod on his right foot, badly breaking it.
It was an injury that was to keep Marcus from serving in the military and later, for that reason, Martha secretly considered the accident a stroke of good fortune. With Marcus injured and unable to work for a time, Martha immediately searched for and found a job in a bank, a financial institution which flourished in the post fire economy.
Uncle Apton, who was seventy-seven years old and quite ill when they came, died in his sleep exactly two years to the day that the children moved in with him. The foster family had grown to love each other in the short time they had together. He died peacefully, and a happy man, leaving them all he had; his beautiful large house and a fair amount of cash for each of them.
After Uncle Apton died Martha no longer needed to work. By this time she was engaged to be married to a dashing loan officer by the name of Robert Madison Day who was destined to become the bank president. Marcus, whose foot healed but left him with a slight limp, got a job in a butcher's shop, worked hard, invested his inheritance wisely and, with the help of his brother-in-law, eventually became a wealthy man with his own meat processing and delivery business.
Ethel . . . well, Ethel, who wanted to be a dancer on the Vaudeville stage, became a flapper and somehow ended up as an actress involved in a new enterprise called motion pictures headed by a man named Thomas Edison who had been working on a project in downtown Jacksonville. When Mr. Edison moved his operation to California, Ethel, with her sister's and new brother-in-law's prayers and approval, went along.
So on that day when Mrs. Killman grabbed Martha's hand and dragged her into the parlor, and when Martha saw and heard her son playing the piano, something released deep within her. Martha had never permitted herself the luxury of sentimental tears. Not when Mama and Papa had died, not even when beloved little James had died, and not when they had to leave the place and the people they knew so well. But when she heard her own little Jimmy somehow, as if by a miracle, playing the piano, her restrained grief dissolved into thankfulness and happiness.
It was her fondest dream, and for the first time in her adult life, she cried.