One more academic year rushed past in the blur of regular demands on time and attention. During it, I made arrangements for a longer stint of 10 days with my father’s papers, and arrangements to visit St.Agnes cemetery in Albany: my sister and I would make a weekend of it, drive up to Albany from Boston, explore a little more the Stuart-Montague branch of the family.
This time at the library I arranged to look into boxes from “Series I: Family Correspondence,” and with the first folders I was absorbed by my father’s boyhood. His father had kept his son’s letters to him: there were undated and dated letters from Rockhaven on Rhode Island, where it seems he had spent active summers of middle childhood in the company of his grandmother, swimming and playing tennis. In one letter it is clear that father and son had discussed the possibility of Robert playing golf at the nearest golf club, probably with the intention of expanding the social circle of peers for the new teenager. My thirteen-year-old father wrote:
“…Grandmother is going in for the first time today. She is feeling very well. The golf course is at Westerly, and the charge is $1.50 a day, so don’t send the clubs” (July 24, 1924).
There were letters from Culver Military Academy in Indiana where my father spent the summer months between the ages of 15 and 18:
“…boxing is going very well. I go about three minutes with somebody who will give me a battle, and then work on the bags and the rope skipping the rest of the time…” (undated, 1925 from the writing, which is still a similar immature hand to the 1924 letter).
These folders also stored letters from his father, Robert Emmett, to my father, including some undated ones that were written when my father was very young, when my grandfather called him Bobety-Bobety, and Fitzie.
“…Father is pretty lonesome tonight so that he thought he would write a little letter to his partner and say ‘Hello’! I hope you come home soon ‘Fitzie’ because I want to kiss you and put you to bed. Tell Aunt Agnes she must write out the little prayer you say, so that I’ll know it. Good night and God bless you. A big hug and a kiss from Father.”
On the back of this letter, Robert Emmett wrote a postscript to his sister-in-law Agnes, which dates the letter a little more precisely to sometime between the death of his wife and the death of Monty, when my father was between the age of three and eight:
“…yes, Agnes, Anne would have loved that house you are in. The absence of ‘drapes’ alone would be restful and satisfying to her, and wouldn’t she have adored those children of hers. It doesn’t seem right that she, of all mothers, should have been taken away.”
The detail of the satisfaction at the absence of drapes brought the unknown grandmother suddenly alive to me -- so that is from whom I inherited my own dislike of any covering to windows that prevents the light and air from coming through, I thought. I considered for the first time the stultifying and claustrophobic interior décor of houses at this time, and for the first time wondered at the possibility of Robert Emmett and Anne Fitzgerald having had to live behind ‘drapes,’ and the reasons they might have had to: was their home so close to the neighbors that privacy dictated such protection?
I noted again the presence of Agnes, reader of the letters to his son, amanuensis for his young son’s letters to him.
There was a photograph I had come across of a young woman in a field with the two boys (Image 10) roughly at the same age as they had been in the memorable photograph of them at the seashore, roughly from the same time that this letter had been written, and I now wondered whether the young woman was Agnes. I still did not know anything more about her: she was always present, and always on the periphery.
I knew from the catalogue of archived material that there were letters to her and from her in the “Family Correspondence,” but I thought there could be very little of interest: given what I knew of the stuffed envelopes my aunt Agnes sent to Italy, I imagined those folders filled with irrelevant accumulations of newspaper articles. I turned to them reluctantly midway through the first week of research, thinking I’d skim through just before heading back up to Boston to meet my sister for our visit to the Catholic Cemetery in Albany.
When I got back from the weekend exploration, I thought, I’d look through the letters from his first wife, archived there among the personal correspondence. That would be fun, to peer into a marriage that had always been mysterious and had always beckoned.
From Anne Fitzgerald to Agnes Stuart:
“1202 South Seventh Street, Springfield, Ill. August First, 1907
I want to be buried with my own people, the Stuarts, in St.Agnes Cemetery, Albany, New York. I want no sermon nor address nor instruction, nor any ‘few words’ addressed to the people at my funeral – Just the Holy Mass. I want my husband Robert FitzGerald to keep any small belonging of mine he may want for Keepsake, but all the rest of my property, including my diamond ring and my wedding ring I want to give to my sister Agnes Elizabeth Stuart. The wedding ring is the one our grandmother Anne Montague wore and I want Agnes to be married with it. Whatever money I may have outside of my income from the estate of Anne Montague I want Agnes to have and to keep for her own personal use. In case I die before Mother and Father, I want Agnes to use whatever I leave to add to their comfort and pleasure.”
I sat back in the chair, suddenly aware of my surroundings, the quiet of people absorbed in the recent and distant past. Wow. The Will was written on four pages of headed paper, from 1202 South Seventh Street, in the ‘fine swift angular hand’ my father had described as his mother’s in his memoir piece for The New Yorker. It was dated August 1, 1907, less than two years after Father Hickey blessed the couple’s wedding vows by sprinkling Holy Water shaken from a flower that was drying and hidden when these fierce words were being written.
‘I do not want any Fitzgerald to touch me or prepare my body for burial. I could not bear them to touch me or any of my things while I lived. Any of my belongings not wanted by my husband or my own family (the Stuarts) I expressly wish destroyed by burning. All this is my will and testament made this first day of August 1907, while in full possession of all my faculties.’
I read it again. I re-read it a third, and then a fourth time. I could not quite believe what I was reading. Where was the romantic heroine, sacrificing herself to her sick and bedridden beloved? I was completely taken aback, even through a surge of inescapable and delighted glee: there was the real plot for the story of my grandparents’ marriage. Not the sweet ideal of maple tree and pressed flowers, but this furious swift hand articulating dissatisfaction, dislike, even hatred for the family whose name I carried with such pride.
By the time I was ready to leave for the weekend, I had seen that the Will was one of many letters from her sister that my great aunt Agnes had kept. They offer more than enough glimpses of the hardscrabble situation Anne was in after her marriage to my bedridden grandfather. I had never thought to dwell on the reality of it, all too content with the romantic and the idealized.
How did the couple live when there was no breadwinner? Not as I imagined, in a modest home with a white picket fence: they lived with his mother.
1202 South Seventh Street was Nora Linane Fitzgerald’s home. At least two of her five surviving children were still living at home: James, who was only thirteen in 1905 when Robert Emmett and Anne married under the maple tree, and Marie, who was seventeen. Edward was only twenty-two, so perhaps he too was still at home, trying to find his way. I had little to no information or knowledge of this brother. I knew that Robert Emmett was the oldest, and that the next brother, Arthur was twenty-six in 1910, and was establishing a legal practice in those years. But I could not be sure that even he was not living at home when this furious will was composed in full possession of all faculties.
Nora Fitzgerald ran a successful grocery store in Springfield. Nonetheless, she was supporting at least three of her children, and the wife of one of those children, who was seriously sick. The presence of the wife did mean that there was no need for a nurse for her son, but the extra finances of nursing and the boarding of a stranger – even if married to one of the family -- must have put a strain on everyone in the house.
In January 1911, a few months after the birth of my father, over three years after the injection of bismuth seemed to have resolved the tubercular sacro iliac joint and Robert Emmett was no longer bedridden, Anne writes to Agnes from 1202 South Seventh Street:
“…Bob is reading Law like a martyr, and we hope he’ll be ready for the February Exams, but of course do not count on it. He is growing used to the almost intolerable prospect of being a lawyer, though he assures me he never expects to be ‘happy’ again…”
Slowly, well over six years after their wedding, the couple is moving towards financial independence from Nora. There is a definite sense in this letter that Anne is the one determined to make Robert Emmett pursue some successful prospect and join the ranks of the gainfully employed now that there is no longer illness and invalidism: I can read in the tone of her letter that she has teased him, rolled her eyes at him – that underlined ‘intolerable’ (because it is the same word he uses years later to describe his pain in the letter to the insurance company, it makes me think that it is a direct quote from him), that ‘martyr,’ that ‘happy’ between inverted commas; I can read that his reluctance is the mocking act (they are actors, after all!) of a new father and a husband who has found a new lease in life, blessedly cured by the skillful use of an advanced procedure, eager to provide for his family.
But the setting is hard: in an undated letter from that same year, Anne writes:
“It is awfully hard to manage here the three of us in a room and no closet, no drawers or shelves truly it is still very trying. I still do all his washing, and the basin is so small I have to do it all in the bath tub, so I have a chronic back ache from bending.”
And in every letter, Anne mentions her mother-in-law, ‘the old lady’:
“…Agnes dearest, if you can, by hook or by crook, make enough money to be independent, do it, and don’t ever marry a man who can’t support you and if you have to give up the finest man in the world, do it rather than live with his family!” (April 1911)
“…if she will only go away, and I can only keep the two good servants we have now I can manage to get through the winter and the spring here. And I’d rather not move at all until I can move away from her, for she is the one big trial of my life! I am writing this in pencil because she has watered the only bottle of ink!...” (Sept 1911).
“Mrs F. is still with us, bronchitis and all, and I don’t believe she has the slightest intention of going away this winter…” (Jan 8, 1912).
It is not until the letter of October 30, 1912 that Anne writes to her sister from a different address, 404 South Seventh Street. In this letter, she is five months pregnant with Monty, less than five months away from her death. My father is just two:
“…The Baby listened wide-eyed and solemn while I read him your letter, and then he kissed and folded it carefully – and put it in the waste paper basket! I rescued it, of course, and put it in the desk and use it as a reward when he refrains from asking for ‘Winter’ on the graphonola…Dearable dorable and I take great walks these days. He walked out to 1202 (to visit Grandmother, of course! So out of her house, but close enough for constant interaction between them) and back last week without any trouble and when I take the go-car I go much further than that with him. He says all of Humpty Dumpty, Hey Diddle Diddle, Jack and Jill and Sing a Song of Sixpence without a prompt which of course I think is wonderful….”