Tag Archives: Jetta

Jetta

By Joyce H. Munro

Music to read by: “Spring Charm” by Adrian von Ziegler

She is walking down the stairs sideways so she can keep her eye on Miss Morris, teetering a step behind. “Let me take your arm,” she says to Miss Morris. Every day she says this and every day Miss Morris protests, “You’ll only hold up the parade.” But the old lady is the one who holds up the parade to look out the window. “Who’s that down there in the rose garden?”

~

The rose garden used to be an ordinary cutting garden. Then, right before their world tour—forty years ago now—Mr. and Miss Morris told the gardeners to dig the whole thing up. They wanted a garden that would inspire awe. A rosarium. Boxwood hedges encasing beds of fragrant teas. Paths that converged at a tall urn raised high on a pedestal. A room to bewitch lovers of nature and lovers of love.

~

She is waiting for Miss Morris to descend another step. They both know it’s the gardener, spraying the roses to keep black spot from marring perfect blooms. Will he cut off the thorns before he brings them in or make her do it? The mistress dislikes pricked fingers. Not that she minds de-thorning roses. This is what she has chosen. For so many reasons. How many girls from Ireland secure a position in Philadelphia on arrival? Especially in an important household like the Morris’s. How many employers reward employees handsomely the longer they serve? How often do two sisters get to work alongside each other these days?

~

But it’s not her sister she wants to be alongside these days. It’s James Joseph O’Neil. He is the real reason she chooses to continue in the Morris household, though she’s never told him anything of the sort. Such a courteous man, is what she thought years ago when he would drive up to the townhouse, doff his cap, and help Mr. and Miss Morris into the touring car. Then he would turn to her standing on the threshold and he would doff his cap again. To her. And she would curtsy and go back inside. Twenty years of doffing and curtsying. They are both so scrupulous, so self-respecting.

~

“Souvenir d’un Ami. Those were the roses he gave me in London,” Miss Morris mouths to the garden. She nods her woolly white head and creeps down another step. She, too, is so scrupulous, so self-respecting. Which is why there’s no use grabbing Miss Morris’s arm, though the risk of her falling down this massive staircase is great, God forbid. And thus they continue their treacherous journey to the dining room, where the table is set for one and chicken à la king is getting cold in the gilt Haviland serving bowl.

~

I regret having to say this: although it is 1930, Miss Morris still refers to her house employees as servants. Perhaps Miss Morris would like to be called, “Your Ladyship.”

~

Quakers have a relatively flat hierarchy, socially and ecclesiastically. They call themselves a Society of Friends, without need of priesthood or lords and ladies. Lest you think all is egalitarian among Friends, consider the Anthony Morris family of Philadelphia. Eighteenth century brewers, nineteenth century manufacturers in iron, twentieth century collectors of artifacts and relics. A first-among-equals Quaker family. Two of their descendants, a brother and sister, have decided to share their extraordinary collection with the public upon their deaths. And now, one of the two is gone. Miss Morris is eighty-one, fond of the 1880s, and nearly friendless. Consider the odds of Miss Morris living beyond the present decade.

~

She is filling the teapot in the basement kitchen when the bell summons her back to the dining room. Miss Morris wants to know if one of the O’Tooles can bring jelly Krimpets from town this afternoon. No more porridge for breakfast, now that it’s warm weather. Maybe some Tasty pies, too. And here’s the rub: though Miss Morris is taking advantage of a privilege, it will not upset the O’Tooles—two of them work at the baking company. So the answer is, “As you wish, Miss Morris.” She will call Nellie, who wraps pies and snacks, and ask her to pull a couple of boxes, get Thomas to drive them out this evening. “And as always,” Miss Morris says, “there’ll be a little extra money for their effort.”

~

She was terrified when she arrived in Philadelphia. Far, far from Galway, the second of her family to come over. What made her think she would favor the big city? Buildings so immense, trolleys swarming every which way, too much pavement, the rudeness, the puzzling accents. And this Quaker family—what a renegade religion they followed. No priests? Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

~

The brother who is gone now, God rest his soul, was a little peculiar, with his curiosities set all about. Swords and helmets, piles of coins, medallions, seeds, photographs, journals, papers. Never has she seen so much to read in a private home. And a pair of spectacles in every room, so forgetful he was. Had the tics and foibles of a person who wants to know everything in precise detail and once he knows, will tell all in precise detail. Curiosities bought with money not easily parted with. Money a Bountiful Providence has graciously provided, Mr. Morris would say.

~

She came to America in search of security. With loyalty imprinted deep in her soul. And she has agreed to render her services until no longer needed. Now only the mistress of the house remains. See the mistress there, in tasseled shawl, being meticulous about something, probably a belonging of an ancestor. “It must be done right. Let me show you. Gently back and forth, never across the grain.” She is secure in this household, bound by a day to day, season by season schedule. Cook, waitress, chambermaid, lady’s maid, and mistress. A band of pilgrims traveling back and forth across the years.

~

Every Ides of March, they break up the townhouse on Pine Street. Cover priceless antiques in cotton sheets, place jewelry in velvet pouches, pack silk undergarments in tissue. And they are off to live in heaven at the end of Meadowbrook Lane, where splendor is a tonic for their souls.

~

She is thirsting for that tonic when they arrive each spring, when Mr. O’Neil opens the car door and offers his hand to Miss Morris. “Welcome home,” he says, and the words are a promise. He comes round and silently takes her hand. Behold him close to her, sturdy and ruddy in his proper suit, clear eyes regarding her. She steps out and there behind him, framed by clouds, is Compton, looking for all the world like her beloved Kylemore Castle. An otherworldly place where chores are not drudgery, where she is weightless. Where she can take off her apron during free hours and amble down the hillside and her hairpins will fall out.

~

It is here, surrounded by the aroma of roses under a milky moon that he will want to ask her to marry him. Every June he wants to ask and every June she wants to say yes. But their wants are never breathed, for scruples constrain them. And sadly, the door of heaven will close again in autumn.

~

Come October, the little band breaks up Compton by the same routine. They return to the townhouse with its ambitious schedule. Pilgrimages to Cedar Grove, opera at the Academy of Music, meetings of Colonial Dames. And in recent years, conferrals with attorneys, dignitaries. Things may be breaking up. But there will always be June and the rose garden.

~

She is standing on the threshold, but she is thinking of the past, of the day she arrived in Philadelphia, of the letters she wrote home about her American dream, the silver she’s polished, table linens pressed, cream teas served in the sunroom, thorns cut from roses. And the chauffeur’s proposal, key to a realm they may never know, pendent between them.

~

Down by Killarney’s green woods we did stray, the moon and the stars they were shining. The moon shone its rays on his locks of golden hair and he swore he’d be my love forever.

~

She is watching Miss Morris take the arm of her gardener down below. They walk among the roses, getting smaller. Her tousled hair a brightness in the verdant room, a visual rhythm, like a signal fading from view. What would life be like without her, God forbid.

~

The gardener waves. It’s time to bring Miss Morris in for a rest.

~

In 1932, Lydia Thompson Morris died at the Compton estate in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, in the presence of her loyal household. And Jetta O’Toole—services rendered for twenty-three years—finally heard Mr. O’Neil breathe words more intoxicating than roses, “Will you marry me?”

~

Having remained in Miss Morris’s employ until her death, they each received an annuity which they pooled together and bought a nice house in Flourtown, and took vacations every now and then. Jetta died in 1958 and Jim in 1965. God rest their souls.

______________________________________________________________

Joyce H. Munro has returned to a first love—creative writing—after a career in college administration. She holds a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. Her articles on educational leadership and professional development have appeared in academic journals and her books have been published by McGraw-Hill, Dushkin, and ETS. Her creative writing can be found in Crosscurrents, Hamilton Arts & Letters, Boomerlit, As You Were: The Military Review, ArtAscent, Connections, Families, andPerspectives. In 2015, she was awarded first place in the Keffer Writing Contest of Families journal and her short story, “Avoch Bay,” was short-listed for the Galtelli Literary Prize.

Posted in Fiction | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Jetta