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A Saint Maggie Short Story by Janet R. Stafford
The Norton Arms Hotel stood proud on the Blaineton town square at the corner of Second and Main Streets. It was a large establishment, built in 1864, offering the latest and best in accommodations, fine dining, and entertainment.
But before the hotel was built, another house had stood there, the details of which the new owner was woefully ignorant.
Built in 1801, the previous building had been the home of Timothy and Caroline Blaine. Timothy worked as a printer and bookbinder and was so skilled that people from other towns came to him to have their work put into print or bound as a book. He did well with his business, and it was a good thing, as Timothy and Caroline had a large family. Together they produced ten children, two of whom died early, but the other eight thrived and grew in a house with four bedrooms. The eldest of the children was Letitia, commonly known as Letty.
In those days, houses were the center of a family's life. Within their walls weddings, births, deaths, and funerals occurred. It was the natural course of things.
The first death in the Blaine family was Caroline, who passed in 1815 from complications due to childbirth. The responsibility of caring for the youngest children, with of course the help of a wet nurse to feed baby Jonah, fell to her twenty-one-year-old daughter Letitia.
For some girls this might have been a burden and a tragedy, as it took them away from their prime tas of finding a husband. However, for Letty it came as a relief. She was not the least interested in things like courtship and marriage and, from the moment her mother passed away, she took over the organization and running of the household as if she had been born to it.
In 1820, when her father, Timothy, followed his wife into the great Unknown, he left the house to Letty and the printing and bookbinding business to his eldest son, Matthew, who was 23 years of age. This gave Letty an excuse to happily eschew all young men who turned up at her door with romance and marriage on their minds. She never cared for such things, and never would.
As far as the business went, Matthew proved to be every bit as skilled as his father at the family trade, having worked with him since boyhood. And so the money continued to flow into the family coffers.
The second oldest boy, Gordon, had apprenticed with the local carriage builder when he was very young. Eventually, he married the man’s only child, a lovely girl named Deborah. When his father-in-law died, Gordon inherited the carriage business, as well as the family house on the other side of the square. The young man built the business until he had a factory that turned out fine carriages and wagons.
In time, Matthew married, too, but waited until he attained the age of 36. His life had been taken up with his trade and with working with Letty to find suitable mates for sisters Rebekah (25) and Sarah (22). A wedding also was in the offing for 19-year-old Katherine. As for Jonah, the baby, he was now 17 and had been apprenticed to the town’s apothecary. His siblings were all nearly settled, so Matthew could settle, as well, and settle he did in the old family home, with Letty continuing to serve as household manager.
Matthew soon became desirous of more space and, after conversation with Letty’, added on to the old house in the spring of 1840.
All was well for the family until a typhus epidemic hit in June of that year.
Despite Letty’s best efforts to nurse her stricken loved ones and the doctor’s attempts to provide help, Matthew, his wife, and all three of their children perished. In his will, Matthew left all of the money as well as his business to Letty. Since she knew nothing about printing and bookbinding, Letty sold the shop for a high price, something that abruptly made her a very wealthy woman.
But what of what value was all that money when she lived alone in a large house? The place now had a sad, empty feeling to it – and it echoed in Letty’s heart.
A few months later, in the summer, the extended Blaine family experienced yet another trauma: a scandal. Gordon’s son John had eloped with a young woman named Margaret Beatty. But the elopement wasn’t the problem. Rather, the difficulty had to do with the fact that the young couple’s fathers owned competing carriage manufactories.
Letty read the reports in the local newspaper and listened to Gordon when he spoke of business and expressed his anger at his son's marriage. The rivalry between the Blaines and the Beattys was intense, so it really did not surprise Letty when both families disowned the apostate couple and tossed them into the street.
Letty’s heart went out to John and Maggie. Since she was now 46 years old, and age was erasing the importance of social acceptability, she decided that she would flout convention and invited the young people to live in her own home.
Of course, her brother threatened never to speak to her again and for some years made good on his word. But Letty was adamant. John and Maggie had not broken any law. They merely, and ignorantly, had stepped into the messy politics of business and family. They did not deserve to be cut off.
Thus, Letty said, “Do as you must,” to her brother and took the young couple into her home. Although she missed speaking with Gordon, she gained something far greater: her house was now filled with laughter, love, and joy. And eventually children - three of them. They were named Lydia, Frances, and Gideon.
Things were happy and busy and noisy for ten years until another epidemic hit. This time it was rheumatic fever, and it took the lives of Letty’s nephew John and little Gideon, who was not yet three years old.
Now well into her late 50s and her wealth dwindling, Letty recognized that her time on earth might soon end, which would leave John’s young widow, Maggie Beatty Blaine on her own. And so Letty spent many a night wondering what this young woman could do with the old house set on the square that would bring her an income.
Finally, one night, in a dream, Letty got her answer. She saw the place filled with people – primarily men – who needed a place to live. They were all happy, and so was Maggie.
The next morning, Letty marched into the kitchen, where Maggie was making breakfast, and announced, “My dear, we are going to turn this old place into a boarding house!”
Maggie looked up from a pot of oatmeal, surprise all over her face. “A boarding house?”.
“Yes, indeed! And you shall be its proprietor.”
“But I know nothing about running a boarding house.”
“Neither, do I. But together, my dear, we shall learn!”
And so the house on the square changed from one family’s home to another kind of home – a place for people unrelated who became a family, nonetheless.
The boarding house was still a home that saw weddings, and births, and deaths, and funerals. But the last deaths in it were due to something other than disease. And those deaths, along with the others, echoed long after the building burned down and after the brand new hotel took its place.
The trouble was… the new owner neither knew nor cared about the lives and deaths of those who had preceded him.
And that was a pity.
Because he was about to play with fire.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder