rocky and steep. From different counties in Ireland, Maggie Qualter and Richard Terrett both sail to America as
young adults in 1870 after surviving Ireland’s Great Hunger as children. Maggie works as a maid for a wealthy
family. Richard finds work in a tannery. After the death of the young wife he loves passionately, Richard marries
Maggie with the help of a deceptive go-between who brews trouble in their marriage that never goes away. They
raise three children in the midst of Irish American culture, the Catholic Church, and Richard’s battles for the
workingman in the Knights of Labor. Their daughter Mary dreams of being a nun, while Josie seeks the freedom of
big-city life in Boston. Neither reckons on the future she will face, Mary as a wife and mother of nine children
and Josie as a single working woman. Tom escapes factory life by joining the Navy, manages to see the world in
the midst of two wars, and comes home to marry his sweetheart and start a new life. Their stories are both
remarkable and familiar to everyone whose ancestors made their way to and in America.
The events in the Terretts’ lives are as they emerge from the public record. But their inner lives, their
thoughts, their relationships, their words are imagined as a route to understanding these five complicated and
Targeted Age Group:: adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
This book began when I was given a little rose gold ring with three turquoise stones that belonged to my great aunt Josie, who died in 1917. Josie had always been a mystery in the family, someone who wasn’t talked about, which had naturally kindled my curiosity. The ring was engraved with her initials and a date that seemed to have no explanation. In a chance remark in 2012, my mother alluded to the “scandal” of Josie’s death. This started me on a search to find out about her, which quickly led to her father, brother, stepmother, and half sister. The search for the facts bred a desire to understand these people which could only express itself imaginatively, through fiction.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
This book is fact-based fiction. With a couple of exceptions, the characters are based on real people. I found out as much as I could about them from the historical record as well as family lore and memory, although in some cases, this amounted only to one or two remembered quotes and a few facts. From this base in fact, the lives of the characters are imaginatively constructed. Their private thoughts and dialogue and the private letters they write grow out of my sense of their characters. Private events transpire as my sense of their characters suggests they would.
Maggie Qualter picked up the mail from the floor under the door slot and went out to check the front stoop to see if it would need sweeping before she went upstairs. She looked down the street to the capitol building. It was a windy day, and the dust from the line of horses and buggies and omnibuses that stretched in front of her filled the air. But the stoop looked all right, for now. She stood for a moment with the mail in her hands, a neat, compact little figure in her dark blue dress and gingham apron, just enjoying the cool breeze on her flushed face and looking at the chaotic Albany scene in front of her.
It had been a busy morning. With all the dust, it had taken longer than usual to sweep the steps and entry hall, and she’d had to hurry with the dining room and parlor before the Reeds’ breakfast. Then Mrs. Reed had told her to get the lighter blankets from the cedar chests in the attic before she made up the bedrooms. While she was washing the breakfast dishes, Jane kept needing her help with this or that preparation for luncheon. Then, because of the dust that was tracked in, she’d had to roll up the hall rugs and take them out back to beat them in addition to the regular morning jobs.
Now it was nearly noon, and time to go up to her room to wash and change into her afternoon uniform so she could answer the door and serve the tea for the afternoon callers. Giving a little sigh, she went back inside and was quickly sorting through the mail when she had a start. The sight of her sister Bridget’s handwriting gave her a moment of pleasure, then an anxious feeling. She placed the Reeds’ mail in the basket on the hall table, and ran up the back stairs to her room on the third floor to read the letter.
I hope you are well. Pat and little Martin are in the pink. I’m feeling a little better now that spring is here, and I get outside for a while each day.”
Maggie let out a quick breath. It was not a turn for the worse.
“I’m writing with some good news from Pat. He’s found a suitor for you, he thinks.”
Maggie laughed. A suitor indeed. What was this Pat Nolan had stirred up for her now? The sisters had been joking for a few months about finding suitors for each of them now that Nelly was here and there was no need to bring anyone else over from Athenry. Kate had surprised them all last year by taking up with John Kirker, a young man in his early thirties, when Kate was nearing forty, but Maggie had to admit that now they were married, they seemed very happy together.
“The young man is Richard Terrett. Pat knows him from the Hibernians in Woburn. He’s from Portarlington in Queen’s County. He’s a widower with two wee children, one just a year old. A very steady man with a good job at Squire’s tannery. He even owns a house. And Pat says to tell you he’s never seen him take a drink.”
Maggie smiled. Pat’s nod to her teetotaling ways.
“He thinks he’s about thirty years of age, and he’s a handsome man to look at.”
Maggie doubted Pat’s judgment on that. But it was an intriguing thought. If Kate could find a husband, and one she was devoted to, why couldn’t she?
“We would like to have you come and visit soon so you can meet him. Pat has mentioned you to him, and he would like it too.”
Maggie could only imagine what Pat had told Richard Terrett about her.
“So write and say when you can come, Maggie, for I think this is a good chance for you, and I am lonesome to see you.
Your loving sister,
Maggie brought the letter with her when she went to meet her other sisters at Kate’s house on Sunday. They had a good laugh over the idea of Pat Nolan picking out a husband for Maggie. But as they talked it over, the sisters urged her to meet him. What did she have to lose? When you’re in your late thirties, suitors do not grow on trees. If she wanted to marry at all, she would have to do it soon.
On Monday morning, Maggie found Mrs. Reed in the parlor checking the responses to the invitations for her Friday tea. She stood quietly, her hands folded in front of her, until her mistress looked up. “Yes, Margaret.”
“I’ve collected the wash to send out, Ma’am. Did you have anything special you want to have done?”
“No, Margaret, just the linens and whatever was in the clothes hampers.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” She waited.
Mrs. Reed looked up. “Was there something else, Margaret?”
“Yes, Ma’am. I’ve had a letter from my sister Bridget in Woburn, near Boston. She’s not well, you know, and she asked me to come and visit her. I was wondering if I could swap my Thursday for Saturday. That way I could go down on the afternoon train and come back Sunday evening.”
Maggie could see that Mrs. Reed’s first instinct was, as always, to say no to the help. But she thought better of it, realizing that she could use Maggie on Thursday, getting ready for the tea. “All right, Margaret. But you must realize this is a special favor. I can’t run the household properly if I can’t count on the servants to be here on schedule. And you’ll have to be all finished cleaning up after the tea on Friday night.”
“Yes, Ma’am. Thank you very much, Ma’am. I appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome, Margaret. I hope your sister is not too ill?”
“No, Ma’am, the doctor says it’s chronic bronchitis.” She knew better than to say the word consumption. “We have to watch to make sure it doesn’t turn into pneumonia. I’ll go down and do the housework and make her some nourishing food.”
“That’s good, Margaret. You’re a good sister. If there’s any food left after the tea you can take some of it to her.”
“Thank you, Ma’am.” The way Mrs. Reed calculated to the penny, she knew there would be precious little food left after the tea.
Maggie made sure her letter to Bridget got into the morning mail. Then she spent the rest of the week wondering what Richard Terrett would think of her and devising ways to smarten up her plain blue Sunday dress, which was not the newest. “At least he won’t think I waste all my money on clothes,” she decided.
When the train pulled into Woburn station, there was Pat Nolan waiting for her, with a grin on his freckled face as wide as a barn door. “Hello, Pat,” she said.
“Hello, Maggie. You’re looking well after your trip.” He took her little bag and they began walking toward the Nolans’ flat.
“Are you ready to meet your suitor, then?”
“Slow down, Pat Nolan. He’s hardly my suitor. I’ve not even met the man.”
“Oh, but he will be. He’s that eager to meet you.”
“Go on with you, Pat. What did you tell him about me?”
“Nothing but the truth, Maggie. I told him you were a kind and a generous woman who loves children and would take good care of his babies for him. I also told him you were a fine looking woman, which you are, and that you never walk when you can run.”
“Oh, whisht, now. How old did you say I am?”
“I told him you were about thirty years of age, about the same as him.”
“But Pat, I’m six or seven years older than that, at least.”
“You look younger. Anyone would take you for a girl in her twenties.”
“But if we go on with this, he’s bound to find out.”
“Well, if he does, what does it matter, really?”
“He might want a bigger family, for one thing.”
“And so. Here’s your sister Kate nearly forty years of age and having her first child.”
“Yes, and probably her last, but John knows it. It isn’t fair to lie.”
“Well, I’ve told him now, so just go along with it unless he asks. If he asks, you’ll know it’s a point with him, but if not, he probably doesn’t care.”
When they all met for Mass at St. Charles’s the next day, Bridget had to admit to herself that Pat was right about Richard Terrett. He was a handsome man, with a dignified, powerful bearing, regular features, dark brown hair, and strikingly deep blue eyes. He was tall for her, but then practically any man would be. She felt small and plain beside him, and tried to make up for it with laughter and lively chatter on the walk home. She showed off her skill at cookery by making a nice Sunday dinner for them all. Richard stayed for the afternoon, and they talked of their families and the old times in Ireland. Pat and Richard talked a bit about the Hibernians and the tanneries. She could see that he was a figure among the men, and his view of things mattered.
When it was time for her to go, Richard escorted her to the train station, and they talked more personally. He told her about the children and his hopes for making a good life for them. She thought he was a bit stiff at first. But she soon saw that he was just shy with her, and a little embarrassed by his position as a potential suitor. He was well-spoken and polite, and a straightforward, honest person. And he was devoted to his children, Tom and Josie. Anyone could see that.
Two weeks later, Maggie told Mrs. Reed that the situation in Woburn was urgent, and she needed to go and attend to things again.
“Well, if you feel you must, Margaret. If your sister is greatly in need of you. But you can’t make this a habit. Family is important, but you have a responsibility to our family too. Your job must be your first priority.”
“Yes, Ma’am. I understand. It’s just that this is a critical time. It looks like things will be much better if we come through this week all right.”
Maggie made dinner for the family and Richard again this time, but afterwards he took her over to his sister Ann’s house, next door to his own, where they had tea with Ann’s and his sister Margaret’s families, and Maggie finally got to meet the children. She got on well with three-year-old Tom, and baby Josie took to her. She was a dear little thing with big eyes in a cheerful round face, and Maggie felt motherly to her immediately. Richard showed her the house, a two-story with seven rooms, which was nearly brand new.
“The house is lovely, Richard. Your wife knew how to make a place comfortable,” she told him. The house indeed showed that a talented hand had been at work creating quilts and braided rugs and covers for the furniture, but Maggie’s expert eye could see that it needed attention, especially a good cleaning. Of course that was understandable with only a man to keep house. “Do you own the house? It belongs to you?”
He colored a bit. “Well, not exactly, Margaret. I have a mortgage on it. But I’m making the payments regularly. It will be mine when the principal payment is made, ten years from now.”
“And all this land. Is that your cowshed on top of the little hill?”
“Yes, we used to have a cow, but I sold it. It got to be too much for me.” He looked at the ground and cleared his throat. “The land between the houses is partly mine and partly the Connollys’. We had a garden in the past. I just didn’t get to it this year.” He looked down again, and she felt a pang of sympathy for him. Pat had said that he was very broken up when his wife died.
When they got back to the Connollys’, Maggie asked Ann about the garden, which had been shared between the two houses. “There seems to be plenty of room for a cow and some chickens as well,” said Maggie.
“Yes,” said Ann. “I’ve never had time for them myself. I’m the nurse-midwife of the neighborhood, as well as taking care of my own brood here. Richard’s wife Kate was a farmer’s daughter, and she kept a cow in the shed there and sold milk to the neighbors. They were planning to build a chicken coop, but they hadn’t gotten to it yet.”
“Ah, yes, I can see it’s a perfect place for it. It’s just what I would have done.”
Richard never made any reference to Maggie’s age, or to any desire for a big family, so she followed Pat’s advice and did not bring the subject up. She went back to Albany thinking that she might just marry this man. He was a good man by all accounts, and a dependable one with money. And he didn’t drink. She knew she could make a comfortable home for the family and do the things she had loved growing up on the farm, gardening and taking care of the animals, as well as the housekeeping she had learned in the big houses.
After conferring with the sisters in Albany, Maggie wrote to Richard, inviting him to come to tea at her sister Kate’s house in Albany, and two weeks later, he spent a Sunday afternoon with Kate and John and the other Albany sisters, Mary and Annie and little Mary and Nelly. He was a bit stiff again in the company of her family, but by now Maggie understood it was his shyness, and thought it endearing. Even on their best company behavior, her family could be over-whelming for anyone, as John would often tell them. He at least was happy for a male ally. After Richard left to catch the train, the sisters agreed he was handsome and well-spoken, and Nelly said she knew they could warm him up a bit once he was part of the family. With all his good qualities, it would be foolish to turn down a proposal if it came.
Two weeks later, Richard came to Albany and met Maggie for Mass. Afterwards, he took her to eat dinner in a fancy restaurant, something she had done only three times before in her life. They had a nice, quiet conversation together, and as they walked in the park afterwards, he asked her if she would consider being his wife. In his earnest way, he explained what he hoped their life could be together, and laid out his plans for the future.
“I know it’s a lot to ask, Margaret, to take on two little children, but I’d like to think I’m offering you my family as well as my home. I could see you took to Tom and Josie, and they to you.”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “They’re dear little ones that I could care for as my own, and I think I can make a home for you all.”
When Maggie gave her notice to the Reeds, Mrs. Reed was none too happy. She told Maggie she had thought she was not being honest about her reasons for going to Woburn. Maggie didn’t answer. It was true. But, considering Mrs. Reed’s behavior to her over the years, she didn’t care. She was grateful when Mr. Reed quietly gave her ten dollars as a wedding gift, and she used it to make a dress.
Maggie and Richard were married at St. Charles’s in Woburn on September 18, 1881. They chose a Thursday so that her Albany sisters could come, except for Kate, who was expecting her baby soon. They were able to get the Thursday morning off as well as the afternoon, so they came down on Wednesday evening and stayed with Bridget and Pat.
The subject of Maggie’s age still had not come up when it came time to fill out the marriage certificate. Since she did not know her actual birth date, she thought she might as well keep to Pat Nolan’s plan. She gave her birth year as 1851, making her a year younger than Richard. She knew this was much too late, for it would have made her nineteen years of age when she came to America, and she knew she had been well into her twenties. But as Pat had said, what did it matter really?
After a nice wedding breakfast for the family, the sisters caught the train back to Albany. Ann took care of the children while Maggie and Richard took the train to Boston, where they spent their first three days together, and then they went home to his house at 19 Arlington Street near the southeast edge of Woburn.
The three days were an eye-opener for Maggie. She was amazed at the things Richard knew, like just how big the Public Gardens were, and what the Common had been used for through the years. He knew who the architects were for many of the buildings, and when they were built. He knew the different historical sites of the American Revolution, and where Benjamin Franklin’s father was buried. It wasn’t as if he had stored up these things to impress her. All of it seemed to just be in his head and come out when it was wanted. When they visited the Natural History Museum in the Back Bay, he seemed to know a little something about each of the exhibits. He worked at entertaining her, and she appreciated it. Never in her life had she been the focus of such attention. Each time they stopped for something to eat, he consulted her taste and tried to get her something she considered a treat. She had a wonderful time, and it rubbed off on him too. It was already obvious to her that she was going to have to be the source of fun and good cheer in the family, but she thought she had enough for all of them.
The only disappointment for Maggie on their wedding trip was sex. It was not that she had unrealistic expectations. She was a farm girl who had grown up in a one-room cabin. She knew perfectly well how sex worked, and she had sometimes heard the stifled sounds of her parents’ pleasure from the bed in the corner of the room. She didn’t expect the kind of thing that Kate described between her and John. They were in love, as they would tell you. But she had hoped for a special joy, something theirs alone that they could share. So far, they hadn’t found it. Richard was considerate and patient, but he seemed distant, only partly there. Maggie was beginning to get used to his body, and she liked it, but she wasn’t sure he felt the same way about hers. Maybe it was too soon after his first wife’s death. She hoped that love would grow with their marriage.
When they got back to Woburn, the good beginning they had made was threatened by something Maggie had never thought of. Richard asked if she would like to deposit her savings in the Winchester Savings Bank in her new name. When she told him she hadn’t enough to bother with, only her last wages and what was left of the ten dollars from Mr. Reed, he looked surprised. “But I thought you had a nest egg. Didn’t you give Bridget and Pat the fare for their trip to Ireland?”
She tried to carry it off lightly, while explaining the truth to him. “That’s why I’ve only a few dollars. Bridget and Pat have gone twice to Ireland. We thought it would help poor Bridget’s health, and I was happy to pay for the trips, but it was all I’d saved.” She could see that he felt he’d been deceived, but whether by her or by Pat, she didn’t know. “I don’t know what Pat’s told you, Richard, but I’ve never had much money. Since I came over, I was always saving for passage for my sisters, and then when I did get a little ahead after Nelly came, poor Bridget needed it.”
He said that of course she had done right to help her family, but she could see it was a shock to him. “I mean to be a help to you, Richard,” she said, “not a burden. Before long I will have a cow and some chickens, and I can sell milk and eggs to the neighbors, and of course I’ll plant the kitchen garden in the spring.”
He was agreeable to this, and said he would help her by building the chicken coop and getting the shed ready for the cow, but she could see that a deep distrust had been planted where money was concerned. When he came home the next Saturday with his wages, she asked him how he wanted to handle the household accounts. Her brother-in-law Jim Connolly, like most of the men, just handed his pay over to his wife and took a small amount for his pocket money, but some of the men, Ann had told Maggie, kept the money and gave their wives a household allowance. Given what she knew of his ways already, Maggie expected that Richard would be one of them.
“I would prefer to handle the household accounts myself, Margaret. I’m used to it now, and I just pay Jim Haney’s bill at the grocery each week on my way home from work.” Maggie was stunned. Did he mean this as the insult she took it for?
“Is it because you don’t trust me with the money, Richard?”
“Why no, Margaret. I just prefer to keep the figures so I know where the money is going. We’re going to have to be careful to save enough for the mortgage.” Another reference to her lack of savings? “Your egg and milk money will be yours to spend as you think fit.”
“If that’s how you want it, Richard, but it’s not how the other houses are run. What will the other women think?”
His square jaw set firm. “I don’t care, Margaret, and you shouldn’t either. It’s no concern of theirs.” Well, perhaps it wasn’t, but that would not keep them from gossiping about it when they found out, as of course they would. Maggie decided to leave it for another day when she and Richard had gotten to know each other better. But every time she brought it up, he seemed to get more stubborn, not less. He would not put the money in her hands. In the end, it turned out not to be a hardship. He was very careful with money, but he didn’t skimp on food or when she or the children needed something. She charged almost everything they needed at the store, and the milk and egg money was enough to save her face with the neighbors. But still this issue lay between them, and try as she might, Maggie could not let it go.
The lie about her age also continued to bother her. She’d gone along with it, but she would never have done it if Pat hadn’t put her in that position. After a while, of course, Richard began to suspect that she was older than she had said, and he questioned her about her age. She was always able to get around it somehow, but she knew he didn’t believe her. It rankled that he thought her dishonest, but there it was. She had gone along with Pat to begin with, and there was no end to it that she could see.
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