Scranton is no more than ten miles from Scovill Run, but it is a different world from the filthy coal town that has been my home—and my sister’s—for our entire lives.
But no longer. Claire left home almost a year ago to take a job in Scranton, and if I’d been honest with myself, I would have admitted that I knew she was never coming back even then. She had always wanted to escape and now she’s managed it. Harry Warriner will be able to give her all the things she’s never had and always wanted.
“You understand, don’t you?” she’d asked, last time she came home. “He can give me so much.”
“What do you need?” Claire had always pined for the things girls like us had no business knowing about, much less wanting.
“Well, things...” She chewed her lip, her pretty face all puckered with worry that I didn’t understand. “Don’t be like that, Ava. It’s different for you. You have Daniel.”
She was right. I did have Daniel—or I would, when the war ended and the army sent him home from France. I’d always had Daniel, but he would never give me the kind of things Harry could give Claire before their first anniversary.
Miners didn’t spend money on gifts for their wives, no matter how much they loved them. If they had any left over by the time the bills were paid, it was put aside for hard times: leaky roofs, unexpected shutdowns, doctor bills. Kids.
As we rumble along roads that have never seen such an elegant vehicle, I think of my perfect baby boy, who does not know his father. My husband has never seen his son because I can’t afford to have a photograph taken, not when the only earner in the family is overseas and it’s just me and Mama, sewing and cleaning and taking in laundry until he returns.
Daniel’s army pay is all right, but I would rather have my man at my side, particularly when Mama and I get out of this big car and have to pretend we know how to be with people like Harry Warriner’s family. Rich people who think nothing of sending a car to pick up the bride’s mother and sister from their falling-down house.
I don’t know how Mama feels. She sits beside me on the plush seat, her knotted hands folded on her knee, nodding gently in time to music only she can hear. Claire wasn’t her favorite—Mama never played favorites—but as the youngest, my sister had privileges the rest of us never had. Getting to finish school, for example. I would have liked to have gone to high school, but that was the year our father died and Mama needed my help.
By the time Claire turned fourteen, things were a little better. There was never any question that she wouldn’t go to the high school in the next town over, and then try to make something of herself.
“I always knew she was destined for more. She’ll end up fine, you watch.” Her voice bears a hint of a lilt, forty years after she left Galway.
“Do you think it will change her?” I ask.
“Of course, it will.” Mama turns to me. “But that’s what she’s always wanted, to be someone else.”
I nod and resume my silence, but her words irk me. I never had the opportunity to be anyone else. Certainly, no one ever asked if I wanted to be more than a miner’s wife, constantly worried about money, about my children, about whether or not my husband would come home from work.
Things must have been pretty bad in Ireland if my mother considered this an improvement.
The biggest difference in our situations is our husbands. I’ve known Daniel forever. He grew up across the road in a house just like mine, with parents just like mine. With tragedy just like mine. It was inevitable, and neither of us ever wanted to fight it. My father had his good points, but he grew harder and angrier with age, and he liked the bottle. Our home was never quiet, and none of us ever felt completely safe.
There is anger in Daniel, too, but not the kind that would ever turn toward his family. And both of us were so marked by our fathers’ love of liquor that we agreed we would never have it in our home.
Being in a place like France, there must be drink everywhere. I wonder if he still doesn’t drink, or if fighting has changed him. I can’t imagine his life over there; it was unimaginable enough in the mines, which have always terrified me.
A horn honks and I look up to see another car, too close to ours. While I’ve been woolgathering, dreaming of Daniel, we’ve arrived. The streets are rough but soon we turn onto a wide avenue that runs straight for blocks. We slow at a corner to let a streetcar pass and for a moment I think we have reached the hotel, but it is the train station, which is bigger than any place I’ve ever been, a five-story building with a clock face set above enormous pillars.
“This is the Searle Hotel, ladies,” the driver says from the front seat, as he pulls to the curb.
Ladies! I wonder how much they had to pay him to call us that.
“There’s Claire, waiting for us.” Mama straightens her hat and tugs on gloves that normally are worn only on Sundays. “Doesn’t she look pretty!”
“Claire always looks pretty.” Slighter than me, blonder than me, she is dressed in a dark blue suit with a froth of ruffles at the neck. Her pale hair is no longer in its familiar Gibson girl style but worn in a smooth band across her head, with the rest coiled in a complicated knot below the brim of her hat. She looks like something from a magazine.
If she’s changed this much before she’s married, moving to Philadelphia will take her from us completely.
And there you have it - the beginning of their time together, and the beginning of their separation. Read more by signing up here.