Monday, October 17, 2011

About “She”

Without so much as mentioning the woman’s name at first, Theresa Blaising Stevens reveals some between-the-lines family history regarding her step-daughter in her letter to her daughter-in-law in Chicago, Agnes Tully Stevens. As I’ve mentioned before, Agnes’ recently deceased husband, William Stevens, had an older half-sister. Both this half-sister and Will were raised by their stepmother, Theresa, in the family home in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Before continuing with the transcription of the second page of Theresa’s letter to Agnes, a little explanation is necessary to round out the picture on this half-sister, Catherine Louise Stevens Stahl. While you already know that Catherine’s mother died shortly after the birth of a younger sister who also passed away, there are a few more details to Catherine’s life story. Of course, I don’t know enough of them to fairly provide “the rest of the story” from this young woman’s point of view, but I’ll give you what I do know up to this point.

Following the tragic start to Catherine’s early years, home life must have stabilized somewhat for the child, as her father married Theresa when the girl was not yet seven. I have found nothing further on her young life of significance until the point of her marriage when she was nearly twenty seven.

Catherine married Frederick James Stahl, a machinist and shop foreman for the Pennsylvania Railroad in Fort Wayne. This railroad connection may have been another outgrowth of Catherine’s affinity for William’s deceased mother’s Kelly family, some of whom also worked, at one time, for the same shop. The wedding breakfast following their marriage ceremony, for instance, was hosted at the home of Mrs. P. H. Phillips—Will’s Aunt Mary Kelly Phillips, sister of his deceased mother, and wife of one of Frederick’s fellow railroad workers.

The August 21, 1907, newspaper account of the Stahl-Stevens wedding, though surely inflated with the usual hyperbole, painted the couple as “very popular” with a “wide circle of friends.” The bride, described in the article as “a young woman of great beauty and charm,” wed a man in this Cathedral ceremony “much liked on account of his genial nature.”

And yet, the Journal Gazette article mentioned that the ceremony, “in accordance with the wishes of the bride,” would be “a very quiet affair.” Perhaps this was owing to a tragedy which had only recently befallen the Stahl family: the death of Frederick’s brother, Charles Sylvester Stahl. Better known to Boston Red Sox fans as their star outfielder Chick Stahl, the man had fallen from his glory days of having hit three triples for his team in the 1903 World Series to a silent personal agony left unrevealed to the moment of his suicide five months before his brother Frederick’s wedding.

A brief newspaper mention, just after the New Year in 1910, described another less-than-jovial event: Catherine was “recovering rapidly from the effects of an operation” and “will soon be able to be removed to her home.” Though I have no idea what the nature of that surgery was, I’ve wondered if it might have been the cause of Fred and Katie’s childless home—was it by their choice or owing to medical difficulties that this was their situation?

Almost exactly a year later, it was Catherine's husband, Fred, who was home, recuperating. He had been injured at work. Considering the risk of railroad-related occupations of that time period, I have no idea how serious Fred’s injury was, but I do know, for instance, that the Mrs. P. H. Phillips who had so graciously hosted the young couple’s wedding reception suddenly met widowhood in 1912, owing to her own husband’s injuries while working for the railroad.

From that point, the narrative goes blank as to further events in their lives before the date of Theresa’s letter. Whether it was a point of contention that caused the family rift, or a long series of misunderstandings, as sometimes happens in home life, I have no further clue as to Catherine’s estrangement from the ones she could call her family.

I’ll pick up Theresa’s correspondence where we left off yesterday, at the beginning of the second page, so you may see for yourself.

Yes Agnes I feel like you. I don’t think he needs many prayers but we will continue to pray for him, in case he would need them. I feel so lonesome when I think I don’t have a line from him any more. It was nice you had eight more masses to send to Fr. Kemper. She surely was very tight and very small to only give one Mass. One dollar to her only brother. I surely can’t figure them people out. She called me up last Wednesday eve about seven o’clock and said how are you, and all in one sentence said my isn’t it hot. I said yes it was and I wanted to get out of this hot kitchen onto the porch, and she hung on and on. I can read her like a book. She thinks I will say if I heard from you folks and what you said. I used to tell her when I would hear from Will or you and always tell how Will was, but I have cut it out. She never asks me if I heard from you and how are you getting along. So I think if she can’t at least ask, it is none of her affairs about how things. I bet they have hashed things over and wondered this and that, and how much Insurance and all you got or if Will had any. I don’t tell her a thing. They are so tight mouthed about their own affairs. How often they could have taken a few eats and took an early Sunday train up to see Will, when they have a pass. Even Katie could have run up now and then, the way she did when it was too late to even say Will, I am sorry for this or that. I only wish they were different towards you all, because if anything happens to me, it would make things better for all. I always wanted to have Will and you come and take possession of house

At that, Theresa runs out of space on the page, and without punctuation here, continues on the next page, though correcting herself by capitalizing the next word as if beginning a new thought.

I am presuming “when they have a pass” may refer to something similar to the benefits enjoyed by today's airline employees, who may access free or next-to-nothing travel as part of work agreements. As Katie’s husband was a lifelong employee of a major rail carrier of the time, she evidently had such an opportunity, so it wasn’t cost of travel that held her back from visiting her ailing half-brother. Why Theresa thinks apologies might be in order has been left unexplained. But that there was a rift in the family is evident, as will be further seen as the letter continues tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. You are correct with the "have a pass" concept. The Railroads often gave employees a pass to travel on their home lines (and others) in order to get to and from work. They become quite controversial later on - I suppose the government wanted to tax the fringe benefit. The Railroads often gave free rides to Clerymen and Congress Critters too. Many attempts were made to outlaw the practice.

    After the first page of this letter, the writer becomes quite "catty" and bitter sounding. Its a shame how families ... get "that way" when they don't make time for each other.


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