By John Thomas Tuft
The building is a dark scar against the orange and pink sky at sunset. If sheer pain and misery was an edifice, it would bear this address. Human perishables rarely take the time to say, “wait, did we really just say or do that?” because we are so, so adept at denial. Maddie McCabe can’t afford to be adept at such denial. Maddie hopes to live in this monument of condescension or perhaps it is simply hopelessness. Maddie is a mail order bride, a business that traces its roots in the United States back over 400 years to the colonization of Virginia and Louisiana. The settlements were primarily made up of men, men who began to marry Native American women and left the settlements to live with their wives’ tribes or return to Europe. To offset this trend, the investors in such “for king and country,” (ie. For our own kind of people) endeavors set up various mail order bride mechanisms. Faith in a “tale as old as time” kind of love notwithstanding, or trust in “that feeling coming back again, like rolling thunder chasing the wind…” means that the search by humans for comfort and companionship is often sidetracked by reality.
Maddie cast her lot with an organization promising wealthy single men, “handsome and well-mannered, not prone to drinking to excess or profanity, regular church going available, if need be.” She exchanged letters for a year with one Sherman McCabe, an immigrant from Scotland sometime around the turn of the century; that is 1900. Sherman was attempting to be a sodbuster on the Great Plains out west. But in their correspondence he confessed to Maddie that his heart was not into farming in the endless winds of the prairie, and he was moving back east to work in the thriving steel mills of Pittsburgh. Maddie was of a practical nature, as well as compassionate, and her heart went out to the young man. If love is an act of faith, as much as a feeling of contentment and desire to be steadfast, then Maddie acted in love and came to Pittsburgh to marry Sherman. At that time, Pittsburgh was a city of dirty smoke and smoky dirt. Steel mills and coal mining prevailed.
Maddie got off the train, dismayed at the sootiness of the place. She made her way to the shabby tenement clinging to the side of a bluff along one of the rivers. Wooden staircases crisscrossed the outer wall, linking small balconies where laundry lines bowed under the wait of sheets and work clothes soaking up the sooty air. Small children played in the muddy courtyard. All revolutions have disparate casualties, and the Industrial Revolution was no exception. The mills and mines and factories gobbled up workers at an astounding rate and they had to live somewhere. Poles, Russians, Slovaks, Italians, and on and on, separated themselves into enclaves, seeking out their own kind to bear and share the struggle. Maddie took all this in, as she made her way to the number Sherman had put in his last letter. But her firm knock was answered, not by a rugged Scotsman, but rather a diminutive Italian woman. “He be dead,” the woman said. “Last Tuesday, mill in accident. Our home now.” And closed the door.
Maddie was stranded in a strange land among a strange people. She had arrived on a one-way ticket with no money to her name, only her faith in love to guide her. Maddie, however, was not prone to panic, or the vapors. She found a nearby rooming house and struck a deal to help the owner with cleaning and laundry in exchange for a break on her room and board, a cot in the basement near the coal cellar and two meager meals a day of bread and thin soup. Determined to do better, Maddie eventually found work as a toll taker on the Monongahela Incline, a twelve hour shift at the cable cars that ferried workers up and down Coal Hill for six cents per ride. In 1906, she was hired at the HJ Heinz plant across the Allegheny River as a food preparer. One of the benefits of working there was the opportunity for hot showers and weekly manicures, all at Mr. Heinz’s insistence in the name of food cleanliness and purity.
Throughout all this time, Maddie still carried her faith in love. One summer day in 1909, when a shift supervisor asked if he could court her, she said yes. They rode the trolley out to the Oakland section of the city where a gleaming new, state of the art baseball park called Forbes Field, had recently opened. It was all quite wondrous to Maddie, and she reveled in the sights and sounds of the crowd. Nine years since her arrival and disappointment had slipped by and she felt confident. She wished her mother could see her now. Tales of even waitresses forming unions and the idea of women’s suffrage gave the sense of endless promise. One day, if one dared to dream big, a woman would be in Congress. Maddie was sure of it. She still had faith in dreams…
Later, the young widower asked Maddie to be his wife. After all, she was thirty now and the death of his wife had left him with two small children to raise alone. There was no need to have more but they did need a mother. Such is the lot of our ancestors. We do not always know their motivations and purposes, dreams and struggles. But for Maddie, she still had faith. She stood before the mirror and gave herself a long, searching look. Yes, faith. She had faith. In love. And she loved herself enough to know what her decision would be. She stepped out of the room and back down the stairway to the parlor. To give him the answer that through it all, she was not losing faith…
Words are magic and writers are wizards.