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Love Across the Ages

December 14, 2017 08:50PM
Blurb: In her parents' attic, and in the basement of a building he owns, Beth Bennet and Will Darcy make similar discoveries--and each one has an encounter with someone from the past. Set in both present-day and Progressive-era Boston.

Chapter 1

Beth Bennet sighed as she entered her childhood home in Roxbury, Massachusetts, ready for another full day of cleaning and sorting. Today won’t be so bad, she reminded herself. Yesterday, as she boxed up photos, albums, and family heirlooms, she found herself frequently sobbing as she remembered both her parents, her mother who had died a few years’ earlier, and her father, who had passed away this summer.

Today she had a slightly different task ahead of her: going through the many boxes in the attic, and determining which items there should be preserved, and which could be donated or discarded. The goal was to empty the house and prepare it for sale, and she was spending her winter break to make that possible.

It was a good time to get away from the stress and tension of work at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington,* as well as to spend time with family. Furthermore, she had volunteered for this job. Although her older sister Janet lived the closest, in the Boston suburb of Brookline, her demanding job as Chief of Pediatrics at Mass General Hospital and family responsibilities with three young children kept her too busy to devote the time required to clean out Dad’s home. Her younger sister Lynette had pleaded busyness as well due to her acting career in Los Angeles, even though outside of a few parts as extras, she spent a lot more time working at temp jobs than as an actress.

So the task was left to her. Intense emotions aside, Beth was happy to do it. She wanted to make sure the important memories from their family were preserved, and the attic task even held some excitement for her. As a junior professor of African-American history, she suspected that her family’s attic held a trove of historical treasures. She had grown up hearing so much family lore about her distant ancestor who had run away from a South Carolina plantation in 1845, arriving in Boston. There, he was taken in by a free black family, who taught him to read and eventually allowed their daughter to marry him. He had taken the family’s last name, Bennet, as his own, and had gone on to establish an abolitionist newsletter.

When Beth was a teenager, her father had unearthed a crate of documents in the attic written about and by this ancestor, and had donated them to the Museum of African American History in Beacon Hill. He had always said that he believed many more such gems remained, but prior to having a chance to explore them, he had had to become a caretaker for her mother who had MS, and then, after her death, was faced with his own cancer for several years before succumbing. Beth could think of no greater legacy for her parents than to discover the stories that remained in those dusty boxes and chests.

A few minutes after she climbed the attic stairs, her cell phone rang. It was Janet. “Hey girl,” her sister said. “How’s it look so far?”

“There is so much stuff up here…” Beth paused to sneeze. “And it’s so dusty! My allergies are killing me right now.”

“Well, take frequent breaks and wear a face mask if you have one. You’re coming over for dinner tonight, right?”

“Of course! You know I wouldn’t miss spending as much time with the kiddos as I can. When can I babysit?”

Janet laughed. “Whenever you want! But not tomorrow night. You’re going out with Chase and me to MGH’s winter fundraiser. Our nanny will watch the kids.”

Beth groaned. “Are you trying to fix me up again?”

“Not fix you up exactly. Just introduce you to someone.”

“Oh great, introduce me to someone who lives here in Boston, when I live all the way across the country.”

“Hey, if you hit it off, he’s rich. He can fly out to visit you whenever he wants. Anyway, he’s a nice guy, he’s gorgeous, and he’s a good friend of Chase’s.”

Beth sighed. “You’re not going to let me out of this, are you?”

“Nope!” Janet chuckled. “Even if nothing comes from it, you need to at least have some fun while you’re here. This is a huge job you’re doing right now, and I really appreciate it.”

“Yeah, well, you know it means a lot to me to do it. Speaking of which, I need to get back to it.”

“All right then. Love you, sis.”

“Love you, too.”

A few hours into her exploration, Beth knew she had found a goldmine—a journal from the years 1911-1912 written by her great-great-great aunt, whose name had also been Elizabeth Bennet. The original Beth Bennet (or Eliza, as it appeared she was called) was also a part of family lore, because she had been a suffragette. Beth’s pulse quickened, realizing that she might have in her hands the foundation for her next academic research project. Calculating back, Beth determined that Eliza Bennet would have been about 20 or 21 when the journal was written. Were these her formative years, setting the stage for her to become the firebrand feminist she became? Beth knew that Eliza had never married, and wondered if the journal would reveal why. Had she ever fallen in love, but didn’t want to conform to society’s strictures for women at the time? Or perhaps she loved women instead of men, something society would have considered disgraceful back then. Or maybe romance wasn’t part of her thinking at all, so devoted she was to the causes she espoused.

Taking the journal with her, Beth went downstairs to eat the soup and sandwich she had picked up at Panera Bread on the drive from her hotel to the house. Carefully turning the well-worn pages, she began to read. Within minutes she was laughing. As a young teacher, Eliza had certainly felt strong emotions about a man she called F. One such passage read:

“F means to frighten me by coming to my classroom each morning and staring at me, perhaps to convince me that my skills in pedagogy are inadequate. I will not be alarmed, though I am the most junior of teachers at this school. There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.

“Indeed, I refer to him as F in this diary rather than by his honorific, as my private means of rebellion. Jane would no doubt be shocked if she knew—and even more were she to discover that sometimes I enjoy his observations, for he is quite handsome to look at.”

In another passage, she wrote:

“Insufferable man! F claims to be of such a superior mind as to keep all his weaknesses and pride under good regulation. As if such a thing were possible for anyone claiming the mantle of human being!”

Beth smiled. Eliza was a feisty soul. It was no wonder she had gone on to fight for women’s rights.

More about F. Since his introduction, Eliza had mentioned him on nearly every page. She claimed to despise him, but wrote about him so frequently that Beth presumed Eliza was a bit blind to her feelings.

“More than once during my noon-time rambles in the Public Garden have I unexpectedly met F. How perverse the mischance that should bring him there! To prevent its ever happening again, I informed him that the Garden was a favorite haunt of mine, as I dearly love to watch the Swan Boats carrying their passengers.** How it could occur a second time, therefore, was very odd! -- Yet it did, and even a third. It seemed like willful ill-nature, or a voluntary penance, for on these occasions it was not merely a few formal inquiries and an awkward pause and then away, but he actually thought it necessary to turn back and walk with me as we returned to the school-house. He never says a great deal, nor do I give myself the trouble of talking or of listening much; but it struck me in the course of our third rencontre that he was asking some odd unconnected questions—about my pleasure in being at the Darcy School, my love of solitary walks, and the happiness of my recently married dear friend Charlotte.”

At this point, Beth laughed out loud. F was hitting on her! She supposed that Eliza was young enough and sheltered enough not to recognize it. Beth paused for a moment. Eliza was a naïve young woman being pursued by a sophisticated man. Had this F broken Eliza’s heart? Was that why she had never married?

There was a knock at the front door, and Beth rose to see who it was. Peering outside, she saw a tall man standing outside on the snow-covered walkway. He was a white guy, and even though she knew Roxbury had gentrified a lot in the last decade or so, so it wasn’t unusual anymore to see white people in this neighborhood, his stiff wool coat and old-fashioned hat made him seem extremely out of place.

Deciding that he wasn’t dangerous, she took a chance and opened the door. “Yes?” she asked.

The man removed his hat, and then paced a bit on the front stairs. He was very handsome, with tousled dark curls and brown eyes. “May I come in?”

Beth was starting to regret opening the door. “No! I have no idea why you’re here. What do you want?”

The man winced. “Please, Eliza,” he begged. “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

* The tension at Evergreen State College refers to the following controversy that occurred earlier this year (as reported by several faculty members in the Huffington Post): “On the [annual] Day of Absence, people of color who chose to do so generally attended an off-campus event, while whites who chose to participate stayed on campus to attend lectures, workshops and discussions about how race and racism shape social structures and everyday life. Many classes embraced the opportunity of Day of Absence to focus attention on how racism has impacted their own disciplines... The Day of Absence follows an important tradition of caucusing, in which people who share a common identity find value in creating autonomous space to share experiences. At Evergreen the Day of Absence is always followed by a Day of Presence where people have the opportunity to reconnect to the larger community by participating in shared learning activities, including a keynote speaker, a performance, and workshops.

Last spring the organizers switched the two events; the event for students of color was held on-campus, and the event for white students was held off-campus. As always, participation in some form was assumed, but attendance at the events was voluntary; the announcement to the campus read, “On Day of Absence, you can choose how and where to participate.” Nevertheless, faculty member Bret Weinstein denounced it on the faculty listserv, arguing that the college was engaging in “a show of force” and that whites were being coerced to leave campus. Although numerous colleagues attempted to show Weinstein that he was mistaken, he persisted, urging the college to “set phenotype aside.”

** The Public Garden is an enchanting floral green space in downtown Boston. The Swan Boats, which were introduced in 1877, are pleasure boats adorned with twin swans that meander through the Public Garden’s pond.

Love Across the Ages

Amy A-NWDecember 14, 2017 08:50PM

Re: Love Across the Ages

Lucy J.December 17, 2017 04:53AM

Mods : Title edit requested

Amy A-NWDecember 17, 2017 12:23AM

Re: Love Across the Ages

Michelle AnneDecember 15, 2017 05:41AM


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