Chapter OneMy name is Emily Meyer. My story begins, interestingly enough, around the time I met my best friend, Susan Watson. Before then, nothing of great consequence happened in my life. I was born into a poor family on the east side of Manhattan. Growing up, I knew nothing of riches only of poverty. I knew nothing of family, either, as my parents died when I was young. I became a burden on society around the age of five.
The orphanage I was forced to live at was a mere farm house filled with fifty kids. We had chores feeding the animals, keeping the house clean and cooking. None of which really bothered me, but it was hard work, and when you are a young child you hate hard work. Ma and Pa, as we were forced to call them, were the evilest of human beings. They had a small out-house looking building in the back which was called the pit. Because I was often disruptive, I spent many nights lying in the pit without food until I cooperated. To say the least, I was overjoyed when I was old enough to be on my own. And when I turned old enough, I left the home I grew to hate, and the family of fifty I never planned to write, and I set off on my own. I spent most of those first years on the streets, begging for handouts, until I found salvation from my meager wages at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, and in a poor immigrant family which had 12 kids and welcomed the extra income. But, like I said, it was not until I met Susan that I really began to understand how life was supposed to be; that words like "family" and "home" actually meant something; that you could love and be loved in return, unconditionally. And those things meant everything.
The year was 1911. It was January, two months before the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory would make the headlines, two months before my life would change forever, just two months before I would lose my best friend, Susan Watson. But, on the 25th, Susan lay asleep in her bed, not knowing everything was about to change. Not knowing she was about to begin a journey that would lead her, ultimately, to her end.
"God giveth and God taketh away."
I remember those words as if Susan said them yesterday.
"Everyone must go through trials. Sometimes, we just have to experience the bad to appreciate the good."
It was a difficult time for Susan and me. Two young women barely reaching the age, where innocence was slipping away and the reality of life was becoming clear and ever so depressing. Susan had a love for life, though, which I never understood. The last year we spent together was the best time of my life. I learned so much from her as she taught me how to live, how to love, and how to hope for things to get better. But as she said herself, 'God giveth and God taketh away.' As for me, I was not prepared for what God would take from me that year.
It was a cold morning in the lower east side of Manhattan. The poor were crowded in the streets, where the stench of horse manure and dead fish clung to the air. There were babies crying, as they did every night, hungry for food and begging for warmth. It was a hard time for all of us as we tried to make ends meet and worked to keep our families alive. Society was pushing down as the population grew with the influx of immigration. The reality of the job market was that the factory you worked in could pay you as little as they wanted. They could keep you late and pay you nothing. They could keep you locked up, cramped in a room with 200 women and children, and nobody thought anything of it. One thing was for sure, the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. And even with diseases running rampant, killing nearly one member of every family, the population continued to grow, and people continued to starve in the cold night air.
Susan lay quietly that morning, however, sheltered from the cold by her snug bed which contained four thick blankets curled tightly around her body. Money was scarce for her family as her father had just been laid off, having been injured at work, but Susan was not thinking of that this morning. Her family struggled as all did, but she slept content in her dreams, only moving slightly so not to throw the blankets and exposure her body to the cold air. And as the sun crept into the darkened sky, stretching its long rays to shake sleep from the city, Susan's beautiful blue eyes blinked open.
'It can't possibly be morning,' she thought to herself as she rolled over, trying to cover her eyes with the ragged blanket next to her. 'I just fell asleep.'
This was true. For after a long days work at the shop, the fact was, she had just fallen asleep. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was home to 500 women and children and 100 men during the day hours and much into the night. These workers, who worked nearly 16 hours a day, were paid mere dollars for their week's labor. Apple turnovers were their reward for overtime, that's if they got paid for overtime. Susan never complained, though. She said it was because she loved the bakery's apple turnovers so much, but I guessed it was to keep her own spirits up. Complaining only led to self-pity and she could not get trapped like that.
However, this morning, a little self-pity crept into her chest as she thought of the young women, her age, snuggled in their warm beds not required to wake and go to work at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Surely they felt happy as they woke, knowing that their world held nothing of old sewing machines, hardback chairs, thread or needles, all of which Susan had to rent, which made it much like paying to work for a living. She barely made money as it was with all the rent she paid. And on days like yesterday, when she worked all day and all night, it really made no difference. Her eyes closed for a minute as these envious thoughts went swishing around in her head. Then, once again, she blinked, this time pushing herself onto the cold wood floor.
There was no getting past what the morning held for her, she thought to herself. Her black skirt and white high collared shirt lay next to her bed, wrinkled and worn from the night before. She almost dreaded putting them back on, but being consigned to the fact that it must happen, she threw her shirt and skirt on as quickly as she could, pausing for a moment to look out her small bedroom window which had been covered carelessly by torn bed sheets. The sun twinkled in her eyes as a smile passed across her small mouth.
"What a beautiful morning," she whispered. "Surely it cannot be a bad day with a sun like that out." Then taking one last deep breath in, she turned and ran down the stairs. Her feet barely touched the ground as she skipped into the kitchen. Her mother stood covered in flour from the bread she had begun kneading and smiled as Susan sprung towards her.
"Smells great," Susan told her mother as she kissed her gently on the cheek. "Busy already."
"Always," her mother smiled, using the back of her hand to push her slightly grayed hair from her flour-covered face. Her age lines were more visible in the sunlight. Her wearied face seemed desperate and pleading as she stood making due with the only ingredients she could afford that week.
"When isn't she," a gruff voice came from behind. Susan turned to see her twin brother, Matthew, seated at the small wooden table. His bowl, nearly emptied, sat in front of him as he played with what little portion of porridge remained. Matthew's blue eyes were much like Susan's, large and vulnerable. His blonde hair was carelessly pulled to one side which made him look much younger than he was, yet still extremely handsome. He grinned at Susan as she fell into the seat beside him.
"Long night," he questioned as he finally shoveled the last bit of porridge into his mouth
"Very," Susan huffed. "I didn't think they would ever let us leave."
"Did they pay you for it?"
Susan pointed to a small box which sat in the corner of the kitchen. Matthew looked at the box for a few seconds and then turned back to Susan, but before he could say more, the kitchen door flew open and in stumbled their father.
Susan's father was a tall man, who slouched more since the accident. His face, which used to be clean-cut, was covered carelessly with whiskers matted to his face from liquor that dripped down his chin. His breath always smelt of alcohol, and the only time Susan saw him was in the mornings, when he would finally arrive home from the bar. He looked particularly unkempt this morning as his gray hair, which barely covered the top of his head, was matted as if he hadn't washed in a while. His eyes were glazed over and red, a familiar symptom of his heavy drinking. His right arm hung limply at his side, the injury which cost him his job, and for him, the reason behind his heavy drinking. Susan stared blankly at him as he staggered, trying to remove his shoes, crashed into Matthew's chair, and then slurred a string of profanities.
Matthew's eyes closed tightly as his father brushed past him. He and his father had nothing but harsh words for each other lately. Before the accident, Matthew idolized his father. Their family had always lived a quiet life without many luxuries, but Matthew felt like they had everything that matter, and more than that, their father was a very beloved member of the community. Everyone knew if they had a problem they could go to Joe Watson, and he would do everything in his power to help. After the accident, though, he became so bitter that he pushed everyone away, including his son.
Matthew's mind flashed back to the man he used to be proud of as the man in front of him grabbed his mother and kissed her awkwardly on the mouth. She tried to position herself so not to smell his breath which reeked of hard liquor. Then, seeing Susan, he turned and headed back to the table, throwing his arms around her.
"Susan-n-n," he said with a slur. "I love you."
"I love you too, Papa," Susan replied with a fake smile, looking over at Matthew who shifted in his seat nervously.
"Susan-n-n, can I ..."
But before he could finish his sentence, he was out of the kitchen, pushed angrily by their mother. Susan had seen her father stagger into the house before, she had even seen the weary look in her mother's face as he asked his children to buy him liquor, but she never could get use to it. The smell of booze and smoke clinging to his clothes, as his three little children lay upstairs in their beds. Susan cringed at the thought.
"You've got to get out, Sissy. It's no good there," Matthew whispered, reentering their earlier conversation as if their father had never come home. Susan and Matthew watched as their mother returned to the room, muttering under her breath, her face red with anger as she went back to the stove and stirred the pot of porridge which was nearly gone and did not need to be stirred, but it seemed to cool her down nonetheless.
"And go where, Matthew," Susan questioned as she moved her chair into his and lowered her head so their mother could not hear the remainder of their conversation. "We need the money and there are no other jobs around here."
"I don't like it. I don't like how they treat you there. Keeping you long hours, locking you up, it's not safe," he continued, moving his chair slightly as well.
Susan shifted in her seat to reply but before she could a plate of bread was thrust in between them. They looked up to see their mother hovering over them.
"You two don't need to lower your voices for me," she exclaimed. "I am old enough to handle whatever you got to say. There are no secrets in this house."
They both continued to stare at their mother, who was looking down at them, sternly. Susan and Matthew's mother was a very proud woman. She did not like things being out of her control. She did not like her children working while she stayed home. That was a fight she lost, though. Her life did not turn out how she planned. The love between her and her husband was gone. She had been through too much, seen too much, and Susan and Matthew wanted nothing more than to make her happy. Yet, with the belief that repeating what they had said would not be in their best interest, they quickly straightened up in their seats, and took a piece of bread from the plate which had been thrown on the table.
"Are you working late tonight, Susan," their mother asked quietly, shaking her head at their silence. Susan could hear the guilt in their mother's voice as she swallowed hard. It was a difficult day for their mother when Susan started at the factory. Susan and Matthew had barely turned 19 when their father got hurt at his job and was laid off because he was no longer useful to the company; 30 years and they dropped him without taking a second glance. After that, their father turned to drinking heavily, leaving Susan, Matthew and their mother to care for the three younger boys who were all under the age of eight. Matthew got a job at the same factory which had lain off his father, being the most available job at the time since they had just become one man short. They liked Matthew, and took him immediately, because he was young and strong, and they could pay him practically nothing compared to his father who had been there for so long. But with Matthew making so little, they were not keeping up on the rent, and Susan knew she too had to find a job so their family could stay together. Her mother fought it the whole way, saying she should get a job. But with the three young boys at home needing a mother, Susan insisted her mother stay home to care for them. It was not an easy time on their family, and it was only getting worse. They were still barely making due, and everyday things got a little tighter.
"I'm sure they'll make her," Matthew replied with a grimace.
"I really don't know, mama," Susan replied shooting a glare at her twin brother. She hated that he made their mother worry so much. "They never really tell us until we are supposed to leave for the night."
"That doesn't seem right," her mother replied, a little tenser than before.
"None of it seems right, mama," retorted Matthew. "The hours, the pay," he said, grabbing the box from the corner of the kitchen and tossing it onto the middle of the table. "The overtime, I am getting sick and tired of them paying you in turnovers."
"I think they're pretty good," Susan grinned opening the lid to take one from the box, but quickly closing it, seeing the fire dart out of her brother's eyes almost scorching her blouse.
"It's not funny, Susan. When are you going to stand up for ...?"
"I really can't talk about this right now," Susan replied, stopping Matthew in mid sentence and shoveling another piece of bread in her mouth. "I'm going to be late and if I'm late again Mr. Nelson is going to kill me." Then grabbing her coat, which was hanging near the door on a lovely antique coat rack, and wrapping three pieces of bread into a napkin for lunch, she grinned and kissed her mother on the cheek.
"I wish it could be more," her mother sighed as Susan rushed back to the door.
"Some day it will be." Susan left quickly leaving her mother and Matthew sitting in silence. Matthew pouted in frustration, scratching his bowl with the spoon in his hand. His mother walked over quickly in her own frustration, grabbing the bowl from him, and leaving Matthew with his spoon in mid air. "She is a dreamer that one," Matthew snorted throwing the spoon on the table and looking at his mother. "Always hoping for the good to come."
"There's nothing wrong with that, is there?" His mother questioned as she walked to the stove to pour more porridge into his bowl.
"I guess not, if there really is good coming," he stated. "But how can there be? How can any good come?"
"I wish I knew," his mother sighed as she set his bowl back down in front of him, a tear falling down her cheek. "I wish I knew."