Finding Wobbly Doll

historical fiction short stories
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Historical Fiction


“It’s them Bolsheviks,” Gertrude Delaney overheard a policeman say as he read the New York Times. “They want another bloody revolution.” She bowed her head guiltily when he caught her staring, and Gertrude shuffled along in the queue with the other steerage passengers. What a time to arrive in America, Gertrude thought, bombs and riots scaring up headlines. Surely Death had not followed her here. Her brothers were killed that first day at the Somme. If that wasn’t dreadful enough, the flu epidemic took the lives of her parents. Here she was now, May 1919, no longer by the Thames, but at Ellis Island on the Hudson River, her father’s old bruised suitcase in hand. She stood alone in line and silently waited her turn. “Next one,” beckoned the man. Along with questions about her background, how much money she possessed, and the reason for her arrival, the immigration official also asked if she was a communist. “No,” she said emphatically. After looking at her straight in her nineteen-year-old face he stamped her passport and welcomed her to the USA. With relief lightening her step, Gertrude weaved her way through the confusion of the registry room. Outside it was a mass of people, everybody pushing and anxious to start new beginnings. After a short ferry ride she landed dockside in New York. The smell of horses and sweat tainted the air. Her brown eyes searched hopefully for her uncle, a man she had only ever seen in photographs. She saw Salvation Army members calling out to the new arrivals offering assistance. Somebody banged a large drum, and boy scouts handed out leaflets advising people not to spit. They were wearing face masks. That was disconcerting. Then a voice came out of the busyness of the crowd.

“Are you Gertrude Delaney?” the young stranger asked.

“Yes,” she answered surprised. “Who are you?”

“I’m Patrick, your cousin. My dad couldn’t meet you as he has to march in the workers’ parade so he asked me to pick you up. Come. I have the wagon over here.” They skirted through the mass of people and there by the warehouses she saw her journey’s final mode of transportation – an old wagon with “Delaney Deliveries” painted on its side.

Her uncle Jimmy lived on 139th Street in a small brownstone. He was a widower with the mark of his London working class background – a flat cap on his head and a toothpick in his mouth. He had two grown children – Patrick and Loretta. Patrick helped with the delivery business and Loretta worked in a textile factory. Once things were settled and the routine of the house was in place, Loretta proudly showed her cousin the sights of New York and explained how the American way worked. One thing was of paramount importance. Gertrude needed a job. She had little money left from her parents’ estate. Her uncle was not going to support her, and besides, he had hinted that any money she might contribute to food and rent would be helpful.

Gertrude was petite, five foot three inches tall in her stocking feet, an ample chest, a pleasant smile, forthright in her manner, and staunchly independent. Her English accent was a bonus. “You won’t have to work in the laundry business,” Loretta told her. “People will employ you just for the way you talk,” she predicted. It wasn’t a refined accent, but Gertrude had been educated at the College of Preceptors on Bloomsbury Street in London. It was a well respected school that primed students to become teachers, and that’s what she hoped to become. But without a teaching certificate, no job offers came her way. Her uncle Jimmy told her about a new company that kept him busy with constant deliveries to construction sites. “I don’t know how they do it,” he remarked. By his estimation their business was growing fast and he was sure they needed extra help in the office. And so, that spring, she made a visit to Eves and Fritz – a company that specialized in the new industry of air conditioning. That was something alien to Gertrude – it certainly was not needed back home in damp England. Mr. Eves interviewed her and was impressed by her clear head and kind manner, and offered her the job of secretary. She was not sure of the benefits of the product, but after experiencing her first summer in the city, with a humidity that made the newspapers swell to twice their size, she was thankful to be in an office made cool by manufactured air.

Her two bosses were complete opposites. James Eves and Eddie Fritz were both married with two small children, but that’s where the similarities ended. James was a quiet, unassuming and unremarkable looking family man. Eddie, by contrast, was tall, blonde, charismatic, or as she would later characterize him, pre-possessing, and a man with a flair for selling things. That was no surprise as his father was a successful Manhattan real estate agent. Eddie had an engineering degree and was a former sports star. He had been a champion rower, a member of the medal winning Harlem 8’s crew before the war, and knew a wide cross section of New Yorkers.

“I don’t know why those commie bastards want to change anything,” Mr. Fritz blurted out one day, making reference to the New York Times headline about political agitators rounded up and sent back to Europe and Russia. “If they don’t like the way this country works then go back home. Bloody refugees!” He dropped the newspaper on Gertrude’s desk. She just nodded her head, but hid her sympathy. Both her Uncle Jimmy and Cousin Patrick were involved in socialist politics lending their support and their wagon when it was needed. However, she was in agreement of how good things were. She sensed the anticipation and excitement of what was going on around her – economically and politically. Women right across America would vote for the first time in 1920. If she could vote she would cast her ballot in favor of Rose Schneiderman, the “bread and roses” Labor candidate who was campaigning for non-profit housing, more schools, and unemployment and health insurance.

“You lucky girl,” her boss Eddie Fritz said to her one day, “you came to the promised land at just the right time. You get to choose the next president and make money. You women have got it made. Mind, you won’t get a drink to celebrate because of prohibition, but I can fix that,” he winked. As he said this his eyes cast down to her bosom. She blushed, gave him a polite smile, and turned away.

Christmas Eve 1920 was a Friday and the staff of the office prepared for the holiday. Mr. Eves suggested that the staff leave early so they could spend time with their families. Eddie Fritz agreed, but he also had another reason to dismiss the staff. His connections had given him an invitation to the exclusive Scarlett Goose, a speakeasy on the upper east side of Manhattan. Mr. Fritz invited Gertrude to accompany him. “Don’t you have to get home to your wife and children?” she asked her boss. He replied that they were busy getting the house ready for Christmas and he had been given instructions to stay away until later that night. And so Gertrude accompanied Eddie Fritz to the Scarlett Goose in his Ford motor vehicle, her first time in an automobile. The excitement and gaiety of the club was more than impressive. There were film stars, handsome millionaires, scantily clad dancers, and unlimited whiskey and champagne. Women smoked openly. Gertrude was amazed at the freedom. She thought that it was the most exciting night of her life.

They left the club early at 8pm. Both of them had to return to their respective families before it was too late. But when Mr. Fritz suggested that they drive to the office for a nightcap Gertrude, already feeling lightheaded, agreed. It was a series of quick events that altered Gertrude’s life. The office light went on, the gin bottle was magically produced, a chinking of glasses, a quick sip, a gentle kiss, awkward petting, and then the sudden rush of sex upon his desk. That’s how Gertrude Delaney lost her virginity. Not romantically. Not subtly. Not even to someone she loved.

That spring the pregnancy was confirmed. When Gertrude broke the news to her uncle he was angry, not only with his niece but also with Eddie Fritz. There would be great shame attached to the Delaney family, and Gertrude would be branded a fallen woman. As for the child, the name calling would be worse, and it would be tough to be brought up by a single mother with little chance of work. He said he would go down to the office and make sure things were taken care of. “No,” Gertrude replied. “I will take care of this,” she asserted. “I will talk to Mr. Fritz.”

Eddie Fritz had the look of a sickened man when Gertrude told him about her condition. “Don’t worry,” she said, “I’m not going to tell your wife, but you need to help me…help us,” as she patted her stomach. “I’ll support you as best I can”, he replied sheepishly. There was no question of a romance or even an affair, but he had to take responsibility for what had happened. And “No” she was not going to abort the baby. She had experienced enough death.

The child was born that September in Harlem hospital. Gertrude named the girl Loretta after her cousin who had helped these last couple of months. Through his connections Eddie Fritz was able to locate a small cottage in Dobbs Ferry north of Manhattan. He visited each month to drop off money, but there was no hint of any romance or love for the child. But he did give her a doll which Gertrude named Wobbly, as its head moved carelessly from side to side. Eddie gave just enough to support them both, and for the next three years this arrangement continued. Despite the whispering neighbors and sometimes harsh comments from her uncle, Gertrude grew into her role as mother, and baby Loretta grew strong and vibrant. But things changed.

Gertrude read about it in the papers. The Lockwood Inquiry had charged numerous individuals in a price fixing scheme for the New York construction industry. Some big names were mentioned, ones that had visited the Eves and Fritz office occasionally. At the bottom of the news item a dozen other defendants were listed. There amongst the names was Eddie Fritz. He was out on bail, but it looked like he was going to jail. Eddie visited her one last time to let her know that he could no longer support Gertrude or her child. “But what will I do?” she asked distraughtly. “Give Loretta away,” he responded heartlessly. Gertrude was devastated by the thought but knew their survival was at stake. Her cousins were now married, and her uncle was living from toothpick to toothpick.

With no one else to turn to she visited the Labor Temple, a non-sectarian meeting place for those interested in religious and social issues located at the former Fourteenth Street Presbyterian Church at 225 Second Avenue near Stuyvesant Square. It was a hotbed of radicalism attracting anarchists, socialists, and members of the labor unions; many were immigrants to the new world who had brought their old dangerous politics. But she couldn’t worry about that. She needed work and help with her situation immediately.

One of the guiding members of the group was a radical cleric. He could introduce Gertrude to his friend at the Spence Alumnae Association nursery in Manhattan. This was no ordinary adoption group. Even Gertrude had heard about the incredible work of Clara Spence, a pioneer in reforming the adoption process. She had made headlines by bringing children from the UK via the steamship Aquitania, calling them “pilgrims” and “ambassadors” for the next generation of Americans. The cleric encouraged Gertrude to look on this as an opportunity for her child. The Spence Adoption Agency specialized in matching suitable children for childless couples of the upper echelons of New York Society and Loretta’s background made her a good fit.

And so Gertrude made her visit. The Spence accepted Loretta. They told Gertrude she would be given no details about the child’s welfare once a suitable home had been found, making the signing of the forms all the more heartbreaking. Loretta was placed in the Spence School’s nursery and Gertrude left Loretta her favourite doll, Wobbly, kissed her for the last time and walked away feeling completely broken.

Gertrude moved back to Manhattan and secured a position at Brown Brothers bank. The company loved her manner, her assured understanding of numbers, and her British accent once again impressed clients. Over the years Gertrude earned a senior position, but had found no love. By volunteering at soup kitchens and teaching English to new immigrants she found a sense of peace. Thoughts about her daughter surfaced often but, rather than be crippled by feelings of guilt, she imagined that Loretta had been adopted by a wonderful family who had given her all the advantages that Gertrude could not.

One day a well-respected client came into the bank with her young daughter for a meeting with the manager. Gertrude was called into the office believing it was just a regular transaction with a preferred customer. Her boss told her that Mrs. Brown had decided to open a savings account for her child. Gertrude was asked to process the paper work for the young customer and return with a savings book. As she looked over at the girl she was sure it was Loretta, even though eight years had passed. But the child offered no recognition. Gertrude left to fill in the necessary papers. She looked down at the name on the form. It read Gwendolyn Brown.

Gertrude returned with the savings book. “Here you are,” and handed it to the girl. “I love your name, Gwendolyn,” she added. “So do I,” the young girl said with a smile, “I’m named after my mother’s best friend and cousin,” and turned to the well-dressed woman sitting beside her who smiled back. “I hope you grow up to be successful and happy,” Gertrude replied, keeping her emotions in check. “Oh, I will,” the girl said confidently, “I have a good family.”

Decades later, after a happy and successful life, Gwendolyn had to move into a care home. I, her son, helped organize the few items she would need. “Don’t forget Wobbly,” she insisted. It was her only possession from an unspoken world. It now triggered something that had never been said before. “I wish I knew about my early years,” she said wistfully. “If you find out will you let me know?”


photograph by New Old Stock

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