The Mona Lisa Sisters

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Chapter 5

Tuesday, January 2, 1894, couldn’t be any more different than the preceding day. Dawn is invisible in the gray and sleet filled sky. It does not abate. Still upset from the premonition I must get outside and feel the winter air. Walter agrees to a short walk; it will give him the opportunity to enjoy a cigar.

Cold has many faces. Whether at home in the dead of winter, or Manhattan with its swarming crowds, cold has a distinctive nature. December, safe at home, cold is clear with clean crisp air as it smothers one in an invisible coat of exhilaration. I feel alive. With the surroundings one can almost feel the vivid blue that your mind brings to life. You are alive and even at zero degrees you feel the wonder of it all. I can see forever.

Manhattan is the opposite. The cold close, oppressive; we were in a dreary, dirty world in which I and every other living soul becomes depressed. The cold bored into my soul chilling hope. Death waits around the next corner.

“Walter, please take me back to the hotel.”

Walter wants me to send a message to the doctor to reschedule our appointment. I refuse. “There isn’t enough time for a messenger to reach the doctor. We don’t have to leave here until ten. I’m sure the weather will clear by then.” Walter agrees to my desire that we visit the doctor regardless of the weather. I should have listened to him. It is a decision I will regret to my dying day.

From our twelfth floor suite, I’ve a good view of Fifth Avenue. The sleet has not let up. It is difficult to see clearly but many people are walking the avenue. They are wrapped heavily and carrying stout umbrellas. The cabs are doing a brisk business, few wish to walk. Pedestrians are dressed for the rain and sleet, while cab drivers are not. They must rely on their top hats and frock coats to keep the rain away. Most are hunched over and move slowly. I see cabs rushing as they sweep in and around other hacks and delivery wagons. Near collisions abound.

Walter is still hesitant to expose me to the weather and pleads, “It is not safe. We can see the doctor another time.”

I refuse to heed his arguments. “Will you call for a cab, or must I?”

He concedes and rings for a bellman. “Please have a cab available for us in thirty minutes’ time.”

When we exit the Waldorf, the weather is much worse than I imagined. I’m tempted to return to our suite. Walter is right. We can go another day. I have spent considerable time preparing for this odious trip and I don’t want to repeat the process. The cab is standing by for us. I look at Walter whose eyes plead with me to reconsider. I say, “Let us be about our business. The doctor is expecting us.”

The walk from the hotel lobby to the cab is an ordeal. A doorman and Walter help, each taking an arm. A second doorman holds an umbrella above us. It blows away before we reach the Hansom cab. The wind is so strong that I have difficulty getting into the swaying vehicle. The horse stamps its feet, while the driver does his best to keep his body protected by the back of the cab. He is hunched over in the cold and rain. It must be terrible for him as he holds the reins and whip in one hand, while pulling down his top hat with other. I wonder, how can he see?

This is a mistake. I should have listened to Walter.

As we start our journey, the wind increases causing the cab to teeter from side to side. Frightened, I can see that Walter is upset. I want to ask his forgiveness but before I can speak, I am slammed against the door, there is a tremendous sound and the cab turns over on its side. Screams fill the air and then all is still. My world turns black.

Sean O’Banion is tired. He’s also drunk. Second generation Irish, he can’t read or write, but he knows his numbers. Because of this, he had been able to secure work delivering beer. His day starts at four in the morning, by eight he’s usually drunk. Today is no exception. Each barrel he delivers is replaced by an empty one. However, they are rarely completely dry. By tipping them on end he can usually get a half pint of warm beer, sometimes a whole pint. The delivery wagon, pulled by two horses, holds forty barrels. He only has two more deliveries before he can go home to his nagging wife and five snotty nosed little ones.

The icy slush on the road makes it hard to control the team and keep the wagon from slipping, especially for a drunk. The icy sleet doesn’t make things any easier. O’Banion is in a hurry to finish his deliveries so he can get home and into bed. He uses the whip viciously. Startled, the team breaks into a run. Falling back, he loses the reins. The horses are out of control, running and slipping on the slick and slushy roadway. O’Banion tries to reach down and grab the reins just as the team careens into a cab.

O’Banion won’t have to worry about explaining the accident to his boss. He’s dead from a broken neck.

As the cab rolled over, I was thrown out. I found myself face down in the cold muck. Before passing out, I sensed more than tasted slushy snow, salt, soot, urine, and something I couldn’t quite place. Regaining consciousness, I wiped horse dung from my face and coat. My clothes were saturated with the odor of liquor.

I’m bouncing and slipping. I hurt everywhere. Where am I? Sounds cut through the darkness. My head hurts. My stomach is a searing pain. Where am I? Dear God, the baby, Walter. Opening my eyes, I see a strange man bent over me. He is holding me. “Where am I? Who are you?”

“You’re in an ambulance. I’m the attendant. We’re taking you to New York Hospital.”

“Please slow down. My baby, you’re hurting the baby.” I feel a contraction.

The attendant tells me not to worry. “We’ll have you at the hospital in a few minutes.”

“Where is my husband?”

“I don’t know.”

“What happened?”

“Your cab was hit by a runaway team pulling a beer wagon.” He stops speaking and glances out a grimy window. “We are at the hospital. Please lie back. We’ll carry you in on the stretcher.”

As they lift me out of the ambulance, I see it is a dreadful wooden thing with benches on both sides. I’m on one side. The attendant and another man are on the other side. The walls are a horrid gray. It matches the weather. There are windows but they are covered with soot.

Hell must look like this. I have another contraction. This can’t be happening now. It is too soon. I do not understand why, but I look to see what the outside of this torture box is painted. It is the same horrid gray. As they carry me into the hospital, I silently pray. “Oh dear God, please let the baby live. And dear God, please bring Walter to me.”

The next few hours are a combination of contractions and ever-increasing pain. “Where is my husband? I need my husband.”

My pleas are met with, “I don’t know. We are trying to save the baby.”

A nurse wearing hideous gloves bends over me. “Ma’am, we need to put you to sleep now. Please breathe deeply.” While talking, she puts a black rubber device over my mouth and nose. I fight at first, but the more I breathe the sweet smelling gas, the less I struggle and then it is all blackness again.

When I awake, I’m in a room with many other beds. All filled with women, half of whom are crying. The odor is appalling. Where am I? Where is Walter? The baby, where is my baby? Looking around, I see there are no nurses. Trying to rise, I find I can’t. I’ve no strength. I call for a nurse. The woman to my right speaks. “It is no use dearie, they only come around on the half hour.”

“Why isn’t the nurse here now? What is this place?”

“This is the charity ward of New York Hospital. We don’t rate a full-time nurse. Only the uppity ones get that.”

“What is an uppity?”

“You know, the up-town people, the ones with money.”

It is almost two hours before a nurse comes through the ward. She brings a pair of female attendants with her to clean and change bedpans. Her attitude toward the patients, including me, is foul. My anger a rea hot coal, I tell her who my doctor is and demand to see him. She recognizes his name and realizes I must not be a charity case.

Within minutes, another nurse and two attendants come to my bed. They fawn over me while transferring me to a rolling gurney. In the blink of an eye, I’m in a private room with a fulltime nurse. The doctor arrives full of apologies. Aside from the apologies, I can tell something is amiss. I still have not seen Walter or the baby.

“Where are my husband and child?”

The doctor seems aghast. “Please, give me a few minutes.” And with that, he hurries from the room. A short while later he returns with an older man. The doctor introduces him as the hospital chaplain.

“I want my husband and child. Where are they?”

The chaplain comes to the side of my bed. “Mrs. Myer, I have some sad news for you. Your husband died in the collision.”

My heart, my entire being, my soul, seem to collapse as I weep.

“Do you wish for me to pray with you?”

Looking up, I think what a foolish man this chaplain is. He thinks I want to pray. He’s just told me my husband is dead. The man I want to spend the rest of my life with is dead. I wish I were dead. And this silly man wants me to pray. I gaze at him and shake my head from side to side.

Walter is dead. What could be worse?

“My child, where is my child?”

The chaplain looks at me the same way the doctor had only moments ago. “The doctor will have to answer that question.”

The doctor looks like he would rather answer any question but mine. I’m experiencing another premonition. I know my child is gone. “Go ahead Doctor, tell me where my child is.”

“As you know, Mrs. Myer, you were in a serious accident. The injuries you suffered caused you to go into labor.”

“I felt the contractions beginning when I was in that dreadful ambulance. I remember more contractions when that nurse in those hideous rubber gloves put some vile device over my face. What happened after that?”

“I’m sorry we did all we could, but your child was stillborn.”

“Was it a boy?”


“I want to see him.”

“I don’t think that would be a good idea.”

“And why is that, Doctor?”

The doctor and the chaplain do their best to convince me otherwise. “You are a woman, much too delicate.”

I see George Walter Grisham. He is beautiful. He would have been everything Walter and I had dreamed. Before I can travel, the doctor takes me out of New York Hospital. It remains a place where people die. Returning to the Waldorf, they want me to stay in the same suite I’d shared with Walter. I cannot sleep in the same bed where we last slept. Taking another suite, I remain only as long as required by the doctor. As soon as I am well enough to travel, I take my son and husband home to Grisham Manor, and bury them next to my parents.

I mourned so for my mother, father, husband, and son that I thought I too should die. I became a recluse, locked away in Grisham Manor.

I called for a seamstress and had several black mourning dresses made. Months later, I realized how ugly they were. Each was the same dull black floor to neck garment. I did not allow any frill or lace. “Each is to be identical. You will begin with a buttoned neck and end with an unadorned floor length dress. The sleeves will be straight and fit tightly around my wrists.”

“But Mrs. Myer. . .”

“No buts. Do as I say or I’ll have you replaced.”

“Yes ma’am.”

My anger and depression carried over to the household staff. It is a wonder they all didn’t leave me. One of the new chambermaids did leave.

My dearest friend, Emily Bartolini, came daily only to be turned away by Earl with a formal, “Mrs. Myer is not seeing guests today.” Earl knew how close Emily and I were. He had been our butler for thirty years and like an uncle to me. An old bachelor, he cared deeply for the family and especially me. A few weeks after I returned, he went to Emily’s home.

Emily and I couldn’t have been more different. Maybe that was why we were so close. Her father, a tradesman, owned the Ridgefield Mercantile. He began there as a stock boy after service in the Civil War. His industry saw him advance through every job within the business. He has owned it for the last fifteen years. Where I’m tall, Emily is short. I doubt she reaches above five-foot three-inches. Emily has the same dark Italian features as her father, not to mention his business acumen. On her short frame, she carries my weight and more. Her raven hair is cut in the short style just now coming into vogue. Her choice is not fashion driven. She has always hated spending the hours I do brushing and combing my much longer tresses. I love her as if she were my sister. I doubt we could care as much for each other if we were sisters.

“Miss Emily, please forgive my impertinence, but I must speak with you about Missy Lura.”

“Oh, do please come in. I must hear what you have to say.”

“Miss Emily, I fear she may die if nothing is done. She sits alone all day in the great room. She stares out the window and speaks naught. Each morning she visits the graves for a few minutes. When she returns to the house, she sits until late afternoon.”

“Is that all Lura is doing, nothing more?”

“In the afternoon, she returns to the graves and with a broom wipes away the snow. Before her afternoon visits, I try to tidy up and clear the graves.”

“Is she eating? Does she clean herself?”

“She eats like a mouse, hardly enough to keep her alive. The chambermaid tells me that some nights she sleeps in her dress and doesn’t put on a fresh one in the morning. Missy Lura barely allows the woman to brush out and comb her hair.”

“Earl, I come every day and you turn me away. What is it you want from me?”

“We must save her. Come today and I will not turn you away.”

“I’ll come. She may still refuse to see me.”

“I know, Miss Emily. Nevertheless, I beseech you to come. If she refuses to speak with you, at least let her know you’re concerned.”

“I will see you at three. Thank you for coming.” As Earl rises to leave, Emily hugs the old man, and with tears in her eyes, kisses his old and rough cheek. “Thank you Earl. Thank you ever so much.”

I have no vigor. I don’t care if I live or die. If I die, I’ll be with them.

Days became weeks, as I spend my days in sorrow. I know what I’m doing won’t bring my family back. Everything depresses me. The winter is unusually severe. The gloomy gray weather does nothing to improve my spirits. I have been praying for a way back to a normal world, one as normal as possible without my loved ones.

Today I pray for a miracle while sitting in Father’s chair. “Dear Lord, please help me. My world is dark and gray, full of pain and sadness. I pray you guide me from this. In this, I beseech you. Amen.”

I’m so tired and yet I cannot sleep. I’m sick from the enormity of my loss and weak from lack of eating. Once I pray, something happens that I haven’t experience in months. I feel as though Father is near and I fall asleep. I don’t know how long I sleep but when I awake, my dearest friend, Emily, is sitting near me.

“Oh Lura, I’ve missed you so. Please don’t send me away.”

I haven’t cried since Walter died. I sob silently as Emily takes me in her arms. Soon we are both crying. Earl must have heard us, because he comes into the room. I give him what must be a strange looking smile. He has tears streaming down his cheeks but he is smiling. What is this? He gives what could be a small bow and backs out of the room slowly closing the door.

Things will be better. I know it. Thank you Lord.

After what seems an eternity, Emily and I are cried out. Exhausted, we can barely speak. Earl must have been at the door waiting because within a minute he comes with steaming mugs of hot cocoa and fresh baked cookies. My emotions are beyond control. Coming to my feet I do something I’ve not done in many years, I throw my arms around this man who has been part of our family my entire life. “Oh, Earl. I know you brought Emily. I’m so sorry for the way I’ve treated you. Can you ever forgive me?”

Earl is the most reserved man I’ve ever known. He surprises me for the second time this day. He hugs me back. Once again, he has tears in his eyes. “I love you Missy Lura. We’ve missed you so much.” We hold each for a long moment. Then the old Earl is back. He releases me, wipes his eyes, stands stiffly, and says, “Will that be all Mrs. Myer? If so, I will leave you ladies to your refreshment.”

Emily and I cannot stop talking. Before we realize the time, Earl returns. “Mrs. Myer, Miss Emily, dinner will be served in one hour. If you care to change, I will send the maid to your suite.”

“That will be fine Earl. Miss Emily and I will prepare for dinner.”

“Emily help me out of this ugly widow’s garb and into something more appropriate for dinner with my best friend, the woman who may have just saved my life. Did I tell you that you’re the answer to my prayers?”

I wear a light green spring dress to dinner. I want Earl and the rest of the staff, and maybe myself, to know that I’m better and will continue to mend. I see in the looks and smiles as Emily and I are served, they know I will heal.

Emily promises to return the following morning. I feel happy for the first time in months.

“Dear Lord, I thank you for the love you have shown me this day. Thank you for allowing Earl to be in my life. I will never forget what he did, with your guidance, for me. I miss my family sorely, but I know that you will protect and guide me to a life of love. Amen.”

It seems as though I’m asleep before I close my eyes. When I rise in the morning, the sun has returned to Grisham Manor. The storms are gone. Spring is upon us. My maid has laid out a colorful dress for me. I smile and ring for her. “Thank you. This dress is perfect for this wonderful day.”

“Will Madame wish breakfast in her room?”

“No. Once I visit the family, I will join Cook in the kitchen for whatever she has prepared.”

After I bundle up, I let myself out and visit the family. I know they are dead and that their spirits are with the Lord in heaven, but I feel close to them here. I speak aloud. “Dear family, I’ve been so sad and lonely these terrible months. Yesterday, God visited me. I know my life will never be the same without you. I will always love and miss you, but God has shown me that I can live and be happy. Earl brought my dear friend Emily back into my life. I love them both. You will always be in my heart as I begin this part of my life.”

Walking back to the house, I know that they understand and approve. I must not let you down.

“Emily, I’m not ready to face the townspeople yet. Please, give me a few more days.”

Emily and Earl seem like conspirators determined to get me to town. “All right Lura, we’ll give you until Sunday.”


They ignore me as Earl says, “Miss Emily, I will have the carriage at your door bright and early. You will do us the honor of a light repast before I accompany you to church. I’ll remain with the coachman until the service is over. Does that meet with your approval?”

“Yes, it does. Thank you, Earl. Have you spoken to the pastor?”

“Yes ma’am. He will ensure that the Grisham pew is ready for you ladies.”

I can hardly believe my ears. These two people, whom I love dearly, speak as if I’m a child or not present. “Excuse me dear friends, but do I not have a say in what I shall do on the Sabbath?”

Emily looks me in the eye, and with a shake of her head, says, “No, you do not.”

Earl blushes as he bows, “No, Madame.”

“What had you and Walter decided about your honeymoon? I know he wanted to take you to Paris.”

I hadn’t thought about Paris since the day Walter died. “Oh Emily, I can’t imagine such a thing without Walter.”

“Walter would want you to move on with your life. He loved Paris. He always spoke of it as the one place in the world that he wanted to take you. Go. Honor his memory.”

“How can I leave? There is the manor, the railroad. I have responsibilities.”

Emily looks at me and I swear she is about to scold me, when she laughs. “How can I possibly go to Paris?” storms through my mind.

“You’ve ignored the manor and the railroad for months. Both are running fine. Earl has run this household for decades, even before you were born. Do you think your mother didn’t rely on him and the staff?”

“She did. What about the railroad?”

“Again, dear Lura, you have ignored it for many months. Walter and your father hired only the most qualified and honest managers. They have been in charge since the day you and Walter left for New York. They will continue to see to your best interests.”

“Are you sure I can trust them?”

“Yes, but if you’re worried, sell them the railroad.”

“What are you saying? Father built it from the ground up. It is part of my life, Father’s legacy.”

“I know. But how long do you think this world we live in will allow a woman to run such an enterprise. The other railroads will be after you like wolves upon a newborn calf.”

“Maybe you’re right about the railroad, but I’m not ready for Paris yet.”

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