On the first visit to the Beinecke Library, I spent the few days I had in a rush of disorganized search rather than methodical research after I came across the headed paper that showed that my father had been to Springfield in the mid to late seventies.
The arrangement of material in boxes and folders was confusing to someone totally inexpert at research, and I moved between documents from the early years of the century -- a legal arrangement (see right)between Robert Emmett, my grandfather, and his mother Nora Linane Fitzgerald, dated June 2nd 1908 that struck me as strange, a death certificate for my grandmother Anne Stuart that I didn’t notice at the time was not an original, but a document reissued on June 15, 1944 (above) the announcement in the Albany Argos that Anne, an actress with the F.F. Proctor Stock Theatre Company, trained in the Sargent Dramatic School, was leaving for Springfield, Illinois to marry Robert Emmett Fitzgerald (Image 8). A little later I was peering into a photograph of my youngest sister on her First Communion Day, in the garden of the large house outside Perugia and below the village of San Fortunato that my parents bought in 1961; then a clipping from an Italian newspaper dated 1971 about my twenty-two-year-old brother as a salesman of water beds, and then a photograph of my mother and three of my siblings as young adults in the attic studio where my father had labored on his translation of The Iliad for the six months that he was not teaching at Harvard every year during the sixties, quickly followed by the original marriage certificate between my father and mother from April 19, 1947.
It was all a jumble of disconnected fragments that merely added to my disorientation and fascinated confusion, until I came across notes from my grandfather to his children about their dead mother.
“Boys: Robert and Monty. This I think was a letter written to your mother at a time that I was very seriously ill (June before going to the Chicago Hospital) and was to be opened by her if anything happened to me. Anne never opened it.”
I loved the touch of rhetorical hesitation in that ‘I think’ and even more the gesture in the final sentence, ‘Anne never opened it’, containing as it does the dramatic irony that not only did his beloved wife never have to read something from him after he died, but that instead she was the one to die before him. And although the undated scrap of paper was there in the folder, there was no actual letter: what happened to it? Did my father ever read it? Perhaps it was somewhere else in the archive, stored in another box, another folder.
From the letter to an insurance company found in the attic of the Reisch building that had housed the Fitzgerald legal practice, I now knew previously unknown details of the accident Robert Emmett had had in 1904:
“During the summer of 1904 I was an actor spending the summer season in New York City. In early July or August of that year I was injured while a passenger on a Sixth Ave. Surface car...
The injury was slight and beyond a little stiffness for a day or so I paid no attention to it. During the autumn of that year while playing in New York my back began to give me some little trouble. I first noticed a stiffness when stooping over to wash and things of that character.
Gradually I became worse until I had to stop work, along during December…. I suffered intense pain and gradually my condition became intolerable…
During April or May of that year I returned to Springfield, Ill., which was my home.
I did not get any better and in July a small swelling appeared over my left hip. I then sent for Dr. John Ridlon, a specialist in the Chicago Savings Bank Bld., Chicago, Ill., who examined me and upon examination said that I had Tuberculosis of the Sacro Iliac joint, due he believed to the injury I received in New York and he ordered me to remain in bed until nature had altered the condition.”
Despite the intolerable pain, despite the fact that Robert Emmett was forced back home by illness just as he was establishing himself as an actor, despite the doctor’s prescription of bed rest, he and Anne Montague Stuart were married on September 12, 1905, as a second scrap of paper to his sons testifies:
“To Robert Stuart Fitzgerald and(?) Bernard Montague Fitzgerald
This is a marriage certificate of your Mother and Father. The dried flowers were used by Father Hickey to sprinkle Holy Water when he blessed us. We were married in a tent under a big maple tree on the south side of the house 1202 South 7th Street Springfield. I was ill in bed at the time.”
These scrappy notes confirmed my romantic sense of my grandparents’ relationship: Anne had chosen to marry a bedridden man. A man whom she had to nurse. A man with whom she did not get pregnant for over four years. A chaste and virginal marriage for all that time? Or perhaps the marriage bed was an engagement in awkward love-making that would not cause more pain to the tubercular sacro iliac joint, and the careful avoidance of a pregnancy.
Robert Emmett described his condition for the next three years in the letter to the insurance company:
“I remained in Springfield, in bed for a period of three years until the summer of 1908, then I went to Chicago to the North Chicago hospital as a patient of Dr. Emil G. Beck with Dr. Ridlon as a consulting specialist. Dr Beck had been lately advocating the injection of Bismeth paste in certain sinuses. He performed a slight operation, merely a puncture where fluctuations indicated the presence of puss and gave me several injections of his paste.
The soreness and tenderness around the hip and the joint infected, gradually left me. I was put into a plaster case and in October was able to leave the hospital in crutches. During the time that I was sick in Springfield and in the hospital I ran a temperature of 99 to 101 degrees with an occasional jump to 102. I suffered a great pain at any movements of my left leg.
After I left the Chicago Hospital in 1908 I recovered rapidly, but the illness left me with my left leg about one inch shorter than the other, and left the leg much thinner than the other one. I have since walked with crutches, tho I am able and do discard them in the house and in the office.”
In the essay “Light From The Bay Window” published in The New Yorker on December 1978 and included in The Third Kind of Knowledge, my father wrote:
“Poking around in my grandmother’s room one day I found in the big drawer of her writing desk a letter to her in my mother’s fine swift angular hand. The date must have been early in 1905, because in this letter my mother formally declared her attachment to my father and her wish to marry him. ‘I cannot live without Bob,’ said one of the sentences, and the force of that grownup passion startled and awed me.”
How could the body of this woman who had expressed such passion for this man, who had agreed to commit her life to him, be taken away from him in death and carted across the country to a plot in Albany?
As I drove away from New Haven at the end of the few days I was able to spend at the archives, up towards Rhode Island where my father is buried at Swan’s Point, I imagined the maple tree under which my grandparents were married.
Most of the leaves of the maple are still green, but the green is faintly filigreed with gold and ruby. The sun is still hot, and the katydids hum. I imagine my young grandfather as he is in the undated photographs of him lying in an iron framed bed. The bed has been wheeled out to the tree, and the young man can see the play of light through the leaves, and the play of light and leaves over the face of his bride when he turns to her during the shortened ceremony that does not include a Mass, but does include a blessing with the Holy Water sprinkled from the shaken flower Robert Emmett will be so careful to keep. His bride stands on the right beside the bed so that he does not have to move and increase the pain to his left leg. Robert’s mother Nora and his brothers, Arthur, Edward and James, as well as his sister Marie are there. Surely the bride’s parents are also there. Surely her sister Agnes is there.
I had to return to the Beinecke and search through the boxes for further revealing scraps of paper. I had to find a way to visit St.Agnes, the cemetery in Albany where my grandmother was buried, and look for clues among the tombstones that could explain why her remains were taken away from the young man whom she’d been nurse to before she could be wife, whom she had tended before she could tend to their child. Why was it that the cemetery in Albany had a stone bearing her name and her dates, May 5, 1878 – March 24, 1913, rather than the cemetery in Springfield?