The Search for Annie
The little bundle was still wrapped in the soft woolen shawl, now fragile with age. The dusty scent of over one hundred years in its hiding place once again stirred my sense of almost sacred awe at what I knew I would find. This was not the first time I had taken it from its hiding place. But it would be the last.
It had been the most exciting thing that happened in my twelfth summer.
We’d moved to the house on the hill, and I’d cried over the move. I’d found myself crying about many things that summer. Tears seemed to come so easily, much to my embarrassment. From today’s perspective I can attribute my emotional state to the mood swings of emerging adolescence. But in that summer, my Annie summer, I only knew that the secret I discovered had also broken my awakening romantic heart.
The old white farm house on the hill had belonged to my grandparents. I had loved to visit their home when I was little. I would play for hours on the wide porch that wrapped around the house. I even had my own special place under a giant oak whose lower branches drooped to the ground, creating walls of privacy. Grandma had helped me furnish it with wooden boxes, an old carpet, and a teakettle.
When Grandpa grew too arthritic to farm, my mother inherited the house and we moved. I cried. I did not want to live in this place. I wanted to be with my friends. At my old school. The only good thing at the time was that I had found the perfect spot for a tearful moment in this room that I’d chosen as my own. I was seated on a storage-bench-window-seat, staring out at the top of the apple orchard. A deep growl of thunder startled me at the same time the sunlight dimmed. My spirits plummeted even further.
Great! Not only was I friendless, this old room was musty and ugly, and now it was going to rain. I banged the heel of my hand against the window sill in ill temper and muttered a sarcastic “Oh, fine!” as a length of the casing fell to the floor. Now the place was falling apart on me.
I gathered up the splintered wood and opened the storage bench to throw the pieces inside. I peered in carefully. Didn’t like spiders. Just when I was feeling dramatically miserable an unbidden happy thought tap-danced through my head.
This would be one great place to store my private stuff. Right now I didn’t have much private stuff, but I knew I’d have plenty someday. Could use a little paint. I ran my hand over the pine board. There was a little knot-hole in the floor panel just big enough to hook a finger. Just right to lift the panel up. There was something under there! I let go with a crash. Maybe a rat’s nest. Thought about that for less than a minute and decided to look again.
With the piece of window casing held high in a defensive stance, I carefully raised the floor board once more.
That was the first time I found it. I was so focused on what lay before me that I almost forgot to breathe. Of course I remember exactly what I found. I thought it the most dramatic discovery of my life. I still do.
Scared that some nasty-looking bug or a rat might suddenly jump out at me, I timidly touched the dirty bundle with ends of all ten fingers. Nothing jumped.
The cloth was loosely woven, gray or maybe pale blue with dust in every wrinkle. As I lifted it up I knew that the cloth was merely a wrapper for something weightier. I knew what this was. I’d read books. This was treasure!
The cloth looked like a shawl folded several times around a small bundle. As I slowly opened each fold a tiny cloud of dust rose to choke me.
An old piece of cardboard. I turned it over. It was a photograph. Different than any I’d ever seen before. One corner of the mount had broken off raggedly, but the faces that met mine that day looked back at me with such clarity that I could only gasp.
My imagination was working overtime and a strange thought came to me. What if they could see me just as I could see them? Five handsome young men, all in uniform. They looked like they could be soldiers, but they were wearing what I called “cowboy” hats. They had shiny buttons on their shirts and little tabs on their shoulders.
One of the five wore a round brooch-like thing on his chest. I guessed it to be a medal. None of the rest had one, so it wasn’t just part of the uniform. I rummaged around in my stamp collection and found a magnifying glass to take a closer look. To my surprise the image of a dark-haired lady came into focus. I guessed it was probably his mother. Seemed strange to me that any grown man would go around with that pinned to him. Maybe she made him promise to wear it.
Most impressive was the expressions on their faces. Or I should say expression. Each man so sober, almost sad, maybe they were on their way to war and maybe they knew they would die, maybe… Stopped by that last dramatic thought my eyes began to burn and water.
Once again I turned the photograph over. A date was written in pencil. June, 1900. Was there a war somewhere in 1900? Couldn’t think of one.
They looked a little older than the high school kids I knew. Maybe 20 years old. In 1900. So if this was 1962…I could do the math. Eighty-two. “Really old”, I said aloud. I looked at each intently. “Do I know you? Or you?” I touched each face and thought of every old man in our family. Nobody qualified age-wise. Maybe one was a boyfriend of a great aunt. That was it. A romance. Delicious!
My room had last been used by my grandmother when she was a girl. My own mother had been an only child and the four upstairs bedrooms had been used only for guests during her growing-up years. Back to my calculations. My mom was 25 when I was born, just like her mother had been 25 when she was born. I’d heard this story more than once. I was 12. This was 1962. Easy to compute. Grandma Ellie had been born in 1900. So these guys were a generation before her. She now lived in town, a quick bike-ride away. I was definitely going to talk to Grandma about this.
There was more.
Letters in envelopes that once been white, now yellowed over the years. Each bore a cancelled red two-cent stamp. The stack of letters was tied with a piece of cloth that looked like it had once been part of a garment. Like an apron-tie. And something made the bundle uneven. Wedged in the middle of the letters. I probed with a finger.
Out fell a round button, about as big as a half dollar. It had a pin on one side and a photograph on the other. The soldier’s photo-pin! Not his mother, she was just a girl. As I brought it closer something else fell from the letters and rolled across the floor. I glanced quickly but couldn’t see what it was or where it had rolled. I would look later.
The portrait of the dark-haired girl on the button captivated me. She was so beautiful. “Who are you?” I whispered, loving the mystery of it. “Have I ever met you?”
I knew the letters I held in my hand were going to tell me some of the answers. I was about to step back in time.
I pinned the little portrait to my plaid shirt and drew a deep breath. I took the packet of letters to my bed where I sat cross-legged. I laid the letters out in a semi-circle around me. There were ten in similar envelopes all addressed in the same hand to Miss
Annie Doherty. Never heard of Annie Doherty.
The eleventh letter on the bottom of the pile was written in a different style. I touched each one. Miss Annie Doherty.
“Would it be all right with you, Miss Annie Doherty, if I read your letters?” Why did she hide them in this bedroom? They’ve been hidden so many years, it must be okay to read them. “Thank you, Annie.”
I paused and thought about that name. Doherty. My great-grandfather was Jasper Garland. Everybody still called this the old Garland house. My grandmother was a Garland before she married, one of five sisters. Eleanor Noelle Garland, then she married Oliver McLain. My own mother was the only McLain child. No Doherty’s in there anywhere. Maybe she never lived here. But why did she hide her treasure in this room? The letters would probably reveal all this. And I wanted to savor every last detail they held.
First the address on the envelopes. Miss Annie Doherty, General Delivery, Mt. Fonterey, Missouri. What is General Delivery? I understood post office boxes, street addresses, even rural routes, but not general delivery. Have to research this. The return address. Numbers, the word Battalion, and a box number in San Francisco, California. Knew about that place. On the left side of the USA map.
I looked at the envelopes and asked myself why Annie had never retrieved these letters herself. Were they meant for me? Such an overwhelmingly romantic thought. This was almost magical. I was involved in some secret. Perhaps this secret would bring some beautiful change in my life. I was ready.
They were all postmarked the same year. Nineteen hundred. I picked up the earliest. The paper was brittle and I handled it gently. “My Dearest Annie” it began. Love letters! I was going to cry. No, I would cry later, right now I was going to read. And read I did, and read over again, for hours, until it was evening. Then I cried.
Each letter was signed “Cass” and he poured his heart out to Annie. Words I will never forget. Sentiments so loving, that my twelve-year-old heart responded just as Annie’s must have so many years ago. I looked down at the portrait I had pinned to my shirt and sighed, “Oh, Annie”. I imagined her closing her eyes and kissing his signature. I fell back on my pillows and wondered if anyone would ever love me like that. I would never settle for less.
Down to that last letter. How I wished it had not been there. Dearest Annie how could you bear it? My throat closed up as I read it. Was this the reason Annie had wrapped these letters in her shawl and hid them away forever? I was beginning to understand.
Dear Miss Annie,
How I wish I could find words that would ease the pain of what I must say.
I am fulfilling a promise to Cassell in writing this letter, a harder assignment than the battlefields of the island I just left. He asked me to affirm his love for you if he should not survive to tell you himself.
He knew the army would not notify you since you are not legally his next of kin. So he made me promise to see that you received this photo button which he wore over his heart.
We had this group photo made on our last leave in San Francisco before we shipped out to the Phillipines. We each had a copy made so we would never forget our war-time friends. Now I must send you Cass’s. I hope it is a comfort to you.
Cass liked to talk about you, Miss Annie, I know you are a strong person who has smiled through many hard times in your young life. Perhaps someday you will smile at the thought of Cass telling us how lovely he thought you to be. We know how you whistle tunes when you hang out the wash or tend the garden. He said you favor the color yellow and he intended to buy you the prettiest yellow gown he could find when he returned to you. And we all looked forward to tasting your peach cobbler. He’d invited us all to your wedding too.
This is all so hard to tell you, Miss Annie. Cass made us all fall in love with you. And now I must break your heart.
To say I am sorry hardly expresses my deepest sorrow and regret. God bless and keep you, Miss Annie.
I looked at the little round photo button of Annie, then turned my eyes to the young soldier who was wearing the pin on his uniform. I wanted the magnifying glass one more time. As I hopped from my bed I stepped on something with my bare foot. It was a gold band. A wedding ring? Wow, what does this mean? I couldn’t resist the impulse, I put it on my finger. Maybe a little big, but I could wear it on my middle finger. I would always wear it. For Cass and Annie.
Back to the magnifying glass. The young soldier in the front row. Cass. Then I examined the pin. Didn’t know they could make things like that back then. In fact I though photography was a fairly recent invention. But here I was, looking at two portraits from what I called the Olden Days.
“Annie Doherty, I am going to find you” I promised the dark-haired girl as I carefully placed everything but the ring back in the shawl and re-folded it. And back to its hiding place.
The next day I began my search. When Mother said “Good Morning” I answered “where is General Delivery?” She stopped stirring the bubbling pot on the stove.
“It isn’t a ‘where’, Bug, it isn’t a place”.
“Well, if it’s not a place, where does a letter go that is addressed to General Delivery?” Mom was good at answering my many and varied questions. Simply and directly. She claims I was just five minutes old when I asked her “Where am I?’
“This is how it works” she said as she turned back to her applesauce preserves, “General Delivery is an address one can use when one has neither a post office box nor a street address.” Seeing my narrowed eyes and my mouth about to form a question, she continued “when a letter is marked General Delivery, the post office holds it for the addressee until that person calls for it. If it’s addressed to Mr. John Doe, St. Louis, Missouri, they would hold it in the St. Louis post office until Mr. Doe picked it up. Of course he’d have to be expecting a letter and have told someone to write to him in care of General Delivery.”
So Annie had no address. That was even less help than I hoped it would be.
“Mom, Grandma was born in 1900. Right?”
“Yes on Christmas Day. That’s why her middle name is Noelle.”
“Do you think she might know anything that happened that year? Like family stories or something?”
“Ask her for yourself, you know she likes your company. Have you thought about the color of paint for your room?” She’d changed the subject on me.
I was still thinking of Annie. “Yellow, and yellow curtains too. And, Mom, do you think you could teach me to make a peach cobbler?”
Mom just nodded. “Anything else on your mind?”
“Matter of fact, there is. Mom, have you ever heard of Annie Doherty?” I watched her think for a few moments and then got a negative shake of the head.
“What about someone named Cassell?”
“I’ve heard of Irene Castle, the dancer.”
“No, Mom, it’s a boy’s first name. Cassell.
“Oh, a boy. Hmmm.”
“Mother, this is serious.”
And it was serious to my mother too. Although she had entirely the wrong impression. Later that morning as we sat in the backyard each with a dishpan of green beans in our laps and a kettle of the finished product at our feet, we snapped the beans and had a ‘serious’ talk’. (I still think of green beans as a serious vegetable.)
She thought I was becoming interested in the opposite sex and she spoke to me about the things mothers and daughters have spoken about since time began. I mostly looked at the green beans as she told me of the changes that would soon come to me. She told me of hormones and emotions, of girlhood blending into womanhood, the years of childbearing, both the beginning and the end.
When she asked me if I had any questions I shook my head. We both knew there would be tons of questions later.
“Wait a minute, I do have a question, Mother. Can I ride my bike to town to see
We tied a small box containing the just-made applesauce on the rack over the back tire of my bicycle. I rolled up one pant leg of my jeans so it wouldn’t catch in the bike chain and off I went. As I rode the two miles I got my questions ready.
Grandma was in her front yard garden. I knew Mom had phoned her to tell her I was on my way. When you’re the only child of an only child you get to be the favorite grandchild, and that was okay with me. She always greeted me the same way. “How’s my favorite Bug today?” And my answer was always the same, a hug and a kiss for the tall slender woman who always turned us in a circle as she hugged me back. She was a talker too, just like me. Or maybe I was just like her.
“My Belinda rose is in full bloom, want to sit out back?”
She chatted away as I untied the parcel from my bike and followed her around the little house. We stepped into the neat little kitchen and I put the applesauce in her refrigerator. Gran handed me a pitcher of lemonade and she picked up a plate of cookies. With a little tip of her head toward the back door, I got the message to follow her. On the back porch she hooked one foot under a small bent-willow table and scooted it over to the two old rocking chairs and we settled in.
I didn’t waste any time. “Gran, I need to know about two people. Did you ever know anybody named Annie Doherty or a man named Cass? They were older than you.”
Grandma bent forward with her elbows on her knees. She looked thoughtful for a few seconds then slowly shook her head. I was so disappointed. It must have showed because she reached over and patted my knee. “Is this important, Bug?” I wasn’t ready to share my secret so I told her only a part of my reason. “I saw their names written down in an old envelope I found in my room and I thought it might be interesting to find out who they were. You know, sorta local history stuff.” This made her smile. Gran loved solving problems. She came up with some good ideas. She suggested I talk to our neighbors to the south, the Hamiltons. There was a great-grandmother who lived with them and she enjoyed having visitors. She’d been the post mistress in her younger days. This last fact was not lost on me. She’d know all about General Delivery! Could she possibly remember Annie? Grandma was still talking and I had been thinking of the post mistress and had missed part of it.
“Would you like to see it?” Gran asked. Rather than ask what she had said I gave an enthusiastic “Yes, please!” Turned out it was the family Bible.
Gran opened it in the middle, between the Old and New Testaments and pointed to the many names and dates listed there. She then went in the house and found a pencil and a pad of paper so that I could make my own copy. Each page had an ornately written title: Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Baptisms. “It begins with my parents. See.” She touched the name Jasper Garland, born 1840. Married Hannah Witte in 1866. They had six children, one boy and five girls. The youngest was my grandmother, sitting across from me. Eleanor Garland, born 1900. The boy was the first child in the family, Elliott Cassell Garland, born 1867. Just like that, I’d found Cassell!
I excitedly pointed this out to Gran. Cass was her brother! She said she’d forgotten that was his middle name. In fact she had never known him. He’d died before she was born. I looked at the Deaths page. August, 1900. Of course. I should have figured that out. But Cass had not hidden that bundle in my bedroom, it had to be Annie.
And how could that be? I copied Gran’s sisters’ names down. Alma, born1870; Claire, 1878; Hannah Louise, 1882, Ione, 1890; and Gran, 1900.
We walked through the garden as was our custom on my visits and Gran pointed out the new blooms and made sure I could name every variety of iris, peony, and dahlia. It was our pleasant ritual, part of the bond that was to last a lifetime. But Gran could see that I was pre-occupied this day. Soon we were back on the subject that filled my mind. She tried to answer my questions but there were no answers that satisfied my need to know about Annie. She could think of no neighbors in her growing-up years by that name. No, her parents never talked to her about their only son who died in the Spanish-American War, perhaps it was too painful for them. But Gran had a good idea. She suggested I write to her older sister, Ione, who would have been ten years old when Cass died. She might know something.
Now I had two sources! Aunt Ione and the elderly post mistress. Getting closer, Annie.
August was a busy month on the farm and Mother needed my help in harvesting her bountiful vegetable garden and the canning that followed. We picked peaches, long spears of rhubarb, and currants. Bubbling pots of jam scented our house. Then sewing for school. This was the year I learned to carefully cut around a pattern and to whip stitch the hems. I remember shopping at Miller’s in town and wishing aloud that there was something yellow while Mom laughed at my new obsession with that color. I smiled too, but kept my secret.
I’d written to Aunt Ione and each day checked the mailbox for a letter. When it had not arrived by mid-month I decided it was time to visit our neighbors about a half mile down the road, the Hamiltons. I wrapped up a jar of our pear butter, rolled up my pant leg and set out. And I nearly made it. I was zinging along on my rickety old bike when I must have hit a sharp rock and blew the fat tire. I was more than halfway there, so rather than return home I decided to walk my bike the rest of the way. I neared the Hamiltons when I heard “Hey!” from the side of their house, “what’s wrong with that bike of yours?” A tall skinny kid was chopping wood. He was wearing a beat-up straw hat, jeans that had seen better days, and no shirt. He walked over to the road and looked at the bike. “I have some patches, I’ll fix that for you if you want.”
Suddenly my face was burning hot and I couldn’t think of what to say, so I just nodded. He chuckled and took my bike by the handlebars. “I’m Alex Hamilton” he said with a grin. And that made me smile. “Really?” I asked, you’re Alexander Hamilton?”He made a mock bow.
“You have a name?” For the first time I felt like offering the name on my birth certificate, but I managed a rather mumbled “Bug”.
“Bug?” came the laughing reply.
“I was born in June, and the first time my Grandpa saw me he called me Junebug, and the name stuck.”
“Okay, Bug, I like that. And you’re sure cute as a bug” he laughed. My face burned again. I was saved by a shout from the front porch as a red-haired , freckled faced girl bounded down the front steps and ran up to us. “Glyn, this is Bug,” Alex hollered as he disappeared around back of the house with my bike.
I didn’t know what to say to Glyn but that was no problem. Glyn talked enough for the two of us. I didn’t know it that day, but I had just met the two best friends I would ever have. That tall skinny kid is still in my life, still charming, still grinning that crooked smile. And his chatty sister is now my sister too, but that is another story.
Glyn was so pleased to have a new potential friend at school that she hugged me when I told her I would be in the seventh grade with her. That afternoon when I rode my now-repaired bike away from the Hamiltons, I had a new confidence, a lighter heart. I could ride the school bus with Glyn and my role as New Girl would not be as painful as expected.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’d come to talk to Alex and Glyn’s great grandmother. But talk is not exactly the right word, as it turned out. It was more of a shout. She was tiny, wrinkled, and nearly deaf. When I didn’t say the words loud enough Glyn would chime in with very loud, careful pronunciation. The old lady seemed delighted to have a visitor, she smiled and clasped my hand when Glyn told her I wanted to talk to her about her postmistress days.
“I need to know if you remember anybody named Annie Doherty. She got her mail General Delivery.”
No answer. So I repeated my query a little louder. She just sat there with her eyes closed. I looked at Glyn and she gave a little hand signal that said ‘patience’.
“I remember Fanny” she began. “No, no” I cut in, “not Fanny. Annie. Annie Doherty.” I was practically pleading.
“Yes, you’re right. She was Annie.” My heart pounded. “Annie Doherty, she was that little chore girl. Real pretty. Long time ago.”
“Oh, Mrs. Hamilton, what do you mean ‘chore girl’?”
And she began. “Near as I can remember she was a poor girl with no family and the Garlands hired her to help in the kitchen and other chores like laundry, and working in the garden. They had a big family and she was a real help to Mrs. Garland.” She paused and shook her head.
“What? What do you know?” There was a long pause with her eyes closed and after a few moments I looked at Glyn and she gave me the old hand signal again.
“After the Garlands didn’t need her, she worked at several places hereabout. Didn’t marry until she was almost thirty. Ben Reid with four kids for her to care for. Never saw her very often after that”
“Did she have any children of her own, Mrs. Hamilton? Do you remember? Do you know where she is now. Could you help me find her?”
She patted my hand and took a deep breath. “My Dear, I know exactly where she is. She’s in the Bluebird Cemetery. And no, she had no children of her own. She nursed the Reid children through the flu epidemic of 1918 then took to her bed and died of it. I doubt that Ben Reid even put a marker on her grave. He was an extremely thrifty man and didn’t have a sentimental bone in his body.” This last statement was delivered with a look that I interpreted as strong disapproval.
“Why don’t you two girls ride your bikes up there one day and have a look?” Glyn looked at me and nodded. That was the moment I knew she was my friend.
One day in early September after school had started I came home to a letter addressed to me. I picked it up from the kitchen table. Great-Aunt Ione!
I tore it open and barely scanned the letter until I came to the name that was important to me. Yes, she remembered Annie. She used the term ‘chore girl’ also. Annie had been a young girl with no family, and when she arrived on the Garland doorstep asking for a job she only had a satchel containing her earthly possessions.
Aunt Ione said she was to learn that Annie had only two dresses and her mother’s wedding ring. The Garlands made a little room in the attic for her and she was very grateful. Over the years they all had grown to love her.
Aunt Ione was very saddened when Annie decided to leave. Annie seemed so sad too. She didn’t know what had happened to make Annie want to leave. It had been a very painful year for the whole family. Elliott had died in the war. Perhaps that is why she left. But Aunt Ione had only been ten years old at the time and she was only guessing.
Then my eyes narrowed as I read and re-read the spidery handwriting. “I only saw Annie one more time after that. I asked her to whistle my favorite tune like she used to, but she said she could not. She was a different Annie. She’d come to see my new little sister, your Gran. Then she left and I never saw her again.”
I stopped to think about this. She’d probably been in my room many times to clean. So she’d know about the hiding place under the window bench. The day she came to see the baby she had hidden the bundle. But why?
The letter went on to tell me about Elliott, her big brother, whom she adored. She told how he put her on his back and swam the river with her when she was five. He’d made a swing for her and helped her with her homework. Once he carved a little wooden castle. Aunt Ione wondered if I knew that his middle name was Cassell, a name he liked better than Elliott. Would I like to have the little castle, as she would like it stay in the family.
That winter at Christmastime Aunt Ione came for Gran’s birthday and gave me the little castle, a memento of her brother. As I held the little carving in my hands I knew where I must keep it. It would be wrapped with Annie’s bundle.
I was only half listening when I heard Aunt Ione say “We children were just delighted when Mother came home from Springfield with Eleanor. Of course, I didn’t even know Mother was expecting a baby. Children were not told everything as they are today. Mother and Father said they had brought us a little Christmas present.”
I excused myself and rushed upstairs. I plowed through everything in my room until I found the pad with family birth dates. I was looking for my great-grandmother, Hannah Witte Garland. Married 1866. No birth date. My great-grandfather was born in 1840. He was 25 when they married. I was scribbling numbers now. If he was 25, how old was his bride? Most likely younger. How much younger. I tried different combinations. Each answer told the me the same thing. Even if Great-Grandmother had been 8 years younger than her groom, a mere 17 when she married, she would have been past the child-bearing years that Christmas of 1900. Figuring it that way she would have been over 52. Maybe there were exceptions to that “rule” but I didn’t think that was the answer. The truth was starting to tug at the corners of my mind.
I went to the window bench, lifted out my ice skates and some books, hooked my finger in the knot hole in the floor and lifted the board once more. I took out the little bundle and hugged it to me as I looked at the falling snow. Sixty two years ago Annie had come to see a baby in this room.
Ah, Dearest Annie. It was your baby, wasn’t it? I know it Annie, I know it.
That little Christmas baby was your daughter. Gran. And you left this little bundle for your daughter, didn’t you, Annie? So she might find it someday. Well, I’m your daughter too. Your great-granddaughter.
How very painful for you to leave her, Annie. But you did not want her to be without a family as you had been. I love you for that, Annie.
And I’ll keep your secret for you.
They’re boarding up the house today. The carpenter is waiting for me to come down from my old room so he can nail the back door shut. I’d brought a box and white tissue paper . I gently wrapped the bundle in the tissue and laid it in the box. I put the lid on the box and left the house for the last time.
With my treasure in the passenger seat I drove to Gran’s old house in town. The lilacs were in bloom so I leaned over the fence and snapped off a half dozen heavy blossoms and laid them beside the box. Then on to Bluebird. I laid the bouquet on Annie’s grave now marked with a simple stone.
Then a six hour drive home to my husband and children.