Monday, March 25, 2013

Miss Henry's Story

When our family moved to the Carolinas we picked a smallish town with an interesting history and extraordinary architecture. This is an architecturally  diverse community with spectacular representations of most every style of Southern  vernacular architecture. We bought a home in a neighborhood once marketed as " in town estates" because of the lot sizes. Our street is a horseshoe with the lots on the inside of the curve all about 1.3 acre lots and the ones on the outside of the curve about 2 acre lots with a few larger properties  on the outside ends. Being Southern, as many trees as possible were preserved and massive amounts of azaleas, camellias, roses,
hydrangea, spirea and forsythia  grace every yard. It is beautiful. No two houses are alike as few were built the same year. Ours is the oldest having come to life  in 1942-43.  Our house will never be known as the "Fishy's", it will always be known by it's architect ( Linley) and  by the owners for the first fifty something years "Miss Lula". For the first decade we lived here I could still run into folks who would say, " Oh! You live in Miss Lula's house". Sometimes I would reply, " I like to think it is our house", that statement would just get waved off.  Even now when I meet new people who ask where I live they seek to clarify by asking,
" The Linley one? " or " Miss Lula's?"

It's looking like Blowfish and I are getting new neighbors  on our North side. This is a rare event in our location as folks tend to stay in these home for 50 years or  longer.  Many of our neighbors are in their 80's, some are in their 90's and have lived in their homes since they commissioned them.  The property  next door has been vacant for a decade or so. It is well cared for with crews coming regularly to provide lawn service or replace roofing or gutters, or random storm caused repairs. The property is a very beautiful tree studded acre and a half with a graceful Neo-Classic home of old weathered brick with wrought iron columns and floor to ceiling windows along the front veranda.  The grounds are spectacular.

When we first moved here I met our neighbor, an elderly woman know as Miss Henry D. She was the originator of the house and lived there alone although she had "help" with her during the days. In the evenings, she would venture outdoors
to sit in her garden to listen to the wind in the trees and hear the evening bird songs.  Maybe a dozen years ago the help came to work one morning to discover Miss Henry D had spent the night in her bathtub having been unable to get out
safely on her own.

She was not injured but very stiff and sore.
At the time she was 93 years of age. I can tell you I am decades away from 93 and I can get stiff and sore if I sit at this computer too long. I can't imagine spending the night in my bathtub with a towel for a pillow and another for modesty. After this event there was a "sitter" who stayed at Miss Henry D's overnight. A circumstance her daughter June insisted upon and  irritated the daylights out of Miss Henry D.

Shortly after this life changing event I had my only lengthy visit with Miss Henry D.  It came as a surprise to both of us. There is a dense, high hedge and a fence between our properties. I was out hunting for tennis balls under the hedge when she came marching out to the upper regions of her yard  to have a blistering conversation with her statue of  St. Francis. Hearing her attack I busted out laughing startling Miss Henry D
into speechlessness. Almost.
"No lady worth the name would conceal herself in this way!" she  proclaimed.
Standing up with tennis ball in hand I apologized for my intrusion into her conversation with St. Francis explaining I had been concealed by my quest for the ball and not as a result of cowardice.
" Why did you laugh at my distress?"
" I was not laughing at your distress Miss Henry, I was laughing because I thought I was the only one who comes outside to proclaim my grievances to the saints. I do owe you an apology which I hope you will accept."
There was a lengthy pause before she said,
" I will not stand here and have a conversation  over a prickly hedge."
" Would you like a glass of lemonade?"
" I would prefer a fine wine."
I nipped inside to fetch a bottle of bubbly and some glasses then made the trek to her yard. When I got there Miss Henry was more composed and seated on her classic Charleston Bench.  Even at 93 she was upright, slim , groomed, elegant and beautiful.  Taking the glass she quietly said,
" This is my favorite time of day."
I nodded my understanding but did not speak as it was clear Miss Henry's thoughts were elsewhere. She was holding her glass up for a refill before she spoke again.
" I will not live what remains of my life to suit others. I have not the patience of St. Francis for the folly of humans.  I have quite earned the right to my freedom which I will not relinquish."

 If you have never seen a cultured, educated, wealthy, ninety something have a fit of anger you  missed something spectacular. Miss Henry had that very day returned from court  to defend her right to liberty. Her daughter June had petitioned the courts to obtain authority over her mother's life. June wanted her mother to either move to an assisted living facility or to have round the clock care takers at home. Miss Henry did not.
The judge found  Miss. Henry of sound mind and dismissed June's petition.
Miss Henry dismissed the evening caretaker.

I want to share with your Miss Henry's story. It is amazing. It should never be lost either. Here is what she told me.  She was the oldest daughter in a family of five children. She was tall for a girl of her era and very bookish, " not silly at all". It had been her ambition to study the great philosophers in Paris. She was in the year of preparation to be "presented" to society when her mother and father called her to the parlor to be introduced to her father's financier Mr. Henry D.

 Her father had experienced some sort of financial distress and had defaulted on a  substantial loan. As  fate would have it Mr. Henry D was quite smitten with the beauty, grace and intellect of this rare young woman. He had offered  to forgo the loan in exchange for an opportunity to court this amazing young woman. His hope was to
"win her heart and her hand".  Neither happened. But, her father gave her hand in marriage to his contemporary against the protests of his daughter.

When Miss Henry D told me this I was shocked. She would have been  in her teens in the early to mid 1920's . Surely way beyond the time when fathers arranged their daughters unions! I mentioned my surprise only to be told it was not her father who forced the issue it was her mother! Apparently her mother appealed to her sense of duty toward honor, family, siblings. Miss Henry still resisted but her mother had the announcement  published and  the bans read so she was " betrothed and thus  obligated against my will".

She did say Mr. Henry D was a fine gentleman. Mannerly " in all things" and "never ceased to court my favor".  He took her to Paris, bought her a library of the great books on philosophy and in general provided a fine life for her. It was his health issues which  caused the move from her beloved low country,  away from all her friends and cousins. While the house was under construction he hired a landscape architect to design the property to her wishes. She told the man, " I love eventide in the marshes, the movement of  the willowy grasses and the waters, the birds and the music of the winds in the trees. I am loathe to relinquish these."  Her property was designed so the lawn would flow around and through islands of  various  ground covers, dotted with peninsulas of dogwood and  cherry trees while the perimeter has banks of azaleas of every shade of pink under stately oaks.  It is truly an oasis of peace and beauty.

Miss Henry D did say she had "experienced a fine life"  for one who had been called to forfeit her independence. She told the judge she had made a vow to God upon Mr. Henry's death that she would never again "live her life to the mercy of others". That it was her privilege to live in her home for as long as she wished until she exited feet first  and no one had the right to interrupt her intentions. The judge she said, had asked her  why she had made that vow. She had explained, "Sir, I am in my 93rd year, I married before my 18th birthday to a man of my fathers age. From that day to this one I am addressed as 'Miss Henry D'.  Within my own home is the only place I, Francine Caroline, still exist."

A few years later Miss Henry D  was rolled out the front door and down the long stone walkway to an ambulance. June was at her side, taking control. I understand June. The only child of an at risk mother, doing what she thought was best. I am sure she loved her mother who lived her remaining years in a facility pleading to be returned to her home.  I often thought if June had heard her mother's conversation with Saint Francis she would have found the strength to honor her mother's wishes. For a few years, on special occasions, an ambulance would bring Miss Henry home to her garden, rolling the gurney right out by the Charleston bench where the attendants would leave her be for a few hours. I will always believe Miss Henry D would have preferred death to enduring what life remained to her under the control of others.

Blowfish and I will likely enjoy  the new neighbors who are having a lot of restoration work done before they move. They appear to have great respect for Miss Henry's architecture and landscape. I admit to keeping a sharp eye out on her statue of Saint Francis. If it is to go then I will find a place for it here.   I expect I will  see these new neighbors outside in the evenings strolling their grounds. In my heart though, I will always think of this property as Miss Francine Caroline's solace.


Island Rider said...

Sweet story.

Aunty Belle said...

I do not likey this heah story. None a'tall.

Francine Caroline is a plucky thang, reckon she's plucky on her own cloud garden now, but it din't end right down heah.

Why'nt the blazes din't ya git Blowfish to buy that place?

What if the new folks AIN't appropriate fer the history of the place?

No likey.

fishy said...

Island Rider,
In a poignant sort of way.

It IS a tough personal history.
I am sure you understand why I thought her story, at least what I know of it, should be told. There are few of us now who have the blessing of being taught the personal impact of history from this era first hand. If nothing else, this is a story of a woman who valued honor more than self,one who had great courage and one who achieved peace and guidance by wisely studying the great philosophers and saints.

I say a quick prayer for Francine Caroline when I catch a glimpse of her Saint Francis out there keeping watch over her home.

I have met the lady who will be my neighbor, I liked her. I have not met her husband but other neighbors know this couple and say they are fine folks with strong Southern sensibilities.

SophieMae said...

This is the loveliest, saddest, southernest story I've read in a long, long time. Thank you for keeping Francine Caroline's memory alive!

fishy said...

Sophie Mae,
so glad you enjoyed the post! It is my hope those who read it will share Francine Caroline's story. It makes me sad to think her story could perish.

As a Southerner, one of my most favorite things about our culture is the respect we give to an individuals story.

Thanks so much for visiting the Pond.

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Anonymous said...

Haiku Monday is at Pondering... or
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Hey Fishy, this is a lovely story about a very interesting lady. So glad you shared it.

Missed you last week on HM. I'm hosting this week, come join us.


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