Reminiscences of Margherita Brigham
These are the reminiscences of Margherita Brigham, who was born on 23 April 1887 at 13 Warren Square, off Green Street in Jamaica Plain. The memoir concerns the house of Margherita’s grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Dickson. While Alexander Dickson owned a number of properties in that area, the “old house” featured in the narrative is most likely the large house that sits in the center of Warren Square. Margherita’s childhood memories and family stories passed down to her from an earlier generation provide a vivid picture of life in nineteenth-century Jamaica Plain.
Margherita Brigham was descended from Captain Lemuel May, who owned a house at the site of the present-day 61 Arborway, “the Castle,” in popular parlance. Capt. May married Katharine Williams and had a son named Benjamin. Benjamin May married Mary Starr and had a daughter, Susannah, who married Alexander Dickson. The Dicksons had six children, four of whom (all girls) lived to adulthood: Isabelle M., Flora, Ada, and Minnie Etta. Isabelle married Thomas W. Carter but had no children.
Ada married George Edward Brigham (son of William Eustis Brigham and Eliza Ann Shattuck) and had Margherita. The other two Dickson daughters never married. Alexander Dickson died under somewhat mysterious circumstances in 1878 (apparently a suicide). When Margherita was born at 13 Warren Square, her grandmother Dickson and two unmarried daughters were living in the “old house.”
Margherita’s aunt Isabelle and Thomas W. Carter lived for a number of years at 61 Arborway (“the Castle”), the site of the May family ancestral home. The 1920 Census indicates that Margherita, her husband, parents, and two daughters were all living with the Carters at least at that time. It’s not certain when they moved from Warren Square.
Margherita married Arthur Binney Lane in 1915. He died of typhoid fever in 1921. She later married John W. Emmons, who died in 1950. Her memoir, reproduced here, was written between 1948 and 1951. She died in 1981.
“THE OLD HOUSE.”
Mrs. John W. Emmons. 123 Summer St. Hingham Mass.
It still stands, stately and serene. Perhaps I shouldn’t use the word “serene,” because it really isn’t any more. A busy street in front of it and houses now crowding it on three sides, no, it isn’t serene any more. When my Grandfather built it in 1841 it stood in the middle of many acres of orchards and fields. Today it still has a large lawn and a private road on two sides, still imposing, and one knows if “The Old House” could talk it would tell a lovely story of “Peace, Tranquility, and a large Happy Family,” living a life of which my generation (a granddaughter), and my children, have never had nor will, unfortunately, ever know. As “The Old House” has to be inarticulate I shall try to talk for it and tell you some of the “old Stories” My Mother and Aunts told to me of the house and the happy family that lived there so long.
It has known only two families in the one hundred and nine years. As I told you my Grandfather built it, it was inherited by his four daughters. My Mother and her three sisters. An Aunt married and moved to another part of the town, my Mother married and moved across the street. The two unmarried Aunts lived there until one was left alone, then she went to live with the other married sister. I remember being told how delighted the Sisters were when a dear old friend of theirs wished to buy the old home. It meant their association with their old home would not be severed; they could visit it as often as they wished. It was and is today as dear to their friend’s heart as to theirs. It also meant that it would be kept up, always, as it was in their day. The friend had many happy years there and now her daughter has kept on the tradition. My children and I are free to visit there and as certain of as hearty a welcome as in my Grandmother’s day. It is still a beautiful and stately landmark. Built similarly to the “Old Manse” in Concord, it is soft grey, two floors and of course “the attic.” There are three piazzas, the front one covered in Spring by a beautiful and unusually thick wisteria vine – the side piazza covering is Concord grape, the real old “Concord Grape,” so very fragrant. The back piazza is directly opposite the front door so that in Spring and Summer when the double doors are open one can look directly through the long stately hall. Around the front and side piazzas, in the Spring, I remember just one kind of flower (Fleur-de-lis), many clumps of them, not a rarity, but these have always seemed so to me, because I have never seen the same exact shade, nor smelt the same subtle perfume they had. It was as sweet as honey-suckle. (I know whereof I speak, for I have today a clump of these same “Fleur-de-lis” in my garden and friends exclaim over their color and perfume. Of many varieties it is the only one with any tangible perfume.) Around the back piazza were literally thousands of “Lillies of the Valley” and the perennial, odorless purple violets, both of which my playmates as well as myself could pick to our heart’s content. So much for the “outside” of “The Old House,” but one more thing I just couldn’t forget to tell you of are the two tin roofs over the front and side piazzas and how at the age of three onwards I have always loved the sound of rain on a tin roof. Often I went to sleep to its accompaniment on nights my parents went out and I was put to bed at the Aunts’ across the street. There is a story I shall tell you later on about “The Tin Roof,” so remember!
Now I want to tell you about the inside of this beautiful old home. I visit there today and it is scarcely changed. The old “what-not” that stood in the big hall is gone. But I remember all the shells, coral and many other interesting things that were on it, brought home by my Grandparents in their travels as well as “Sea-faring” ancestors. The old Spinet is gone and of course today, a Baby Grand with its classical sheets on the rack, but I still remember the old Spinet with the Hymn Book and another book with the old songs that on Sunday evenings were sung by my parents and Aunts. My Mother and one Aunt must have had good voices as they were always singing leading parts in Civic Operettas. The beautiful mid-victorian sofas and chairs grace the parlor (today upholstered in rich red velvet). Over the marble mantle is a very large ornate gilt mirror, also in the centre of the room a large crystal chandelier, both of which are “Collector’s items,” that my Grandfather picked up at a private auction.
As I said, when you enter the front door the wide hall goes through to the double doors at the back and it was in this hall that my Mother and the Aunts used to have their parties, small dances, and put on their “Louisa May Alcott” plays. Also where one Aunt used to conduct a “Small Select Dancing Class for Juveniles.” Off the long hall, to the left was “the parlor” with its lovely bay, where I’ve been told the large Christmas tree always stood. I have heard so much of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and all the parties, that I have only to close my eyes and I see so Plainly the “Big Family” clustered around the Spinet and the tree, opening presents, singing Carols and then of course dashing out to try the new skates and sleds. (Plenty of snow always in those days.)
A lovely brook ran nearby, that too is “another story.” The sitting-room was on the right of [the] front door, as you entered, and also another door at the left entering from the side door. On entering the side door your first view is looking through a lovely arch-way into the big hall. The winding stair-case curved, with its beautiful mahogany railing. (Another Collector’s item I am sure; it’s as lovely as any I have ever seen.) At the bend in the stairs, at the curve near the top there is a small arched niche. During my Mother’s day and my childhood it held a medium sized white plaster figure of a small “Boy-Angel” called “Little Samuel;” whether that was actually the name or a name that was given to it by the Sisters (my Mother and Aunts), I do not know. It was gone before the present owner’s day. Now remember about “the stair-case” I have just spoken of for that is still “another story.” The dining-room is large with a conservatory window, always in my remembrance and today filled with beautiful plants on its many shelves. The mid-victorian black walnut sideboard still graces one wall and the lovely old table, substantial, as well as the chairs for a growing active family. The big kitchen of course with its side oven and the worn floor boards scrubbed to light by many hands and feet.
Upstairs, on the first landing to left and right are the two large bed rooms. The front one my Grandparents, the other side the oldest of the daughters. Then you go up four steps to [the] next landing and find yourself in the “sewing-room.” Leading from that are two small bed-rooms, and the large bathroom. Also a very large closet with a window. Remember about “the big closet and the four steps down to the second floor landing” for these are still more stories.
When my Mother and Aunts dismantled “The Old House” for their friend to move into, the attic must have been priceless, all the old boxes, trunks, clothes etc. and had I been older and wise as I am today or been more interested I am sure I could have salvaged plenty for myself and children to come but at that time I was too busy having a good time to give much thought to the future, and didn’t realize or care how the treasures were disposed of. Some of course were kept and I have them today, treasuring them and think if [I] had only been interested then in antiques as I ultimately became how much I would and could have saved.
At the end of the house were two small bed-rooms (going down of course the inevitable few steps to that level), three this time. One a store room and the other the “hired-girl’s” room. Now I hope I have given you a pretty clear picture of the inside of this lovely old home. The large downstairs with its small and large halls, the parlor, sitting-room, dining room and kitchen, with upstairs the large bed-rooms, two small bed-rooms, and the other two rooms in the ell. I repeat all this because some of the stories I have promised to tell you will take place “within” and a few “without.” In my next chapter I shall tell you a bit about my childhood and some of the things I remember as well as some of the stories that have been told to me.
As I have said before when my Mother and Aunts were children and until after two of them were married the “Old House” stood alone in the middle of its fields and orchards. But about the time I was born my Grandfather had begun to sell some of his land and houses began to crowd in a bit, until today, while the house still stands on a large plot by itself, it is surrounded by houses on three sides. However they were built well in those days and in almost every instance, were occupied by friends of the family, so all through my childhood, not only the children, my playmates, but the parents were like one large family and neither had to go far afield for social activities. When our ‘teens’ came we began to drift apart as each went separate ways to boarding-schools, and different “Summer Resorts.” Some of us moved too to different cities; but no matter how far apart we are today I am certain we all look back on those days as the most care-free and happiest times of our lives and wish most sincerely that our children could have had the same. Those days, of course, there were no automobiles and we were allowed freedom that the children today can never know. I remember the steep steep hill and the boys’ long narrow double-runners that ten or twelve of us would pile on when the hill was covered with snow (and we did have “Snow” then), the ponds too were always frozen for skating. So frozen we never had to be cautioned, and when coasting the most that could happen would be a spill into a horse drawn pung, going of course at a snail’s pace, no hurry in those days. Saturdays were days for “Pung-rides;” sometimes way up in the country, at least we thought so, I suppose an automobile could do it in five or ten minutes today. Then home to someone’s house for “crackers and cocoa.” Later we graduated to “Heart and Fudge” parties. Dancing School of course. Sundays, always Sunday School. We never questioned about going, to us it was just more school. Some of my happiest recollections are the parties in the Church parlors and the Fairs and Plays. Easter too when we always returned home with a pretty red geranium. Halloween was still another time for fun; all the children, young and even very young went out in the evening dashing here and there, no automobiles for parents to worry about. One of my first remembrances was, after school, to go into my Aunt’s kitchen (the Big House) taking all the neighborhood children. Their German cook Sophie would give us all the Ginger cookies our mittened hands could hold and some delicious strange kind of cheese she used to make. I was a sort of “Queen-of-the-May” and loved it, as I was the only one that had access to “The Big House” so was very popular and why not, when my Aunts made life very lovely for us and each Saturday planned games and plays in the “long-hall.” By now I had moved, with my parents, across the street to one of the nearby houses. My two maiden Aunts lived alone, and one of them should have had lots of children she loved them so, and was always planning something for their entertainment. I was the only child in an adult family so quite naturally spoiled. I was far from beautiful but suspect my Aunt didn’t think so for I always was given “the lead” in the plays, witness “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty.” Sometimes the parents were invited and I suspect, going home, they said “how much better Mary-Jane” or “Susie” could have done, but “WHAT WOULD YOU EXPECT?” I regret to think that it was at this time that the aforementioned “attic” must have come into its own for I remember all kinds of fancy costumes, fans, hats with plumes and numerous other regalia. How my children would have loved them – it I hadn’t been too busy myself when “the attic” was dismantled. I was a long way from being married then, so expect my Mother and Aunts never thought of asking me and if they had I would probably have said “Heavens No.”
A good deal of the time I was a lonely child, especially Sundays and Holidays when I was the only young person at “Family Gatherings.” However a few things do stand out in my memory of “good times and changes.” Every Summer I went with my parents to the sea-shore, and there I made new friends that have become older and dearer each year; never forgetting however my Winter playmates. On Saturday nights during Fall, Winter and Spring we used to go across the street to my Aunts for Saturday night supper. For some reason it was not the proverbial “New England Supper” of “Beans and Brown-Bread” it was always Sophie’s Scalloped Oysters, warm biscuits, apple pie and “cambric tea for me.” Baked Beans and Brown Bread and always Fish Balls were served Sunday for breakfast. On alternate Sunday noons we went to my other Aunts and to my Grandmother’s. At one always Boiled Mutton with Caper Sauce, the other Roast Duck and apple sauce. I must have been a real little “trencherman” remembering all these good things to eat, but never since have any of the same tasted quite so good. Perhaps it was because the same family, so to speak, cooked them as my Aunt had Sophie’s sister in her kitchen and my Grandmother a cousin. My Aunts, across the street, were frequently “Sitters” when my parents went to parties or to their Whist Club. Then I would be put to bed in one of the rooms that had the tin roof outside; if it rained I probably loved it, for I do today. Of course then I would be there for the nice Sunday breakfast, which I told you about. In my life, it has not been “What Mother used to make,” but “What Sophie used to make.” Cooks have come and gone but never one to match Sophie. She lived with my Grandmother and Aunts for twenty-five years, as dear to all of us as any relative and when my Aunts augmented her savings and helped her go back to Germany, with her Sister, she was sorely missed. A good and faithful friend and servant.
My two Aunts lived by and for “The Boston Evening Transcript.” I am glad that neither were living when the final edition was left on the door-step. I’m sure life would have stopped for them then; one of them particularly. This Aunt always kept a small pair of blunt scissors, on the end of a ribbon, handy on her desk and just the minute the Transcript came she put them around her neck (to cut out any clippings she might fancy). I remember, for years, a hat box in her room full of these clippings. Another item, if salvaged, that might be priceless today. They were all worth while of course and educational as the dear old “Transcript” would print nothing else. When my Aunt was a young girl she went around Cape Horn on a sailing vessel, to visit friends (Missionaries) in Honolulu. In those days it was never spoken of as “Honolulu” as it is today, it was always “Hawaiian Islands.” I have told you of the conservatory window in the dining-room. Another one of my recollections as a little girl, and a big girl too, was the great excitement when neighbors and ourselves were summoned to “Come this evening to see the “Night-Blooming Cereus” open and close. One that my Aunt had brought back and cherished as much as a “baby.” Proud too because it was a cousin of my Grandmother’s that first introduced the “Night Blooming Cereus” to the “Islands.” From the time of my Aunt’s return, to the present day, a steady correspondence has been kept up between her friends in those days (the Missionaries), and today, my friends, the descendants (daughters and granddaughters). Friendship furthered also by visits back and forth. Whenever a letter came from “The Islands” there was a gathering of “the clan” and after some rehearsal of the script, my Aunt would read the letter to her Sisters, Mother and friends. I can see today the very thin onion skin paper written and re-written across the pages, for in those days postage was high & paper scarce. The letters from so far (to those of us that had never been there) were as exciting as if “Dropped from Mars.” A conversation stands out in my memory between my Mother and Aunts at the termination of one of these letters. I had, of course, heard a great deal of “War” talk as the “Civil War” was still so fresh in my Grandparents’ minds. I remember my oldest Aunt telling me that she remembered seeing a lot of tents near the house (when she was a little girl), and asking her Father about them and his telling her “It was a ‘Union Army Encampment.’” “Little Pitchers had big ears” now as then, and I must have thought a good deal about this conversation, to have remembered it so vividly after so many years. Of course the recent “War” brought it back to me. It is “history Repeating Itself” because not long ago my seven year old Grandson said to me, “Nana I hope there won’t be another War because if there was Lane and I would have to go wouldn’t we, and maybe come back like Uncle Charlie with only one leg?” So – that at seven. Don’t tell me that the children today don’t think and worry. I pray he may never have to remember this conversation with me – as I remembered the other one. I have digressed a bit, but this is the conversation that I remember. My Aunt turned to her Sisters, after finishing this letter I speak of, and said “You must mark my word, some day there is going to be trouble between Japan and the United States, Japan wants those “Islands.” I do not remember what was in the letter, to occasion her remark. Most probably there had been other remarks, in previous letters, to occasion the comment. She finished with “I probably won’t live to see it, but “MARK MY WORDS.” How right she was and how glad I am that she didn’t live to see her dear “Islands” violated. Now the following is my last and final chapter and in it I am going to tell you the stories I have promised you.
One of the first stories my Mother used to tell me was of their “Valentine” exploits, and today my Grandchildren beg for “The Valentine Story.” Please Nana! It seems there was a neighbor (when my Mother and her Sisters were small) a very gruff disagreeable man, heartily disliked by all, even his own family. One very cold Valentine night the “Girls” took white chalk and chalked a big white envelope on Mr. Moore’s threshold; knocked on the door and then scooted down in back of the piazza. Mr. Moore came to the door and tried to pick up the envelope, of course without success. They thought it the joke they meant it to be until Mr. Moore said, “Sarah, bring me a lamp!” Then, “Sarah, bring me my hat and coat!” That was different and not funny, they knew he knew just where to go to find the culprits. So off they streaked it over the fields, thinking they’d never reach home first, the snow was heavy and crusty and every step their rubber-boots would almost come off. But they did arrive first and up the back stairs without being seen and into the big closet (I told you about, remember?). Pretty soon there was a knock on the door. “Mrs. Dickson your children have chalked up my threshold and tomorrow morning they can bring cloths and wash up their little prank; if they don’t I’ll have the police see they do.” Of course “she was sorry and would see that they took care of it,” so off they had to go next morning with wet and dry cloths and scrub the door-step. Mr. Moore did not appear, but ever afterwards, when they saw him coming they would cross to the other side of the street. The next story (and I might add here that all the stories my Grandchildren so delight in that they are told over and over for “Good-night stories” whenever they visit me). I tell them all but “The Burglar Story.” None of them have reached the age for that one yet.
This one is about “The Brook.” It ran across the nearest meadow and had a small rustic bridge over the widest part. It was not dangerously deep and a source of delight for paddling in the Summer and skating in the Winter. In early Spring or late Winter one year; anyway there was still a thin coating of ice in the brook, my Grandmother had made an appointment to take her three little girls to the Photographers. So, on a Saturday afternoon, after dinner, they were all scrubbed and dressed in their “Sunday Best.” Each, in turn, was admonished to watch the other and “they could wait on the side piazza until their Mother was ready.” My Mother, who was the “Tom-Boy” of the family and always in mischief, decided that rather than wait and be bored she would go and slide on the brook as she had in the morning. I expect the Sisters tried to stop her; on the other hand, perhaps they were bored too and thought a little excitement might be fun. The sun was high and the brook had melted some, the ice gave way and in my Mother went. Screaming and dripping she ran to the house. Instead of spanking her little daughter my Grandmother dried her off and put on her, her very very oldest clothes, not even “second best,” and off she went with the others to have her picture taken just the same. I haven’t the pictures (perhaps it was discovered later in the attic and destroyed, because I remember it was always understood that my Mother’s expression was not of the pleasantest; “Clothes and expression were probably in some contrast to the others.”
This is “The Chandelier Story.” In the side hall there was, and is, a very ornate chandelier, gilt with many prongs and four or five gas jets with glass shades. One summer afternoon my Grandmother said to her little daughter, Minnie go downstairs and see if your Father is at the door with the carriage.” Like all children “Minnie” decided it was a lot easier to just go down to the bend and lean over the banister to look through the door which was open. So, leaning over too far, she lost her balance and over she went; but instead of landing on the floor below, her hoop skirt caught on the chandelier, and there she hung. Her Father heard the screams, saw her hanging there and needless to say it didn’t take him long to rescue her, nor long for her to receive a “right good spanking.” Like all indulgent parents, I understand that on the ride he stopped and bought her ice-cream.
The next story is about “The Burglar.” Do you remember that I told you I would tell you later about “The Tin Roof?”
When my Mother was a small girl (she thought about eleven or twelve), she had gone to bed in her small room off the “Sewing-Room.” Both rooms had a window opening on the tin roof over the front piazza. It was a warm night in April and raining. She was just drowsing off to sleep when she heard a noise and saw a man standing, with his back to her, in the door-way of the sewing-room. He was at the top of the steps leading down to the second floor landing. He had on a “Cut-a-way coat and a Tall silk hat,” and held a lighted match over his head. She didn’t scream, but held her breath, knowing he had come in the sewing-room window and that he was going down into her parents’ room. She thought, “Oh I pray that Mother has her best jewelry on.” All was quiet for a few minutes and then she heard a noise and thought he had gone out the window, so she said “Is that you May,” thinking it was her sister. No answer – and she thought “Oh he hasn’t gone yet and he will know now there is someone upstairs.” Holding her breath what seemed like hours she finally did hear her Sister and springing out of bed rushed out to her and said “come with me quick.” She dashed downstairs, with her bewildered sister following her. Her parents looked up from their Cribbage game, her other sister stopped playing the Spinet, all to look at her in amazement. “Mother have you your brooch, rings and watch on?” “No. Why?” “Because there has been a burglar upstairs in your room.” “Nonsense,” said her Father, “go back to bed, you have been dreaming.” “Well you just come upstairs and see if Mother’s things aren’t gone.” Reluctantly he went upstairs, and discovered but fast, that his daughter had not been dreaming, for everything was gone. Neither did it take him long to don his hat and coat and make for the police station. Some months later the “Gang” were apprehended in Rhode Island and brought back to Massachusetts. My Mother and others whose homes were robbed the same night were called to identify them, but none could, except their clothes which were in the height of fashion. They were called, in the paper, “The Top Hat Burglars.” Later my Grandmother did recover some of her jewelry, but not all. I was quite a young lady before I was told this story or I would never have slept so peacefully in the little room, listening to the rain on the tin roof. I always think of it now, whenever I hear rain on a tin roof and think what a brave little girl my Mother was.
My Grandchildren have all been taken to visit “The Old House” and think it so interesting to see “The Chandelier” and the “Big Hall.” I skip, for a while yet, the “Tin Roof.” The Brook is gone, but Mr. Moore’s house still stands.
My last story is about the “Louisa May Alcott’s” Plays in the big hall. My Mother and Aunts always called them that because they were immensely proud of the fact that they came from the same “May” Family. My Aunt May was especially proud of her name because it was a family name and not the name of the month and always impressed the fact upon her friends. I have told you before there were four sisters in my Mother’s family. They called themselves “The Little Women” and substituted “Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy,” for Flora, May, Ada and Minnie. My Mother, the tom-boy of the family was always Jo. They even called their Mother “Marmee” much to her amusement. The Sisters were young girls when they used to produce these plays for their parents and neighbors. They took parts from “Little Women,” “Under the Lilacs,” “Old Fashioned Girl” and others, taking great pains with costumes and scenery, and rehearsing excerpts from the books. So, until marriage broke up the “Quartet,” they remained to their family the “Little Women.”
[signed] Margherita Emmons
Information courtesy of Mary Ann and Lane Mabbett. Transcription, additional research, and introduction by Kathy Griffin.