THE DEATH OF MY AUNT PEARL
My mother was the second Pearl in the family. She was named for her mother’s sister, who was named after Hester
Prynne’s daughter in The Scarlett Letter. Apparently, Grandma Morgan, my great-grandmother, had been reading Hawthorne’s novel while pregnant with the first of her eight children. The original Pearl, my great-aunt Pearl, was born on September 16, 1910, followed by Janet, May 14, 1912; Alice, my grandmother, February 26, 1914; Ivor, October 31, 1915; and Thomas Jr., April 8, 1917. There would be three more children, David, Paul and Louise, but they hadn’t been born at the time of the tragedy. Tommy was the baby then. On the occasions when my mother or grandmother talked about the accident, they’d always say that Grandma Morgan was in the house tending to the baby when she heard Pearl’s screams.
July 4th, 1918. Pearl had been baptized that morning, presumably at the Good Shepherd Pentecostal Church, since according to the funeral notice several days later, that’s where a second service was held after a brief one at the house. Someone took a group photograph to commemorate the baptism, the only picture ever taken of Pearl to my knowledge. She smiles broadly from the second row, far right, in a bright white dress. A matching bow pulls back her dark, possibly still damp, hair. She’s holding a daisy with both hands. I only know this because my mother told me. The flower disappears against the backdrop of the dress.
According to a piece in The Republican, one of three articles tucked inside the family Bible, Pearl and “several companions,” her six-year-old sister Janet among them, were playing with sparklers in the yard around eight o’clock in the evening. Pearl’s dress caught on fire, and as the reporter explains, “With her clothes a mass of flames, the child ran toward her home, screaming loudly for help.” He goes on to write, “Her parents succeeded in extinguishing the blaze but not before her body was badly burned …” I’d always heard that Grandma Morgan, a modest woman, raced out of the house in her slip, a detail included to illustrate her sense of urgency. She rolled Pearl in a rag rug she’d grabbed from the porch.
Doc Rodham—Hillary Rodham Clinton’s great-uncle on her father’s side (according to my research)—came to the house to treat Pearl’s burns. That’s when she started singing. As the story goes, she sang for three days without a word of complaint. The Republican noted her “remarkable exhibition of fortitude” in an article entitled, “Child Sings Gospel Hymns With Death Lurking Near.” “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,” was always mentioned as one of the songs she sang.
My grandmother, who was four-years-old at the time, had only one memory of that day. Somehow she ended up at the Blackmore’s house, neighbors across the street. She stood at their front door, flanked by two women who fed her milk and peanuts as she watched the ambulance, “a big black thing,” take her sister away.
Pearl died in the hospital on July 6th. As custom required, she was “laid out” in the parlor at home for three days of viewing. Given the nature of her injuries, the undertaker placed netting over the casket so no one would touch the body. Mourners came from all over Scranton, even people the family had never met. Everyone wanted to see the girl who sang hymns.
As per the funeral notice, four women from church served as pallbearers and Sunday school boys were used as flower bearers. Pearl was laid to rest in the Chinchilla Cemetery, in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, a few miles from her North Scranton home.
According to my grandmother, Grandma Morgan “could never settle” after Pearl’s death. She moved her family from one rented house to another. She also stopped putting a Christmas wreath on her door. It reminded her of the wreath she’d hung out when the family was in mourning.
My grandmother used to say that she was too young at the time to understand what had happened to Pearl, but she “pined for her” and stopped walking for a year.
I’m sure my Grandpa Morgan was just as devastated as the rest of the family, but he died before I was born, so I never heard his stories. Or maybe they were told to me and I don’t remember. So often we focus on the mother when tragedy strikes a family.
The only other story I do remember hearing is the one about the hat. Pearl left hers in the classroom the previous year. When school started back, Pearl’s teacher gave the hat to my great-aunt Janet to take to Grandma Morgan. Six-year-old Janet decided to wear it home, unaware of the problems that might cause. Seeing that hat bobbing past the window gave Grandma Morgan a start. For a moment, she thought it was her Pearl. Whenever my grandmother told that story, she’d add affectionately, “That Janet was always a bugger.”
As many times as I heard the story of Pearl’s accident, I always wondered about Janet, the sister who was in the yard that day. By the time I knew her, she was an adult with children and grandchildren. She had many joys in life, but she’d also suffered through tragedies of her own—the death of her only daughter when she was a toddler, the death of her only son as an adult, and the death of a grandchild. I remember her as being funny, generous, nervous and bawdy. I loved her. And I knew enough not to ask her about that day, so I continued to wonder. The wondering inspired me to write Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night.
MRS. JOE’S HOUSEKEEPING GUIDE
When I first started writing Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night, I went on a desperate search for primary resources, and along the way, I discovered the literary value of eBay. I purchased books from the early 1900s on a variety of topics such as gardening, mining, spiritualism, medicine, evangelism, and cooking. One of those books, Mrs. Joe’s Housekeeping Guide, turned out to be a gift from the serendipity gods.
Mrs. Joe’s, a collection of “Little Helps for Home-makers,” offers suggestions on a plethora of topics such as “How not to fall asleep in church,” and “How to drive away rats.” As soon as I read the hints, I knew I had to incorporate them into my choruses.
THE INSPIRATION FOR THE PROVIDENCE CHRISTIAN CHURCH
I grew up in the church. My mother taught Sunday school, and my father served as a deacon and later as an elder at theFirst Christian Church in the Providence section of Scranton. We had our own pew, one row in front of the cracked pew. That’s how I always found my seat as a little girl. I just looked for the cracked pew—still do. When I needed a church for my novel, I decided to model my fictional Providence Christian Church after First Christian on North Main Avenue. Services are still held there every Sunday, starting at 10:45, and all are welcome. In 2014, the church will celebrate its 186th anniversary.
THE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON CONNECTION
Whenever my grandmother told the story about her sister Pearl, she’d always mention that “Doc” Rodham treated her burns, so I gave the doctor in my book the same name. At some point in my library research, I discovered that Doctor Thomas Rodham is, to the best of my knowledge, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s great-uncle on her father’s side.
Doctor Rodham also showed up again in a book that has been in my family for over ninety years. Scranton miner and local poet, George W. Bowen, wrote an essay and poem about my Aunt Pearl and included the pieces in a book entitled, Diamonds of the Mines. I referred to this book frequently while I was writing my novel. One day, long after I’d signed on with my publisher, I thumbed through the book again, and to my delight, I noticed it was dedicated to Doctor Thomas Rodham.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
How did you come to write your novel?
I wrote the first draft of my novel for my capstone project as a graduate student in the Creative Writing Program at Wilkes University. When it came time to pitch to possible mentors, I had three very loose ideas in mind—the death of my great-aunt Pearl, what we in Scranton refer to as “The Billy Sunday Snowstorm,” and a chorus of churchwomen.
Growing up, I heard about the childhood death of Pearl. She was playing with a sparkler on the Fourth of July, the same day as her baptism, and her dress caught fire. It was said that she never complained during the three days she lay dying. Instead, she sang the songs she’d learned in Sunday school. When Pearl died, people from all over Scranton came to the house to view the body of the little girl who sang hymns. I knew I wanted to start there somehow.
As many times as I heard that story, I always wondered about her sister Janet who was also in the yard that day. By the time I knew her, she was a grandmother, and no one ever mentioned the accident in her presence. Janet didn’t have the happiest life, and I wondered what effect Pearl’s death had on her. That wondering inspired me to create the character of Violet.
When pitching the novel, I knew I wanted to begin with a fictionalized version of the accident and end sometime around “The Billy Sunday Snowstorm.” On March 1, 1914, evangelist Billy Sunday started his seven-week Scranton campaign in a tabernacle built solely for his revival meetings. Snow started falling during his evening sermon, stranding twenty-five hundred people overnight with the very charismatic speaker. If you ask people from my parents’ generation about the storm, they all claim to have known someone who was in attendance that night. My grandmother loved to tell how she was born during “The Billy Sunday Snowstorm” while her father was “off being saved.” Scrantonians still speak about their connections to Billy Sunday with great pride. I find that fascinating, and knew I wanted to include the event in my novel.
The idea for the chorus of churchwomen came out of a playwriting activity in my foundations class at Wilkes. I forget the exact prompt, but I chose to write about a group of women preparing a funeral dinner in the kitchen of their church. As a child, I loved to be around those women and hear their stories. I still do. I see that church world as a microcosm of who most of us are—flawed, but well-intended.
When I started writing my book, I’d send chapters to Kaylie Jones, my mentor, for comments. A few times she mentioned that she didn’t like Grace. She was too mean. At first I wasn’t getting it. I’d think, it’s the grief that’s talking, not Grace. She’s consumed with grief. One night it struck me that if I made Grief literal, if I gave him the angry words, and if he actually consumed Grace, I’d solve the problem. I love when that happens! From that moment on, he became a major character.
How long did it take you to write your novel?
I started writing Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night in January, 2006, as a graduate student in the creative writing program at Wilkes University, and finished the first draft in June, 2008. Six years and numerous revisions later I signed my publishing contract with Kaylie Jones Books, an imprint for Akashic Books. In the interim, I completed the first draft of my second novel.
To Thomas B. Rodham, M.D., Scranton, Pa.
Thou—whom the Christian Virtues grandly crowned
With all that’s graceful, generous, and kind,
In Genius, Culture, Eloquence profound—
To mold the brilliant powers of the mind—
Deem it not flattery, by pride designed,
For me to sing thy praises and impart
To other ears the truth, by love refined—
Flowers of Friendship, beautiful in part,
Plucked in their brightest bloom, from the garden of my heart.