At fourteen, I read Jane Addams acount of Twenty Years at Hull House and decided I wanted to be a social worker like Miss Addams. Eight years later I was doing exactly that in two San Francisco settlement houses. In honor of Women’s History Month, I want to share yet another excerpt from By Grace. The year is 1899 in Chicago.
Grace made her way to Hull House to offer her artistic talents. With several newer buildings complementing the facility, the still elegant fifty-year-old mansion faced Halstead Street. Hull House was a sturdy brick and mortar reminder of what the neighborhood had once looked like. Other mansions had long since been broken into rooming houses where dirt and grime tore at worn paint. Shanties made of tarpaper and odd bits of lumber and tin didn’t look fit for the basest of animals. Factory chimney stacks puffed unrelenting stinky smoke.
Grace stood outside for a few minutes, finding refuge from the drabness of the neighborhood in the beauty of Hull House. Brilliant white pillars marched along the Italianate veranda where floor to ceiling windows looked out on the street. Great oaken doors invited the stranger in. She smiled heartily and pushed at the heavy doors.
* * *
Hansel and Gretel went on that night as planned. Grace worked backstage, ready to direct the change of backdrop or help a youngster with a costume. Before the house lights were darkened, she peered out front from time to time. In her pre-occupied state, she hardly took in the performance. Parents and staff called for the director and for the set designer. Grace avoided an appearance by escaping to the main house.
Thinking that the house was empty, Grace gave into her fears with a flood of feelings. Hiccupping and fighting tears, she beat at the parlor sofa with a pillow. How could she survive if she had to always be on the run? What of her designing plans, marriage or a family? It was all so lonely and scary. The original plans for her journey of self-discovery were collapsing in a heap of anguish and fear.
“Talking can help sometimes. It gives proportion to troubles and helps us find our way. I’m a good listener.”
Grace looked up to see a tall woman, nicely dressed and with an air of authority about her. She recognized the woman from photos in the office. “You’re Miss Addams.”
“You have found me out, but you have the advantage on me.”
“I’m…I’m Grace Pelham, a volunteer.”
“The artist Miss Lathrop has been telling me about! Your backdrops were wonderful.”
“You’ve seen them?”
“I couldn’t miss out on the children’s first show now, could I?”
“No, of course not.” Grace pulled herself to a sitting position and wiped at her tears with a very damp handkerchief.
“Here, try mine. It’s sure to be good for a few sniffles.”
“Yes, ma’am, and thank you.”
Jane Addams joined Grace on the sofa and talked of the hardships she had experienced in bringing Hull House into being. Her voice and tales had a soothing effect on the younger woman. In time, Grace shared parts of her story. Afraid to tell too much, she described the dilemma of being sought by the police for something she had not done and having no way to prove her innocence.
“I have found action and time to be great problem solvers,” said Miss Addams. “By following your plan to seek more education, you will buy time to find a way out of this seemingly impossible situation. You strike me as a very talented and competent woman for one so young. I believe you will find the power to overcome your difficulties, but you will need to remain strong and determined.”
They sat quietly as Grace digested all that Miss Addams said. She thought back to her father and his belief in her, of mentor’s desire to see her develop her talents. She thought of her friends and knew they would not be deceived in their knowledge of her. She didn’t yet know how she would prove her innocence or if she could indict the real killer along the way, but it was clear she had to try and in trying, she had to succeed.
“Thank you so much, Miss Addams. I needed advice and your kind ear. I will push on and eventually find my way out of this situation. I may need to remind myself from time to time. You’ve been very kind to listen and to help me.”
“If you ever need a friend or a refuge, know that you’ve only to write or come.”
* * *
What women have affected your life? In what way?
Historical? Fictional? Contemporary?