I was dusting a bookshelf when, with my usual grace, I managed to knock to the ground an old book that nobody had opened for years. The book crashed to the floor and out slipped a letter, yellow and musty, the handwriting an elegant looping cursive. The letter itself was brief, just a few lines. It was dated m May 18, 1914 and addressed to no one in particular. It was signed by Mrs. Warren R. Gilman, a well-to-do woman living on Oxford Street in Worcester, Massachusetts. The letter was a recommendation for my great-grandmother, Mary Kett.
Mary was an Irish immigrant who had left her home and family with just $10 in her pocket, arriving in the United States in 1907. She was hired by Mrs. Gilman to clean her house as a “second girl,” Whose primary job was laundry, as well as cleaning and cooking. Mary worked for Mrs. gilman for three years, and the recommendation letter notes that Mary, whose neatness, honesty, and cooking were all praised, was leaving the service of Mrs. Gilman to return to Ireland.
Mary never returned to Ireland. In fact, she never saw her family there again. Ana a year after leaving service, she married my great-grandfather.
Was Mary lying so that she could get out of an undesirable job with a good recommendation? Or could she have actually been planning on going to Ireland but instead met my great grandfather?
We’ll never really know. One of the challenges historians face when interpreting documents is lack of context. The meaning of documents is left for historians to determine, and many historical mysteries remain unsolved.
We often have so little to work on when trying to recreate the past. Today, there is a plethora of facts and information about everyone. Nothing is private. In our age of social media, it seems just about everything is available on that screen. Mary didn’t have social media, of course, and one cannot check her Facebook page or tweets to discover where life took her in the years following. But she did have what many of us yearn for in an age with an abundance of information: she had privacy. It’s frustrating to me that we will never know the full story behind this letter. How many other letters like this were lost to time? These small mysteries shaped the lives of our ancestors, possibly playing a role in shaping who we are today.
Recently, I drove through the downtown area of Worcester that is full of old houses that have seen better days. The house of her former employer is old and white, with an attic jutting out towards the street that appears to be meant for the servants. Perhaps Mary lived and slept there. The house and the street have fallen victim to the negligence of time, and the glamour and prestige they had once has faded. I wonder if Mary could have ever guessed her descendant would again come back to the house following her little paper trail. Will my great granddaughter find some old e-mails of mine, perhaps catching me in my own 100-year-old lie?
Maria Reidy is a Senior at Doherty Memorial High School in Worcester, Massachusetts. She is captain of the varsity crew team, a member of National Honors Society, and a really bad driver.
The letter from Mrs. Warren R. Gilman