In the late 1800s for poorer folks in the Finger Lakes area of New York, winter is particularly hard. Families who could heat their homes with coal often went to the railroad tracks to pick up any lumps that managed to fall from the trains passing through the town. One such person was Jane, 70 year old wife of Edward.
As Jane walks along the snow covered street, she is overcome with a weariness deep in her bones. “It wasn’t always like this,” she thinks to herself. Her first husband was a professor at the thriving university in town. They enjoyed a life surrounded by interesting people, books, parties, and fun. She and her husband were unable to have children, a fact met with some sadness, but with so much to be thankful for, there was not a negative impact on their relationship with each other or friends.
In her whole life Jane didn’t have to go without and didn’t have a real sense of what that meant. Her father had worked hard as a general store owner from nearby Syracuse. Her mother stayed home and tended to Jane. The family had two maids who took care of the daily cleaning and cooking, but Jane was instructed in how to keep house. She attended school up to the sixth grade. “Long enough,” she thought. School had taught her how to read and this was something Jane enjoyed immensely. Who needed school when she could learn anything she wanted from books? Her love of reading was a blessing for her parents since she often entertained them with retellings of the latest novel she borrowed from the library, which is where she met her husband Jonathan Henry. He was a bright young man finishing up his courses and aspiring to be an English professor. They made a great pair. She adored him and he her. Jane was able to help him with his essays for school. Her insights into literature often helped Jonathan see a fresh point-of-view, which he appreciated. One might think she should be the aspiring professor, but that was not how Jane worked. She loved ideas and talking and thinking and talking more.
After she and Jonathan married, he got a teaching job at a university in Ithaca. They moved to a quiet neighborhood at the foot of Buffalo Street. They were close to the town’s center and a short trolly ride up to the school. Within a few years, Jonathan was made department chair of the College of Arts and Sciences. While Jonathan was busy with work, Jane joined a group of women who volunteered at the local orphanage called The Ithaca Children’s Home, which was bursting it seemed mostly from the immigrants who were clustered down by the inlet, an area called “The Rhine”.
The view of these immigrants or “Rhine Dogs” as they were called was that they were a product of their own laziness, drunkenness, or ungodliness. They deserved every hardship that came their way. They had children they couldn’t take care of, and the ones that were lucky enough to grow up turned out to be thieves and prostitutes. Well, that is what she heard any way. Although it was true that there were many immigrants living in The Rhine, Jane also learned that some families had lived in the area since the early 1800s. The residents from the inlet did not quickly warm up to outsiders, and they did not want charity from the good “Christians” up town. They also did not do anything to try to change the public’s notions about their lives. Encouraging the townsfolk only ended up backfiring on them. All Jane knew was that any time there was a crime, large or small, it was blamed on the people of the Rhine.
Tragedy struck her life on a quiet spring afternoon. During afternoon tea, Harold Walker, a colleague from the university, showed up with his wife. It was an odd time for them to make a social call without notice. But, this visit wasn’t social. Harold and Beth came bearing the bad news that her husband had been rushed to the local hospital. Jonathan had collapsed during a lecture. The students acted quickly, and he was taken immediately to the hospital. Jane got her coat, and they sped off in the Walker’s carriage to the hospital. Jane was a pillar of strength on the outside, but inside she knew her beloved husband was gone. She knew it the instant she saw the Walkers at her door.