By: C.M. Stephens
The year following the death of Jane’s husband was a blur of grey sadness and kind faces trying to console her. Friends slowly stopped coming by, unable to sit with her enormous emptiness. A visit from her husband’s banker brought her out of her misery. Her husband still owed money on the house. She could sell it for a good sum or share it with strangers. If she wanted to keep living in her huge house, she was going to have to rent out rooms. With the influx of people moving to Ithaca, there were many students and young professionals who needed temporary lodgings. A boarding house was the best solution. The only other person she had lived with since she was 18 was Johnathon and although she was not happy about it, she had no choice and began to rent rooms to strangers.
Jane rented to her first tenant in the summer of 1880. A young student, Conrad Staple, and his wife, Elizabeth, brought much needed liveliness to her home. It was July 12, Jane’s fortieth birthday. She made a decision to stop wearing the dark colors required of widows. She felt so much better just putting on a plain light blue dress. The heaviness of loss had settled down and she began to quietly move forward. Jane found herself still consulting Johnathon in her mind over important and trivial decisions like trying to decide on which flowers to grow or which handyman to hire to help with the lawn. Before the summer was out she had rented all three rooms, to one other couple and one student majoring in agriculture.
What also helped her through those days was her time spent volunteering down at the Ithaca Orphanage. It was hard to be sad while visiting these children. Most of them had lost one or two parents due to illness. In some cases there was simply no more room for them at home. Many children were left there temporarily until a relative could be found. The older girls sent to industrial schools to learn housekeeping skills so they could get a job.
Jane met a young girl named Katherine who was turning 12. Her mother and father lived only five blocks away but had seven other children and were unable to feed them all.
Katherine and Jane liked each other right away. Jane thought it would be nice to have Katherine’s help in her house. She had always wanted children and Katherine reminded her of herself when she was young. Katherine was overjoyed at the idea of living with Jane.
Katherine was a hard worker but also prone to wanting to ask questions about everything. These distractions were usually harmless and did make the work go by quickly. Even though she missed her parents and siblings, Katherine didn’t hold it against them for leaving her at the orphanage. To keep Katherine’s spirits up, Jane brought her down to the West Port Street every Sunday afternoon to visit with her family and friends who were relieved that she was doing well. She always brought her mom some groceries, flour and sugar and always some sweets for her brothers and sisters. Lottie, a dark haired, big eyed girl, from next door, always showed up. They were the same age and grew up together. While the kids ran off to play, Katherine’s mom Maria and Jane would visit. Maria always looked tired. Neighbors would stop by to get a look at Jane who they weren’t quite sure of.
Jane decided that Katherine needed to have more schooling than she could provide. She was good at history and knew how to read and write, but not that well. Luckily Mrs. Staple was willing to tutor Katherine for two hours a day. They got along splendidly, and Katherine was a quick learner. They went on adventures around town: visiting the many falls, admiring the new buildings being constructed at Cornell, and their favorite going to the library. Katherine picked up Latin quite easily. It was time for her to go to a more formal school, but there were not many options for girls.
There was a group of parents in their neighborhood who hired a teacher to run a school in one of their homes. Jane had enough money to pay for Katherine to go. There was just one problem. If they knew Katherine’s father was a dock worker and that her mother had made and sold dandelion wine down in the inlet, she would surely not be able to attend the school. Jane came up with a story that Katherine had lost her dear parents and that Jane was her closest relative. Katherine agreed to go along with it but didn’t feel good about it.