Daughters of the Hall – Chapter One

old_city010May 22, 2015 – The morning sun pierced through the window and coaxed the button on the black velvet cloth alive. Its smooth facets bathed in the light, taking on the appearance of a sizeable diamond.

Jenny Hobbs, proprietor of Pine Street Antiques in Philadelphia studied the piece through her jeweler’s loupe. Made of glass, the button resembled a delicate version of the doorknobs used in the grander homes of the 19th century. A quick examination revealed that the piece, close to 150 years old by her estimation, held considerable value.

Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” whispered in the background as her customer’s fingers tapped on the glass counter with deliberate movements that kept in time with the music, yet expressed impatience. Message received. Jenny had ogled the button long enough, and this particular customer, accustomed to getting what she wanted when she wanted it, waited for a response.

“You don’t find too many pieces like this floating around these days, Mrs. Chadwick,” Jenny said without taking her eyes off the button. “I can’t promise an exact match, but I have reliable sources, and I’ll see what I can do.”

Jenny’s reputation as the historic authority preceded her throughout Old City society, yet she lacked the pedigree considered a prerequisite to join Martha Chadwick’s circles. Her ancestors had not fought in the Revolutionary War, and her father’s lifelong work as a butcher and the plain name he passed on to her made her a mere commoner to members of society.

Yet the upper crust relied on her, today to track down a matching button for an antique garment, a rather simple task for a card-carrying member of the National Button Society, but more often to find a piece of antique furniture, or to repair a damaged setting of china or crystal. Through the years, Jenny gathered a unique set of antique buttons she kept in a safe in the back room, but none came close to the one on the cloth before her. It may not belong to her, but she knew the button would make a handsome addition to her collection.

“Do you want me to contact the retailer who sold you the dress?” Jenny asked. “Maybe we could pool our resources and double our chances. On the other hand, we could have one made to look like it. It won’t be authentic, but it will match.” Jenny had her own reasons to call the previous owner of the button, aside from helping her client. Another contact in the business, one who traveled in her circles, never hurt.

Jenny glanced at the woman across the counter with apprehension, took a deep breath, and waited for a response. Martha Chadwick’s face registered disappointment, at least as much as she could muster as she stopped tapping her fingers. She had to be close to seventy, but a skilled plastic surgeon, along with frequent Botox shots helped her look twenty years younger. The downside, she resembled Jack Nicholson’s Joker from “Batman”. Nevertheless, the tone of her voice could command a roomful of angry men, and convey any emotion her face lacked.

Martha Chadwick appeared to find joy in making people uncomfortable, her silence endless and awkward. Some described her as haughty, and with qualities similar to a gale force wind, but Jenny considered that perhaps she earned the right to be smug. You could trace her lineage back to the Revolutionary War, and to Edward Rutledge, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, a fact Mrs. Chadwick would share with anyone who would listen. This and her proper demeanor gave her the credentials to chair the chapters of several Philadelphia historic societies. Either that, or she intimidated everyone and she got her way to avoid confrontation.

“I’d be happier with an authentic match,” Mrs. Chadwick said. The unpleasant smirk she tried to flash made it difficult to believe anything could make this woman happy. She appeared constipated. “We have time,” Martha Chadwick continued. “The DIH gala is months away.”

The DIH or Daughters of Independence Hall – the grandest of all historic societies whose membership included well-to-do women from Philadelphia’s Main Line and Old City – had the exclusiveness Martha Chadwick demanded. Inside its sacred walls, the daughters performed philanthropic acts for the community, and they did admirable work, but could handle much more if they loosened their strict membership criteria and allowed average citizens to join.

Because of their nonprofit status, the DIH received government grants to keep the club functioning, and sometimes it seemed the elite organization became more of a place for these wealthy socialites to stroke their egos than a means to help the needy in the city. Under Martha Chadwick’s reign, members were required to be descendants of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, a rule that kept the club small, yet could be overlooked if the executive committee, which she chaired, desired. Jenny had been tempted to check the legality of maintaining exclusivity while accepting government funding. Instead, she let it go because she did not want to ruffle the feathers of the DIH women who kept her in business.

If Jenny had courage, she would apply again – or at least press the matter why the DIH turned her away last year. She could match any member with historic knowledge, and she had the added benefit of expertise in the Colonial period, a great respect for her city’s history, and a genuine desire to help. What else could they want?

Still, Jenny realized no law she either knew of or had been willing to research, demanded Martha Chadwick or her cronies to explain further. They viewed Jenny as the hired help, a servant at their disposal, not someone to share tea and gossip with, and not someone with the proper lineage.

“My daughter found the dress on the Internet if you can believe that,” Mrs. Chadwick said as if it were the most embarrassing secret she held. “From a private owner in Boston. It’s in perfect condition, except for the missing button.”

“Would you consider changing all the buttons if I find something authentic but somewhat different?” Jenny asked, again looking through her loupe before glancing back at Mrs. Chadwick. She considered it an accommodating question, but Martha’s pursed lips stated otherwise.

“Heaven’s no,” she replied, her sharp tone matching the bite in her green eyes. Perhaps they were warm once, but no amount of money or plastic surgery could make someone empathetic. Her expression changed a moment later, and she began to reconsider.

“Let’s not rule that out as a last resort. A woman who attended Washington’s inaugural ball wore this dress. Supposedly, his mistress,” she added in a hushed voice, as if she did not want to embarrass the most famous of the fore fathers. Jenny resisted cracking a smile as Martha looked around to make sure they were still alone. The rare bit of pleasant conversation from her toughest client took her by surprise, and she welcomed it.

“It’s interesting you mention Washington’s inaugural ball,” Jenny said. “I saw a picture of Martha’s dress in a historical periodical last month. The story claimed it was plain because Martha didn’t care for high fashion, and she didn’t want to spend a lot of money on something frivolous after the war.”

Jenny could relate. Mrs. Chadwick, however, did not look amused and Jenny realized she needed to change the subject, fast. It exhausted her to play games with the socialites. “How many buttons are on the dress?” she asked.

“About 15,” Mrs. Chadwick said. Of course, the woman who knew everything down to the smallest detail for every function she planned made it a point to know the exact number of buttons on the dress, so why did she have to give Jenny a difficult time? “The buttons run down the back of the entire length of the garment,” Mrs. Chadwick added.

“A sign of the times,” Jenny said. “Did you know the zipper didn’t become part of the garment industry until the early 1900s?” She often rambled when nervous. “If you ask me, it may have made dressing easier, but we lost a great sense of style when they began incorporating it, don’t you think?”

Martha Chadwick looked pleased. “That means this button predates the zipper by about 120 years,” she said, both hands touching her cheeks in awe like a woman in menopause having a hot flash. “How valuable is it?”

The button postdated the Revolutionary War era, Jenny knew for sure from the artisanship, but she let the woman have her fantasy for now. It might have come from the Civil War era, predating the zipper by 60 years since they did not have the machinery to make the facets in the glass until the 1840s. The previous owner may have updated the buttons, or stretched the truth when selling the garment it to Mrs. Chadwick. Either way, the buttons were exquisite. “I’ll have to do a little research to pinpoint an exact amount, but I’d guess about $100 per button.”

Jenny could tell Mrs. Chadwick believed she made a smart deal, and after assuring the safety of her acquired treasure, Jenny watched the woman walk out the door as Beethoven’s “Fifth” came to its dramatic end. The next piece on the Beethoven CD, the softer “Ode to Joy” reset the shop’s atmosphere with Martha Chadwick gone, and the irony made her grin.

She wrapped the button in the velvet cloth, placed it in the locked drawer beneath the cash register, and glanced at her watch. Twenty more minutes to lunch, she thought. She had skipped breakfast that morning and her stomach signaled a reminder with a loud growl. At noon, she would lock up for an hour and head upstairs where she resided in the second floor apartment. A creature of habit, lunch served best at noon, and on most days, she kept to the comfort of her routine.

Her father left her the store and the rest of the building, a two hundred fifty year old, three-story red brick colonial when he passed away four years before. Although her property did not appear on the list of historic places, an effort too expensive for her wallet, Jenny kept the place in excellent condition, with a shop on the ground floor and two apartments above. The butcher shop wouldn’t work — she was vegetarian — so she transformed it into an antique and specialty shop, a noble choice for someone who had a passion for the past. She likened the shop to the specialty store featured in the old James Stewart movie, “The Shop Around the Corner”, yet her shop lacked the drama brought on by employees since she never had the need to hire any.

Her best customers were the society women in the area, and her passion paid well. They accounted for at least seventy percent of the shop’s income, but they gave her much more than their business. The women spoke at liberty in Jenny’s presence, and she absorbed the stories of the grand galas they planned and attended for their historic associations. Jenny listened to each detail, as a good bartender would, yet never offered her opinion. She wished she could be a part of their world, not because of their wealth, but because of her fascination with America’s history at the root of it, and she wrote the details in her journal so she would remember them. She knew well before the rest of the community a certain fundraiser would pay for the brick pointing at Christ Church, the oldest church in Philadelphia dating back to the early 1700s, and the education luncheon would pay for four scholarships awarded to needy kids in West Philadelphia. She also knew the latest news, that the summer community picnic planned for the week of July 4, the busiest season in Philadelphia would raise money for a nearby army fort whose soldiers recently returned from Afghanistan.

A year ago, right after her DIH application found its way to the “unaccepted” pile she began turning those journal entries into a series of bimonthly articles for the society column in the “Old City Weekly,” a neighborhood newspaper with a faithful readership. She tried to focus on the positive contributions made by the DIH, but at times, she’d add a comment about how they could do more if they relaxed their membership guidelines. When she felt bolder, she would sprinkle it with vengeance and question some of their decisions, but nothing too vicious. She sent her first story to the hesitant editor, who did not see the benefit until Jenny urged him to keep an open mind. She had the inside access to their exclusive circle, and if he wanted meatier content than the standard media release issued by the DIH, she could get it for him. The promise of inside information intrigued the hungry editor, who suggested Jenny have a little fun with it. He persuaded her to find a unique voice to make the articles compelling to readers across the broader area, and not simply the few interested in a society column. She agreed to take on the challenge his way and wrote under the pen name Carrie Grant as a tribute to her favorite old time screen idol, and the twist she added at the end of each segment tied in to one of his films, such as “The Philadelphia Story” or “His Gal Friday.” The stories grew in popularity, and became more prevalent when the paper refused to reveal the writer’s identity to the local news media, and a mystery unfolded. Her fans – yes, she had them, a thought that still made her laugh – attempted to uncover the true identity of Carrie Grant, but with the shop acting as the perfect cover, no one came close to guessing the plain Jenny Hobbs could be the culprit. The society women did not suspect Jenny either because they paid her no mind when they did not require her services. Even in their presence, she remained invisible.

The phone rang and Jenny answered it on the first ring.

“Jennifer, it’s your mother,” the voice said, as if it could be anyone else. No one else called her Jennifer.

“This is a surprise,” she said as her body stiffened and tried to fight the anxiety that often accompanied their conversations. She picked up a paper clip lying on the counter and began twisting it. “What’s up, Mom?”

“You left your gloves here when you came to brunch yesterday. Do you want me to swing by and drop them off?”

“Thanks, but don’t go out of your way. I’ll get them next week.”

“That’s fine,” her mother said. “Oh, and I told my neighbor you’d be able to help her track down a night stand for her antique bedroom suite. She’ll either call you or stop by this week.” Her mother sounded friendly enough to the inexperienced ear, but Jenny knew the depths of her cutting words.

“I appreciate the referral, Mom.”

“I figured you could use the business. You hardly seem busy, Jennifer. I don’t know how you’re staying open in this economy.”

There it was, the criticism she waited for. “Business is fine, Mom.” It became her obligatory reply. “The economy isn’t really a major issue for most of my clients since their incomes are greater than those of many small countries,” a slight exaggeration, and one she delivered with a snarky bite. By this point, she had bent the paper clip into oblivion, and stabbed her finger in the process.

“I’ll have to take your word for that,” she said. “It’s unfortunate at your age you don’t have a husband’s salary to fall back on.”

Jenny cringed at the last zinger. Up until this point, the criticism had been mild, but she knew her mother had to get in something that smarted. The paper clip snapped in two and lay on the counter destroyed. “I have to go, Mom. There is a customer coming in. Thanks for the call.” She hung up before her mother had a chance to speak again.

Jenny’s status, thirty-nine, and single, and one her mother loved to dwell upon, likely wouldn’t change. She hadn’t dated anyone in a while, and she didn’t understand why that stuck in her mother’s craw. She had to listen to her mother’s disappointment on Sunday mornings at brunch, and she paid her dues yesterday. The bleak lineup of guests at her mother’s mandatory Sunday brunch included her new husband, Harry Bedford, if he was not traveling for whatever he did for a living, his two obnoxious twin daughters, Emma and Sarah, and their mind-numbing fiancés whose names escaped her. The foursome planned a double wedding in June, which made things far worse for her mother, and created a lot of dreadful brunch conversation. At least, she tried to tell herself, she was getting both weddings out of the way in one day. She wouldn’t have to listen to this again. Jenny did not mind being single, she grew rather used to it, but it embarrassed her mother, who enjoyed helping the girls plan their weddings. Jenny realized that nothing short of a grand wedding fit for royalty would make her mother happy.

Debonair men such as Cary Grant or Clark Gable did not exist anymore, and Jenny knew she would not be happy with anything less after a steady diet of romantic old movies through the years. The modern man did not suit her, and she knew she did not suit them, either.

“Blessed with looking younger than your years serves no purpose for you Jenny,” her mother would say. “You don’t take advantage of your assets.”

Those assets included light brown hair that hung straight to her shoulders in a lifeless blunt cut, which would shine with simple caramel highlights, her Mother also wheedled, and sad brown eyes that a bit of makeup would perk up, all traits she inherited from her father’s side of the family, she added. Jenny once asked her mother if she liked anything about her. If so, she never complimented her. Her mother shooed away the question, and tried instead to persuade Jenny to get a makeover on a local morning talk show. “You have to suffer to be beautiful,” her mother said. “Henry knows someone at the station, and could make a call. It would be good for you and the shop.”

Not one to crave attention, Jenny turned down the offer and claimed she enjoyed dressing her thin, medium height frame in comfortable sweaters and dresses worn with ballet flats or clogs – better known as men repellent by her stepsisters. She heard them whispering behind her back, referring to her as the old maid. Sure, there were times of solitude – an active social life proved difficult when you lost touch with most of your friends because they married and started families – but she carved out an agreeable existence for herself, and she learned to be happy with what she had.

“Not everyone can be a cheerleader, Mom,” she argued. “Some of us prefer the bleachers.”

“Sitting in the bleachers is not enough to give me grandchildren,” her mother replied. “It requires a little enthusiastic ‘rah rah’ to make that happen.”

Jenny had a few dates here and there, and her share of crushes and desires through the years, though many times unrequited. Her current interest, Andrew Gordon, a man she thought to be about five years her senior, possessed the old world charm she found attractive. She kept the secret to herself, knowing if her mother knew, she would never let it go. Andrew, who by day headed the American History department at the University of Pennsylvania, led her historic biography book club. Aside from his voice, deep and sometimes gruff when he spoke, he reminded Jenny of Gregory Peck when he starred with Ingrid Bergman in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound.” She did not know his relationship status, although he did not wear a wedding ring or talk about a wife or children. Yet, outside of being pleasant, he hadn’t shown her a smidgeon of romantic interest, either. When she suggested the group read the new John Adams biography for their next selection, she thought she detected a twinkle of approval in his eyes, and she didn’t see it again until another member, Melissa Babcock, suggested they read “Benjamin Franklin: Beyond What You Already Know,” a book penned by Andrew himself. Jenny would have suggested the same, but it seemed too obvious, even flirtatious, and she had already read it after its release. Andrew knew it too, because he wrote a personal message inside the front cover when he signed it for her. She read the passage when she wanted to feel close to him, aware she succumbed to the actions of a teenager, but it helped her through the day sometimes.

Jenny wished she could be flirtatious like Melissa and other young women, but her social awkwardness served as a constant reminder of her lack of confidence.

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38 thoughts on “Daughters of the Hall – Chapter One

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