Hail Columbia—May 1828 to May 1833
I barely remember my sister, Charlotte Susanna. She was nineteen when she died, and I was three. I remember her blue eyes dancing and the shine of her red hair when she played on our neighbor’s piano since we couldn’t afford one of our own. My ma and the neighbors clapped when she finished her song. I was only two years old when she left, so I have to rely on what my ma, Eliza Clayland Foster, and my pa, William Barclay Foster, told me about her when I was older. At age eighteen, Charlotte visited Pa’s relatives, the Barclays in Louisville, Kentucky, and his cousins, the Rowans in Bardstown, Kentucky. Cousin Atkinson Hill Rowan was quite taken with her. Charlotte didn’t feel the same, and she returned to Louisville, embarrassed, after refusing his offer of marriage. Ma wrote to Charlotte to encourage her to have Cousin Hill make her another offer, but he was pretty upset with her, and he never proposed to her again.
While Charlotte was in Louisville, the bank foreclosed on our house, the White Cottage. Pa served as the Quartermaster and Commissary of the United States Army but lost all his money sending supplies on personal credit to General Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans after the War of 1812. The government never paid him for the supply order. This, I suspect, is why Charlotte didn’t want to return home. I don’t remember much about the White Cottage, except for Lieve, the Haitian servant, bringing in the milk, and Ann Eliza, my sixteen-year-old sister, letting me pluck on her guitar. But Charlotte remembered the White Cottage. Pa eventually persuaded Charlotte to come to our new house on Water Street to help Ma with our new little brother, baby James. Everyone enjoyed having Charlotte home. She sat with baby James and me while we played together, and she helped Ma keep house. My sisters stayed up late together, talking with each other, but the new house was not the White Cottage.
Charlotte wanted to return to Louisville, so she and Ann Eliza left for Kentucky almost as soon as Charlotte came home. They stayed until Cousin Sally Barclay and her daughters fell ill with bilious fever. Pa asked for Ann Eliza to return home but for Charlotte to stay to take care of the Barclays, which he said later was a mistake. Charlotte also fell ill with bilious fever, and her boat couldn’t come home because of the weather. Whenever anyone asked me where she was, I said, “Down the river, stuck in the mud.” It was true. In her last letter, she said, “The weather has been extremely warm, and we had a great deal of rain.” Cousin Hill, who came up to Louisville to be with her, sent a tear-stained letter after she died about how peaceful she looked. She was only nineteen years old. The Barclays recovered, but Cousin Hill never married and died four years later of cholera.
The following year, baby James died, too. It took Ma a long time to recover. I didn’t remember, but Ann Eliza and Henrietta, my third-oldest sister, said Ma used to sit about listlessly in her chair, and only the Bible and the Church saved her. She finally said it was God’s will and began to accept James’s and Charlotte’s death. I’m not sure. Why would any god do that?
We had to move on before Ma was ready. We lived in rented houses, visited family friends, or broke up the family altogether. Once, when I was five, we even lived with a religious community, where Ann Eliza met and married someone from school, Edward Buchanan, who was training to be a minister. We then moved to a rented house near the Federal Street Bridge in Allegheny Town, on the North Side of smoky Pittsburgh.
While we lived there, Ma took me to visit Smith and Mellor’s Music Store when I was six. W.C. Peters, who taught my sisters music, worked there and greeted us at the shop's door. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Foster,” he said. He wore a hat and had a large, dark mustache.
“Good afternoon.” Ma turned to me. “Stephy, this is Mr. Peters. Mr. Peters, this is my youngest, Stephen.”
“Does he play an instrument?” Mr. Peters asked.
“He wants to play every one he sees.”
The shop was full of instruments, harmonicas, music boxes, and woodwinds, and I wandered over to the counter, where there were several flutes. Ma called me over, but I already picked up a simple-looking flute called a flageolet and studied the stops on it. Placing all my fingers on the holes, I blew a “C.” I found the other notes and played a few scales before starting to play “Hail, Columbia,” played every year on the Fourth of July, my birthday. Ma, Mr. Peters, and everyone else in the shop stopped to watch as I played. When I finished, they burst into applause. I’d never had a real audience before, besides my family.
“That was perfect,” Mr. Peters told me. “It’s a wonder someone your age can play as well as you can. He needs to take music lessons,” he told Ma. “That talent can’t be wasted. We have an opening now—”
“Perhaps, when he’s older,” Ma said, her smile fading. Ann Eliza and Henrietta had to quit lessons because Ma and Pa couldn’t afford it, and I wouldn’t be able to start. “But we would like to buy him his very own instrument.” I perked up at that; Ma had put aside enough money for that, at least.
“If you insist.” Mr. Peters looked disappointed as Ma handed him a shiny black and silver-keyed instrument, a clarinet, which he rang up at the counter.
But Ma beamed as she handed me the clarinet. “I’m proud of you,” she told me, her dark eyes bright. That was better than any applause.
After supper, Ma told everyone about the music store and my performance. My sister, Henrietta, whom everyone called “Etty,” was the first to speak. She was fourteen, dark-eyed, and a good piano player. “We should play something together.”
“Are you going to learn to play ‘The Three Rogues,’ Stephy?” Pa’s blue eyes twinkled. He preferred rough songs to popular music and never missed an opportunity to play his favorite song.
Pa took out his fiddle and started singing, his voice rough and laughing:
In the gold old Colony days
When we were under the King
Three roguish chaps
Fell into mishaps
Because they could not sing.
The first he was a miller,
The second he was a weaver,
And the third, he WERE
A little tail-ER,
Three roguish chaps together.
The miller he stole corn,
The weaver he stole yarn,
And the little tail-OR
Stole broadcloth FOR
To keep these three little rogues warm.
The miller got drown’d in his dam,
The weaver got hung in his yarn,
And the devil clapped his CLAW
On the little tail-AW
With the broadcloth under his arm!
My brother, Morrison, called “Mit” and three years older than I was, and I laughed and clapped our hands, always delighting in Pa’s playing that song. Dunning, who was twelve and had red hair like Pa, said, “Sing it again, Pa.”
Even Lieve, the Haitian servant, smiled a little as she cleaned up the few potatoes and turnips leftover from supper. As little money as my family had, we still managed to afford servants, who had even less.
“I don’t think we’re going to play that, are we, Stephy?” Henrietta asked. She liked sentimental music better.
“Play the butterfly song.”
Henrietta brought out her guitar. She strummed “I’d Be a Butterfly” and sang, “Living, a rover, Dying while fair things are fading away,” while I found the notes for it on my clarinet, hardly missing a single one.
“You play pretty well already, Stephy. It’s hard to believe you just got that today,” Henry, my seventeen-year-old, dark-eyed brother, said. I spent the rest of the night playing it.
A few mornings later, Pa’s and Ma’s voices drifted from the dining room downstairs. “I can’t keep them together,” Pa said, his voice tired.
“Let’s think about it,” Ma replied. “The older boys can get jobs and help with expenses. That way, you don’t have to worry about keeping them together. I asked my brothers, and they’re more than happy to let Etty and Stephy stay with them for a while. Mit can go to Ann Eliza’s until we’re back.”
Pa sighed. “It’s better than nothing, I suppose.”
I ran out of the boys’ bedroom. They were going to make us leave again.
“Good morning, Stephy,” Ma said as I came into the dining room.
“I don’t want to leave,” I said and grabbed her arm.
“Don’t worry, Stephy. We’re only leaving for a little while. You and Etty get to come with me on a steamboat to Kentucky to visit your uncles, and we’ll travel to Cincinnati to see our friends, the Cassillys.”
I nodded. Ma and Pa weren’t breaking up the family.