New Year’s 1894 was not the happiest day of my life.
I was born Lura Grisham in 1870 to George and Elizabeth Grisham in the rural town of Ridgefield, Connecticut. Beginning with a modest inheritance, Father built a small railroad connecting Connecticut and the city of New York. He prospered and became one of the wealthiest men in America. My home from birth has been Grisham Manor. Father built it to be the most exquisite summer home, not just in Fairfield County, but in all Connecticut. Mother loved it so much that it became the family’s year-round home.
The manor house, situated on twenty-eight acres atop a small knoll, gives us a view of the town from the veranda and dining room. The three-story Queen Anne contains sixteen rooms. Painted a pastel yellow, it exudes warmth and comfort. My bedroom for the first twelve years of my life was on the second floor, next to my parents’ suite. Designed as a nursery, it had spacious accommodations. Aside from their magnificent master suite, my parents had hoped to fill the five other bedrooms with children. Alas, it wasn’t to be. My birth was difficult for Mother and resulted in her never again being able to conceive.
On my twelfth birthday, dissatisfied with being confined to the nursery, I moved, without permission, to the third floor. Leaving my childish furniture behind, I claimed ownership of the room’s lovely Elizabethan furniture. Father thought it funny. Mother, at first furious, soon forgave me. I chose the modest-sized tower room because it permitted me a view of the town and much of the valley. Beyond the manor and several farms, the road from the county seat wound south to New York.
I remember our old Methodist Episcopal Church before it burned down. It was tall, three stories plus a steeple. I could see the roof and bell tower from my window. Father once told me the spire helped people look up to the heavens. The tallest building in town, the roof was slate gray and the walls white. The first-floor walls were built of red bricks; the other floors were wood. I could not see it from my window, but there was a small parsonage on the property. When the church burned, it was spared. During the fire, the afternoon breeze carried smoke and soot across the fields. Standing in my room, the window open, I could see ashes and smell the awful odor of fire. We suffered for weeks afterward as the acrid stench of the residue drifted in on the wind. The odious remnant made all the worse by the turpentine and linseed oil used for decades on the church floors. The new church was not as tall as the old one, and except for the wooden steeple, built of brick.
Ridgefield wasn’t much more than a village then. The Roman Catholics had a small church on the outskirts, near Bartolini’s Mercantile.
The one drawback to my tower room was that I could not see the carriage entry. I couldn’t identify visitors without leaving my room. If I heard a coach arrive, I had to go down the stairs, hurry to the front, and join Mother as she greeted the guests.
Breakfast was usually in the nook off the kitchen. Like my tower room two stories above, the small area was octagonal with windows in every direction except for the doorway to the kitchen. I’m sure my father designed it that way so he could enjoy his morning coffee regardless of the season. It also gave him a chance to visit with the household staff. Father came from working stock and never treated the hired help as anything other than his equal.
When our church was rebuilt after the fire, Father bought two Mason and Hamlin pump organs. He donated one to our church and the other to the Roman Catholic Church where his Irish railroad workers worshiped. Father told me that many of the Irish had been enslaved in much the same manner as the Negro.
“Lura, our treatment of the Negro and the Irish has been only slightly better than the way we treat the Indian.”
“What do you mean?”
“Many still believe that the Irish and the Negro are no better than work animals and that all Indians should be wiped from the land.”
“Father, that’s terrible.”
“I know. We must treat everyone with respect and an open heart. You must never forget we are all God’s children.”
My father and mother had no living relatives. Father was one of six children, all boys. His parents and brothers died of cholera when he was five. He was raised by a freed family slave and supported by the proceeds from the sale of the family’s landholdings. Like me, Mother was an only child. Her father, a Union officer, died at Gettysburg, her mother, the year I was born.