Martha Rose

This is a study of Martha Rose, a character to be combined with others including Pricilla and Giles for a Novel titled "New Paths"

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Martha Rose

        Martha Rose sat quietly in front of the stove she had just lit, waiting for her coffee to perk. She opened the oven door, put her feet up on it and leaned back, musing over her past. Born in eighteen-ninety-two, the daughter of a railway worker in Whiting, Iowa, she had been the youngest of seven children. Three of these children, a boy and two girls had died before they were a year old. Her father had been killed in a bar fight when she was fourteen and the remainder of the family had had to pull together for their own survival. Her oldest brother and sister, then twenty and twenty-two, were both married, on their own and living at some distance from the rest of the family. This left her widowed mother and brother, only a year older than herself, to fend for themselves. Her mother took in laundry and mending and rented one of the rooms in the large old house to lodgers. When she was sixteen one of these boarders, another railroad man in his early thirties managed to seduce her, getting her pregnant and they eloped. Soon after the marriage, she and her new husband pulled up stakes in Iowa and traveled to Walla Walla, Washington, where the man continued to work for the railroad. Her pregnancy ended in miscarriage before they had even settled in Washington and soon after, her husband was killed in an accident relating to his work. Widowed at seventeen, she was left to make her own way. When she had left Iowa, pregnant and married to a man, her mother felt would only bring her grief, she knew she could never return. She took what employment she could get along with mending the tattered clothes of the many bachelors that inhabited the surrounding area.
         She lived quietly in a rented room above a small hardware store for most of the next decade and when she had finally resigned herself to a life alone, she met a young man who had started a jewelry and clock repair business several blocks from where she lived. The young jeweler courted her for most of a year before she gave in and married him. She quit her job as clerk in a dry goods store, but continued mending clothes for her original clientele for another year or two. Together with her husband, they built a thriving business near the center of downtown Walla Walla and within six or eight years, they had built up a wide reputation for excellence in the way of clock repair as well as the design and craftsmanship of their jewelry. Martha Rose had, from the beginning, been deft with her hands and the work she did with her husband came easily. With little or no training, she became very astute at recognizing fine design and combined with both she and her husbands fine craftsmanship, they soon became highly respected for their work.
         Martha Rose and her husband, William, never produced any offspring. Their lives were filled with business and creativity. Their creations in gold and silver left little time for children and they never got around to producing a brood of their own. William evaded the draft through no designs of his own and the first world war passed them by virtually unaffected. At the close of the war she came into contact with her brother James, who had spent two years in Europe, very much affected by the war. He, being only a year older than Martha Rose, had been very close to her when they were younger and the reunion sparked James to relocate their mother and himself to Southeastern Washington, to be close to Martha Rose. James had talents of his own along the jewelry line and he quickly became a working partner in the business. He remained a bachelor throughout this period of his life, devoting most of his personal time to their mother and her care. Though their fame went little further than the Walla Walla valley, they received considerable local celebration for their craft and occasionally word of their expertise would seep out into the world at large, bringing business from afar.
         When the depression came along in the thirties, business dwindled to nearly nothing. The watch and clock repair held up better than did the jewelry, but neither provided ample income to keep the four of them going beyond the bare necessities. William alone, had taken care of the watch business and the depression diminished that to a trickle. When a fire swept through the block where their business was located, they saw all their hard work reduced to nearly nothing. They were insured for a pittance of what their business was worth and the company had been struck hard by the depression. Most of the other businesses in the affected block had been insured with the same company. This was the final straw for the insurance company and it went into bankruptcy, leaving all those affected by the fire with little more than enough to clean up the mess. Martha Rose and her family managed to save some of their tools and a little of the jewelry from the fire, but even these had been burned or melted. Since Martha Rose and William lived above their business, they were now without a home. They moved into the small cramped house of James and her mother, where they set up a bedroom in a shed out back and took their meals in the house. The fire that had consumed their business had taken place right after the new year and the winter was one of the bitterest of the decade. Darkness hung over the family throughout the rest of the winter and spring. They lived primarily from selling the few bits of melted silver and gold that had been retrieved from the fire and when this ran out, they were left with nothing, but James’s house and a few fire damaged tools. Late in the spring, the old woman died suddenly of heart failure. This was an emotional blow to both Martha Rose and James, but it did provide a catalyst for bringing them into contact with their two older siblings. With the depression, still lying like a dark coverlet over the nation, Lydia and Randall, the older children of the old woman, were unable to travel from Eastern Iowa to the funeral, but it did encourage correspondence between these long lost ends of the family.
         With the end of the depression nearing, James received a letter from an old army friend that lived a little over a hundred miles to the north. This correspondence, offering him farm work, came as an escape rope, dangling into the dark abyss that held them all. He accepted the job and moved to Palouse, Washington, where he became an unlikely farmhand. Martha Rose and William struggled on in Walla Walla for the rest of the summer and when a letter came from James in mid August, asking if he would come to Palouse to help with harvest, he jumped at the offer. Martha Rose stayed in Walla Walla, but made plans secretly to find a way out of the area. She pawed over maps of the country trying to decide where she would like to move.
         Near the end of the harvest, William wrote her that he had made enough money to rent an old building in Palouse, where he would like to restart their business. She leaped at the idea and immediately began packing up their things. The tools and spare parts for the watch repair portion of the business had suffered less from the fire than had the jewelry portion and she managed to gather up enough equipment to get them started. She put the house for sale, at James’ request, stuffed everything they owned into several large crates, put them and herself on a train and joined her husband. They rented the small building on Main Street, set up shop in the front and lived in the rear. Business was slow in the beginning and they barely made ends meet, but through dedication and careful management they kept their heads above water as well as build back some of their previous jewelry trade.
         James worked on as a farmhand during the good weather and helped with the jewelry store much of the winter months. Palouse treated them well, if not prosperously and within a few years they had set themselves out as the most qualified watch repair in the area. The silver and gold work that came from their shop, though possibly not befitting a king, was certainly of a quality surpassing anything else within reach of most people around and, like in Walla Walla, they received considerable local notoriety.
         When a farm accident took the life of the man that farmed adjacent to where James worked, he and his boss, Walter Olsen helped the widow finish planting the spring crop. James continued to help the woman off and on throughout the rest of the spring and summer and he worked nearly night and day seeing to it that the crop was harvested. The friendship he formed with the widow matured through the winter months and he took charge of farming her land the next spring. They worked together, side by side during the next season and culminated the following harvest with a wedding celebration. The wedding was a simple affair and offered an opportunity for Lydia and her family to travel west, reuniting another member of the long disconnected family. It also tied their family with one of the oldest families in the area. James’ new bride, Verna, had been born in Palouse, the eldest daughter of one of the original settlers. Her father had helped to open up this fertile country many years before and her first marriage, to the now departed Walter Johnson, had combined two large tracts of farmland into one of the larger farms on the Palouse.
Life went well for the two families for a number of years. In nineteen thirty-seven Lydia, her husband and one of their four children, now in his thirties, moved to Palouse to help with the ever prospering farm. A year later James and Martha Rose’s brother, now fifty-five moved as well, joining them in the rolling hills of the Palouse. Randall’s Wife had died of influenza the year before and he sold his small farm in Eastern Iowa, bringing his two oldest sons with him to buy one hundred and sixty acres near James’ farm. Martha Rose and William lived quietly in the rear of the jewelry store until the outbreak of the second world war, at which time they bought a small house on the North hill not far from downtown. It was an easy walk to their business and offered Martha Rose a chance to do some gardening in the small yard. Again the war had little direct effect on Martha Rose. Her brothers and their children were all too old to become involved in the fighting. Precious metals for their jewelry became scarce, but they made due and the jewelry business only suffered slightly.
         Toward the end of the war, Martha Rose’s husband William took ill from something never identified and died within less than a month. She went into a deep depression that nearly destroyed her as well as the business. She opened the store sporadically and when she did, she could at times be found behind the counter in her night clothes. The quality of her watch and clock repair did not suffer, but she began to experiment with non-traditional materials to make her jewelry. She found it difficult to sell rings and broaches made from lead and the various alloys she concocted containing it. Though these items were wonderfully designed and carefully constructed, they did not carry the appeal of her former gold and silver work. She did however create a line of cast lead figurines that sold regularly, but for about the same price as it cost her to make them. She made many elaborate farm scenes, all of lead. These were of real places near her home in Palouse and showed a great deal of accuracy and detail. She began by shaping large sheets of lead to form the hills and valleys of the chosen farm. Roads, ditches and other irregularities in the landforms were hammered carefully into the surface of the hill forms and then fence posts, telephone poles and even trees, made of lead alloys were added. She textured the surfaces of the lead to indicate whether the fields were plowed or planted in a way that marveled anyone who saw them. Houses, barns and out buildings were added with great detail, showing individual boards. Even buildings in disrepair showed their poor condition and at times this would be an embarrassment to those who owned the farm she had chosen to model. Farm animals, people and machinery were added along with piles of junk and manure to create far more than a mere miniature reproduction of the physical properties surrounding any particular farm. They had a feel to them that brought with it a kind of understanding of the inhabitants themselves. This, when viewed by these residents, did not always strike a positive cord. After finishing one of these marvels and placing it in the window of the jewelry shop, the owner of the farm she had reproduced came along to see it. He was offended by the messy nature in which she had portrayed his farm and particularly affronted by a pile of manure that she had piled between the barn and the house.
         “That pile of dung ain’t there no more,” he said. “Get it the hell out’a there.” He then took out his jackknife and pried the offending detail of lead from the scene and threw it out the door into the street.
         Martha Rose was incensed to the point that she reached behind the counter, pulled out a revolver and shot the man in the leg. This created quite a furor in town, nearly landed Martha Rose in jail and confirmed the communities thoughts as to her failing sanity. The man whom she shot, however, suffered equally from the incident, not only from his physical injuries, but also from the local citizenry’s agreement that Martha Rose had portrayed his farm accurately, even to the point of it’s rundown condition.
         Martha Rose continued on, creating her miniature farm scenes, repairing time pieces and making assorted objects in lead. She sold enough to keep going, but not enough to allow her business to grow, not that she cared. Her brother James supplemented her income by providing her with nearly all of her food from the abundance of the farm. At her home, her gardens flourished, making the corner on which she lived one of the show pieces of the town. Behind the tall fence surrounding her backyard, she began placing the farm models amongst the flowers and shrubs. These laid out in nearly precise placement to their actual location in the surrounding area and in time she had made a complete representation of a small portion of the county.
         When the Viet Nam war broke out in the mid-sixties and many of the youth protested the government action, she joined them, actively protesting, what she saw as criminal activity. At one such protest she was jailed for collecting a goodly number of draft cards from students at the near by university and burning them in a public denouncement of the war. Her business suffered from her collaboration with these longhaired misfits of the lost generation, but now in her seventies, she paid little attention to the consequences of her actions and by nineteen sixty-nine she had all but retired from the clock repair and spent most of her time building objects of lead.

Copyright 2007. Ed Gnaedinger.