The rusted lock is easy enough to separate from the antique trunk in the attic of Grandmother’s faded Victorian home. The air is so oppressive all I want to do is retrieve the thing she guarded with such mystery—and flee to whatever afternoon breeze I can find on the side porch.
I shudder, perhaps with a little guilt at betraying whatever long held secret my dear Mama-Rose protected. She was editor of the local paper…as prolific a writer as any Pulitzer Prize winner, and as certain of truth being the great equalizer as she was of Papa-Hiram being her one true love.
I’m in the process of satisfying my insatiable curiosity; the one thing that has kept me successful as a journalist. If there’s a story in what I find, my need to write about it may trump any sentimental, half-promise I made to her as she lay dying. We’ll see.
I kneel in the dust like an almost repentant sinner. I remind myself, aloud, how this necessary posthumous prying is no big deal.
“It’s just words…merely a diary.”
I hurry--hungry for fresh air. There is an obligatory creak as the lid goes up and props against the wall. I wade through yellowed christening gowns, hats with plumes, and other pieces of history that seem many decades older than anything she would have used. I plunge my hand into someone’s strange musty colored memories until I feel the firm shape of the treasure I seek.
Old newspaper covers it like a Christmas gift, but it crumbles as if there’s no more need to stand century-duty over the secret. What fitting imagery. I make a mental note in preparation for whatever is worth publishing.
I settle down to quench my thirst with a cool drink of water in one of the stemmed glasses Mama-Rose saved for company. As an experienced crime reporter, I remember to wear disposable latex gloves to ensure the integrity of the fragile pages.
I’m surprised at the mint condition of the well-kept leather book. I’m even more surprised this is not my grandmother’s diary. It’s her grandmother’s.
We’ve all used the throw away phrase, “Oh well, what difference will it make in a hundred years?” This is the day I have an answer. Her handwriting is precise and as legible as if she wrote it this morning.
March 25, 1921
Ten years have passed since the flaming horror at The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York. Oh Lord, how can I bear to live with what I know? I was only a child--a thirteen year old immigrant who barely spoke English. Mostly, I remember the stench. There was no ventilation. Everything was dirty and smelly as we labored 14-hour shifts, and half that much on Saturdays.
The dramatic first person account of those sweatshop days moves me to my core. I keep reaching for the glass of water, trying to wash down the lump of unexpected reality.
She writes with deep anguish about the young factory workers who were victims in a literal fire-trap. Unconcerned owners locked the doors to discourage stealing or sneaking out.
Fifteen minutes before closing time on Saturday, March 25, 1911, a flame in a waste basket reached its deadly tendrils toward convenient, flimsy material and flammable patterns. In thirty minutes 146 humans died. 62 leaped to their deaths trying to escape the horror of live cremation.
My grandmother’s grandmother was one of the 20 who made it down the one fire-escape before it collapsed.
…and yet somebody had to die before the codes were changed; before fire hoses and ladders were made to reach; before a union could be born to protect the helpless and neediest among us. Knowing that brings me no peace, but it’s a modicum of consolation.
The truth does not come on tippy toes and give me a chance to become desensitized and prepared. It slams me in the heart and I fall to my knees with the weight of it. One tiny sentence on the last page screams volumes.
…and to this day, I want no cigarettes near me. All I can say is I was very young, and in the throes of chronic exhaustion and despair. Ignorance is no excuse, but at least it may be a reason. Dear God, forgive me!
I take a deep breath and pull myself together. There’s work to be done. I think my lead will be, “Sometimes a hundred years does make a difference…”
*After one of the deadliest fires in American history, the flame of responsibility was lit. Laws were changed, from worker safety and compensation to owner accountability and life saving fire codes. In February of this year, nearly a century later, six more victims of The Triangle Factory fire were identified.
Jeremiah 22:12-14 [NKJV]
Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his chambers by injustice; who uses his neighbor’s service without wages and gives him nothing for his work
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