The Registered Nurse

 

About a quarter of the way into January Jinx, the first book in my calendar mystery series, my heroine Minty Wilcox and the mysterious Daniel Price, who boards at her house, visit a cigar factory in the West Bottoms of Kansas City. It’s a very short scene in which “the deftness of the young girls rolling aromatic tobacco into smooth cylinders impressed [Minty]. A half hour later and clutching a newly made cigar in a glass tube . . . , she emerged to find Daniel Price waiting for her.”

Though brief, it’s in the book for a very special reason. You see, when my mother, Melicent Perkins Smith Willman, was a teenager in the mid-1920’s, she worked in a cigar factory. Her mother, Juliet Perkins Smith, a widow with several young children still at home, needed my mother’s help to make ends meet. Because my mother was so good at making cigars, her mother wanted her to continue doing that work after she graduated from high school. My mom resented this, especially after her mother took the five dollars my mom had saved for new shoes to buy the younger kids in the family shoes instead.

So when my mom was seventeen, she left school and moved out of her mother’s house and into the boarding house run by her maternal grandmother, Laura Wilcox Perkins. (I regularly look to my family tree for character names, so it’s absolutely no accident that Minty’s mother’s name is Laura Girard Wilcox.) Soon after that, my mother started nurses’ training at Middlesex Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ. She graduated in June of 1932, at age 21, and became a registered nurse the next year. My mother was very proud of being an R. N., and for years, up into her 80’s, she always bragged that she let her registration lapse “just last year.”

Besides wanting to be independent, my mother chose to become a nurse for another practical reason. Back then, nurses’ training included room and board in exchange for working in the hospital. This was very welcome to a widow’s kid, especially after the stock market crash of October 1929.

But I’m certain my mom also wanted to become a nurse for a reason much closer to her heart. You see, in June 1921, when my mother was ten years old, her father Miles Smith was walking by the side of a road on his way to his club when a truck hit a car and the car spun out and hit him. He died two weeks or so later, not of his injuries, but of pneumonia. Once when Mom and I were talking about the manner of his death, I said, “You know, these days they could have saved him.” And then she said, quite grimly as she probably thought of losing her father when she was still a child, “I know it.”

My mother practiced nursing for several years until, on a summer vacation with a friend to Mingo County, WV, she met my dad. They married the next year on what my dad always called his lucky day, July 11, 1937.

Once she married my dad, my mother didn’t practice nursing very often outside of the home. But she did nurse my father, Homer Dale Willman, Sr., through eleven surgeries and illnesses, including a serious bout of flu when he was in his late forties, his first heart attack when he was about fifty-one, and the partial removal of a kidney when he was in his early sixties. In spite of his illnesses and thanks to my mom, my dad lived to be eighty-seven.

I wasn’t sick much, but I was an active kid. So Mom patched up my scrapes and tended to me the year I had blisters from poison ivy so bad that I couldn’t walk for ten days.

I also have my mother to thank for a healthy diet throughout my childhood and beyond since, back when she went through training, nurses studied all aspects of the field including dietetics, so they could properly feed their patients. Also she did without a new winter coat most years, so that I could take ballet and other dancing lessons from the age of seven. Because of the healthy diet and plentiful exercise I had during my youth and have sustained into my seventies, I credit my mother for the good health I have enjoyed throughout my life.

She also gave me excellent advice on childcare after I too became a mother.

And so, belatedly not just for the most recent Mother’s Day but many others as well, I’d like to salute my mother, Melicent Perkins Smith Willman, dubbed “Middie” for midget by her dad and “Susie” by mine, as in “if you knew Susie like I knew Susie, oh oh oh what a girl.” Thank you, Mom, for everything.

The Business Girl

Earlier this year when I was working on Mischief in March, the third book in my calendar mystery series, I decided to find out if my heroine, Minty Wilcox, could have read the Ladies’ Home Journal in March 1900. So I launched a Google search and found out that sure enough she could.

In doing so, I stumbled upon a book called The Business Girl in Every Phase of her Life by Ruth Ashmore. Based on an advice column for young women in the Ladies’ Home Journal, the book first appeared in 1898. Written in the voice of a sympathetic older woman, it offers the business girl advice on twelve issues. These include behaving properly in the work place, getting along with her boss, living away from home, forming friendships, taking care of her clothes, and managing her money.

Now, one of the things I love about researching and writing historical fiction is making happy discoveries like this one. In this instance, I soon realized that Minty Wilcox, newly graduated from high school in 1898, would have read The Business Girl. And she would have taken its advice to heart in her decision to become a stenographer/typist, so she could help with the household’s finances and to make her own way in the world.

The real Eureka moment came for me when I realized that my great-aunt Melicent Perkins, on whom Minty Wilcox is based, undoubtedly read The Business Girl. Born on June 22, 1880, Aunt Melicent graduated from high school in 1898, went to business school, and then to work for the Daily Home News newspaper in New Brunswick, NJ in 1900. She worked there until she retired sixty-seven years later as the executive secretary/treasurer. She never married, perhaps because she, like the business girl Mrs. Ashmore addresses in the preface of the book, never met “her ideal” or because she had too many family responsibilities to wed.

(I have quite a different future in mind for Minty.)

I have two photographs of my aunt Melicent when she was young. Here she is, looking eager and perhaps a little nervous about her future when she graduated from high school, and some time later, looking serene and confident as the business girl.

Mischief in March is available for free for your Kindle reader from May 11 through May 14, Mother’s Day, at www.amazon.com/dp/B06XR1STRN

M. Louisa Locke’s Maids of Misfortune

Maids of Misfortune by M. Louisa Locke, a review by Juliet Kincaid

This historical novel, set in San Francisco in 1879, hooks you from the start with the widowed Annie Fuller receiving a letter claiming that she owes some gent the sum of $1,380 for a loan made to her late husband. If you keep in mind the statistic that what you could buy for a penny in 1900 would cost you a dollar in 2000, you’ll realize just how shocked Mrs. Fuller must have been with an unexpected debt of the equivalent of $138,000.

Dr. Locke follows through on her strong opening with the revelation that Mrs. Fuller supplements her income running a boarding house by giving advice on investing and personal matters as Madam Sibyl, a clairvoyant. Sibyl charges $2 (or $200 in 2000 dollars) a sitting and worth every penny of it, at least according to her favorite client, who sadly has died under suspicious circumstances. And so Annie goes undercover as the new hire maid to find out what really happened to him in this lively first book in Dr. Locke’s Victorian San Francisco Mystery series.

A couple of quibbles . . . Descriptions of San Francisco seem a bit thin, though of course lots of that city as it was in 1879 disappeared in the great earthquake and subsequent fires of April 18, 1906. The romantic subplot with a handsome lawyer who soon shows up seems somewhat conventional. These reservations disappeared, though, as I read Uneasy Spirits and Bloody Lessons, the next two novels in the series as well as her collection of Victorian San Francisco stories. Obviously I remain hooked by the engaging Annie Fuller and I suspect that other fans of historical mysteries will enjoy the series as well.

FYI: Maids of Misfortune is permanently free for Kindle, Nook, and other eBook readers.