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Daisy Chain by Justine Gilbert

1933


The Wall Street crash left us one step short of destitution. Wilderstein remained, but everything else was sold. My eldest brother, Henry, had died in the Great War and with him our hopes that one of us might earn sufficiently to restore our funds. Robert, my middle brother, was Robert. He could not change the hallmarks of his nature. Arthur had escaped from Mama’s side as soon as possible, taking one sister with him to Europe. Betty, my other sister, married and moved away. This left me, Dependable Daisy, to plug Wilderstein’s financial hole.


I secured the only wage to keep the family home afloat: as social secretary to a relative, Sophie Langdon. But when Cousin Franklin made it to the White House, my heart soared with hope.


A Democratic president promised a better future.


Invited to the Inauguration in January, all of us distant relatives failed to catch his eye during the swearing of oaths and the public processions. I was consumed with curiosity about how he could walk. I had distinct memories of his illness in ’22 and his attempts to use his legs. But eleven years later, I was none the wiser. The charming ‘President in the Fedora’ didn’t show up at his Inaugural Ball, staying firmly sheltered behind imposing doors. He was meeting with bankers, someone said. I had visions of him sitting in a medieval European church, a Michelangelo statue, fenced off from the eager fingers of people desperate to touch the marble foot of Christ. How far the Suckley fortunes had fallen; how strong our faith that with one glimpse, we believed he could mend our broken lives.


Not that his actions had earned him the admiration of everyone: Aunt Sophie, a lifelong Republican and my employer, was one of the few who had sallied through the Wall Street Crash. Her face on his electoral win was almost humorous. Rich and widowed, I dubbed her The Deaconess.


*


The letter arrived in March. The distinctive insignia and thickness of Roosevelt vellum held promise.


Having looked it over, I placed a silver salver full of Aunt Sophie’s correspondence on the table at her side, ensuring the gold embossed invitation was on the top.


‘Sara Roosevelt has invited us to tea at Springwood. I believe the President will be there as well,’ I murmured.


Her brow furrowed. I knew what she was thinking: should a staunch Republican be seen in a Democratic stronghold? She’d refused to attend his inauguration, feeling a need to maintain standards.


She brushed cake crumbs from her jewelled wrist. ‘Both of us?’


‘Yes, Aunt Sophie. Perhaps they have invited all the relatives.’


She looked to the window and the New York skyline. This would be a very large gathering, and she uttered a few reminisces of parties held by our extended family. For a moment, I allowed myself to recall the music, the lavish gowns, the splendour of an earlier decade. But the Suckley and the Roosevelt’s connections had diminished with our withering funds, and it didn’t do to look back.


‘Shall I send them your acceptance?’ I kept my voice neutral and waited.


‘Well, they are the niece and nephew of Teddy, God rest his soul,’ she said finally. ‘I can’t imagine why they didn’t follow in the Republican family tradition.’


This was a sentiment she had too often expressed in recent years, coupled with frequent rumours amongst her Republican friends, that the President’s ill health would render him unable to see out a term of office. My Aunt Sara, the Deaconess surmised, had insisted Franklin come home for the weekend for a complete rest as she feared for his health.


Family ties and open curiosity won. With her customary decisiveness, she instructed the Irish maid, Marie, to pack and ordered me to ring the servants at her summer residence, Mansakenning, to prepare for an early return to the Hudson River Valley.


‘Daisy, tomorrow you can go home to Wildenstein and see your mother for an overnight. The driver will drop you off and collect you at the appointed time.’


I added no comment of my own. My longing to speak to Franklin was... complicated.


*


In a state of elation, I borrowed a dress for the occasion from my first cousin, Mary. She dropped it off with her customary humourless hello. A tiny woman, she was richer than us by virtue of her stockbroker husband, who was as astute with money as my father had been foolish.


Dawdling for tea, Mary asked questions about my absent siblings.


‘Arthur still away?’


‘Still living in Monte Carlo.’


‘And Katty?’


‘In Paris, working as a nurse.’


As my other sister, Betty, was married with children, Mary felt no need to ask about her, instead surveying the dusty library.


‘Won’t someone come home to help?’


This did not require answer. Mama’s inclinations and Robert’s vagueness had long since been accepted.


‘And how is your sister, Jeanne?’ I asked, to be polite.


‘She writes and complains. She hates her husband, she hates the fact she had to find a husband in Italy.’


‘She was never happy wherever she was.’


‘True. We Montgomery sisters have had to marry whether we wanted or no. A trial for us. At least my Frank is a good man. Sepa rate bedrooms from the start. He doesn’t want children.’


Keen to see her gone, I waved her off. I was desperate to try on her offerings. She had given me a boucle suit in Prussian blue, the latest fashion from Paris. It was tight, but suitable. I admired the bobbles for jacket buttons and inhaled the smell of newness. Fishing out the remains of a crystal bottle with eau de parfum, I puffed some onto the inside lining. I wanted him to notice me, to remember that I was the woman who stood by his side one long, hot summer, the place-holder for his absent wife.


My only decent white blouse had seed-pearl buttons that needed a stitch, and, mission accomplished, I twisted in the mir ror. Something was lacking. I wandered through a handful of our thirty-two bedrooms, the majority vacant and shrouded in sheets and dust. In a cupboard I found some forgotten blue shoes, a newer hat and a rope of jewellery.


My mother had one of her head colds and as I set a tisane at her bedside, she counselled me that Aunt Sophie and I were not going to Washington, but only to a tea at Springwood; I needed nothing too fancy. No pearls.


I wanted lipstick for greater sophistication—after all, I was forty-two—but there was none. So I set about brushing my short hair and placing pins to give a shingle style wave, and looked at the overall effect. Was it adequate to renew my acquaintance with the President of the United States? I wasn’t vain. I had the sort of even features that were instantly forgettable, as my brother Robert liked to say, but I did so want Franklin to remember me. Call it a foolish infatuation or a perfectly reasonable response to meeting the president of United States. Or maybe it was both. I’m not sure. Fiddling with the filigree clasp of an old sapphire pin on my lapel, I ignored my mother and threw the pearls around my neck.


*


Eleanor was there. My heart sank as we’d been told she would be absent. She had a way of looking at distant family as if we were the rats surging up from the cellars, which since the election may have been in part true. Eleanor looked equally surprised to see us. She was smartly dressed, very much the First Lady who had marched stiffly around at his inauguration, flanked by the same two suited assistants. Aunt Sara came forwards to explain that Eleanor had to leave, just as Franklin was wheeled in and put by the window. It gave me a shiver of deja vu from the summer eleven years ago. 


I wanted to greet him warmly, but politeness meant I had to focus on Eleanor, who made a superficial show of apologies, her voice high as if calling from the other side of the estate. She had a pressing photographic opportunity, she said, and left without a goodbye to Franklin. Nor did he meet her eyes, sitting quietly, a cigarette in the holder between his fingers. From the hall, she beck oned a man I recognised from the papers, Louis Howe, the cam paign manager. He vibrated in the doorway, energy in a grey suit.


He plunged forward in the wake left by Eleanor’s departure, shaking Franklin’s hand with enthusiasm, saying he would see him in a week. ‘Fantastic news, we’ve had the Prohibition bill stamped and approved. Shall I give the say to stock up on the liquor trolley at the White House?’


Franklin threw back his head and laughed with a ‘sure’. I saw a flash of his old ballroom spirit, the way he used to coast into a room at parties and own the room. Then Louis darted out like a dog catching up to his mistress. I looked at Aunt Sophie, wondering if she had found the exchange distasteful, but she surprised me by turning to Aunt Sara. ‘Well, I for one have missed my medicinal sherry. Marvellous initiative from young Franklin. Well done, Mr. President.’


Shoulders relaxing at Eleanor’s departure, he smiled at us all.


Much to Aunt Sara’s annoyance, another man came in. Taller than Mr Howe, he hung his head and introduced himself as Marvin McIntyre, on secretarial business, and glided to Franklin’s ear, murmuring for several minutes. ‘It never ends,’ complained Aunt Sara. ‘How is he to get some rest?’


Franklin rearranged his features upon the man’s departure from sombre to cheerful, and his mother made a show of closing the double doors firmly herself. She would shut out the world, she said, if only for an hour or two.


There were no other relatives. Just us. Aunt Sara bid us sit down and began a tart summary of Eleanor’s attributes or lack thereof as a presidential wife. I knotted my hands and stared at my lap. Aunt Sophie inclined her head, too polite to comment, a knuckled grip on her walking cane. Franklin, stuck in his wheelchair, was forced to look out of the window, cigarette holder now clamped between his teeth.


Oh dear, I thought, the intervening years had not redrawn the battle lines between Eleanor and her mother-in-law, despite Eleanor’s active campaigning on Franklin’s behalf. I poured tea for four and offered a plate of shortbread to everyone. Eleven years ago, it had been beige cakes and an illicit whiskey for Franklin. Surrounded by women, his eyes fixed on a point towards the river, ignoring the cup I put by his side. I looked at his profile, feeling an irrational sense of pride. He’d done it. Despite paralysis, despite the pain and despair, he’d realised his ambitions. Absurdly, I held onto the notion that he’d achieved them to vindicate my faith in him. Did he remember me?


As the two aunts spoke, I had a vision of washing the nether regions of naked soldiers on Ellis Island. I’d worked for the Red Cross to assist the returning soldiers from the European battlefields, men whose limbs were stumps, whose bodies and minds were torn by shells. I wondered who did these tasks for Franklin and eyed the line of his legs, carefully positioned in his wheelchair. One leg had been placed over the other. Posed. His shoulders sloped, an elbow resting on the leather chair’s arm. Smoke ebbed and flowed from the cigarette, wafted by an intermittent breeze seeping through the window frame.


He made no effort to look our way or involve himself in the conversation.


‘He works too hard,’ Aunt Sara continued. ‘Daisy,’ she called me to attention. ‘Why don’t you and Franklin have some afternoon outings? Make him laugh.’


‘If the President wants me to.’


‘Franklin,’ she appealed to him, and to my surprise, he turned, noting her words and looking thoughtfully towards me. ‘You and Daisy could go out for a drive somewhere, take your mind off the demands of state. You have four years, you know. You must not exhaust yourself.’


Older and wiser than when I had first met my handsome cousin, I recognised my standing as far beneath that of his usual social companions, but I understood his mother’s rationale. I was an old maid and family. He could be seen with me without scandal. It had not been the same, eleven years ago, when we’d first been left alone.

Daisy Chain is available for purchase in paperback and ebook

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