Hard Times, Part 2
|Mary Wakefield Buxton|
by Marry Wakefield Buxton
Urbanna, Va.— Wakefield is an Anglo-Saxon name with coat of arms dating back to 1000 A.D. But the Norman Invasion of England in 1066 took all land from the natives, turning them into serfs, and the Normans became the ruling class for many centuries. To this day they make up the aristocracy of England.
My ancestors were still impoverished when they arrived to America in the 19th century. But with one good idea and hard work, Grandfather became a classic American success story, as did many immigrants from the “old country.”
My great-grandfather, William Wakefield, who peered out at me from aged photo albums with a long white beard and a wrinkled black suit, almost starved to death walking across Pennsylvania on his first visit to America in 1866. He had to return to England and pull another few years of work before he could afford to return, this time bringing his family and settling in Cleveland in 1872.
His son, Frederick, or F.W., became a pioneer electrician and wired many of the mansions in Cleveland, including John D. Rockefeller’s estate as the nation was converting to electricity. He realized Edison’s invention of the light bulb would require every gas lamp in the country to be converted to electricity. He obtained a patent for a brass fixture that made such a conversion, moved to Vermilion, Ohio, to build his factory for manufacturing electrical lighting fixtures, and build his home and raise his family.
I thought how quickly I had managed to return to my roots in poverty, as my parents drove me to Cleveland to answer an ad to rent an apartment. We drove into a long driveway leading to a mansion on the lake that I could immediately see had seen better days.
“Why, it’s Alexander Winton’s old home!” Father shouted in excitement, pulling up to the massive front door. The three-room apartment was cut out of a once elegant dining room. The room was graced with heavy wood paneling and crystal chandeliers that suggested a previous royal life. Some sheets hung on a rusty rod stretched across the end of the dining room in order to create a bedroom of sorts. A scary looking caretaker peeped in at us from a window to round off the scene for a novel of a perfect horror story.
Mother, who never held a job in her life, shuddered at the sight of her daughter’s new digs. But Father, ever the romantic, was instantly teary eyed. “Just think, Mays! You’ll be living in Alexander Winton’s old home!” This said with the same thrilled enthusiasm as if I had moved into Buckingham Palace.
Father remembered as a child that Mr. Winton, a pioneer auto maker, had come to Vermilion in his massive 128-foot steam-powered yacht “La Belle.” F.W. and Father had gone out to greet the automobile magnate in their more modest 50-foot iron hull yacht “Tobermory.”
“How perfectly splendid that Mays will be living in the old Winston mansion!” Father exclaimed. He couldn’t get over how the dear Mays had “lucked out.”
Mother, not of the romantic school, sighed as she put a pork roast in the archaic gas oven for me with instructions on when to take it out (I had no idea how to cook a roast, let alone boil an egg), and then my parents left. I watched their car disappear down the long driveway and turn west for my dear home town of Vermilion.
It wasn’t long before the now drunk and raving caretaker started pounding on the dining room door wanting me to join a “party” upstairs. I declined and, fortunately, the lock held.
I shall never forget that night. I sat in the dim light of the crystal chandelier and could just get a glimpse of a pale, frightened girl in a musty mirror along the wall staring back at herself. I thought it might be the end of the world. I remembered Great-Grandfather starved and walking across Pennsylvania in search of a better life and I saw myself.
I felt this odd click inside my brain, almost as if some inner steel gear was changing from third back to first. My body stiffened in a new way and I saw in the reflection two large and fearful brown eyes suddenly transformed into hard slits. Okay, so maybe I had been spoiled a little by loving parents in very good times. Maybe I had made a silly mistake in college. But that was then and this was now.
A sudden spike of steeled determination struck through my brain like lightning on a summer’s evening, and I knew at once that no suffering or pain of a past mistake would ever defeat me. I vowed I was going to get myself out of this miserable mess if it was the last thing I did! (To be continued)