March On, Sisters, March On
Lori HetheringtonSarah Marie heard her sisters whispering. Whispers always meant something interesting: a boy, a reprimand, an improper deed and, as the youngest among her siblings, a chance to learn about the world.
Mildred and Georgia were sitting on the porch swing, its rhythmic squeaking covering—or at least they thought—the secret words they shared. “women…” “march…” “suffragettes…” Sarah Marie felt her skin tingle.
“Go away,” demanded Georgia. She was the oldest of the Harris girls and so she thought she could be as nasty and bossy as she wanted. “Go play with your dolls or something! Can’t you see we’re talking? Besides, you aren’t invited!” Mildred giggled.
Sometimes, well, actually most of the time, Sarah Marie hated being the youngest. It meant she had to sit at home with Miss Duncan, the cook, when there was a dance and rarely got a new dress, the type that had never been worn. Mother tried to convince her that a dress was “new” because she had never worn it, but that kind of reasoning didn’t make sense to Sarah Marie. However, there was one advantage to being the youngest: Papa let her sit on his lap, and none of the others were so lucky.
It was 1919 and the horror of the Great War was slowly fading. People said the Wilson twins, who lived up the road, had shell shock, but Sarah Marie thought they were just sad and afraid. Peter’s hands shook when he held his hymnal and Eugene’s blue eyes hid behind lids that hung so low he never looked anybody straight on. She couldn’t really remember how they were before, when they had come to help Papa with the horses. “Mighty fine boys,” he had told Mr. Wilson, at the end of the day when the two new foals were born. Good thing her oldest brother Raymond had a short leg, otherwise he might be sad and afraid too.
As after dinner slid into twilight, Sarah Marie sat on the wrought iron bench under the great oak tree, thinking. If she wanted to find out more about her sisters’ secret, she would have to be clever and catch one of them in a moment of distraction. Mildred was nine years older and since Arthur Polk had put a ring on her finger she was sometimes even nice to her little sister. Georgia was getting married at the end of the month and all she talked about was her fiancé Thomas Miller, her dress, the flowers, the music, and the house where the newlyweds would live in the city.
The moon eventually rose above the eastern horizon, signaling it was time to go to bed. The elder Harris girls giggled as they made their way upstairs while Mother stood in the glow at the screen door, waiting. Sarah Marie took slow, miniscule steps across the lawn, waiting for the usual reprimand and anticipating the tiny thrill: power, albeit short-lived, over a grownup.
Mildred was waiting for her in their shared bedroom. “Here,” she said holding the hairbrush out to her younger sister. “Don’t stop until I count to one hundred.” Mildred’s hair was pretty, but it wasn’t worth any special mention, and besides it only reached her waist. Not like her own: loose and unbraided she could sit on it, and Mother said it was as glossy, and the color as rich as their prize mare Felicity’s coat. At least she was the best in one thing, Sarah Marie reminded herself.
“It’s only two more weeks till the wedding,” she said as she pulled the brush through a tangle in Mildred’s hair.
“Ouch! Fifteen, sixteen…”
“It’s so exciting and Mother says there are so many things still left to do.”
“Uh-huh. Thirty-one, thirty-two…”
Seizing the moment of distraction, but without undue enthusiasm that might attract suspicion, Sarah Marie asked, “Are you going to the march with Arthur?” If there was a social event, Mildred and Arthur were inseparable.
“Don’t be a ninny. Arthur would never march with the Suffragettes, and Papa will be furious when he finds out I’m marching. Don’t you say anything to him! If you do, I won’t let you be the flower girl when Arthur and I get married!”
Sarah Marie kept brushing, long strokes that started when she felt the contact of the bristles with Mildred’s scalp and finished when the brush pulled all the way through and her wrist twisted and lifted. “Cross my heart,” she promised.
“They say that Mrs. Herbert—she’s the Suffragette who’s coming from Washington to lead the march—they say she knows Alice Paul personally! Mother thinks I’m going to spend the morning with Louise, to help her embroider a tablecloth to sell at the Harvest Bazaar… Anyway, they’re saying that the politicians are beginning to capitulate and we can’t give up now. It’s only fair that women have the same right as men, even if Papa says the next thing women will want is to wear trousers like their husbands,” Mildred huffed. “Oh, you made me lose count… I’ll start again from fifty, and don’t ask any more questions.”
The morning air was brisk, although the elms and sycamores in the park behind the courthouse hadn’t yet begun to turn yellow and brown. The first women to arrive in the park were the organizers and the ladies from the local chapter of the suffrage association. They unfurled banners and excitedly pinned sashes proclaiming their slogans across their bosoms, and the volume of their voices grew as more and more women appeared.
There were men standing on the steps at the front of the courthouse and they could hear the excited chatter behind the building with white columns. Police Chief Mulligan and twenty of his men—their broad-chests glimmering with rows of brass buttons caught in the early morning sunlight, each of them holding a billy club in one hand—were ready to “keep order.” The mayor’s instructions had been unequivocal. “Redlands is not Washington or New York and this town shall not appear in the headlines of the state’s newspapers over something as ridiculous as women wanting to cast ballots.”
As the women’s numbers swelled, so did the curious who lined the streets. Men who’d come to jeer or to report back to husbands, fathers, brothers; women who were afraid to show their support by marching. Children skipped and laughed and played their games: a parade was a joyful event, wasn’t it?
Finally, the sound of a distant drum announced the beginning of the march and everyone turned to stare up the street. The first figure to round the corner of Main Street and Pine, just past the courthouse, was Liberty. Really it was Mrs. Burnham, the greengrocer’s wife, dressed in a gown of carefully draped fabric with a crown on her head and carrying a make-believe torch, and when the crowd recognized her the rumble of voices sounded like thunder, the kind that starts low, building then fading as the seconds pass. Behind her, in neatly organized rows, the Suffragettes moved as a single unit, chanting as one, “VOTES FOR WOMEN!” There were too many of them to count with a glance and they progressed—solemn, determined, orderly—with eyes focused forward, locked on a point in the future that was their destination.
The policemen now stood firm in front of City Hall, the women’s goal on that particular day. The order was to keep the Suffragettes from occupying the mayor’s office, using whatever means necessary. As the protesters approached, Police Chief Mulligan stepped forward. “Sorry ladies, but we can’t allow you to go inside.”
Mrs. Burnham, emboldened by her role as Liberty, didn’t hesitate. “Oh, for goodness sake, Timothy, step out of my way!” And she swung at him with her papier-mâché torch.
Timothy Mulligan’s face flamed red and the other officers stormed forward while the Suffragettes tried to push their way into Town Hall. The skirmish bordered on the humorous for those who were not involved or who did not hold a strong opinion. In other words, only for the children.
Later that afternoon, while Sarah Marie was watching her father repair one of the horse buggies, a Redlands policeman on a bicycle rode through the Harris family gate. When he got closer, she could see it was John Taylor, who went to their church like a normal man, never in his uniform. His face was unsmiling.
“Hello Robert. You’d better come with me into town. Your daughter Mildred’s been arrested in the Suffragette march.”
Sarah Marie wanted to ask what a suffragette was, but she could tell from her father’s expression that it would be better to wait.
Many, many seasons passed—nearly an entire lifetime. It was autumn again. Sarah Marie´s hair had long lost its gloss and it had been decades since she’d received compliments on her tresses. On this particular morning, she was scheduled among the first group to take the van from the retirement home to the polling station and she was waiting for the volunteer driver. Her hands trembled more than usual as she checked her purse to be certain her voter registration card was tucked inside with her ID. If only Mildred could be casting her vote in this presidential election… But Mildred had died in a car accident thirty years before and had had few chances to vote for women in political offices, even if she supported every female candidate that came along, not that there were many.
“Good morning, ma’am. You ready?” asked the driver as he gripped the handles on her wheelchair and gently eased it down the ramp.
“Yes, I am, young man. Wild horses couldn’t keep me from voting in this election. Never thought I’d see this day!” she chuckled. “And I want to be sure to remember it. It’s 2016, isn’t it?”
“It surely is, ma’am. What an honor to have the oldest county resident in my vehicle! One hundred and five, isn’t that right?” Sarah Marie didn’t respond, but the driver paid little heed, he was used to old folks who didn’t always hear so well.
The driver made several trips back and forth between the van and the lobby of the retirement home, loading the other passengers one by one. As soon as everyone’s wheelchair was secured, he started the motor, turned up the radio, and pulled out into traffic. Ten minutes later he parked in the disabled spot in front of the polling station and proceeded to unload in reverse order.
“Here we are ma’am,” he announced brightly as he ducked inside the van to wheel out the last of the elderly voters. But Sarah Marie didn’t respond. He placed his hand gently on her shoulder, feeling the bird-like bones beneath her pink cardigan. “Ma’am…?” he asked, leaning around so she could see him.
Sarah Marie’s eyes were closed and her thin lips, etched with deep wrinkles, remained curved in an eternal, but satisfied smile.
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