Lizzie Bradbury is a ghost I conjure on Mother’s Day. I have never seen her face, but I have heard her voice. Her husband and her son spoke of her, to her, in letters and diary entries. A rare note in her own hand appears twice in the over one thousand letters that have come back to me in the last four years. She is quiet, but she is there.
I know the barest facts about her early life – born in 1859, married late for her time at 33 to Eben Bradbury, whose energy had been concentrated on building his pharmacy business. Her father, William H. Bayley, a well-respected sea captain and later Overseer of the Poor in Newburyport, adored his eldest child and only daughter. I have spent hours looking at her father’s face on the wall of captains of the Newburyport Marine Society– the large, pale eyes and small mouth, and then look for that face in the women gathered, nameless, in photos of picnics or Old South Church functions. She never looks back, or if she does, I don’t see it.
What I know of her is intimate, in a way. She lost a pregnancy before her first child, daughter Marguerite, was born. She fell from a trolley car on Bromfield Street and was nearly killed. She was called “Inamorata”, or lover, by her future husband in his diary. She had a heart condition. I have seen her hospital records, her marriage license, her will. But I have never seen her face.
What we share, and the reason that I think of her particularly today, is the death of her son, Eben, killed by a German machine gun on June 12, 1918 in France. My experience of this death is nothing like hers, of course. I have no claim on it, but I feel it as a mother of sons, and as the keeper of her family’s records. Lizzie’s experience of this death is written in the margins and whispered by her husband, the senior Eben, who was the meticulous scribe and archivist for his illustrious family. Eben recorded that “Mother knew she could not stand it…” when invitations arrived at the house. He recalled her getting “quite stirred up” upon hearing prematurely that there had been an Armistice. I wonder what she was like when stirred? Did she wail, take silently to her bed, panic? Her husband kept the records, and he is silent on the matter. Her very existence was assumed to be part of his. When mail arrived, even from her daughter, it was addressed to her husband. She was Mrs. Eben Bradbury in every public sense through her entire adult life, Lizzie only to her family.
Lizzie (am I family? It gets complicated) and Eben moved to California several years after Eben’s death. Her husband, after a year of grief and increasing anger at the circumstances surrounding their son’s death, had gone bitterly silent. After 1920, Eben never mentioned his son’s name again, and did not request that his body be returned from France. Did she share his silence? His daughter did not, naming her firstborn son Eben, an homage that her father did not acknowledge in his diary. Did Lizzie cry when she held her grandson Eben in her arms? Did she remember her hard labor on the night of November 11, 1897, in the house at 40 Federal Street, did she share the expressions of tender joy that her husband recorded when she delivered their son or did she lie back, spent and sweating, and silently thank God for sparing her life?
Lizzie was living in Modesto in 1930 when her name first appeared in the Gold Star invitation list in the Fresno Bee. In March, 1929, Congress passed funding for Gold Star mothers and widows, women whose husbands and sons had died in the war and were buried overseas at one of the sites overseen by the American Battle Monuments Commission, to visit the graves of their loved ones. All expenses for these trips were paid, and over eleven thousand women were determined to be eligible. Despite the stock market crash later that year, the funding remained, and in early 1930, newspapers across the country began printing lists of Gold Star women, indicating whether they had responded to the invitation and would make the journey. Lizzie’s name (Mrs. Eben Bradbury, of course) appeared again and again, marked (I) for having failed to respond. Is this an indication that Lizzie shared her husband’s silence on the life and death of their son? She was travelling in Modesto, visiting her daughter and helping to care for her grandchildren. Was she just too busy? In addition to the listings in the newspapers, invitations arrived in her Modesto post office box (number 1324). Did she throw them away? Did she open them, read them, agonize over them? Why not just decline?
In 2015 I was trusted with a medal that had been made for Eben Bradbury. When I arrived at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery outside Chateau Thierry and was welcomed into the gatehouse, I asked if there had ever been a registered visitor for Eben in the 97 years since his death. I was the first, signing my name next to his, a bold act, so I closed my eyes for a moment and thought of Lizzie – wondered what it would have been like for her to come through these doors and see his name. I wondered if, in the last moments of her life, she regretted not making this journey. “I’m here now”, I said.
We washed Eben’s headstone with sand from Omaha Beach, mixed some earth from his house on Bromfield Street with the soil of France, and placed the medal from his hometown in the grass above his body, imagining peeling away the soil, the dirt, the wood of his coffin, pinning it onto his uniform. The others present slowly wandered away, leaving me alone with Eben. And then my phone rang. It was my sixteen-year-old son, wishing me a happy Mother’s Day. The snap-back between my twenty-first century motherhood and my visceral, century-old maternal grief was physically painful. I had forgotten it was Mother’s Day. I had living sons to mother.
On May 12, 1918, in one of the desperate, hopeful letters sent from father to son, one of the letters returned stamped “Killed in Action” many months later, Eben Sr. wrote, “Dear Eben, This is Mother’s Day, and pinks in buttonholes have been quite conspicuous”. And the heartbreaker for me is that he asks, nearly begs, his son to write to Lizzie. “General Pershing wishes every soldier in France to write home on Mother’s Day”. I hear in this newsy line, please write, my boy. Even if it’s only to be a good soldier. It’s Mother’s Day. The end of this letter is another heartbreaker. “It is six weeks tomorrow since we heard from you…”. Eben was still alive on that Mother’s Day, but the last letter his family ever saw was written in March. Lizzie must have hoped and waited and there was nothing, nothing but her husband’s Mother’s Day plea returned to her door, stamped with a slash. DECEASED.
One year to the day after my first Mother’s Day with Eben, a box arrived at my door from a man in California who had purchased nearly three hundred letters at an auction. One of them was the Mother’s Day letter.
Just before Mother’s Day last year, two more chests of letters arrived, these from Sweet Home Oregon. There are now over 1100 letters that Eben Sr. packed into chests and hauled out to California. I know him well, though I have also never seen his face. His voice is strong, but Lizzie is still a ghost. I hope that someday I can see her face and tell her that her son is loved and remembered. Until then, I will feel her with me on Mother’s Day, waiting for her letter.