Though she was never married, everyone called Lillian Ross “the widow.” Never in her presence, mind you, but few knew her by any other name.
“You know me not at all,” Lillian said, “I am a living ghost.” There was no one to listen. She spoke to herself and dead men. Sometimes there were tears.
New Hampton, Iowa was a small town where everyone knew everyone, and gossip substituted for any lack of fact. It was fair to say there were no strangers in New Hampton, but Lillian was as close as they came. Once a resident of another town by the same name, she moved from that New Hampton, to the new in 1895. She was glad to leave New Hampshire behind, but not excited to make Iowa her new home. She no longer felt she belonged anywhere.
Lillian kept to herself and expected others to do so as well. She attended church on Sundays, but spoke to as few people as possible, and never participated in social functions if she could avoid them. She tended to be the last to arrive, the first to leave, and always sat at the back. She was god-fearing, and loved her lord, but felt those he created in his image left much to be desired. Lillian did not like people; most she barely tolerated, many she actively despised, and only some few earned her true affection. No longer was she capable of love.
Lillian was a woman of loss and sorrow. This much was apparent just by looking at her. She would appear in town dressed in mourning garb (on the rare occasions she left her house). Even while at home she most often wore black. When possible, she refused all visitors, allowing her domestic servant to turn away any callers, and it was made clear to all she would never again consider a suitor. Lillian was no longer a social animal. Preferring, instead, to spend her days in a study of languages, prayer, and correspondance with her niece, Holly Allgood. A student of Latin, Aramaic, German, Greek, and Ancient Hebrew, Lillian preferred quiet, contemplative pursuits. She was obsessed with the eschatological.
Though she was a woman of means, Lillian commissioned the construction of a modest house. No grand mansion, but rather a two and a half story abode, fit for a small family. A second, much smaller, structure served as quarters for her domestic. Lillian put the majority of her fortune into arable land, reserving roughly a fifth for sprawling woods to surround her home. The rest of the land she leased to farmers though an intermediary. This income, coupled with an annuity, allowed Lillian to live a reserved and private life. A property manager took care of all household repairs and contracts for farming.
Lillian often spoke to herself. “I am weary,” she would say. “I want to sleep forever. But that time will come soon enough.” Or, perhaps, she spoke to others who could no longer hear. “I am tired, my loves, so tired.”
But she seldom slept. Instead, she paced from room to room: livingroom, diningroom, kitchen, bath, guest room, basement; upstairs: master bedroom, secondary bedroom, library, study, attic. Most evenings she would make this slow circuit dozens of times. Only when exhausted would she finally rest for a few hours before dawn. Eyes closed she would attempt to quiet her mind. She almost always failed. Instead of sleep she would lie fitfully until it was time for her morning chores. She would rise, make an unassuming breakfast with tea, feed her cat, tidy the kitchen, and retreat to her study until she hungered again. She’d eat, then back to her books until she would reach a point where she felt she was unable to absorb any new information, so she would once again begin to pace, and days and nights bled one into the other, and still she felt she had no greater understanding.
Every Sunday Lillian wore the same clothes: A stark black dress with subtle vertical pleats and full sleeves, a high stiff whalebone collar, her hair brushed and pulled tightly back, fixed in place with elephant ivory combs. People whispered, and there were many a rumor, but no one confronted Lillian or demanded to know why she dressed as one in mourning. She would not have told them regardless. No one needed to know Lillian had been twice married, twice widowed, twice a virgin bride, both husbands passing before either marriage could be consummated. She’d loved both men deeply, mourned the first for a year, and was courted for a year after by the second. Decorum demanded a respectful passage of time. Two years between marriages seemed like enough to her, but when he too passed, she decided she was obviously cursed, and made the decision to refuse to love again. At Lillian’s weddings death always caught the bouquet.
She would give anything to have her husbands back, but life didn’t account for mortal longing. Lillian’s first husband made his fortune through banking, and her second from the railroads. Both men promised they would take care of her, and give her everything that mattered and more, but they left her only money and misery.
“Come back to me. Come back to me.”