About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Darkness had fallen by the time the polls at Maple Notch Town Hall closed. From the front porch of the female seminary across the town square, Clarinda Tuttle Finch watched the doors close with anxiety in her heart. Ten months had passed since she had accepted the position as the mayor pro tem when her beloved Howard had enlisted in the army. No one expected that three months later he would be dead, a casualty of this new world war the United States was fighting.
When the time for the next election came, Clarinda surprised herself as much as everyone else by deciding to run on her own merits. She faced a worthy opponent, Ralph Quincy, the high school principal. His entourage held court in front of the general store around the corner from the seminary. The town's youth supported him, and their excitement could be heard from this distance. If Clarinda wasn't running for reelection, her eldest daughter, Betty, a high school senior, would probably join them.
But Clarinda's only child old enough to vote was her firstborn, and he was fighting Hitler's hordes in Europe. Closing her eyes briefly against the ever-present pain and worry, she sent up a quick prayer for Howard Jr.
"Mom?" Her second son, Arthur, had come home for the night from the University of Vermont, a short distance away in Burlington. "Mr. Smith called. They've tabulated the votes."
Clarinda didn't ask about the results. They wouldn't make the announcement until the candidates arrived at the town hall. Win or lose, she would learn the outcome at the same time as everyone else. Putting a hand to her throat, she took a deep breath to steady her nerves. "Very well, then."
She clapped her hands together. "May I have everyone's attention?" She used what she called her "Aunt Flo voice," one that commanded respect. "They are ready to announce Maple Notch's new mayor."
Arthur walked beside her, and her three daughters led the group of her supporters. Mr. Quincy's group approached the town hall at the same time, while Mr. Smith took a spot at the top of the steps.
"Citizens of these United States in the township of Maple Notch in the state of Vermont, you have chosen the person you wish to lead us through the dark days ahead, days when we who remain fight the war at home. It is my privilege as former mayor of our upstanding community to announce the results." Mr. Smith paused, drawing out the drama of the moment.
Smith was as pompous as he was good-hearted. Back in 1938, he had bowed out as mayor after two terms, and Howard had been elected.
Arthur touched Clarinda's shoulder, urging her to move forward. Ralph had already left his contingent and taken his place in front of Mr. Smith.
"The mayor of Maple Notch for these next four years is "
Someone on Mr. Quincy's side of the steps thrummed a snare drum, and Clarinda's insides twisted with each beat.
" Clarinda Tuttle Finch!"
A smile burst from inside out. Thank You, Lord.
A smiling Ralphand goodness, his smile seemed as genuine as hers wasshook her hand. "Congratulations, Clarinda." He stepped back, leaving the way open for her to climb the steps to the porch.
"Madam Mayor, congratulations." Mr. Smith bowed over her hand.
"Smile, Mrs. Finch!" Rusty Henshaw shouted as Mr. Smith shook her hand and the camera light flashed. The dark blue dress, with tailored collar and a thin black belt, and the veil of her hat covering her forehead should look well in the picture.
Clarinda took her place behind the microphone. "Citizens of Maple Notch! Thank you for the privilege of serving as your mayor for the next four years."
Cheers broke out at that statement, including Ralph's supporters. Judging by the smile on his face, no one would guess he had lost.
"Some people call this a dark time. We face implacable opponents on all sides. Valiant men have already fallen in the battle against the enemies of freedom and democracy, my own husband among them." Her voice caught, and she was astute enough to recognize the power her personal loss gave her within the community.
"For the next four years, I will strive to continue the legacy of my husband, Howard Finch. I promise to be strong in the face of adversity, to fight the war at home, and to give of myself, my friends and family, and if necessary, my life, for the cause of freedom." She pointed to a couple standing in front on her side of the steps. "Joe and Jane Johnson lost their boy at Guadalcanal only a few weeks ago. And over there, there's an empty place at the Simpsons' table these days." As she mentioned those who served and those who had died, a somber mood fell across the crowd. "I salute those who put their lives on the line."
Applause broke out at the appeal to patriotism. She decided to lighten the mood. "My grandmother Clara Farley Tuttle"
Laughter rippled through the crowd. Clarinda always found a way to mention Grandma Clara in her speeches, which tickled her listeners.
"would have been proud of the young women in our community who have chosen to serve overseas." As she mentioned them by name, she took pleasure in noting to herself how many of them had graduated from the seminary her grandmother had founded.
"We dedicate ourselves anew this day to the cause of freedom, to the defense of democracy, to the support of those who fight on the front lines. Years ago, when the United States faced another enemy in a different war, Francis Scott Key saw the flag flying and wrote words that I still treasure today. 'Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand/Between their loved home and the war's desolation./Blest with victory and peace, may the Heav'n rescued land/Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.'"
After quoting the remaining words of the last verse, Clarinda said, "Join me in singing the national anthem."
* * *
Keep smiling, Ralph reminded himself as they sang. He had great respect for Clarinda Tuttle Finch. Who didn't? She had not only borne the loss of her husband with grace, she had taken hold of the reins of government of Maple Notch with a firm hand. Under her leadership, she had eased the transition from peaceful village to a stanchion of democracy on the home front. Also she was Maple Notch born and bred, counting her ancestors among the founders of the town, a fact that mattered a lot around here.
The past was the problem, though. She held on to it with cement gloves, at least regarding the old-fashioned school her family ran. Even the name, the Maple Notch Female Seminary, sounded antiquated in 1942. The century had moved forward, and the town needed to move with it. Although he was close in age to the esteemed mayor, he faced the future head-on. When he ran for mayor, he knew he fought an uphill battle against not only an incumbent but also a respected war widow.
When the song ended and the applause died down, Ralph greeted Clarinda at the bottom of the steps. "Congratulations again. But you haven't seen the last of me yet."
"I know." She raised her chin, calm eyes regarding him from behind the veil over her forehead. "You still hold your seat on the town council. I'll see you at our next meeting if not before then at church."
Yes, you will. He nodded and walked away, allowing her supporters to rush forward. The people had spoken, and he would continue working for change from his position on the council.
Rich Adams, the town druggist and one of Ralph's biggest supporters, met him as he crossed the square in the direction of the general store. As another council member, Rich knew Ralph's intentions better than anyone else. "Do you think we stand a chance?"
Ralph shrugged. "While there's life, there's hope." He took a step forward. "Let me thank my faithful workers before we worry about the council."
"Mr. Quincy." A bright female voice called, probably one of his students.
Ralph turned around. Betty Finch, the new mayor's eldest daughter, waved. She would have been at his high school if not enrolled at the seminary. "Yes, Betty?"
Betty's light brown hair curled around her face, and she was peppy enough to be on the cheerleading squad, if the seminary had one. She was smart, too, like all the other Finch children.
"I thought you ran a good campaign. I like some of your ideas." She put her hand over her mouth, as if afraid of what else might come out. "I love Mom, but I don't always agree with her." She glanced over her shoulder, where her brother Arthur waited for her. "I have to go. I'll see you later."
"A spy in the enemy's camp." Rich's thin lips curved in a smile. "You always did make an impression on the girls."
The two men walked in the direction of the store. Ralph had known Rich all his life, had fought by his side in the trenches of France. Rich had envied Ralph's reputation as a Valentino when they had roomed together at college after the war. Only Rich had married his college sweetheart, while Ralph had lost the only woman he had ever really loved during the 1918 flu pandemic. Plenty of women had pursued him over the years, but no one had caught his interest.
He and the mayor had that in common. Life had stripped them both of the persons they loved. They wouldn't be the last ones to lose someone before this war ended.
"Betty's high-spirited," Ralph said. "She reminds me of her aunt Winnie Sawtelle. From what I hear, Betty's sister Norma is a lot more like Clarinda."
"And you always did like the serious types," Rich said. They arrived at the store and were greeted by light applause.
Ralph waited a few seconds for the dejected crowd to stop clapping. "I can't thank you enough for your support over the course of my campaign. I will continue to fight for the causes we believe in, as part of the town council."
Rich raised his glass of punch in support of the idea.
"But join me in supporting Mayor Finch as we move forward in the war effort. We may disagree on the details, but we are united in wanting a strong America to fight for freedom and democracy for those under the thumbs of our enemies."
Fresh applause broke out. If the race had depended on rhetoric alone, Ralph might have won. "Stay awhile. Finish up the cake and punch. You gave this campaign everything you had, and you deserve to celebrate."
He thanked each volunteer personally. How did a candidate for an office like the presidency ever thank the people who helped get him elected? We may have lost the battle but the war is far from over.
Nine days after the election, Clarinda prepared for the bimonthly town-council meeting with renewed energy. The citizens of Maple Notch had returned her to office, a privilege she didn't take lightly. The election had been closer than she'd hoped; a mere eleven votes separated her from Ralph.
The town council consisted of eight members, and she only voted in the case of a tie. Tonight's agenda began with an easily resolved matterapproval of additional funds for clearing snow.
The controversial business of the evening would arise under New Businessthe renewal of the Maple Notch Female Seminary's charter as a school. After being a successful, vital part of the life of Maple Notch for more than 150 years, the seminary faced serious opposition to its renewal.
The source of the opposition distressed her: Ralph Quincy, her opponent in the mayoral race. The high school principal should be pleased that leaders across New England came from a school located in their small town and should not want to close its doors.
Clarinda could pick up the phone and call professors at all Seven Sisters schools, not to mention a host of smaller colleges, who were seminary alumnae. She could name half a dozen other graduates involved in politics as mayors or members of congress. One of them had even been appointed to a vacant senate spot when the woman's husband had died. How could anyone deny the importance of continuing such a distinguished tradition?
Clarinda looked at the blank space underneath the line for the school's charter, wondering if anyone else would bring up New Business.
Ten years ago, when Clarinda had given birth to her youngest child, Anita, Clarinda had never envisioned herself working anywhere besides the family farm. When Anita had started school, Howard had run for mayor. Clarinda found herself involved more and more in running the town, first as Howard's secretary, then as mayor herself.
Clarinda and Anita had moved into the Bailey Mansion the previous September. As boarding students, her older girls, Norma and Betty, already lived there.
Clarinda retired to the suite she kept as her own to freshen up for the night. She wanted to look her best. Howard used to say she looked a little bit like Joan Crawford. She lifted her hand to her cheek. The edges had softened through the years. Her once dark hair was now gray, at places fading into white. The padded shoulders of her navy blue dress, the belted waistline, the tailored look of her jacket suited her outlook these days. When she added glasses and well-defined eyebrows, she projected an image of no-nonsense intelligence.
Someone knocked at the door, and Betty came in. "Stop primping, Mom. You look fine."
"I'm not primping." The words jumped to Clarinda's lips. Ridiculous thought that a woman of forty-five with mostly gray hair should care about her appearance.
"You've been in here for fifteen minutes, and you chase me out of the bathroom if I spend that much time in front of a mirror." Betty flopped down on top of the bed. "You don't start your next term as mayor until January, you know."
"I know." Clarinda fiddled with a diamond earring that Howard had given her on their twentieth anniversary. "But since there are no new members coming on board the town council, we might as well get to work. Would you help me with my earrings, please?"
Betty pushed the stud onto the end of the earring before brushing the curls around Clarinda's face. "You're beautiful. You should start dating, you know."
In the mirror, Clarinda saw her mouth open. "Elizabeth Clara Finch, whatever do you mean?"
"You know. You, and a man, alone, without all of us hanging on." Betty took the silver rat, the padding, from the top of Clarinda's head, brushed her curls away from her face, then repositioned the rat neatly, adding height above her carefully drawn eyebrows. "Someone like, I don't know, Principal Quincy?"
An image of distinguished gray hair and brandy-colored eyes flashed through Clarinda's mind, but she ignored it. "There will never be anyone for me except your father. Principal Quincy is a fellow concerned citizen, that is all, and we don't even agree about simple things, like education."
Betty straightened her lips as she continued pinning Clarinda's hair.
The dinner bell rang, and they headed downstairs. "Be sure you get your homework done."
Betty frowned. "I'm not a baby. You don't even know what I do at night when you're not here."
Clarinda took in a deep breath. Betty was giving her more trouble than both her sons together had. "I know." She hugged her daughter, and they went to the dining room to eat with the students.
After dinner, Clarinda put on her winter coat, black wool with a lining of gray taffeta and a fur collar, and walked through the back door into the crisp cold air. The temperature hovered around freezing, with a hint of snow in the air. She and Howard used to enjoy walking under the moon together on nights like this. Oh, Howard. If you were here She never thought she would want to relive the 1930s, but at least then they weren't sending their men and boys, not to mention a few women, off to war. She blinked away the threat of tears; she didn't want to ruin her mascara.
As she rounded the sidewalk on the way to the town hall, Ralph appeared in front of the school. He saluted her from the brim of his hat. "Good evening, Mayor."
Why had God taken a good man like Howard, who left behind a wife and family, and left a single man like Ralph? A lot of the time, God didn't make sense.