Volume > Issue > Remembering Sister Grant

Remembering Sister Grant


By Harold Riedl Jr. | June 1984
Harold Riedl Jr. works at the Milton S. Eisenhower Library at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. His articles have appeared in The New Republic and The Washington Monthly, among other periodicals.

I can’t recall how it was I first came to her. I needed a cheap room. Was it the hope of saving money that led me to look among the rooming-houses of the old, pre-chic South End of Boston? If it was, then why did I choose to look in that block of Worcester Street between Columbus Ave­nue and Tremont? I have always liked the look of that block, with its wall of 19th-century rowhouses and wide stone staircases leading up from the sidewalk. Those houses strike me now as something like the woman I was about to meet. They are still erect, genteel, and dignified, though overtaken by poverty; their wide steps are spread before them as she wore her long, loose skirts, at once to charm and to command respect. Still, Worcester Street was not so different from Springfield Street or Rutland Square. Did I notice a sign in her window? It seems more likely that a friend recommended her.

Did she come to the door herself when I first rang, or was it one of her tenants? In any case I was promptly introduced to her. Did we sit in the ancient parlor, or did she keep me in the vestibule until she felt she could trust me enough to show me a room? She was stern at first, she wasn’t keen on taking on a new tenant, and I was white.

We went up another long flight of stairs to the second floor. When she showed me the room I wondered whether I were making a mistake. There wasn’t much to the room, just a narrow bed, a bu­reau, perhaps a chair. The bathroom was at the other end of the floor, and I might have to share it, though there was no other tenant on the second floor at the moment. I don’t remember a window, but even if there was one it did little to dispel the darkness, and the sense of despair. The denizens of O. Henry’s world died in rooms like this.

She warned me that she would have no drink­ing and no women in her house. Free then of the habit of either, I hastened to reassure her, although I was uncomfortable with her moralism. I resented it in the abstract: what right had she to legislate her tenants’ personal life? If I had a lot to learn about too heedless a pursuit of the bottle and the skirt, I was to learn also that there were few indul­gences in either that she was not prepared to for­give. She knew people too well to hold their weak­nesses against them. She was trained to lay down the law; but she loved mercy.

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