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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

From Half Orphan to Orphan: Sitting in the First Pew

Updated: Feb 24, 2020

Away from the battlefields and horrific bloodshed of the Great War of the Rebellion, were other countless casualties, leaving behind many widows and orphans. When Abigail’s father was killed at Roanoke Island, she and her sister Sarah became "half orphans." With the generous help from neighbors, a devoted grandfather, and her father's pension, her family was able to manage their small working farm.

Although Abigail Hodgdon was a teenager when her mother perished, becoming an orphan took its toll. The circumstances of her mother’s death also left Abigail riddled with guilt. The timing of her death contributed to the devastation, as her sister Sarah had recently left to work at the textile mills in Fall River, Massachusetts.

For some church members of this era, an interesting obligation was the requirement of pew rent. It was traditional for parishioners to pay this fee and like most other elements in structured social settings, there was a great deal of politics involved in the particular arrangement of rented pews.

Becomin’ an orphan left a sort of hole that could only be filled by mergin’ with someone who shared the same hole or at least knew what the hole was all about. Like before — the only other time we occupied the first pew — we sat with our black mitted hands laced tightly together. She fixed her eyes on the pine coffin settin’ on the sawhorses, and I fixed my eyes on her. I couldn’t stand the sight of the pine box or the horrible thought of our mother’s burnt body. I knew it to be morbid, but I was tempted to look inside to make sure it was true. Mrs. Blake offered me a fine black dress to wear for proper mournin’. It needed mendin’, so she took to sewin’ it for me. Sarah borrowed her mournin’ dress from Mrs. Porter, who had three daughters. Her husband passed away two years before. We wore our perfectly matched wool felt bonnets — black, cotton trimmed, with long wide ribbons so that we could tie an enormous bow if so desired. When we milled about in Mr. Tibbetts’ store, he insisted that we take them. We offered to pay him later, even though we didn’t have access to Papa’s pension or know how it would come about. Bein’ a decent sort and knowin’ how he felt about Mother, he refused any and all payment. The flies, usually buzzin’ about noisily, lay dead in random clusters upon the sills. It was quiet ‘cept for the rain peltin’ against the windows, roof, and into anxious puddles, threatenin’ to wash out the road. There were more folks in the church than I can ever remember. Eb Burrows huffed and clattered while settin’ up chairs alongside the pews. Mrs. Leighton swayed more and plunked harder than usual on the organ keys. Sarah squeezed my hand and released, squeezed and released, as if playin’ a concertina. ~ Abigail Hodgdon, September 3, 1872 ~ ETCHED IN GRANITE: A HISTORICAL NOVEL Mj Pettengill

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