By Louisa Finn, fourth generation Smiley family member
Episode #3: Eliza and Effie—Sisters in Grief and Love
In order to understand the special relationship between Eliza and Effie Smiley, you need to understand that their respective husbands, Albert K. (Mohonk’s founder) and Daniel, were half-brothers born almost 30 years apart to the same father, Daniel Smiley (the 1st) of Vassalboro, Maine. After the death of Daniel’s first wife Phoebe in 1853, he married Dorcas Hanson, who gave birth to their one and only child Daniel (my great grandfather, and literal “father” to the Mohonk Smiley family line).
Mohonk’s founder, Albert K. Smiley, acted as surrogate father to the young Daniel (the 2nd), grooming him to be a scholar and a gentleman. When Daniel brought his young bride-to-be Effie home to meet Albert and wife Eliza, it was love at first sight between Effie and Eliza, the new sisters-in-law. The reasons for this were likely complex as with any relationship, but in this case there was a sense of providence.
Eliza’s otherwise fortunate life had been marked by a great sadness when her only child, Annette, died at age 5 from an illness in 1863. Eliza fell ill too at the time, and by all accounts never fully recovered, physically or emotionally. Albert and Eliza never had another child. Though Eliza carried on with a productive and in many ways fulfilling life, there is a lingering sadness evident in pictures of her, an almost perceptible hole in her heart.
It’s comforting then to consider the joy that Eliza must have felt upon Effie’s entry into her life in 1881. Imagine the wonder at discovering that your new beloved “sister” was born in the same year as your lost child. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to not project the left-over love and motherly intention for the child onto the newcomer, and perhaps to secretly think “this is what our Nettie would have been like.” Eliza expresses this emotion clearly in a letter to Dorcas in 1883, on the eve of the birth of Effie’s first child, Albert (the 2nd).
“Albert and I feel very Grandfatherly and Grandmotherly – thou will have to divide the honor with me – Isn’t God good to send me them instead of Nettie?”
For Eliza, Effie filled the deep hole left by Nettie’s death. For Effie, Eliza provided a sweet, calm, and stable presence lacking in her own family. Effie’s family had been burdened by emotional and physical illness, and Effie grew up expecting little and giving everything. Effie was described by her own mother as “the only green spot in my patch of weeds.” As the support to her own family, Effie grew up without an anchor of her own. Eliza, 30 years her senior, provided a port in the storm, someone to whom she could express her emotions, and often her loneliness. This letter from August 5, 1890 demonstrates the depth of feeling Effie had for Eliza:
“Dear, sweet, loving and lovely sister and mother mine – what has thee not been to me – more necessary and precious to me every day …after thee left and the next morning especially at thy usual time of coming in to see us, I kept looking up and before I could realize thee was gone – think Sister Eliza will be here in a minute – Oh! Thee has no idea how it seems without thy dear self – and I hope thee can never realize.”
Effie’s words are so heartfelt, expressing an intimacy and reliance reserved for the deepest relationships, as to almost blur the boundaries between self and other. This reliance would be expressed again and again as the two “sisters” shared their lives at Mohonk and in Redlands, California (the Smileys’ winter home) and wrote to each other whenever separated.
As fate would have it, Eliza would also have a turn to comfort Effie through the death of a child. Baby Daniel, born to Daniel and Effie in 1891, only lived 5 weeks before succumbing to a respiratory illness. In a letter dated 1892, during a time when Daniel was away, Effie shares her grief with Eliza, acknowledging the guidance she receives from knowing that Eliza understands her pain.
“The solid fact of my heartache and loneliness, which sometimes seems almost too much, remains….Thee can not know how it helps me along to think that thee is one who really understands and appreciates what a real hardship it is to me to have Daniel so long away, or away at all,…there is only one who knows really how hard it is.”
In an unusual correlation, the building trades use a metaphor which I find resonant when thinking about Effie and Eliza. “Sistering joists” is done when a floor is sagging, and the support joists underneath are strengthened by adding an extra matching beam to a damaged or inadequate one, then attaching the two together with screws or nails. This seems about right when thinking of these two Smiley women, whom fate tied together in a mutually supportive manner, bolstering each other through loves and losses.
Louisa Finn is a fourth generation Smiley family member. She is Secretary for Mohonk Consultations, Speech/Language Therapist, and poet. Her mother, Patricia Smiley Guralnik, directed the Festival of the Arts at Mohonk following the death of her husband, pianist Robert Guralnik. As a child, Louisa spent many days visiting her grandmother, Rachel Orcutt Smiley, who, in her later years, lived in Mohonk’s tower room 271. Currently, Louisa enjoys spending time in the Mohonk Archives, and reading the letters of her ancestors. Their words help to confirm her strong sense of the value of place, and inspire her to share the way past voices can instruct the present, and the future.