Death of infant at birth. Discussion of death with husband. Grief. “Lantern in Her Hand” by Bess Streeter Aldrich (Dec. 2009)

Susan's Thursday morning note December 17, 2009 
A Lantern in Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich 
      “Time passing…stop the winds…stop the winds…”
      Death of her young baby at birth.  Death discussion with husband before his death.  Grief.
      Dreaming - keeping ALIVE regardless of immediate circumstances.  Keeping LIFE.
      Motherhood thoughts after being thought of as "narrow" because home as a mother.

Good morning.  I’ve typed and typed and taken out and put in different paragraphs that I’ve underlined. I’m not going to change anything else.  If I leave out any more paragraphs some of you that would’ve been encouraged or helped wouldn’t get the chance.  My fingers ache, but I want you to have these thoughts this week.  If I could count the times I’ve heard as you check out – “I can’t believe it’s December 16th…” or whatever that particular day was.  None of us can  believe how the calendar passes by without us having a chance to catch our breath or watch our children grow or have silence for ourselves.  During the snowstorm last week I pulled down one of my treasures, A Lantern in Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich.  This is the story of a woman, Abbie Deal, from childhood to her death on the last page.  The thoughts, dreams, struggles, peace of a woman through her life. 

Her recurring theme is the passage of time – how frustrated she is with the winds that take Time – that won’t stop.  I hope you find encouragement from these paragraphs.  I don’t want you to roll your eyes that this is too long – the thoughts are so important, and I truly believe we all can slow down time.  By turning off the electronics.  By going to bed earlier with books.  By holding our children.  By looking into the eyes of who we love.  By adding silence to the calendar.  We can’t stop time, but the silence can slow it down.  By calling our friends and hearing their voices instead of notes through the computer.  Of stopping by our friend’s homes instead of driving by thinking we’re too busy.  Five minutes with someone we love.  Those five minutes stop the clock.  Slow the clock.  At least give us the chance to see the hands turn, rather than have no recollection of Time passing.  Let’s try to stop the clock a little bit this week.  Light the candles.  Hold our children.  Sit with those we care deeply for.  Time.  We can’t let it get the best of us.  Thank you for letting me type for you – I hope you find this worth reading as I have.

Time as a recurring theme – Time passing in the wind…out of our control how fast the clock spins. 

Time…As a 12-year old girl looking up at the stars from her covered wagon as they travelled to Iowa.

This evening would never come again…the night winds were blowing it away…You could not stop the winds and you could not stop Time. 

Time….As her brother left for war.

She could not stand to let them go…It seemed that life was doing something to her which she could not countenance.  She had a queer sensation of wind blowing past her, – of wind that she could not stop…Oh, stop Time for a few minutes until we can do something about the war. 

Time…In the midst of her wedding ceremony.

Suddenly, Abbie wanted to halt the ceremony.  There seemed nothing in her mind but that odd thought of a wind rushing by, a wind she could not stop, – Time, going by, – Time which she could not stay.  Stop Time for a minute…

Time….The moment she is being told by her husband he wants to move her (she has a toddler and is expecting their second child) to settle in Nebraska.

“But, Will…”  Never had Abbie so thoroughly felt that queer sensation of being swept along by the wind which she could not stop, – of Time, which she could not stay.

Time…As she was hugged by her father-in-law for the last time as they drove away…(she would not return for over 20 years because of hardships).

Abbie’s heart was in her throat.  Oh, stop the wind rushing by.  Stop Time for a few minutes, until she could think whether this move was the thing to do…The wagon lurched, – steadied, – moved on…Abbie’s hand was on her hard, dry throat.  It felt as though it must burst.  Stop the wind.  Stop Time for a minute.  The wagon lurched ahead.  Will’s eyes, full of light of hope and courage, looked to the west.  But Abbie’s, tear-misted, clung to the east.

Description of silence on the open prairie.

This was a silent noise.  There was complete silence, – save for those distant coyotes.  Silence, – save for a faint sound of shivering grass.  Silence, so deep, that it roared in its vast vacuum.  Silence, – grass, – stars.  

On dreaming in the midst of hard times (of a wooden home, fences, red hollyhocks & blue larkspur…)…Will laughed, “You’re quite a dreamer, Abbie-girl.”  Abbie did not laugh.  She was suddenly sober.  “You have to, Will.”  She said it a little vehemently.  “You HAVE to dream things out.  It keeps a kind of an ideal before you.  You see it first in your mind and then you set about to try to make it like the ideal.  If you want a garden, – why, I guess you’ve got to dream a garden.”  Then she looked out at the small plot of vegetables, and laughed, – not quite joyfully, a little ruefully.  They looked so wilted and so lackadaisical, so uninterested in life, those potatoes and turnips and beans…

Two extremes of Abbie’s emotions. (the “waves” bringing tides – back & forth, back & forth – reality of life as Anne Lindbergh writes in Gift From the Sea)

And so she could not throw off the blue mood that had descended upon her, a horde of worries that had come upon her even as the horde of grasshoppers had come upon the land.  The thought that there was nothing to do with; that they could scarcely keep body and soul together; that she probably would never be able now to do anything with her voice; that another child was coming, they all harassed and tormented her.  All fall there was in her mind a tired disinterest over things.  In spite of what he said, that surface courage which he pretended had returned to him, Abbie detected that Will, too, was morose.  To her keen eye he seemed dull and stoical, underneath an assumption of cheerfulness…On the arrival of a crate from the East…her toddlers, older son, and Will all opened the crate…It broke something in Abbie, some tight-bound band around her heart and throat, which had not been loosed for months.  She hid the old brass horn of Dennie’s in the bedroom.  She put away the precious dried apples and pop-corn, the seed-corn and the big solid Greenings from the orchard behind Grandpa Deal’s house.  She hugged the huge warm quilts as though they were the fat pudding-bag body of Maggie Mackenzie.  The bad luck was temporary.  They were young and well.  The children were all healthy youngsters.  Why, how wicked she had been!  She was only 27.  She mustn’t let her voice rust the way she had this summer.  In another year or so she could have an organ and maybe even get to a music teacher.  She mustn’t let youth slip away and her voice go with it….she sung…the children clapped their hands that Mother was singing….

On her child dying at birth – her thoughts on the beginning of a cemetery…Life….birth….death…

Abbie turned her face to the wall.  She lay and thought of her sister Janet and her dead baby.  She could hear the faint pound, pound, of a hammer out at the barn.  Every hammer stroke hit her heart.  They were going to take the baby over tot he Lutz burial knoll.  There was no one there by Dannie and Grandpa Lutz.  Dannie…Grandpa Lutz…and now little Basil Deal…three to make a cemetery.  In a new country you had to make homes and roads and wells and schools…and you had to make a cemetery.  You couldn’t get around it…you had to make a cemetery, too…She lay there and thought of the knoll and the prairie grass and the low picket fence against which the tumbleweeds piled…She hated the barrenness of it.  If she could put him in a shady place it wouldn’t be quite so hard.  But to put him in the sun and the coarse grass and the wind!  She and Sarah would go over and plant some trees some day…

On the ability to make choices to change our attitude in the midst of hardship. (as she watched wagons heading back east of those that were crushed by the hardships…)

Abbie, standing at the door and watching one of those bedraggled-looking outfits pass, said bitterly to Will, “When do you think our time is coming?  Look at the clouds, Will.  Even the clouds seem always going east.”  Will did not answer.  He turned on his heel and went down to the straw-covered dug-out which served as a barn.  Watching him go, in his faded blue shirt and overalls with their many patchings, and his dingy old hat, Abbie called to her mind the fine figure he had made in his wedding suit…Ten years ago!  And the minister at home had said you could do anything with your life.  But that was not so.  Life did things to you.  Ten years!  Small wonder that love would break under circumstances like these.   Standing there in the soddie door, she seemed two personalities.  One argued bitterly that it was impossible for love to keep going when there was no hope for the future, suggested that there was no use trying to keep it going.  The other said sternly that marriage was not the fulfillment of a passion – marriage was the fulfillment of love.  And love was sometimes pleasure and sometimes duty.  “You traitor,” she said suddenly to herself, “You Judas!  As though hard luck could kill my love for Will!  Will’s not to blame.  It’s a fine love that a little bad luck can smother!  It can’t touch can’t.  Love is the light that you see by.  It’s all in the world we’ve got to light our way, and it takes both of us to keep it bright.  And I’m not doing my share…I’m not.  I’m glum and sad and discouraged.  And I’m not going to be any more.  There are only two things that can help us, and that’s our courage and our love.  From this very minute on I’m going to try to cheer Will up more.  I’m through being downhearted.”  She turned to the children.  They were all around the table…Abbie ran to them, closed warm maternal arms around all three, and bumped them together in a return of girlish spirits, so that they laughed at her unusual playfulness, their faces sparkling because Mother was full of fun.  How readily they responded to all her moods.  And how careful she must be with those childish impressions.  She caught Margaret to her.  “It takes faith and courage and love and prayer and work and a little singing to keep up your spirits, but we’re going to do it.”

Emotions of a mother as her daughter leaves for college:

“You’re sure you’ll get along, Mother?”  “Why, of course I’ll get along.”  Abbie was outwardly calm and confident, while all the time there was that queer sensation of a wind rushing by, – a wind she could not stop, – Time going by which she could not stay.  Oh, stop the clock hands!  Stop Time for a minute until she could think whether it was right for Margaret to go away and leaver her.  “Good-by, dear!”  Oh, stop the clock hands!  “Oh, Mother, do you think I ought to go?”  “Of course you ought to go.”  Head up, Abbie was smiling.  “Good-by, then….!”  Abbie waved ands smiled, – waved and smiled, – as long as they were in sight.  Then she turned and ran blindly into her bedroom and shut the door.  And, whether she has driven away in a lumber-wagon or a limousine, the mother whose daughter has left her for the first time, will understand why Abbie Deal ran blindly into her bedroom and shut the door.

Thoughts at her daughter’s wedding ceremony.

Wasn’t life queer?  Such a little while ago, it seemed.  Where had the time gone?  Blown away by the winds you could not stop, – ticked off by the clock hands you could not stay…how the words came back, borne on the breeze of memories!  How swiftly the clock hands had gone around!  Abbie could not speak.  She must shed no tears on her little girl’s wedding day.  So, she only patted her and kissed her, smiling at her through a thousand unshed tears.  And you, who have seen your mother smile when you left her, – or have smiled at your daughter’s leaving, – know it is the most courageous smile of all.

Death.  Discussion between Abbie & Will not knowing Will would die young – soon after – of a heart attack.

“Death…Will.  How the fear of it always hangs over me.”

“Death,” Will repeated it.  “Death…”He looked beyond the poplars, stared for a moment up into the deepening prairie twilight.  “I wonder why we fear it?  The naturalness of it!  Wild geese flying over…cattle coming home…birds to their nests…leaves to the winter mold…the last sleep.  How natural they all are, and yet of them all, we fear only the sleep.  When my time comes I wish my family and friends could think of it that way…”

“If you should be taken away from me, I couldn’t stand it.”

“Oh, yes, you could, Abbie-girl.  You could stand it.  It’s the people who have loved and then lost their love…who have failed each other in some way, who couldn’t stand it.  With you and me…all we’ve been through together and all we’ve meant to each other…with us, it couldn’t be so terrible.  Nothing could take away the past from us.  You are so much a part of me, that if you were taken away, I think it would seem that you just went on with me.  And, I’m sure if I were the one taken I would go on with you, remembering all you had been to me.”

Abbie’s thoughts at the scene of Will’s deathNo one moved.  there was no sound but the children crying.  The cows were coming up the pasture gate.  The leaves floated onto the lane road.  A bird flew into the cedars.  A long wedge-shaped line of wild geese flew low.  Will lay sleeping.  Suddenly, Abbie Deal seemed greater than herself, larger than humanity.  A sense of deep wisdom was within her, a flood of infinite strength enveloped her.  She rose and threw up her head…

Time of Grief:…A story-teller closes one chapter and begins another when time has passed.  Real life is not so.  There is no kind interval of time as the settings of the various experiences shift, – no heart-easing period of days between the chapters of life.  Life is Time’s galley-slave, forever shackled to its relentless master.  If its hardest blow be dealt at three o’clock, then four o’clock must be met and five and six, the first dark, agonizing night and the first pale, torturing dawn.  And so it is unreal, even cowardly, to leave Abbie Deal wrestling with her deepest emotions, – living two lives; one within herself, wracked and tortured, – the other, an outward one which met all the old duties and trivial obligations with composure, – leave her in the garden of her Gethsemane, to meet her many months later.  Only the children kept her going.  Only her motherhood, whose first characteristic was love and whose second was duty, had kept her hands busy and her head unbowed…

Time not stopping…At birth of her first grandchild.

“A grandmother!”  (she spoke to her clock as she wound it again) “I’m a grandmother.  And it’s not quite believable.”  “You — can’t — stop — time — you — can’t — stop — time — you — can’t – “

On motherhood:

A conversation with Will in her head on life not giving her opportunities as she had so desired as a young woman (to learn music, to paint)…

And now she was nearly fifty and she was not to know the fruition of any of those hopes.  “Oh, Will, I am so disappointed,”  she said to that invisible comrade who was only spirit and memory.  “I can only feel those things, – not do them.”  “Isn’t motherhood, itself, and accomplishment?”  She knew that she made her own answer, and yet it gave her a sense of satisfaction and peace.  Will might have said it.  It sounded like him.  “But, I’ve made so many mistakes…Will…even in that.”  You are a good mother, Abbie-girl.  Yes, it gave her a sense of peace and comfort.

On her daughter telling her she didn’t want to be a mother – only pursue her dreams…

But, Isabelle, if people waited to be rich to have children.  If we!…Oh, Isabelle!…You’d make me laugh if I didn’t feel so like crying.  “Can’t afford it?”  How can you afford to miss it?…little children…their soft warm bodies and their little clinging hands…their cunning ways…miss motherhood??!?  Holding her grandchild…She cuddled her up and put her wrinkled cheek against the child’s firm one.  Oh, why didn’t mothers do it more when they had the chance?  What were clubs and social affairs and freedom by comparison?   Children of her children, she loved them as she had loved their parents.  Did a woman never get over loving?  Deep love brought relatively deep heartaches.  Why could not a woman of her age, whose family was raised, relinquish the hold upon her emotions?  Why could she not have a peaceful old age, wherein there entered neither great affection nor its comrade, great sorrow?  She had seen old women who seemed not to care as she was caring, whose emotions seemed to have died with their youth.  Could she not be one of them?

Her daughter wanting her to travel abroad – believing her mother, Abbie, had lived a “narrow” life…Abbie’s response to her life being called “narrow”…

…I’ve been part of the beginning and part of the growth.  I’ve married…and borne children and looked into the face of death.  Is childbirth narrow, Grace?  Or marriage?  Or death?  When you’ve experienced all those things, Grace, the spirit has traveled although the body has been confined.  I think travel is a rare privilege and I’m glad you can have it.  But not every one who stays at home is narrow and not every one who travels is broad.  I think if you can understand humanity…can sympathize with every creature…can put yourself into the personality of every one…you’re not narrow…you’re broad.”

Desiring her children to want to know her – not physical questions only.   Her grown children always concerned about her physical comfort….Not one ever said, “Are you sad, Mother?” or “How does your mind feel?” or “Does anything hurt your heart?”

Okay – time has already been taken away today…three hours….where did they go?  Our epitaph tonight for today’s hours…will we make the words worth writing?  Will we be able to say we looked into each other’s eyes – took the time to notice?  Had silence?  Kept dear friends in our prayers….let go of too much in our lives…narrow down our contacts, our commitments….time…it’s blowing so quickly.  We can’t stop the wind, but we can feel it as it goes by….thank you for your encouragement, business, and friendship.  Remember the reason for this week.  The quiet stable.  Susan

Latin for this week:
Tempus edax rerum - Time is the devourer of things (time flies) ...

Works Cited:
Aldrich, Bess Streeter.  A Lantern in Her Hands.  Lincoln, NE.  University of NE Press.  1928.