Mothers. Entering Scenes of Past with Mother, Grandmother, Great-grandmother by Bess Streeter Aldrich (May 2017)

Susan’s Thursday morning note May 11, 2017
The Collected Short Works 1920-1954 by Louisa May Alcott
Mother in a dream playing with her grandmother & great-grandmother, all aged 8.

Good morning! Beautiful green Nebraska scene. Verdi Prati (green meadows in Latin). Bird songs so different than their balking yesterday morning after their night of storm. Now calm and resorted to working on their messed up battered nests with quiet twirps. This morning I will be rewriting out of a scene written in 1919 “Across the Smiling Meadow” by Bess Streeter Aldirch. A meadow where three little 8-year old girls joined hands with their dolls and walked, each from a different generation meeting in a feverish dream. What birds were singing for these little girls? Grandmothers to the little birds I hear? Do these birds picture theiir great-grandmothers and mothers and hear their bird-songs in their minds? The songs they were taught to greet the world each morning by their mother birds? How I can imagine all the generation of mother birds meeting with their youngest offspring and singing their chorus together instead of over decades.

This story is from Bess Streeter Aldrich (famous for Lantern in Her Hand). She has a book of short stories, The Collected Short Works 1920-1954. This is probably my favorite book if I could keep just one. The stories are all light, written during the war. Aldrich states that she wanted to write “reality” that was not dark, not harsh reality, just stories of families, moms, kids. Stories to be read at the end of long stressful days during war. This book has been by my bed for eight years. The stories I read at night when my parents died, the stories I read at night the first week Camden was born as I held and fed him in the middle of the night. The stories I read now when I don’t have energy for any other stories.

Across the Smiling Meadow by Bess Streeter Aldrich:

This short story impacted me so much. In my words…A mother was lying in a hospital bed dying of a series influenza (which killed 22 million in WW1). During her worst moment she began to hallucinate. (She heard vaguely her daughter asking her daddy, “What’s a crisis mean?”) She herself was going away now on the long journey. She knew that. And the queer thing was that she didn’t care. People called it “dying. They seemed to fear it. She had feared it, had lived in dread of it, up until now. It was nothing, after all. It was just dropping all responsibility. There were others to look after things. She wouldn’t have to be responsible for the big house out on Sheridan Avenue, nor church work, nor club work, or Edward’s comfort, nor Natalie….at the thought of Natalie she came up on the definite desire and held tenaciously to it: She must take Natalie with her.

In her hallucinating she walked into her home, but she walked into her home as the age of her eight year old daughter….”Natalie! Come with me, Natalie, I’m going to take you with me, dear….your mamma said you could come.” “What is your name? asked the daughter. “Jennie.” “Why, that’s my mamma’s name, too.” Natalie grabbed her little doll, “Baby Bumps” and they passed the crying family members and headed to the fence behind the house. The little girl commented to her new friend (the mother now an 8-year old)…”I never knew this big, grassy place was out here before!” They had entered a meadow behind the house. Jennie (mother) explained they’re going across the Smiling Meadow. “I’ve never been there before, but I’ve always wanted to go. I think I can find the way. I’ll try to explain it to you, Natalie, but it’s just a little hard to understand. You know how time keeps going on and on, and how children always grow up?…Well, nobody ever turns around and goes back the other way, gets little again, you know. But every little girl wishes she could go back to play with her mother.” She came closer to Natalie and drew her head over to whisper: “Listen! Crossing the Smiling Meadow is going back.”

As the beautiful story progresses the two little children then play in the backyard and playhouse of Jennie (mother) as the backyard was set up in her day. Natalie kept exclaiming, “This is exactly as my mom told me her house looked like!” They knew where everything was…they grabbed Jennie’s China doll. Then the two of them continue walking across Smiling Meadow. The grass begins to become coarse and high and sprinkled with gay-colored flowers. “It’s a wild land…Look! It’s a prairie schooner.” They cross a rail fence and at the end of a lane is a little brown house. “There it is! called Jennie triumphantly. “I never saw it, but I know it.” A new little character runs out of the log cabin, “There she is,” laughed Jennie excitedly. “I never saw her, but I know her.” “You’ll love her, She’s Mary – Mary Burdick”. The three of them then walk down the lane, all at the age of eight. Mary with her corncob doll, Jennie with her China doll, Natalie with her “Baby Bumps.” Their play is described, the different time period is described as the girls exclaim over changes and play, laughing, not surprised with their instant familiarity of each other.

Then the story changes. Mary asks them to stay. Natalie insists, “Oh, no! I have to get back to the hospital to see my mamma…” Mary clasps Jennie’s hand, imploring her to stay. Jennie (the mother) (struggling between desire to let go of the fight and die, or to live)…”I will. I like it here. I’ll stay with you always, Mary.”…Natalie leaves the scene with her Baby Bumps. The two look after her and realize it’s not the right time to “go back” – but to survive the illness and come back with Natalie. Mary stands with her corncob dolly…All are with tears. Good-byes.

This beautiful short story is so hard to portray in my words. The mother and grandmother becoming eight-year olds. All playing together. Three generations. I just absolutely love this idea. What if we could go back. What age would we choose? If I could sit at the Green Gateau in Lincoln I would choose my age now. Sit with my mom when she was 49, my grandmothers when they were 49, my great-grandmothers when they were 49. All of us. Sitting together. Ordering whipped cocoa and then going shopping together! Which would be the most “Susan”? How similar would we be? At what age would we have to go to be the most similar? Before life’s details change us? At 49 we would’ve all changed so much that I wonder what would still be our similarities? Would we need to go to the age of eight? Then what scene would I choose? I believe walking barefoot in the cornfield. Muddy feet. Giggling. Me at eight. My mom at eight. My grandmothers at eight. My great grandmothers at eight. All holding hands. At this age how similar would we be? Same giggles? How many generations back would I have to go to find the most similar “Susan”? Which scenes would I see traits of Camden and Shaun? I just love thinking about this. At what age will they truly all be when I see them in heaven? Do you think God will give us the gift of being little girls together for a little bit? Of being young women together for a little bit? He created us as women – I hope he realizes how much we would love that! If not in heaven, then will he let us have that dream? And for Camden and Shaun. Could they, at least in their dreams, meet their dad, their Grandpa Williams, their Grandpa Kremer, their great-grandfathers on both sides, their great-great grandfathers. Could they meet them at different ages? Who are they the most like? Where would they find different traits of themselves? I love this idea.

Bess Streeter Aldrich is truly my favorite author for when I just want to relax. I highly recommend that you begin with any of her books. She ends this story as I will my note this morning. The mother, Jennie, wakes up with no fever in her hospital bed with all exclaiming that she gave them such an awful scare. She asks for her Natalie. The little one comes to her bedside and Jennie asks her daughter, “Did you – like – going back – with me – to Mary Burdick’s? The little girl stared stupidly. “What, mamma?” The father had great tears rolling down his cheeks and hands Jennie Natalie’s hand. He turns to the doctor and said, “Mind must have been wandering, I guess, doctor. Mary Burdick was her mother’s maiden name.” But the woman kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Do you hold dreams in your heart of when you see someone that has died in your head? The dreams we all long for that rarely come? I relate so with that line, for whenever I have the privilege of only a small smile from mom or dad in my dreams – I wake up…pondering the dreams in my heart.

Thank you for letting me enter your world this Thursday morning. Summer begins. Mother’s Day. Memories. Tonight as we have the opportunity to write our epitaph for the moments we will no longer get back will we have words worthy of inscription? Will we look into eyes? Will we look to the heavens? Will we listen to the bird songs? Will we notice the flower? Will we pick up a book? Moments going through our sand-timers even as I type. We can’t stop any of the sand, but we can mentally stop the moment, remembering, dreaming, and noticing. Life. Beautiful. Our gift. Susan

Latin for this week: 
Tempus omnia sed memorias privat – Time deprives all but memories.

Works Cited:
Aldrich, Bess Streeter. The Collected Short Works 1920-1954. Lincoln. University of Nebraska Press. 1999.