Hi! One of my favorite short stories by Nebraska author Bess Streeter Aldrich takes place on Memorial Day in a small cemetery. I thought some of you would appreciate her words from a past Thursday note as you see the beautiful flowers and scenes at graveyards this weekend. This is the last story Bess Streeter Aldrich was known to write.
Following this is another past note of a beautiful poem by William Wordsworth of a dialogue between the narrator and a small child telling how many siblings she has, including two that she visits at the graveyard.
“The Outsider” By Bess Streeter Aldrich
A woman was perturbed by the children playing and the women talking near and on the graves during the ceremony. She was “shocked” that the setting seemed as a “picnic” rather than a serious occasion…”Please forgive me for saying it, but it seemed there was a complete lack of awe and reverence.”
Here is part of the response of the oldest woman present, “Aunt Millie.” She begins with telling about the first little baby buried, 90 years ago…how the little quilt was pieced for him by the pioneer women…how the grand tree was the first to be above his grave…then a farmer died and his family asked if he could lay next to the little boy…so they built a little fence to keep out the coyotes…then a woman died in childbirth and the fence was enlarged…then children died from diphtheria…a settler from tetanus…the hill got covered with more of their family members.
…more people out here now than over in town…But for a long time back in those old days people brought baskets and got together for visiting near the old tree. Then after awhile the trees they’d planted in town got big enough and nobody brought baskets out here anymore. but I guess what you call irreverence might have got started on account of the tree and never stopped when we got a little park in town…children play around the tombstones and folks laugh and talk a lot. But I never thought of it as lacking reverence.
I wish I could explain to you that it’s something deeper. This reunion that people have out here – it does something to the folks who have lost their loved ones. It’s like the ones sleeping out here still belong, are still a part of their families. I stood by Rachel Acton just a few months ago when they brought her boy home from Korea and she said, “Aunt Millie, it’s comforting to think he can lie right where he played.” Believe me, I do see how it must look to an outsider.
I assure you sorrow is just as deep here and grief just as terrible. Only there’s something here in this cemetery eases both of them. I’ve seen people bowed with grief and then up would come some of the warm-hearted friends to visit and it would take away a little of the lonesomeness…when we laugh and talk and visit across the graves of those we loved, it’s as though the ones sleeping here are still a part of our lives, as though there wasn’t any death at all, as though life is everlasting – still unchanging, and going on.”
The short story ends with this beautiful paragraph…
“Aunt Millie stood up. The little grandson came and leaned against her. “We must go, Dickie.” She put her hand on the boy’s head. “Where’s that loud toy of yours?” “I put it there.” The boy pointed to the grave of his baby brother. The red-painted squawker lay inside the white syringa wreath as though it were a symbol of something warm and human connecting the noisy living with the quiet dead.”
ad perpetuam memoriam – to the perpetual memory
Aldrich, Bess Streeter. The Collected Short Works 1920-1954. University of NE Press. 2009.
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Susan’s Thursday morning note September 22, 2017
Child’s view of siblings buried by William Wordsworth (1798)
This week I read a poem originally published in 1798 by William Wordsworth on a little child’s account of family members including siblings that had died. I cried just now rereading the poem before beginning to type, for it is just so beautiful. We are Seven – a conversation between a little girl and an adult on their two perceptions of a family count.
We are Seven by William Wordsworth
A simple child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?
I met a little cottage girl:
She was eight years old, she said;
Her hair was thick with many a curl
That clustered round her head.
She had a rustic, woodland air,
And she was wildly clad;
Her eyes were fair, and very fair;
Her beauty made me glad.
“Sisters and brothers, little maid,
How many may you be?”
“How many? Seven in all,” she said,
And wondering looked at me.
“And where are they? I pray you tell.”
She answered, “Seven are we;
And two of us at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea;
“Two of us in the churchyard lie,
My sister and my brother;
And, in the churchyard cottage, I
Dwell near them with my mother.”
“You say that two at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea,
Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell,
Sweet maid, how this may be.”
Then did the little maid reply,
“Seven boys and girls are we;
Two of us in the churchyard lie
Beneath the churchyard tree.”
“You run about, my little maid;
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the churchyard laid,
Then ye are only five.”
“Their graves are green, they may be seen,”
The little maid replied:
“Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door,
And they are side by side.
“My stockings there I often knit;
My kerchief there I hem;
And there upon the ground I sit,
And sing a song to them.
“And often after sunset, sir,
When it is light and fair,
I take my little porringer,
And eat my supper there.
“The first that died was Sister Jane;
In bed she moaning lay,
Till God released her of her pain;
And then she went away.
“So in the churchyard she was laid;
And, when the grass was dry,
Together round her grave we played,
My brother John and I.
“And when the ground was white with snow,
And I could run and slide,
My brother John was forced to go,
And he lies by her side.”
“How many are you, then,” said I,
“If they two are in heaven?”
Quick was the little maid’s replay:
“O Master! we are seven.”
“But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!” –
‘Twas throwing words away; for still
The little maid would have her will,
And said, “Nay, we are seven!”
I think of the beatitude, “Blessed are the children, for they see God.” They see. They see heaven on earth. “Nay, we are seven!” Not questioned. Believed. She understood the soul. The eternal soul. Her eyes still sparkled, she still took picnics and went on with her routine, yet she saw through child eyes heaven and earth together. Today we have the sand going ever so quickly through our timers of life. Will we train our minds to be able to mentally capture morsels as they go through and stop the moment in a picture we take with us? Will we notice the beautiful little purple wildflower who waited patiently through last winter, spring, and summer before her given time to enter the play? She entered. She gives her beauty at the exact time allotted her by the writer of the play. She will never see the entire play from her perspective on my lawn, but she trusts the script and her role is beautiful, even if short-lived. She gives us the strength to enter this day. This little one-inch purple flower. Little does she know that her role in creation was to greet me this morning, to greet us all.
“Nay, we are seven.” Those four words make me cry. Beautiful words to enter today with. Beautiful gift of today. Thank you for letting me again enter your Thursday morning. Tonight we will have the chance to write words for our epitaph of today. Will we have any words worth carving in stone? Will we look into eyes? Will we hear the birdsongs? Will we look up to the heavens? The promise of strength is there. A glance away. Susan
Latin for this week:
coelum – heaven, sky
liberi mei anima mea – my children, my soul
pueri visum – child’s view
pueri prospectu – child’s perspective
Maxima debetur puero reverentia– We owe the greatest respect to a child
respice adimendum orbem terrarum cum pueri oculus – look at the world with a child’s eye
memoratus in aeternum – forever remembered
Mortem vincit amor– love (amor) survives/prevails (vincit) even after the death (mortem) of someone close.