Today, my daughter finished reading me aloud the book, A Lantern in her Hand, by Bess Streeter Aldrich.
I remember that when I was about sixteen or seventeen, my mama presented a book to me, that she confided was one of her very favorite books when she was young, “A Lantern in her Hand”. Even at that young age, the book became one of my favorites the moment I read it, even though all of its scope was well beyond my experiences depicting Abbie, a beautiful young prairie bride through her life to her as an old great grandmother shaped like a pudding bag body tied around the middle. The book resonated deeply with me as it did my mother. I think its the only book, besides the scriptures, that I ever read twice. (And if you count this as a third, with my sweet daughter’s read a loud).
There is a song in the book, that the young character Abbie sings throughout the story
Oh the lady of the Lea, Fair and young and gay was she, Beautiful exceedingly, the lady of the Lea. Many a wooer sought her hand, for she had gold and she had land, Everything at her Command, the Lady of the Lea, Fanciful Exceedingly, the Lady of the Lea…
To Abbie this song embodies all her dreams, and a painting of her rich, white throated and beautiful auburn haired great grand mother, with a string of pearls around her neck is the image that Abbie pursues in her secondary heart as the personification of arrival. The song repeats through out the book as the character ages.
My princess was so cute, she looked up the song in some old song books on the internet, and learned it. She loves to sing, and sometimes I do have to admit that I get agitated with the same song being sung over and over. But this song was so nostalgic, so pretty, so plaintive, and so hollow as the beautiful young lady depicted in the song, ends up with nothing for her selfishness by the end of the tale; that I never tired of hearing it. I thought it so quaint that my daughter would learn the song so she could sing it each time it cropped up in the story.
Abbie is an auburn haired young beauty, with a gorgeous song voice. Charming Ed offers her voice lessons, marriage and the big life in New York, but she holds out for quiet, sturdy, reliable Will, her childhood friend, whom she realizes she loves. She gives up her dreams and follows Will into the waving grasslands of Nebraska.
The prairie life is harsh, she births a stillborn baby, and when the grasshoppers swarm their deathly mobbing over all life and even eat her letter home, Abbie’s spirits sink into depression. When she begins to think of Ed and the life she would have had, she begins to notice how she never laughs and that her husband though enduring has also lost his twinkle for life. She decides that she will help Will raise his spirits by lifting hers, and with that Christmas season, together Abbie and Will pull out of their sadness by sweetly staying up late past their children’s bedtimes and after the daily exhaustion, making homemade gifts for their children. Abbie begins to sing again and decorates the home best she can with what she has, and thereby chooses to be committed to Will and her own real life, come what may.
With each child, Abbie lets go of another one of her dreams, and lets that dream be fulfilled in the life of the child, such as art, singing, and getting an education. She sings her song, yet, you see that she has become nothing like the Lady of the Lea, and her joys are deep rich joys that are found in taking care of home, husband, children, work, necessity, and serving others. One example from the story that depicts Abbie’s character and personality, was when seeing how harsh the prairie life was, and how hard it was to keep up spirits, she formed a women’s association for she and her neighbors where they and their children acted out plays. This fun, lighthearted and enriching activity lifted mind, body and spirit and knit a garment of hope, support and friendship with the threads of very differing women that called themselves neighbors and friends.
Abbie gives her all to her children, and lets her dreams be fulfilled in them, sacrificing her paint set for Margaret to take the lessons she never had, letting Isabel have the voice lessons she always wanted, with Will kindly bidding her, “No Abbie, now its your turn to learn”….and helping Grace go to a good school with the precious savings.
Sadly, it seems there is a certain something lost in her children’s conception of their mother in her self sacrificing. She lived throwing heart, soul, service, time and menial work to protect and mold them physically mentally and spiritually, and it becomes apparent that this impenetrable focus embodies her first heart and gives her a deep, quiet and greatest of joys. A lot of what seemed to transfer over to the children, was that she was a class A martyr, in some ways it didn’t seem the children quite understood every sacrifice she made only deepened her joy as she forgot self for the good of others.
I think that mothers who do take some time to feed their spirits as they pursue their talents provide example and inspiration for their children, even as they revitalize their own spirits. However, Abbie of the prairie may never really have been capable of partaking in these sort of indulgences due to the nature of the demanding plains. But true, as a mother in any circumstance, it is hard to break away, and you can easily become lost under dishes and bills and endless requirements.
And yet I also see that in these sacrifices mothers make, marks something deeper and richer in their souls than can be measured by others as to their success, happiness or achievements.
I often wish I could have more time to paint, or to sew, or to read. I am happy when I make a little time to do these, and often think I am missing something as Abbie did when yet again I do chores till I’m too tired to see straight and have to go to bed, not being able to stretch to anything creative, yet, there really is something to letting memory making, child rearing, training and helping your children develop their talents, and supplying shelter and food, that warrants an indescribable joy and satisfaction.
When my mother came up to visit me recently, and saw the book we were reading, she told my daughter and I, that she loved Bess Streeter Aldrich books so dearly, and never realized that her books actually were blue prints for her life.
The book meant all the more to me, and I could truly see my mother in Abbie Dill. And I think on surface value she could be judged to be a Class A martyr until, you realize that she loved her children so much she would give her children everything, even stretched out her marriage way past what it should be stretched, to give us as much eternity and stability that she could. She loves us more than she loves herself, and everything she did was to further our opportunities. To know Abbie is to know my mother, and to read the story is to realize that her ultimate satisfaction in life was fulfilled in being the best mother and wife that she was capable of, and all she really ever wanted was our happiness and success. Abbie began to depart from The Lady of the Lea, fanciful exceedingly…when she married Will Dill, and she also left the image held by her second heart, of her great grand mother with the white throat, tapered fingers and string of pearls. By the end of her life, she is the complete opposite of the beautiful, vain and unsatisfied Lady of the Lea, nor is she unworked, poised and rich as was her great grandmother. But ironically, when old Abbie Dill is gifted the magnificent painting of her great grandmother which she hasn’t seen in years, the young depicted lady with long tapering fingers, with pearls, poise and riches, she cries, in sobs, somehow fearing she never gained her dreams, and failed in her life’s choices.
Sometimes the outcomes in life, aren’t what we thought and dreamed and hoped they would be, yet we don’t need to feel that these differing outcomes mean we haven’t found success. Who Abbie had become, and the unexplained satisfaction she found in giving her everything to her children, helping where she could with her neighbors, and taking care of her home, was her success. She died with the memories of her children all gaily chattering in play when she was cooking dinner for her family. Our successes in who we have become are the outcome of our lives, and our memories we have made in our lives, can never be taken away, though ‘endings’ don’t always appear to be as we wished them.
I hope that my mother knows that she is one of my living heroes and that I have followed her unknowingly, and knowingly, in so many instances, with my few variances according to personality and scope; and have found my life to be exactly as I would hope, despite the fact that sometimes my ‘endings’ aren’t as I would hope, sometimes my ‘achievements’ seem to fall short. My hope is that in my attempts, I am becoming, just who I want to become, and that my memories will be rich and sweet.
“You can’t describe love, Kathie, and you can’t define it. Only it goes with you all your life. I think that love is more like a light that you carry. At first childish happiness keeps it lighted and after that romance. Then motherhood lights it and then duty…and maybe after that sorrow. You would’t think that sorrow could be a light would you dearie? But it can. And then after that, service lights it. Yes,…I think that is what love is to a woman…a lantern in her hand.”