Recently, I began reading the story of Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder and author of the Little House on the Prairie books that were to become favorites of children and adults alike. These writings beginning in 1932 and spinning off into a television series in the 1970's portrayed the family devotion, disciplined hard work and optimistic struggle against adversity that drew countless families into the history of the the westward movement of the American frontier. An opening quote in the Prologue by William Holtz, author of the biography The Ghost in the Little House, caught my attention when scanning the book in the library and ultimately making my decision to check out a book of nearly four hundred pages.
“For we think back through our mothers if we are women.” (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own)
As I've continued to read the account of Laura Ingalls and young Almanzo Wilder's courtship and subsequent marriage, I've been struck by the parallels to today's society as the biographer chronicles the miseries and failures of this young couple as they step out in faith and hope to make a life together on Almanzo's homestead. The hardships and struggles of every young couple are echoed in the narratives and the biographer is forced to sort out the realities of these pioneers with the optimism printed on the page. As I completed the prologue, I became aware of the author's intent. In his own words, the “authentic pathos of a life as it was lived,” became the driving force as he studied the voice and story of Rose Wilder against the background and narrative of these stories so many have come to love.
“Until the end she would live in the shadow of her mother's presence.”
After Almanzo's death, Rose came to Rocky Ridge Farm to spend her days as companion, helpmate, and nurse and cook for her mother. Mama Bess, as she had always called her, lived three days beyond her ninetieth birthday. Rose became heir to substantial estate and the income from her mother's books.
Sometime after the death of her mother, Rose was visited by former friends of her mother, who delivered a box of manuscripts, handwritten drafts of some of her mother's books. An untitled journal, chronicling the family exodus from Dakota Territory to Missouri more than sixty years before, as well as a short unpublished novel, titled “The First Three Years and a Year of Grace,” which Rose returned to the friends to “use as they saw fit.” Before they could decide what to do with them, Rose sent a telegram, requesting they be returned to her. It seems she had clearly come to a decision to complete a portrait of her own mother through the two unpublished manuscripts. Recalling some of her own memories, Rose used the journal to complete a project, titled On the Way Home, creating her own version of her childhood years at Rocky Ridge Farm.
“The shadow of the presence” of our mothers and the generation of women before us can have a lasting impact on our view of life and those things we hold dear to our hearts. While going through some black and white photos recently, I found a photo of the three generations of women that precede me. I was first struck by their attire and hairstyles until memories of times in their presence brought me to a long buried question. What were their hardships and struggles as young women? Were they plagued with fears of failure as wives and mothers and how did these fears manifest themselves in their individual lives? The very real economic struggles of the Great Depression and even farther removed from my lifetime, the struggles of immigrants coming to America are rooted in our heritage.
For those of us living in this day, we may see our struggle as something no one else has ever had to endure. The stresses we face as mothers and grandmothers in the fast paced, technological, microwave society of our time, it is difficult to imagine the challenges of those who have come before us. We can even find it impossible to take a time out to contemplate and be thankful for those who prepared the way for us as women.
I have spent some time doing a genealogical study of both sides of my family. One character has loomed larger than life for me as I looked in particular at the women who paved the way for me as a woman. Bathsheba Rushing Green, my grandmother four generations removed, is believed to have watched as Sherman burned her home to the ground. When I take time to contemplate the struggles of one who perhaps had no idea where her children would sleep and how she would provide the next meal for her family, I feel the “shadow of the presence” of those who have gone before me in a new way.
I've lived the life of a single mother and served my children more Ramen Noodle dinners than I like to admit. They actually loved them which helped assuage my guilt but never completely removed my struggles with failing to be the perfect mother. Struggles, mistakes and the realities of our stories in life can keep us frozen in failure. We can come to define ourselves by those things we have failed or forgotten to do rather than those things we have risen out of failures to accomplish and pass along to the ones coming after us.
As we “think back through our mothers,” as Virginia Woolf has reminded us in the quote above, we can find unbelievable faith, hope, strength, nurturing, talent and love that moved us along to become the women we are today. Even in unpublished words, notations of years of grace, penned by a mother in her own handwriting can help us On our Way Home.
I'm reminded of an idea I borrowed from my Aunt Faye. After her death, I recall a family member reading from a small journal some of the special events of her life. This woman, who provided a loving home for the elderly for years at Best of Care nursing home and battled cancer at the end, left a simple investment of time for the women who live in the “shadow of her presence.” Inspired by the comfort I saw as the family member read the memories aloud to us, I have kept journals for my own grandchildren for the last six years.
For years I have wrestled with the idea of sharing my struggles in these journals. It seemed preferable to leave a legacy of happy moments and successes of which we can be proud. It wasn't until I got a picture of Bathsheba standing perhaps with children hanging onto her coattails, watching as their home burned, that I was convinced I live in the shadow of the presence of very strong women whose faith and hope brought them through difficult times. Their blood flows through my veins.
As I reached the end of chapter one of the biography, I read Rose's account of her mother's hopeful expectations for a new house built with large windows and a nice big porch, a well and a pump so that no one would have to lug water any longer from the spring. As the reader, you are present at an epochal moment, as a young heroine, Laura Ingalls Wilder, stands at the end of a long struggle. Beside her is her daughter, who has now become the writer and will record her memories of the moment. Rose Wilder is left with her own choice as to how the story will be written.
In a final chapter, Mother Remembered, the author includes a letter from mother to daughter. It begins....
When you read this I will be gone and you will have inherited all that I have.
Do as you please with all the china, but I wish you might use it...
My love will be with you always.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder)”
As we think back through our mothers and those women in whose shadow we live our lives, I pray we will recognize we have inherited “all” that they had, struggles and victories. We have inherited everything they pass along. I pray we will use it as we recognize their faith, hope and love will be with us always.