Like all women I often feel harried and overwhelmed. How will I manage to work and get the kids where they need to go with the items they’re expected to have in hand while still getting dinner on the table and sweeping the ever dusty hardwood floors?
With all the “have tos” blanketing our days, Jake and Beth sometimes indicate they’ve had enough with activities, homework, school all day and then chores and they leave me wondering just how they will recall their childhood.
My marriage can sometimes feel as dusty as those floors I don’t sweep nearly enough. There are times when Bill or I say something and we’re left looking at each other, marveling at how much we’ve both changed. Who are you? we wonder.
I consider the complexities of today’s world. Wouldn’t it be simpler if we lived in a time when there weren’t so many distractions and family was always the core of activity, when living off the land meant a family would gather at night and read, sew, and laugh about the day’s events, reveling in perfect togetherness?
Nothing puts my life into perspective more than reading the stack of family letters—a portal into the “simple” life of my great-great grandmother’s life at the turn of the 19th century.
When I read the love letters my fingers nearly stick to the sugary words—her flowing cursive that carries a precise, sappy arc of the blossoming love between my great-great grandmother, Jeanie Arthur, and her fiancé Frank, during the year of their engagement from 1882-83. “Oh darling Frank I know that whatever may happen I will never cease to love you for you are dearer to me than anything else in this world…”
References to Shakespeare, Jefferson and others pepper the correspondence and convey Jeanie’s intelligence, along with her acceptance of the limitations that prairie life will impose. “I would advise you not to put very much money in a house just at first. I know you would like to have a nice house and so would I but from what I have seen and experienced it is advisable to keep a considerable amount of ready money on hand during the first year of starting a new farm; for sometimes accidents will happen…” She is practical (they built a sod home to live in until they garnered enough money from their first harvest or two) and driven by the priorities that should have ensured their success as farmers, as a husband and wife, as a family.
Frank on the other hand operated with air castles dancing in his head. He was a dreamer, and a teacher (a noble profession, though not necessarily a good fit when breaking virgin land), and a man who wanted to be good and successful.
It’s clear that Jeanie was the foundation that tethered Frank’s forever-shifting aspirations to earth. It was she who would mold their life into the success they both conjured in their minds. A good match, to have one person who so fully fills out the other—a recipe for lively day’s-end discussions around the fire.
Fast forward a few decades. I have another set of letters written by Jeanie, Frank and their children. With the honeyed confidence of the love letters still galloping through my mind, reading the second set was like someone dropped a sod-house on my head. Absent are naíve brightness, loving words, and the endless assurances that the Arthurs could punctuate their life-story with a happy ending, if only the right mix of effort and simplicity was applied—if only they depended on their love. The second set of letters are missives of divorce and dissolution.
Sharp and gritty are Jeanie’s words, like Dakota dirt kicked up, cutting against skin. Her latter day sentiments are stripped of loveliness, intelligence, the wide-ranging interest in world events, politics, and literature that marked her earlier musings.
Worse, and most heart-wrenching to any mother, the letters illustrate that Jeanie’s children did not seem to admire her, see her as capable, understand that she conducted her life with them in mind. Did her children ever know the Jeanie who wrote the first letters? Did they know how difficult it had been for her to give them what they needed?
The Arthurs had lived the simple life I glorify when I’m over-run with yet another request to be in two places at once (made possible with skype and my iphone). How was it that the commodities Jeanie was sure she’d had enough for the both of them—love and work ethic—were not enough to ensure success? Where did all those love words and air castles go?
To say life on the prairie was hard is an understatement. Back in the 1800’s, on the plains, threat of fire, blizzard, insect infestations and drought loomed. Every inch of a home, not to mention every meal, and every piece of clothing, had to be fashioned from only what the earth provided.
I imagine that pioneering for two novices, with one—the man—having an inclination toward whimsy and reckless endeavors, would lead to some tension. The complexities of keeping one person happy and everyone else alive might make a woman who was smart, practical, and fiercely determined, a little pissy that her husband was not so driven, not so loyal, not so loving.
Recently located divorce papers reveal that Frank was indeed toxic to Jeanie and their children. Jeanie made a choice that is difficult in any era—ending a marriage. The divorce meant Jeanie lost her standing, had to board out her children to work and live with other families because her jobs catering, sewing and babysitting did not provide enough to clothe and feed them all.
Through the context of another mother’s long ago struggle revealed in these family letters, I realize how fortunate I am right now. Unlike Frank, my husband is absent due to his work, not flights of fancy. And, when Bill and I feel distant from each other, we arrange a date-night. Date-night!
Could Jeanie and Frank even have conjured the idea of such a simple notion on the prairie in the 1880’s? The Arthurs were too busy actually surviving, and not in the “I can’t breathe because I need to run to Target to pick up glitter for a school project, grocery shop, get the dogs to the vet and it’s all cutting into my writing time” kind of way to ever consider date-night.
Life and death were at the core of every pioneering day. I think of Jeanie, her life, out there, with only flaky Frank to depend upon. Overwhelmed? She must have been. From everything I piece together like a crazy quilt of family history, it’s clear that my great-great grandmother worked herself to an early death attempting to be the person she set out to be, to have the family she wanted so badly.
I must have a lot of Frank in me as the simplicity I bestow on the lives of people who lived long ago was actually more complex than my worst day of maneuvering theater practice around karate. Their simple life only existed in air castles—theirs and mine.
In some ways she failed, in some she succeeded—like every mother does. As I sit here and think of her, I am moved by the notion that somehow I carry on what she couldn’t. In my modern world that feels fast and complicated I have the luxury of truly simplifying it. I can scrape away complexity with ease if I really take the notion seriously. And with the mere appreciation for what Jeanie attempted to do, I mock my struggles and know that in my control are simple realities Jeanie could never have imagined.