Wednesday, June 10, 2015

"A Dangerous, Thorny, Devious, Ragged Road"

I finished reading Diane Jacobs' Dear Abigail (2014), about Abigail Adams' relationship with her two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary.

The title for my post is taken from a letter that Elizabeth wrote to her son in 1798, after the death of her daughter.

As always, what stands out to me when I read biographies of early American colonists is their capacity to suffer and endure and, in many cases--eventually--thrive.

It seems hard to predict "who will make it" and who won't.  There's a measure of luck involved, as well as some crucial choices.

Two of Abigail's sons (Charles and Thomas), her brother Billy, and Elizabeth's first husband, all died of alcoholism when they were in their 30's or 40s.   Abigail's daughter Nabby died of breast cancer when she was 48.  Elizabeth's daughter, known as "Betsy Q," died of tuberculosis when she was in her early 20's.  Mary's daughter, Betsy, also died of tuberculosis, after years of poor health--the result of being left to single-handedly raise her eight children.

As Jacobs points out, "American women bore approximately nine children and continued procreating well into their forties" (316).  Abigail herself gave birth 6 times--4 of her children survived into adulthood, one daughter was stillborn, and one daughter died when she was less than 2 years old.

Abigail and her sisters each nearly died on more than one occasion, from serious illnesses.  Elizabeth, like several of her nieces and nephews, was prone to bouts of serious depression that rendered her incapable of functioning.

And yet, throughout their lives, Abigail and her sisters seemed to have a nearly limitless ability to wrestle with the circumstances of their lives and make a living for themselves.  For instance, in the summer of 1797, a hail storm hit Quincy, Massachusetts.  According to Mary, the storm
lasted about an hour ... [and] was attended with Thunder, lightening and a torrent of Rain with a violent wind.  The hailstones were gigantic, three and four inches round [and] Thresh'd the Barley, broke the corn, pick'd the vines and laye the cabbages ... all to pieces. (367)
The hail also apparently blasted the feathers off of a few chickens and "broke every window" on the west side of Mary's home.

What did Mary do?  She gathered up hailstones by the "pailsful" and used them to make punch.

My favorite story in Jacobs' book is the story of Elizabeth's second marriage.  Elizabeth's first husband was a minister and also, unfortunately, an alcoholic.  From oblique references in her letters, it appears that, over the years, he was both verbally and perhaps physically abusive. 

Although she mourned him formally and according to social custom when he died, in a candid letter to her sisters, Elizabeth made it very clear that the loss of her first husband was hard to mourn, really: "what I should consider under happy circumstances as my greatest affliction [was] the greatest Blessing that could befall me" (356).

Ironically, 10 days before Elizabeth's first husband died, a neighboring minister came calling to ask Elizabeth's advice about finding a new wife.  He and Elizabeth had known each other when they were in their late teens; his own wife had just died after a long illness.

When Elizabeth asked him what kind of woman he was looking for, he said, "One just like yourself" (355).

10 days later, Elizabeth's abusive, alcoholic husband went to bed.  When she tried to wake him in the morning, she discovered that he was unresponsive.   He died later that morning, of liver failure.

A year later, Elizabeth married the neighbor who had said that he wanted to marry a woman just like herself.

On her wedding day, most of the parish was already extremely ill (according to Elizabeth, quite a few were "dead, others dying") from the typical seasonal illnesses that swept through late-eighteenth-century New Hampshire villages in December.

That morning, there was also a major snowstorm.  Elizabeth apparently thought that would be enough to postpone the wedding, but the groom's reaction was, "What if it does storm, is it not often a prelude to a calm sunshine?"

Now there's a guy who really wants to marry a girl.  Ain't nothin' gonna get him down or change his mind.  So, they struggled through the howling wind and snow to get married in front of the few half-frozen townspeople who weren't already at death's door.

Shortly after Elizabeth said, "I do," someone yelled, "Fire!"

Her house was on fire.  (Seriously.)  They had to take a brief break and go put it out.

In the end, though, as Elizabeth told her sisters, her new husband turned out to be "supremely blest in the power of making others happy."  As Jacobs points out, this sentence ultimately "sounds the triumph of the human spirit" (358).

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."