Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Love in Granite (ii)

Daniel Freeman and Agnes Suiter's marriage, way back in 1865, may seem like pure convenience when you consider photographs of actual homesteaders. You’ve seen those homely pictures a hundred times--sun-scorched cheeks, greasy hands, stiff-with-dust work clothes on sober folks in front of a sod house. Why would a young educated lady like Agnes come out to frontier Nebraska for weathered old veteran and homesteader 17 years her elder?

I think the letters document one possible answer. Pioneers like Daniel Freeman are, at least by reputation, incapable of expressing feelings, if in fact they have feelings at all. Therefore, it may surprise you to hear that it's Daniel who brings up the grief he felt at the death of his brother and Agnes's fiance’: “. . .the caus of my writing to you on the 4th I was thinking of James no one can tell my feelings unless they hav lost an only Brother,” he tells her in his own bungled style; and then, “Before his death I never was lonsom or homesick no difernce where I was But now I am lonsom wheather in company or alone in a city or on the Planes.”

(I may be hopelessly romantic, but it seems to me that his burden, his urgency, is only heightened by all those scrambled spellings.

Daniel writes her because he's been thinking about James's death, he says. “I always got leters from him and that was the caus of my writing to you thinking you might write a friendly leter in return—“

That may be a ruse. I'll give you that. But something in that explanation struck home in Agnes. When she writes back, she opens up with a confession rising from as close to her soul as her heart can be. "Tis Sad to loose [sic] an only brother. I lost my only sister last Spring. She was young—had not attained to the age to share my joys and sorrows—and I know I feel lost without her.” 

She’s answering him directly, but not without some nuance, moving slowly and carefully into a dialogue he'd begun, a discussion of hurt and the loss of the man she loved. Because she has more to say, more this Nebraska sod-buster has to know. "But when James died it was more than a friend,” she tells him. “It is strange how we learn to love some one person more than a brother or sister.” And that's her underlining, not mine.

What a great line, full of life and truth and double meaning.

What she risks in that approach is minimizing the wound Samuel Freeman had revealed for her--his brotherly love. "But Natures laws are such," she says, "and we can not avoid it. You know perhaps all the facts in the case. Theirfore I need not tell you that I loved James—your brother—more than any other person living or dead. He was indeed my first love and I often think that no one other can take his place in my affections. . .”

There, it's out--exactly what Samuel needs to know. But then, subtly, this warm and surprising qualifier—“at least that is the way I feel now.”

She's being both definite and open-ended, honest and playful. It's a darling line because there can be no mistaking the way it asks for more.

Her consciousness of Samuel’s reactions suggests an admiration, and then even some defined boldness. “Excuse me for telling you this if you did not wish to hear it,” she tells him.

She's got will.

I can't help thinking that letter is the beginning for them and of them. That’s how their relationship, by post, began. The honesty both of them offered each other in these opening letters were found by each of them to be of such great value that more, much more, begged to be requested. Being honest about the depth of their mutual sadness opened something in both of them. That's what I'd like to think.

The names of Samuel and Agnes Freeman are carved in stone up on the monument hill. Both of them, I’m sure, were made of granite—had to be to live life where they did and do it successfully and joyfully. And all those kids. 

But I can't help thinking that what the letters suggest about them is not simply the strength of their characters but the tenderness of their love.

An odd couple, really. America’s very first homesteaders. 

Lovers, I’d like to think.

The letters of Samuel Freeman and Agnes Suiter are available at the National Homestead Monument’s website. 

1 comment:

Sharla said...

I like how you humanize their story.