Susan B. and her four daughters live in the old town cemetery down the street from me. Usually I glance over at them as I drive by on my way to work or point them out to friends and wave, but each year my dog Magnolia and I always take time to make a celebratory visit on Mother's Day. This year we carried a bouquet of blush pink antique tulips to the time worn graveyard to see our friends. As we approached we quietly opened the white picket gate, walking gingerly through the crumbling headstones that lay silent and lonely, rarely seeing visitors anymore.
We have visited so often that upon entering, my dog heads to the right hand corner of the property where Susan B.'s head stone sits silently and lovingly behind her four daughters- Sophronia, Lucretia, Susan Ellen and Amanda. As we silently walk over I imagine Susan B. (age 47) a beautiful woman with long auburn curls, sitting behind and admiring her stunning daughters, all wearing their best Victorian dresses, sipping tea out of pink china teacups.
I see Susan proudly listening to her daughters as they sit side by side in front of their mother, the older ones Sophronia and Lucretia (both 23) sitting close together reading from a book. The girls take turns reading, laughing and chattering as the younger two Susan Ellen (age 7 years 10 months) and Amanda (age 10 years) lean in to listen. I notice the book they are reading is "Middlemarch" by George Eliot. Magnolia and I sit next to them as they invite us to come closer- including us as they read a passage then stop to laugh and whisper about boys and island secrets, reminded once again that just like in Middlemarch, on this island there is always plenty of both boys and gossip to go around. I watch as they discuss which of them is most like Celia or like Dorothea- and their laughter spills up through the shade of the scrubby oak trees, surrounding us with the magic and joy that sisters create when spending time together with their beloved mother, just passing an afternoon together sitting under the shade of a tree.
The year is 1868, and it will still be a few more years before Woodrow Wilson proclaims May 9th as Mother's Day, when he will urge all Americans to give a "public thank you to all mothers for all the work they do raising children". But I don't think Susan B. needs a public declaration to remind her how special it is to be a mother, she knows instinctively that this Mother's Day is one she will never forget, because after missing her 4 girls so much, she is finally able to sit by them, hold them, read with them, sing with them and love them like she used to.
Although I like to imagine Susan and her girls in the cemetery, it of course has been many years since they lived on this island, in this neighborhood. I first noticed their graves many years ago, wandering through looking at the names I was astonished to see that Susan outlived all four of her daughters, who all died within years of each other. I was so touched by their head stones and the arduous journey Susan must have undergone watching each of her four daughters die, I decided to go to my local Town Hall and see if I could find out more. I did in fact find the girl's names in our town records (last name Brown) neatly written in the records books with dates of birth, death and cause of death. Lung fever, typhoid fever, consumption and yellow fever.
I often think of Susan Brown and her beautiful daughters, and what it must have been like to live with death for so many years. By my estimation she had about 6 years with all of her girls healthy and happy before her first daughter died. I often think about what it must have been like to not only have a child die but then to watch each one die with years in between. She must have been worried every minute of every day, wondering if she would lose another, and how she could possibly stop it from happening. I wonder if Susan had the love and support she needed from neighbors and friends- and I notice her husband went on to marry another soon after Susan herself died just two years after her fourth daughter died. Next to Susan's name the cause of death was listed as "Consumption" but I think they got it wrong- no doubt she died of a broken heart.
As the afternoon begins to fade and the shade grows chilly, Susan Brown lets us know that soon it will be time to prepare for evening chores and soon after, bed time. It has been 14 years since Susan Ellen died, then Amanda, then Sophronia and lastly Lucretia. They have been waiting for their mom here for the last two years after Lucretia died, hoping she would soon come join them. Now that the funeral procession has come and gone, they can once again be together and finally thank their loving mother for all she did to soothe their fevers, tend their wounds and help them each the best she could.
Susan's eyes fill with tears as she begins to tell me of the six wonderful years she had with her daughters before Amanda died, before it all changed. Slowly she watched each one breathe their last breath and she tells me the pain was unbearable. She has waited tirelessly for this very day, and now they can be a family again.
I place a flower on each of the girl's graves, then the remainder of the bunch in front of their beautiful mother. The sun has now disappeared and the cemetery is once again silent. I sit and thank each of them for reminding me when I drive by or stop in to say hello how important it is to take time to love and appreciate the people we call our family and friends.
Even if it's in my own mind, spending time with this incredible woman and her four daughters that lived down the street so long ago, I always leave stronger and more adamant about the importance of loving the incredible people in our lives who we are blessed to walk the path of life with at this time in history.
I only wish I could ask Susan B. to speak at one of my Cup of Karma Tea Talks. I am certain that she would eagerly rise to the occasion and would most definitely choose to speak of her four precious daughters, recounting the lessons she learned from loving them as she helped them reach their final breaths. With her sparkling eyes, flushed cheeks and auburn curls I can imagine her at the microphone, animated at the very thought of her girls. She would tell of the hard times only a mother can endure, she would speak of the love she felt for her family and their life together and the difficulites they faced.
I am confident Susan would end her story by reminding us that although their times were tough, what she remembers most of the glorious life they had together is the spring day that the girls brought home the shoe box with the rescued robin with the broken wing in it, or how proud she was when Sophie won the spelling bee or the smell of their foreheads as she kissed them good night, the laughter she heard among them while she was setting out dinner or even the sleepless nights she sat by their bed sides, praying for one more day.
She would go on to say that yes, there will be many hard times on your journey together with those you care for, but you have the gift of right now. You have time now to savor each moment on this earth together, honoring and celebrating the sacred souls you are lucky enough to love. Life is short, Susan would say- but not if you live each day holding close and appreciating those you love until one day it's time to say goodbye.