A tiny bit of wisdom, but as vital as protoplasm. I know, for I bartered forty precious years of wifehood and motherhood to learn it.
During the years of my childhood and girlhood, our family passed from wealth to poverty. My father and only brother were killed in battle during the Civil War; our slaves were freed; our plantations melted from my mother's white hands during the Reconstruction days; our big town house was sold for taxes.
When I married, my only dowry was a fierce pride and an overwhelming ambition to get back our material prosperity. My husband was making a "good living." He was kind, easy-going, with a rare capacity for enjoying life and he loved his wife with that chivalrous, unquestioning, "the queen-can-do-no-wrong" type of love.
But even in our days of courting I answered his ardent love-making with, "And we will work and save and buy back the big house; then we will—" etc., etc.
And he? Ah, alone at sixty, I can still hear echoing down the years his big tender laugh, as he'd say, "Oh, what a de-ah, ambitious little sweetheart I have!" He owned a home, a little cottage with a rose garden at one side of it —surely, with love, enough for any bride. But I—I saw only the ancestral mansion up the street, the big old house that had passed out of the hands of our family.
I would have no honeymoon trip; I wanted the money instead. John kissed each of my palms before he put the money into them. My fingers closed greedily over the bills; it was the nest egg, the beginning.
Next I had him dismiss his bookkeeper and give me the place. I didn't go to his store—Southern ladies didn't do that in those days— but I kept the books at home, and I wrote all the business letters. So it happened when John came home at night, tired from his day's work at the store, I had no time for diversions, for love-making, no hours to walk in the rose garden by his side—no, we must talk business.
I can see John now on many a hot night—and summer is hot in the Gulf States—dripping with perspiration as he dictated his letters to me, while I, my aching head near the big hot lamp, wrote on and on with hurried, nervous fingers. Outside there would be the evening breeze from the Gulf, the moonlight, the breath of the roses, all the romance of the southern night—but not for us! The children came—four, in quick succession. But so fixed were my eyes on the goal of Success, I scarcely realized the mystery of motherhood. Oh, I loved them! I loved John, too. I would willingly have laid down my life for him or for any one of the children. And I intended sometime to stop and enjoy John and the children. Oh, yes, I was going really to live after we had bought back the big house, and had done so and so! In the meanwhile, I held my breath and worked.
"I'll be so glad," I remember saying one day to a friend, "when all my children are old enough to be off at school all day!" Think of that! Glad when the best years of our lives together were passed! The day came when the last little fellow trudged off to school and I no longer had a baby to hamper me. We were living now in the big old home. We had bought it back and paid for it. I no longer did John's bookkeeping for him—he paid a man a hundred dollars a month to do that—but I still kept my hand on the business.
Then suddenly one day—John died. Died in what should have been the prime and vigor of his life.
I worked harder than ever then, not from necessity, but because in the first few years after John left I was afraid to stop and think. So the years hurried by! One by one the children grew up and entered more or less successful careers of their own.... I don't feel that I know them so very well.
And now that the time of life has come when I must stop and think, I ask myself: "What did you do with the wonderful gifts Life laid in your lap—the love of a good man, domestic happiness, the chance to know intimately four little souls?" And being honest I have to answer: "I bartered Life's great gifts for Life's pitiful extras—for pride, for show!" If my experience were unique it would not be worth publishing, but it is only too common. Think of the wives who exchange the best years of their lives, their husband's comfort, his peace of mind, if not to buy back the family mansion, then for a higher social position; sometimes it is merely for—clothes! It is to you women who still have the opportunity to "walk with John in the garden" that I give my dearly bought bit of experience. Stop holding your breath until you get this or that; stop reaching out blindly for to-morrow's prize; live to-day.
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