In three months I will be eighty years old, thirty years older than you were when you died, twenty years older than my father was when he died, fifty-seven years older than my brother was when he died. I got the genes and the luck. The rest of you have been gone a long time.
Except when I have to tie my shoelaces, I don't feel eighty years old. I, the sickly child, have outlasted you all. But if I don't feel decrepit, neither do I feel wise or confident. Age and experience have not made me a Nestor qualified to tell others about how to live their lives. I feel more like Theodore Dreiser, who confessed that he would depart from life more bewildered than he had arrived in it. Instead of being embittered, or stoical, or calm, or resigned, or any of the standard things that a long life might have made me, I confess that I am often simply lost, as much in need of comfort, understanding, forgiveness, uncritical love—the things you used to give me—as I ever was at five, or ten, or fifteen.
Fifty-five years ago, sitting up with you after midnight while the nurse rested, I watched you take your last breath. A few minutes before you died you half raised your head and said, "Which ... way?" I understood that: you were at a dark, unmarked crossing. Then a minute later you said, "You're a good ... boy ... Wallace," and died.
My name was the last word you spoke, your faith in me and love for me were your last thoughts. I could bear them no better than I could bear your death, and I went blindly out into the November darkness and walked for hours with my mind clenched like a fist.
I knew how far from true your last words were. There had been plenty of times when I had not been a good boy or a thoughtful one. I knew you could no longer see my face, that you spoke from a clouded, drugged dream, that I had already faded to a memory that you clung to even while you waned from life. I knew that it was love speaking, not you, that you had already gone, that your love lasted longer than you yourself did. And I had some dim awareness that as you went away you laid on me an immense and unavoidable obligation. I would never get over trying, however badly or sadly or confusedly, to be what you thought I was.
Obviously you did not die. Death is a convention, a certification to the end of pain, something for the vital-statistics book, not binding upon anyone but the keepers of graveyard records. For as I sit here at the desk, trying to tell you something fifty-five years too late, I have a clear mental image of your pursed lips and your crinkling eyes, and I know that nothing I can say will persuade you that I was ever less than you thought me. Your kind of love, once given, is never lost. You are alive and luminous in my head. Except when I fail to listen, you will speak through me when I face some crisis of feeling or sympathy or consideration for others. You are a curb on my natural impatience and competitiveness and arrogance. When I have been less than myself, you make me ashamed even as you forgive me. You're a good ... boy ... Wallace.
In the more than fifty years that I have been writing books and stories, I have tried several times to do you justice, and have never been satisfied with what I did. The character who represents you in The Big Rock Candy Mountain and Recapitulation, two novels of a semiautobiographical kind, is a sort of passive victim. I am afraid I let your selfish and violent husband, my father, steal the scene from you and push you into the background in the novels as he did in life. Somehow I should have been able to say how strong and resilient you were, what a patient and abiding and bonding force, the softness that proved in the long run stronger than what it seemed to yield to.
But you must understand that you are the hardest sort of human character to make credible on paper. We are skeptical of kindness so unfailing, sympathy so instant and constant, trouble so patiently borne, forgiveness so wholehearted. Writing about you, I felt always on the edge of the unbelievable, as if I were writing a saint's life, or the legend of some Patient Griselda. I felt that I should warp you a little, give you some human failing or selfish motive; for saintly qualities, besides looking sentimental on the page, are a rebuke to those—and they are most of us—who have failed at them. What is more, saintly and long-suffering women tend to infuriate the current partisans of women's liberation, who look upon them as a masculine invention, the too submissive and too much praised victims of male dominance.
Well, you were seldom aggressive, not by the time I knew you, and you were an authentic victim. How truly submissive, that is another matter. Some, I suppose, are born unselfish, some achieve unselfishness, and some have unselfishness thrust upon them. You used to tell me that you were born with a redheaded temper, and had to learn to control it. I think you were also born with a normal complement of dreams and hopes and desires and a great capacity for intellectual and cultural growth, and had to learn to suppress them.
Your life gave you plenty of practice in both controlling and suppressing. You were robbed of your childhood, and as a young, inexperienced woman you made a fatal love choice. But you blamed no one but yourself. You lay in the bed you had made, partly because, as a woman, and without much education, you had few options, and partly because your morality counseled responsibility for what you did, but mostly because love told you your highest obligation was to look after your two boys and the feckless husband who needed you more even than they did. Your reward, all too often, was to be taken for granted.
Just now, thinking about you, I got out The Big Rock Candy Mountain and found the passage in which I wrote of your death. I couldn't bear to read it. It broke me down in tears to read the words that I wrote in tears nearly a half century ago. You are at once a lasting presence and an unhealed wound.
I was twenty-four, still a schoolboy, when you died, but I have lived with you more than three times twenty-four years. Self-obsessed, sports crazy or book crazy or girl crazy or otherwise preoccupied, I never got around to telling you during your lifetime how much you meant. Except in those moments when your life bore down on you with particular weight, as when my brother, Cece, died and you turned to me because you had no one else, I don't suppose I realized how much you meant. Now I feel mainly regret, regret that I took you for granted as the others did, regret that you were dead by the time my life began to expand, so that I was unable to take you along and compensate you a little for your first fifty years. Cinderella should end happily, released from the unwholesome house of her servitude.
One of my friends in that later life that you did not live to share was the Irish writer Frank O'Connor, who was born Michael O'Donovan in a shabby cottage in Cork. His father was a drunk; his mother, he firmly believed, was a saint. He put her into many of his short stories, and he wrote her a book of tribute called An Only Child. Though he was not much of a Catholic, he expected to meet her in heaven, garbed in glory. From what he told me, she was much like you: she was incomparably herself, and yet she always thought of herself last. I can't believe that he is with her now in heaven, though I wish I could. I can't believe either that eventually, pretty soon in fact, I will meet you there. But what a reunion that would be! It would be worth conversion to assure it-the four of us enjoying whatever it is that immortals enjoy, and enjoying it together. I admired Frank O'Connor for his great gifts; but I loved Michael O'Donovan for the way he felt about his mother, and envied him for the chance he got, as a mature man, to show it. If the man-dominated world, with all its injustices, now and then produces women like his mother and mine, it can't be all bad.
I began this rumination in a dark mood, remembering the anniversary of your death. Already you have cheered me up. I have said that you didn't die, and you didn't. I can still hear you being cheerful on the slightest provocation, or no provocation at all, singing as you work and shedding your cheerfulness on others. So let us remember your life, such a life as many women of your generation shared to some extent, though not always with your special trials and rarely with your stoicism and grace.
I have heard enough about your childhood and youth to know how life went on that Iowa farm and in the town where everybody spoke Norwegian, read Norwegian, did business in Norwegian, heard Norwegian in church. The family Bible that somehow descended to me is in Norwegian, and in Gothic type at that. Next to it on my shelf is the preposterous five-pound book that they gave you on your fifth birthday: Sandheden i Kristus, Truths in Christ, a compendium of instructions and meditations geared to the religious year. You would have had to be as old as I am, and as rigid a Lutheran as your father, to tolerate five minutes of it.
Though your father was born in this country, you did not learn English until you started school. You learned it eagerly. Some of our mutual relatives, after five generations in the United States, still speak with an accent, but you never did. You loved reading, and you sang all the time: you knew the words to a thousand songs. When I was in college I was astonished to discover that some songs I had heard you sing as you worked around the house were lyrics from Tennyson's The Princess. Maybe you got the words from McGuffey's Reader. Where you got the tunes, God knows. You always made the most of what little was offered you, and you kept hold of it.
School was your happy time, with friends, games, parties, the delight of learning. You had it for only six years. When you were twelve, your mother died of tuberculosis and you became an instant adult: housekeeper to your father, mother to your two younger brothers and sister, farmhand when not otherwise employed. All through the years when you should have had the chance to be girlish, even frivolous, you had responsibilities that would have broken down most adults.
Many farm wives had a "hired girl." You did not. You were It, you did it all. At twelve, thirteen, fourteen, you made beds, cleaned, cooked, sewed, mended, for a family of five. You baked the bread, biscuits, cakes, pies, in a cranky coal range. You made the lefse and fattigmand and prepared the lutefisk without which a Norwegian Christmas is not Christmas. You washed all the clothes, and I don't mean you put lightly soiled clothes into a washing machine. I mean you boiled and scrubbed dirty farm clothes with only the copper boiler, tin tub, brass washboard, harsh soap, and hand wringer of the 1890s—one long backbreaking day every week.
At harvest time you often worked in the field most of the morning and then came in to cook dinner for the crew. You were over a hot stove in a suffocating kitchen for hours at a time, canning peas, beans, com, tomatoes, putting up cucumber and watermelon pickles or piccalilli. When a hog was slaughtered, you swallowed your nausea and caught the blood for the blood pudding your father relished. You pickled pigs' feet and made headcheese. You fried and put down in crocks of their own lard the sausage patties that would last all winter. Morning and evening you helped with the milking. You skimmed the cream and churned the butter in the dasher churn, you hung cheesecloth bags of curd on the clothesline to drip and become cottage cheese. Maybe you got a little help from your brothers and sister, especially as they got older; but they were in school all day, and whined about having homework at night.
I am sure there were times when you bitterly resented your bond-servant life, when you thumped your lazy and evasive brothers, or sent hot glances at your father where he sat reading Scandinaven in the parlor, totally unaware of you as you staggered in with a scuttle of coal and set it down loudly by the heater, and opened the heater door and lifted the scuttle and fed the fire and set the scuttle down again and slammed the heater door with a bang. Those were the years when you had unselfishness thrust upon you; you had not yet got through the difficult process of achieving it.
But however you might rebel, there was no shedding your siblings. They were your responsibility and there was no one to relieve you of them. They called you Sis. All your life people called you Sis, because that was what you were, or what you became-big sister, helpful sister, the one upon whom everyone depended, the one they all came to for everything from help with homework to a sliver under the fingernail.
Six years of that, at the end of which your father announced that he was going to marry a school friend of yours, a girl barely older than yourself. I wonder if it was outrage that drove you from his house, or if your anger was not lightened by the perception that here at last was freedom and opportunity. You were eighteen, a tall, strong, direct-eyed girl with a pile of gorgeous red hair. In the tintypes of the time you look determined. You do not yet have the sad mouth your last photographs show. Maybe the world then seemed all before you, your imprisonment over.
But nobody had prepared you for opportunity and freedom. Nobody had taught you to dream big. You couldn't have imagined going to Chicago or New York and winning your way, you could never have dreamed of becoming an actress or the editor of a women's magazine. They-had only taught you, and most of that you had learned on your own, to keep house and to look after others. You were very good at both. So when you were displaced as your father's housekeeper, you could think of nothing better to do with your freedom than to go to North Dakota and keep house for a bachelor uncle.
There you met something else they had not prepared you for, a man unlike any you had ever seen, a husky, laughing, reckless, irreverent, storytelling charmer, a ballplayer, a fancy skater, a trapshooting champion, a pursuer of the main chance, a true believer in the American dream of something for, nothing, a rolling stone who confidently expected to be eventually covered with moss. He was marking time between get-rich-quick schemes by running a "blind pig"—an illegal saloon. He offended every piety your father stood for. Perhaps that was why you married him, against loud protests from home. Perhaps your father was as much to blame as anyone for the mistake you made.
You had a stillborn child. Later you had a living one, my brother, Cecil. Later still, on a peacemaking visit back to Iowa, you had me. Then, as you told me once, you discovered how not to have any more, and didn't. You had enough to be responsible for with two.
To run through your life would be lugubrious if it were not you we were talking about. You made it something else by your total competence, your cheerfulness under most uncheerful conditions, your resilience after every defeat. "Better luck next time!” I have heard you say as we fled from some disaster, and after a minute, with your special mixture of endurance, hope, and irony, "Well, if it didn't kill us, I guess it must have been good for us."
Dakota I don't remember. My memories begin in the woods of Washington, where we lived in a tent and ran a lunchroom in the logging town of Redmond. By getting scarlet fever, I had balked father's dream of going to Alaska and digging up baseball sized nuggets. Then there was a bad time. You left my father, or he you; nobody ever told me. But Cece and I found ourselves in a Seattle orphans' home, put there while you worked the Bon Marche. In 1913 you didn't have a chance as a husbandless woman with two children. When you found how miserable we were in that home, you took us out and brought us back to the only safety available, your father's house in Iowa.
I can imagine what that cost you in humiliation. I can imagine the letters that must have passed between you and my father. I can imagine his promises, your concessions. At any rate, in June 14 we were on our way to join him in the valley of the Whitemud, or Frenchman, River in Saskatchewan. Perhaps it sounded romantic and adventurous to you, perhaps you let yourself listen to his come-all-ye enthusiasm, perhaps you thought that on a real frontier he might be happy and do well. Very likely you hoped that in a raw village five hundred miles from anywhere we could make a new start and be a family, something for which you had both a yearning and a gift. If you went in resignation, this time your resignation was not forced on you. It was a choice. By 1914, at the age of thirty-one, you had finally achieved unselfishness.
Saskatchewan is the richest page in my memory, for that was where I first began to understand some things, and that was where, for a half dozen years, we had what you had always wanted: a house of our own, a united family, and a living, however hard.
I remember good days for the shared pleasure we took in them—family expeditions to pick berries in the Cypress Hills, when we picnicked on the edge of Chimney Coulee and watched great fleets of clouds sail eastward over the prairie. Raising a sandwich to your mouth, you exclaimed, "Oh! Smell your hands!" and we did, inhaling the fragrance of the saskatoons, gooseberries, chokecherries, pin cherries, and highbush cranberries we had been working in. I remember that on our way home from one of those expeditions the democrat wagon tipped over on a steep hillside and spilled us and our overflowing pans and pails of berries out onto the grass. You took one quick look to see if anyone was hurt, and then began to laugh, pointing to the embarrassed and bewildered team standing among the twisted tugs. We sat in the sudden grass and laughed ourselves silly before we got up and scraped together the spilled berries and straightened out the buggy and relieved the team and drove home. Singing, naturally. You never lost an opportunity to sing. You sang, too, among the rich smells in the kitchen as you made those wild berries into pies and jams and sauces and jellies and put a lot of them up in jars and glasses to be stored on the cellar shelves.
Do you remember a day on the homestead when Pa came back from Chinook with a big watermelon, and we cooled it as well as we could in the reservoir and then sat down in the shade of the shack and ate it all? How simple and memorable a good day can be when expectation is low! You made us save the rinds for pickles. Your training had been thorough, you never wasted anything. One of our neighbors, years later, wrote me about how amazed he was to see you, after you had peeled a lot of apples and made pies of them, boil up the peelings and turn them into jelly.
I think you loved that little burg in spite of its limitations.
You loved having neighbors, visiting with neighbors, helping neighbors. When it was our turn to host the monthly Sunday school party, you had more fun than the kids, playing crocinole or beanbag like the child you had never been allowed to be. You loved the times when the river froze without wind or snow, and the whole channel was clean, skatable ice, and the town gathered around big night fires, and skaters in red mackinaws and bright scarfs moved like Brueghel figures across the light, and firelight glinted off eyeballs and teeth, and the breath of the community went up in white plumes.
You loved having your children in a steady school, and doing well in it. You read all the books you could lay hands on. When your North Dakota uncle died and left you a thousand dollars you didn't let my father take it, though I am sure he would have found a use for it. Instead, you bought a Sears, Roebuck piano and you set my brother and me to learn to play it under the instruction of the French doctor's wife. Alas, we disappointed you, resisted practice, dawdled and fooled around. Eventually you gave up. But you could no more let that piano sit there unused than you could throw perfectly good apple peelings out to the pig. You learned to play it yourself, painstakingly working things out chord by chord from the sheet music of popular songs. How hungry you were! How you would have responded to the opportunities ignored by so many who have them!
Many good days. Also, increasingly, bad ones. Hard times.
While you lived your way deeper into the remote and limited place where my father's enthusiasms had brought you, he felt more and more trapped in what he called "this dirty little dung-heeled sagebrush town." On the homestead where we spent our summers, he had made one good and one average crop out of five. One summer he grew hundreds of bushels of potatoes on rented bottomland near town and stored them in the basement of the hotel, waiting for the right price, and the hotel burned down. That winter he supported us by playing poker. By the summer of 1920 he was raging to get out, do something, find some way of making a real living.
Eventually he got his way, and we abandoned what little you had been able to get together as a life. During the next fourteen years you lived in much greater comfort, and you saw a lot of the western United States. You continued to make a home for your boys and your husband, but it was a cheerless home for you. We lived in a dozen towns and cities, three dozen neighborhoods, half a hundred houses. My brother and I kept some continuity through school and the friends we made there, but your continuity was cut every few months; you lost friends and never saw them again, or got the chance to make new ones, or have a kitchen where women could drop in and have a cup of coffee and a chat. Too much of your time, in Great Falls, Salt Lake, Reno, Los Angeles, Long Beach, you were alone.
You believed in all the beauties and strengths and human associations of place; my father believed only in movement. You believed in a life of giving, he in a life of getting. When Cecil died at the age of twenty-three, you did not have a single woman friend to whom you could talk, not a single family of neighbors or friends to help you bear the loss of half your loving life.
You're a good ... boy ... Wallace. That shames me. You had little in your life to judge goodness by. I was not as dense or as selfish as my father, and I got more credit than I deserved. But I was not intelligent enough to comprehend the kind of example you had been setting me, until it was too late to do anything but hold your hand while you died. And here I am, nearly eighty years old, too old to be capable of any significant improvement but not too old for regret.
"All you can do is try," you used to tell me when I was scared of undertaking something. You got me to undertake many things I would not have dared undertake without your encouragement. You also taught me how to take defeat when it came, and it was bound to now and then. You taught me that if it hadn't killed me it was probably good for me.
I can hear you laugh while you say it. Any minute now I will hear you singing.
Essayist, novelist, teacher and environmentalist, Wallace Stegner won a Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose (1971) and the National Book Award for The Spectator Bird (1976). "Letter, Much Too Late" hints at the deeply lyrical and loving wisdom found in his classic Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier (1962)