I collect old books. Or, I should be more honest and say that I hoard old books. One of my favorite pastimes is waffling through old, dusty, second-hand book stores (the more stacks piled up to the ceiling, the better), searching for those perfect hardback editions of my all-time favorite stories. I have dreamy visions of a home library that contains beautiful copies of any classic that my sons would ever need (or want) to read over the course of their school years. I work to fill our home with books that I believe will help strengthen my boys minds and nourish their souls. My husband teases me mercilessly because whenever I go anywhere, I usually come home with a trunk load of heavy, tattered, cheap, but gorgeous old books to add to our buckling shelves, and I say I am building our sons' inheritance. So, of course, when it comes to gifts, I can think of nothing I could ever want more than a beautiful, old, beloved book.
Two years ago, for Mother's Day, my husband and boys surprised me with just that. It was a first edition, signed copy of Kate Douglas Wiggin's book, Mother Carey's Chickens. I had been familiar with Wiggin's classic Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, but it had only been in the previous year that I had discovered this lesser-known gem, and it had quickly become one of my all-time favorites. I opened the spine and discovered that on the front flyleaf, yellowed with age, Wiggin had inscribed a quote from the book: "I'm just a mother, that's all," said Mrs. Carey with a smile." As I read those hundred-year-old words, written in faded ink above her signature, I blinked back tears. I was overwhelmed that my husband had tracked down such a valuable copy of one of my very favorite books and had given it to me on such a special day. But the tears were induced by more than gratitude over such a priceless gift. It was Wiggin's words in beautiful script that moved me: I'm just a mother, that's all.
"A mother, living well in her God-ordained role, is of great beauty and inestimable value to the future history of any generation." -Sally Clarkson, Desperate: Hope For The Mom Who Needs To Breathe
The years before had been the hard ones. Three babies in four years. Midnight feedings. Sleepless nights. Countless diapers. Although motherhood was the vocation that I had chosen, I had been weary with the weight of it and, at times, I almost felt as if I was buckling under it. But as the saying goes, "the days are long but the years are short," and soon I found myself emerging from the fog as my youngest son grew into toddlerhood (and finally slept through the night). Each morning that I awoke after a blissful six or seven hours of straight sleep, I longed for fresh inspiration and vision as my three little men gathered in my lap, wide-eyed and ready to embrace their mama and the world. And so, to "fill my own cup," as I always have, I turned to books. I pulled my beloved hardbacks off of the shelf after a few years of neglect and read of grand adventures and epic quests--of magic and mystery and glory. But I found myself feeling unsatisfied. Discontented. Even sad. My heart longed to live a great story, but as I looked around at the peanut-butter-crusted table and the piles of footie pajamas to be folded, I sighed. Although I shared those wonderful stories with my boys and stirred their imaginations with wonder and possibility, I thought about how my great story would have to wait; I had sippy cups to wash and boo-boos to kiss. If my life was ever going to be a grand adventure, it would have to happen some day down the road. But then, I met Mother Carey.
I'm not totally sure how I came across the book, but somehow I discovered that it was the inspiration for one of my favorite childhood movies, Summer Magic. As a young girl, I had watched that movie over and over, longing to be Nancy and live in the "yellow house." So I began reading the book eagerly, happy to become reacquainted with my old friends Nancy, Gilbert, and Peter. I expected to frolic with them in the countryside as they planned barn dances and made all manner of mischief, as I had as a child. But instead of the young characters, it was their mother who captivated me. Mother Carey, a young woman who had just lost her husband, was raising four children, taking in orphans, making a home, building community, and bringing beauty into dark places.
Mother Carey became my mentor as I studied how she related to her children. I soaked up her wisdom and modeled her actions. I noticed how carefully she observed her children, learning their ways and meeting them with exactly what they needed: "Love poured from her, through voice and lips and eyes, and in return she drank it in thirstily from the little creature who sat there at her knee, a twig growing just as her bending hand inclined it; all the buds of his nature opening out in the mother-sunshine that surrounded him."
I watched how she learned to suppress her own feelings in order to help her children grow: "Mother Carey's impulse was to cast herself on the floor and request him simply smile on her and she would do his lightest bidding, but controlling her secret desires she answered: 'I would help if you needed me, but you don't. You're a great big boy now!'"
I noticed how intentional and kind she was in the formation of her children's characters: "The way to begin would be to give him a few delightful responsibilities, such as would appeal to his pride and sense of importance, and gradually to mingle with them certain duties of headship neither so simple nor so agreeable."
But mostly I noticed her centrality and importance in the lives of all those around her. They were all thriving because of her loving concern for them: "Any girl that takes me will get a better husband because of you; any children I may be blessed with will have a better father because I have known you. Don't make any mistake, dear Mrs. Carey, your hearth fire glows a long, long distance!"
As I saw her story unfold and read her words of wisdom and insight, I realized that she was every bit as much a hero as Frodo, or St. George, or Odysseus.
"She had but one keen desire: to go to some quiet place where temptations for spending money would be as few as possible, and there live for three or four years, putting her heart and mind and soul on fitting the children for life. If she could keep strength enough to guide and guard, train and develop them into happy, useful, agreeable human beings,-- masters of their own powers; wise and discreet enough, when years of discretion were reached, to choose right paths,--that, she conceived, was her chief task in life, and no easy one."
Mother Carey lived a great story and, I realized with repentance and fresh resolve, that I was living a great story, too--the greatest story. I began to devour books again, with a new perspective and mission: to learn as much as I could from the mothers within them. I re-visited Little House on the Prairie with a keen eye to Ma and I was awed by her resolve, resourcefulness, tenacity, and courage. I studied Marmee in Little Women and determined to show my boys the same kind of loving concern for family and hospitality to neighbors as she did. I met Jo Bhaer in Little Men and Mrs. Gilbreth in Cheaper By The Dozen and I determined to nurture my boys to be boys and bring out the individual gifts that God has given them.
“I always wanted to be a hero--to sacrifice my life in a big way one time--and yet, God has required my sacrifice to be thousands of days, over many years, with one more kiss, one more story, one more meal.” -Sally Clarkson
I may be just a mother, after all, but I can't imagine anything I would rather be. Each day as we add a new chapter to our story here in our home, I thank God that He set my feet on this path and chose me for this grandest of adventures. I don't know how my story will end, but I confess that if I could write just one scene, I would write this one: my boys, grown grey with age and wisdom, leafing through all of the old books that they have inherited, the books that formed them and me, and catching little glimpses of their mother on the pages that they read.