A reflection on the novel written by Bess Streeter Aldrich
I met a kindred spirit last month. We have nothing in common: she lived in the 1800’s, was a pioneer living in a sod house, helped build a state, lived through 3 wars, and is a fictional character. But somehow my heart understood hers completely.
Throughout the passing weeks I’ve mused about how often Abbie Deal comes to mind. What did I learn from her? Why did she impact me so much? How can I emulate her? To answer those questions, I need to share an important detail about Abbie: she had dreams. Since she was a small child she wanted to be famous and beautiful and talented. She adored singing, valued refinement, and cared about her appearance. For love’s sake, she turned down one marriage proposal that could have given her all of her dreams almost instantly and accepted another marriage proposal that gave her a soddy house on a prairie and five children to birth and raise in it. Without complaint, she embraced her life and tucked away her dreams for a more opportune time.
But she never forgot her dreams and as they hid in her heart they became a part of all she did without her even realizing it. Each one shaped her perspective of the staggering trials she endured and influenced how she cultivated her home and children. She found poetry on the prairie, taught her children to value the arts and found a way to make even the soddy house pretty. And her dreams were fleshed out in her children. Each time she intentionally brought her dreams to mind and reflected on her longing to experience them, tears would come to my eyes for those moments revealed her humanity.
Abbie Deal taught me something. She taught me that our dreams make us who we are; not by relentlessly pursuing them but by simply not letting them go. Contemporary society tells us that we must live out our dreams no matter the cost to our family or our souls; we might not realize how high a price we paid for those dreams until it is too late. What contemporary society doesn’t teach us, is that our dreams can come alive in intangible ways. They can influence our approach to living: how we walk and talk, work and play, think and decide. Dreams become a part of our identity and influence how we interact with our world and how it interacts with us.
Ironically, this staunchly pioneer woman wasn’t real in the sense that I could find her gravestone in Nebraska. But she was real in every other sense of the word. I ached in her pain, joined in her joy, struggled in her exhaustion and felt her despair in the core of my being. When she was on the cusp of womanhood, Abbie Deal didn’t realize her dreams would never be realized as she imagined they would; as life unfolded, they inspired her to keep going. It wasn’t until the end that she saw the completed picture and reflected:
“You can’t describe love…and you can’t define it. Only it goes with you all your life. I think that love is more like a light that you carry. At first childish happiness keeps it lighted, and after that romance. Then motherhood lights it and then duty, and maybe after that sorrow. You wouldn’t think that sorrow could be a light…But it can. And then after that, service lights it. Yes…I think that is what love is to a woman: a lantern in her hand.”
It was her dreams that enabled her to love and that love was what made all the difference. It enabled her to sacrifice, to be loyal, to create, to persevere, and to be uniquely herself. All things I want to be and do in my world, nearly two centuries later. I want to be understanding of the young dreamers living with stars in their eyes and I want to be compassionate towards the elders among us, with that distant look in their eyes as they relive the past over and over again. I want to hold that lantern in my hand so that when I am on my deathbed I can smile and slip away, enfolded in the memories of a life well lived.