This article originally appeared in the March 16, 1927, issue, as “the tenth of a series of anonymous articles [‘These Modern Women’] giving the personal backgrounds of a group of distinguished women with a modern point of view.”
The story of my background is the story of my mother. She was a Middle-Western girl, youngest, cleverest, and prettiest of six daughters–children of an Irish gunsmith and a “Pennsylvania Dutch” woman of good family and splendid character. The gunsmith was a master of his trade but a heavy drinker, always ugly and often dangerous. My mother got away from home as soon as she could. After a year in a nearby coeducational college she taught school for a while and then married. The man she chose (for she was the sort of girl who has many chances) was a penniless but handsome and idealistic Yankee divinity student whom she met during that one college year. When he had secured his first parish, they were married.
For about eight years, during which there were four different parishes and four chlldren were born, my mother was a popular, active, and helpful minister’s wife. Then my father, who had always struggled against ill-health, suffered a complete nervous breakdown. He was forced to glve up his church and his chosen profession. My mother had to support the family.
She began by teaching English literature in a girls’ school. Before long she was giving Sunday-evening talks at the school. Then she began to fill outside engagements and finally she became a sort of supply-preacher to nearby country churches. About the year 1890, though she had had no theological education, she was ordained as a Congregational minister and called to be the pastor of a fairly large church in a well-to-do farming community. After three or four successful years, she and my father (who by this time had lost a good bit of money trying to be a farmer and a grocer but had begun to regain his health) were called as associate pastors to a big liberal church in a city of 40,000. It was my mother’s reputation as a preacher that brought them this opportunity and she proved equal to the larger field. In time my father’s health improved so that he could carry his share of the work, but my mother was always the celebrated member of the family.
I have a vivid memory of my mother when I was six years old. We are standing, my brother and I, in front of a run-down farmhouse on the edge of the town which had become our home. We have just said goodby to our mother and now we are watching her trip off down the hill to the school where she goes every day to teach. She turns to smile at us–such a beaming smile, such a bright face, such a pretty young mother. When the charming, much-loved figure begins to grow small in the distance, my brother, who is younger and more temperamental than I, begins to cry. He screams as loud as he can, until he is red in the face. But he cannot make her come back. And I, knowing she will be worried if she hears him, try to drag him away. By the time I was ten my mother had become a preacher.
Life was never ordinary where my mother was. She was always trying something new. She had an eager, active mind, and tremendous energy. She was preeminently an initiator. From the time I was thirteen we spent our summers like most middle-class, small-town American families, in a cottage beside a lake. And our life there, I suppose, would have been much like the life in thousands of other such summer communities, except for the presence of my mother. For one thing, she organized a system of cooperative housekeeping with three other families on the hillside, and it lasted for years. A cook was hired jointly, but the burden of keeping house, planning meals, buying meat and groceries from the carts that came along three times a week, getting vegetables and fruit from the garden, collecting the money, keeping track of guests, and paying the bills, shifted every week. At first it was only the mothers who took their turn at housekeeping. But as the children grew older they were included in the scheme, boys as well as girls. Toward the end we had all the fun of eating in a big jolly group and only one or two weeks of housekeeping responsibility during the whole summer.