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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Dark Winter

In celebration of Kansas Day yesterday, I participated in a reader's theater at the Topeka Shawnee County Public Library. I read the letters of Julia Louisa Lovejoy, one of those staunch abolitionists who came to Kansas through the efforts of the New England Emigrant Aid Society. I am no stranger to Julia's story. I have been poking fun at her for years and I am so ashamed of myself for it.

 
You see this picture? For years, it was one of the slides used to illustrate a talk on Bleeding Kansas that my former husband and I delivered. I shared Julia's story and every time this picture came up on the screen, I quipped, "Yes, life before Mary Kay."
 
People all over the country laughed.
 
I shared her stories of snakes in the Kansas Territory. . .  in the gardens, in the beds, in the cupboards. People gasped in horror. I used Julia to great effect.
 
It has been a while since I visited Julia. Reading her letters this week have touched me tremendously. She wrote vividly of the "wars and rumors of wars" that tore open the countryside all while trying to find some meager creature comforts.
 
Palmyra, K.T., November 30, 1857
 
Some of the habits of Western life, originating doubtless in necessity, are truly shocking to our Yankee notions of propriety; especially, when so many of different sexes lodge in one room, in uncurtained beds. If you wish to change your linen, why haste away to the grove, to perform your toilet, as other preachers now have to do; or, if the wet grass is up to your arm-pits, do as Mr. Lovejoy did recently, who, Sabbath morn, threw his soiled nether garment across his carriage-seat to dry, as it was well saturated with perspiration. When he turned to look for it, lo! it had all disappeared, save the wristband and "wee bit" of one sleeve, and where think you it was? Why, mulched into the maw of a live ox, who was forced to disgorge its contents, instanter; but ah me! the rents and tears were unmendable. If we can enjoy health, as formerly, we shall, after all, enjoy much of missionary life in Kansas.
 
We enjoy unprecedented comforts of hygiene in this era. The constant discomfort and embarrassment of women, and men, due to the lack of privacy and facilities, were features of pioneer life we don't often acknowledge. In the midst of warfare, the everyday task of cleaning, cooking, and surviving must have been overwhelming and here was and ox eating your husband's shirt, for Pete's sake!
 
A new life for the family in the Kansas Territory meant the death of the Lovejoys young daughter. I read passages about the mother's grief on the day my own daughter was marking the sad anniversary of her baby's death, a miscarriage that she has mourned greatly.
 
I read passages where Julia longs for a home, just as I do now, after so much upheaval and feeling no security in my own life.
 
I look into her sad eyes now and I want so badly to embrace her, to comfort her, to be comforted by her, and I long to tell her,
 
. Dear Sister, I am so sorry for your suffering. You are not alone. Yet today, you are in my prayers.

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