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Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson

Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson

by Ellen Tucker Emerson

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Ellen Tucker Emerson's biography of her mother, Lidian Jackson Emerson, provides important insights into the life of Ralph Waldo Emerson's wife of 46 years. Delores Bird Carpenter has carefully edited this narrative to enhance continuity and to ensure completeness.


Ellen Tucker Emerson's biography of her mother, Lidian Jackson Emerson, provides important insights into the life of Ralph Waldo Emerson's wife of 46 years. Delores Bird Carpenter has carefully edited this narrative to enhance continuity and to ensure completeness.

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Michigan State University Press
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The Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson

By Ellen Tucker Emerson, Delores Bird Carpenter

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 1992 Delores Bird Carpenter
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62895-140-0


The Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson

by Ellen Tucker Emerson

"Not afraid of the face of clay"

Aunt Lucy once told me that when she and mother were late in being dressed for church (their Mother was not going) their Father said he would not wait for them they might follow him. So they did and when they got there church had begun, the doors were shut and no one was to be seen. So she was frightened and said she would go right home, but Mother was determined to stay. "How old were you?" I asked her. "I was seven and your mother was three. We had on our new winter-coats-&-capes, mine was dark green and your Mother's was scarlet. So she stood on tip-toe and rattled the latch till the sexton came to see what was the matter, and she marched in but I ran home. When they came home Father was delighted. He said 'this child isn't afraid of the face of clay. She made them let her in and walked up the aisle to the pew all alone.'"

When she was three years old some near relative died. Everyone must wear mourning and as there was not time to make all that was wanted for the funeral Mother was sent to a neighbour to borrow the mourning-bonnet of her little girl. The neighbour said "Let's try it on first. Why! you have a bushel of hair, dear, haven't you?" This Mother told me when I was asking how she looked. I gathered that she was got up something in this way. [See Sketch] Her hair never was cut in her life. As soon as it had any length it was done up in a twist with a comb. It never was braided or curled. This remark of the neighbour leads her to suppose it was thick. It was dark brown. Her garments from her earliest memory were a chemise, a petticoat, (sometimes two) and a short-sleeved low-necked long dress. Nothing else but her shoes & stockings. She on one occasion mentioned an apron—that at the school-room fire one day her apron caught fire and she laughed and shook it to call attention of the other children without a thought of danger, but the school-mistress rushed at her without stopping to raise herself from the sitting posture, [See Sketch] gathered the apron in her hands and clapped out the fire not without burning herself, I believe. When Mother told us this story she usually added that on one occasion Uncle Charles, a very little boy laid a small train of gunpowder from the school-room fire to the school-ma'am's chair. He asked to go to the fire, started the train which worked beautifully, and had the ineffable joy of seeing the school-ma'am leap from her seat crying "Lud'a'massy! I should think I was aboard a man-of-war!"

I desire here to pin onto this paper a pattern of a little calico dress that her Mother made for her[;] it had a cape of the same, with a narrow ruffle round it. It is glazed, and when it was put on her, cape and all, she went out and sat down on the front door-step to enjoy its shining newness. A boy opposite looked at her and laughed. She was abashed and hurt. She got up and went right into the house. Her youngest brother, the last child, was born when she was nearly five, in August, 1807. He lived to be two years old, was handsome, with dark eyes and hair and was named John Cotton. His Father used to exclaim "When this child grows up, he'll be the greatest Jackson that ever wore a head!" They were all devoted to him, of course, as the youngest. He went into his Mother's room one day and, finding the lower door of a cupboard there open, proceeded to examine the interior. There was a small firkin there; it contained potash. He got the lid off and thought it was brown sugar. Of course he helped himself. He presently rushed to his Mother with loud screams, and the whole household was terrified when they saw what had happened[.] Mother remembered it all, and how her Mother had him in her lap washing his mouth out with vinegar. It turned out that he hadn't swallowed any, only taken the skin off his mouth, so he wasn't seriously injured. In 1885 when we visited the house the sight of the cupboard reminded Mother of this. "The dear little creature thought it was sugar," she said.

One day Mother was left at home with little John in her care. She wanted to go through Spooner's Alley to see I forget what friend and was half afraid she ought not to. Certainly she must not leave the baby, and probably she ought not to take him. But she went, leading him along and when she was well in she found a horse was coming to meet them. It looked to her as if there was no room for him to pass, and oh! little John! She flatted him up with his back hard against the wall, placed herself in front of him and made herself as flat as possible. The great horse, a white one, came walking by, hurt no one, trod on no toes, and left them safe to pursue their journey. This was an experience she always remembered and in 1885 she took me through Spooner's Alley and showed me the very place. He was two in August and he lived till the following January only more and more charming from day to day. One afternoon Uncle Charles who was a little fellow of four and a half brought a little bit of a pumpkin into the room and played with it with him. I think I remember they quarreled over it and Mother took it from them and tossed it about the room. "And it amused him!" she said, "dear little angel! how he laughed! And at last it hit the looking glass and broke it. That was the last time I played with him. He had the croup in the night. In two days he was dead." The family always believed they had lost the finest of their children. Mother mourned him all her life. She bought the engraving of Master Lambton when she was a young lady because it looked like the little John Cotton, and it hung in her room as a portrait of him. After his death her Father one day brought to her a magazine and asked her to read him a poem in it. I have forgotten alas! the name of the magazine, and I fear there is no copy of the poem, so I will write here such lines as I recall. Mother used often to recite it to me:

"Hark, hark! I hear the sound of angels' wings"

Then followed the description of a Mother watching her little boy in his last moments.

"The angel-guards conduct the child
In peace along the spangled sky.
The infant talked, the angels smiled—
'The moon—I thought it not so high.
When often of a summer night
I prattled on my Mother's knee
I thought the stars and this fair light—
A fancy strange!—was made by me.'"

Here Mother used to stop and say "Your Father admires that." Then she went on

"But since my Mother taught me how
The great Creator made them all
I in his glorious presence bow
And lowly at his feet would fall[.]"

There is more of it which I do not succeed in bringing back, no more narrative but pious talk of the child,—of the same nature as this last. Little John was so brought back by the beginning of the poem that Mother could hardly read and before she had read many lines she gave up and cried. Her Mother came in and looked at her and then at her Father, questioning. "The subject affects her" he said.

This a pattern of one of John Cotton's little dresses. Aunt Lucy found among her possessions six or seven scraps of calico left from those earliest days and brought them over to show to Mother. It may have been about 1855[.] I shall add them as I come to the history of the date at which they were worn. Mother's ecstasy of tenderness over each little piece was most interesting to behold. "Oh! that was John Cotton's!" she exclaimed[.] "Little darling! little darling! Oh can't you see him in it?" The red calico you have just seen was in the collection[.]

Aunt Lucy and Mother seem always to have gone to school together though of such different ages. They went to one on the same side of North Street as their Father's house. [I]t was kept by someone named Weston[.] The school ma'am sat with a very long stick beside her with which she could reach and strike any naughty child. One part of the room which had a bench in it was called Bantam, Mother didn't know why. It seemed to have no peculiar quality or attribute; to visit it was considered neither punishment nor reward; but a child would often ask, "Please ma'am, may I go over to Bantam?" and was usually allowed to do so. All the girls sewed most of the time. The mistress basted their seams & hems, till they were old enough to do it themselves, inspected all their work and had bad sewing picked out. Each had her "stent." They all recited their catechism. Once a sudden memory of it (say in 1888) came to Mother when she was telling me of school and in a high voice like the teacher's she asked "What is the chief end of Man?" And then rattled off in the stentorian tones of the school "The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever." It was really glorious to hear this sound from the past. I often reminded Mother of it and asked her to do it again, but she couldn't remember anything about it nor that she had once done it, though when I told her what she had said she said "Certainly, we used to have that every day." She learned her alphabet from the New England Primer. She, and all Plymouth, called a doll a dawl, and when she said after her mistress

"in Adam's fall, we sinned all"

she wondered what sort of dawl was a sinny dawl. She and the other children made what they called baby-houses on steep grass banks, but I think they should have been called china-closets[;] they watched for scraps of broken dishes and ranged them in rows, with great delight. They looked so like dishes on shelves! And if they by chance found a piece of real china, especially if it was distinguished looking from having a flower on it, or gilding why it was an event. She sometimes was asked by the other girls to play at their houses and stay to tea and one day a little friend did invite her without asking her Mother and was ashamed either to confess it to her or to tell her Mother that she had asked Lydia. Accordingly she flagged as tea-time approached in her attention to her poor little guest, and finally when called to the table went and sat down with the family. Mother remained sitting on the window-seat, full of mortification, not knowing what to do. At last the lady of the house said "Won't you stay and have supper with us, Liddy?" "Oh I was so mortified! You may be sure I never went anywhere again without asking 'Did your Mother tell you to ask me?' You must be careful never to go anywhere till you have had a message from the lady of the house." This Mother told me when I was a little girl. Once she and Aunt Lucy went home one afternoon with their Mother's girl. Her family were very poor and I suppose not tidy. The children were of opinion that the place was repulsive and uncomfortable, but one of the family was sewing and had a handsome pair of bright new scissors. I forgot whether it was Lucy or Lydia, but one of them was overwhelmed with compassion that those beautiful scissors should have so miserable a dwelling-place, so she took them and carried them home thinking how thankful they would be for the change. The scissors were discovered and returned and the child had a lesson on stealing, but it was simply to deliver the scissors from their hard lot that the thing was done.

Among their teachers was a Miss Mary Russell, really a cousin, but Mother never dared to remember that so exalted a person could be related to her. Miss Russell made a very gentle and interesting teacher and Mother loved her. Once they met in the street and Miss Russell bowed to her. Mother could hardly credit it that such an honour had been paid her. Once she made a call on Grandmother Jackson and condescended to talk a little to Mother who was overwhelmed with gratitude & joy.

She used to recur to this when young girls and little children showed their elders that they considered any attention from them rather an intrusion to be endured than a politeness, and say "Times have changed!"

While they were still young—I think Mother was eight—there was an examination or exhibition of their school, the parents were invited. Both she & Aunt Lucy spoke pieces and so beautifully as to wake the audience to enthusiasm, and gratify their parents, especially their Father. Mother burst forth with "Lucy said hers very well, but Lydia said hers charmingly," just as she heard someone say it at the time.

Aunt Lucy began to learn painting, and it was decided that Mother also should have lessons. I don't think they carried it far. But at this time a cartload of sand had been thrown in the road near their Father's house and Mother seized the opportunity to make mud pies. While she was wholly occupied with them her Aunt Lydia came along and remarked "Pretty business for a young lady who is taking lessons in painting! How do you think your hands look?" "Oh! there's plenty of water in the akyduct." (Plymouth pronounciation in those days.) Mother answered, going on with her work[.] Her Aunt Lydia passed on in silence, but she was pleased with the answer and reported it to the family. Mother by and by began to hear it quoted and found she was considered to have made a bright speech.

A French dancing-master came to Plymouth and had a class. Aunt Lucy & Mother belonged. The hour was seven in the morning. He was a very good teacher and required the young ladies to stand in the stocks for an hour or more every day. He used to say "I can tell as soon as the ladies begin to dance how much they have stood in the stocks." Mother was faithful, never omitted her hour and learned her lessons standing in them, not only that winter but always, and she thought she owed to that habit and to the good teaching of her master her beautiful walk. How beautiful it was! Of course she never saw it and couldn't know its charm, but she heard it praised, of course, all her life long. In those days dancing meant very great skill and agility, the boys were taught to spring into the air and "change their feet" three times before they came down. There was a variety of pretty and intricate balances to learn, and every change in the cotillon had its "steps[.]" Mother made it a rule to practise her dancing-steps daily, as good exercise, and did it for some twenty years after the dancing-school was over. When the exhibition-day of the class came the Master required that the young ladies should all wear black slippers spangled. Mother enjoyed the class very much. But her Calvinist Aunts talked to her very seriously against it and told her to remember she was dancing over hell-fire. I don't know which Aunts these could have been.

In the church in those days they used Watts's hymns and Mother pored over the hymn book in church-time very much. The awful pictures of God's wrath and the Judgment-Day interested and impressed her and she could recite them by the half page as long as she could remember anything. She said terror was bred in her bones, terror at least of death and future punishment, and though her mind didn't believe it, and in health she could see how wrong and groundless it was, the moment she was sick or tired she became a prey to it. Hymns had an attraction for her from a very early age, and one day as she was looking in at the bookstore window she found a book of hymns laid open and read the hymns on the two pages with delight. She must, I think, have asked the price, for she ran home to her Mother and asked for a nine-pence (12 ½ cts) to buy it. Her Mother willingly gave it to her and she brought it home in triumph. It was Jane Taylor's Hymns for Infant Minds. A duodecimo copy printed on grayish paper with coarse woodcut illustrations, bound in thin pine boards, covered with paper of two shades of pink with a scarlet leather back with six gold lines across it at intervals. We had it in our nursery, I learned hymns in it and regarded it with no interest at all till Mother told me this story, and said that she had a sense of being infinitely rich in possessing not only the two hymns that she had learned through the window, but all that she had not yet seen, and that she always loved it and learned the rest of the hymns as fast as she was able, not to please her Mother but because she wanted to know them. This was a wholly new idea to me, that anyone should want to know them, and the fact that this was the very book that the story was about warmed my heart to it. I do not know when or how it disappeared. I haven't seen it for forty years. What would I give to have it back! It was the only book we ever had with pine boards in the covers. I have seen New England Primers bound in the same manner.

About this time it was said that a comet was coming and Mother heard somewhere that it would hit the earth and destroy it. Her Mother had custards for pudding at dinner and gave her two. She was happy indeed in this good fortune but for some reason asked her Mother to let her put one away in the under-closet for the next day. She understood at school in the afternoon that the collision with the comet was to occur the next day, perhaps that night, and the thought struck her that she mighn't live to eat her custard. The moment school was done she hastened home and enjoyed it to the last mouthful and had the serene consciousness that whatever happened she had at least secured that.


Excerpted from The Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson by Ellen Tucker Emerson, Delores Bird Carpenter. Copyright © 1992 Delores Bird Carpenter. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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