From the 1950s series, bestselling writer Louise Dickinson Rich tells how a family tragedy challenged her notions of strength and independence. But when she accepted the help of her neighbors, Rich found a greater connection to humanity.
When I was young, I believed that I was strong and self-sufficient. Since I was not completely stupid, I knew perfectly well with my head, if not with my heart, that life is no bed of roses. I was prepared for disappointment and for, possibly, tragedy. When they came, I’d handle them personally with style. Only sissies lean. I was afraid of nothing and I could do anything, or at least I so believed. Nothing in this world or the next could daunt me, Big Louise, the heroine.
Now I am older. I have met with poverty, flood, famine, hurricane, brutalizing labor, and illness, on extremely personal grounds. I have seen the sudden and tragic deaths of those nearest and dearest to me. I have had to shoulder responsibilities, for which I am ill fitted, and the much more difficult burden of sudden, if brief, fame. I have been hard pressed for money, as we say in Maine. I’m not whining. I’ve had a wonderful life, with the joys far outweighing the sorrows. But still, in all, there have been times when I was fair to middlin’ desperate.
There was time when my husband and my year-old son and my mother-in-law and I had one meal a day. We ate baked potatoes and salt. It didn’t do us adults any harm, and my neighbor woman, Alice Miller, provided me with six oranges and six quarts of milk a week—she kept two cows—for the baby. She said her doctor’s book said that babies needed it.
Then there was the time in December. My husband and I were laughing together over a silly joke in the evening after dinner, relaxed in our slippers before the open fire. We’d spent the day snugging down the cabin for winter, and we felt good knowing that there were forty miles of lake and impossible road between us and the nearest settlement. We were having fun. “Louise, you gorgeous fool,” he said, and died.
I don’t know how I could possibly have survived that—because you see, I loved him from the bottom of my heart—if it hadn’t been for my other neighbor, Alice Parsons. She came and sat with me, not saying a word, just with infinite wisdom being there all through the awful formalities of the coroner and the sheriff, who must investigate in Maine any case of sudden death.
There was the time after that when I owed a lot of money to a lot of people, I’m sorry to say. I went to the butcher and the baker and the candlestick maker and told them that I couldn’t pay them now, but if they’d give me breathing space, I’d clear the books and, of course, pay the interest. They all gave me the same answer. “Mrs. Rich, I’m sorry to hear about your trouble. Ralph was a good man. We’ll miss him a lot. About the money, take your time. I’m not worried. Anytime at your convenience, and forget the interest.”
So now I have grown up. I don’t believe in myself anymore, not in myself alone. I do believe in myself as a member of the human race. I believe in the decency and sympathy and kindness of every man and woman and child that I meet. Nobody, not even Big Louise, can walk the trail alone. I know that now.
I believe also that I have an obligation. Whenever I see one of my brothers or sisters in trouble—a car off the road, the need of a cup of tea in my shabby living room by the elderly lady down the road who is lonesome—I am privileged to have the opportunity to repay, in a small measure, my debt.
I don’t know about God. He’s too big for me to understand. But I have seen his visage reflected in the faces of the people who have helped me through my hard times. I hope to live so that someday, someone will say, “Louise Rich? Oh sure, I know her. She isn’t so bad. She’s human.”
I believe in humanity.
Louise Dickinson Rich’s life in northern Maine became the fodder for her best-selling book, "We Took to The Woods." Following her husband’s death, Rich moved with her children back to her hometown of Bridgewater, Mass., where she wrote numerous books for adults and young adults.
Homepage photo illustration by vlod007 via Flickr.
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