Monday, August 18, 2014

Salve of Spirit

Lillian Smith Barney is an enigma to me. She was long gone by the time I entered the Barney family. Stories of my father-in-law's mother eked out over time. They weren't pretty. Like when my twin brothers-in-law were newborns. She held one of them and asked their mother, my beloved mother-in-law, "What would happen if I dropped one?" In her later years, she spent time at a mental-health institution.

That's about all I knew. When our second daughter was born and we loved the name Lily, we made sure to tell her grandmother it was just Lily, not short for Lillian.

Lillian's high school graduation

This week, we celebrated my husband's and his twin sister's birthday at her beautiful rural home. For some reason, Lillian became a subject of discussion and my sister-in-law pulled out a notebook full of pencilled poems Lillian had prolifically written about the course of her life. Cousins had recently given her the book of poems at a family reunion. She was deeply grateful because the binder she had burned in a house fire. She had no idea there was another copy. "Can you believe this is her actual handwriting?" my sister-in-law asked. The connection she felt was palpable, reminding me of the energy I experienced handling a book published in 1661 by my ancestor. [

Together, we pawed through the perfectly handwritten, barely edited stash. Wow, she wrote about everything: a sweet-16 love who went off to WWI, her only son, her grandchildren, her struggle with sanity, aging and faith. A thread of longing ran through the passages, yet I also saw hope, resilience and a deep love of family. She looked at things honestly, especially her condition, in whatever moment she was examining.

My husband's father wrote a book called "Porter Township" about his family and growing up in Wheelersburg, OH. I haven't read it in years, but pulled it back out to get some sense of Lillian Esther Smith Barney. I hadn't even  known her full name.

Lillian in 1919 at her first teaching position
Her son regarded her fondly as nurturing, resourceful and compassionate. During the Depression, she met with the county school superintendent, seeking a teaching job. She was sent 30 miles and as far away as possible while remaining in the county. Her husband, "Jake," drove her back and forth at the beginning and end of the week. Lillian and son John boarded near the country, one-room school. Her next assignment, though closer to home, was also a collection of grades, but she made the best of it. Raised Baptist, but convinced her father to allow her to marry a German Catholic, though, according to her father, his family was "fresh" from Germany, only 50 years ago and nowhere near as settled as the Smith clan. There's no mention of anything dark, except, possibly, Lillian's relationship with her father:
"I liked Grandpa Smith very much. I knew him personally and we spent many hours in each other's company ... He didn't look like the picture-book grandfather. Put a little more hair on his head and exchange the pitchfork for  a saw and you have the man in Grant Wood's American Gothic ...  I myself have heard him called mean, miserly and martinetish.
"One time when she was twelve and her mother was ill, my mother got up at five in the morning. She built the fire, prepared the breakfast for the family and got her brothers and sisters ready for school. She prepared her father's breakfast; he punished her for not putting her long stockings on properly before coming into his presence that morning.
Ends: my mother- & father-in law,  Lillian and "Jake" with infants Jim and John
My mother is gone. She is standing at her father's elbow attempting to explain her sorrow for having felt ill of him during their lifetime. He fails to hear because he is busy telling Saint Peter what a fine daughter she was and how well pleased he always was with her."
          – From Porter Township by John Smith Barney 

The epilogue chills me. Did her struggle stem from attempting to gain her father's favor? Today, there would be many non-invasive options for dealing with that. Perhaps her poetry was the one path to healing she could find herself.

Though my sister-in-law offered me the binder to take home, I felt it belongs with her, though I firmly believe we need to scan her poems. I want to spend more time with them; much more. She had so much to say.

When my Lily overheard the conversation about Lillian remarking on the possibility of dropping one  of the newborns, she said, "But don't you ever think about doing things like that?" "Sure, but you don't say it out loud," quipped her sister.

I believe Lillian examined everything out loud, even her darkest thoughts.

Loneliness Vs. Solitude

I have learned to live
with loneliness.
To cast away the doubts
and fears
of being insufficient to
In one’s own heart must
true contentment live.
Yet oft, so oft, we
feel the need of those
whom we have known
and loved in other days.
We yearn to see another’s
face which we
have loved and lost
somewhere upon the way.
To touch the hand once
held in fond caress;
to hear the voice that
is no longer heard.
For this there is no
They cannot come.
In memory only can
we have them still.
This we accept in time.
Take what we can
of pleasure in remembering.
This loneliness does
shed its harsher mood.
This loneliness does
change to solitude.
– Lillian Esther Smith Barney

• Who is your example of living out loud?
• How has that person influenced you?
• How can family, even generations back, touch us now?
• Who would you like to have known? Why?
• What legacy will you leave?

Though the treads are thin,
they still touch me,
calling me to know
this woman who struggled

yet was courageous enough
to examine her life

I wonder what conclusion
she reached

Her words show resilience,
grace and a strong sense
of Spirit as she poured
out and over her life

Spirit, the salve
for the painful parts

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