Bemis

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11. Family Letters



Fortunately, many letters to the family and other friends have been kept. They are singularly like her; never diffuse, but with that rare and happy characteristic of telling concretely and clearly what was of most interest to those to whom they were written, and never letting irrelevant generalities take the place of matters of importance. In reading these letters consecutively we are struck by the naïve and unconscious way in which she reveals much of herself. They contain few allusions to her own discomforts, but abound in sympathy for any that have come to those to whom she is writing; they show how her happiness never depended on anything that she might obtain for herself, while she magnifies whatever others do for her. Social gatherings that brought old friends and new together she enjoyed in a simple, whole-hearted way; she cordially approved of fun and encouraged it by giving and taking it, but never seemed to seek diversion. Her happiness came from what was close at hand, especially in the simple every day gifts that are bestowed on us all. Among her papers is found this "Line of Cheer:"

"I love the air of hill and sea
That puts its crispness into me.
I love the smiling of the sky
That sets its twinkle in mine eye.
I love the vigor of the gale
That lends me strength where mine doth fail.
I love the golden light of day
That makes my jaded spirit gay.
I love the dark of night whose guest
I find myself when I would rest.
And gratitude doth hold me thrall
Unto the Giver of them all.
"

A few sentences taken at random from the letters show that this expressed what was in her mind: "The day has been beautiful. You know this is the rainless season and the hills, as we came along, were all brown, no green grass anywhere, but the trees are beautiful with very full leafage, showing that the air is very moist.... I wish that you could see 'The Springs' now it is so very beautiful.... I have some dear little finches building in their evergreen trees. I think that there are several pairs. Tell Gregg that I can look from my chamber window directly into a robin's nest."

In one of her letters to her grandchildren she says: "I went down to the Young Women's Christian Association rooms yesterday afternoon to take tea and hear the report of those who have been raising money to support the work there. Some little girls were having their gymnastic lessons and were having a very jolly time. At last the leaves are all off of the trees and I think the little wayside flowers must have had their noses pinched last night by Jack Frost."

Her interest not only in the beauty of the world about her but in what others are doing to make it bring forth and bud for the good of mankind is shown over and over: "Alice is happy," she writes, "to have the weather warmer for her garden. She thinks that her vegetables have had too much hail and cold weather, but the last two days have been fine. The country here responds very quickly to showers, the trees and grass now are in perfection and the whole town is beautifully dressed. I have never seen it looking better notwithstanding the dandelions."

The family letters abound in allusions to the grandchildren and touch upon all the varied interests of her children; many were written directly to the grandchildren. It was beautiful to see the joy those little people brought to her, and it was characteristic of her that, never thinking of what might be considered as due her, she was surprised when a second grandchild was given her name.

On March 5, 1909, she writes: "I was so pleased this morning to have a telegram about the new little girl, and you were fooling Farwell about the name; I can't believe that she is named already and for me. If she really has the name of Alice, I hope that she will be a better woman than I have been. I am crazy to see her and am wondering if she looks as little Faith did and has as much hair. Oh dear! the distance is tremendous sometimes. I do wish that I had a home nearer my family.

"What did 'Sister' say? What did Alan say and do?... My best love and congratulations to each. I am so glad to have another granddaughter."

Each one of the grandchildren had a special place in her thought and affections, and was beautiful to her. "The children are well and really pretty,--but not in pictures," she writes once.

The strength of her hands was largely used in knitting dainty garments for the children and their mothers. During her last summer she spoke of this to a friend, as if apologizing for not working solely for our soldiers, instead of indulging herself in doing what she did for her own, who "seemed to like what she made for them." This is the only self-indulgence that is mentioned in all the letters that have been read in preparing this sketch. Remembering how large were her gifts to war relief compared to what she ever spent for herself, one can think only with delight that she had the pleasure of weaving so many loving thoughts for those dearest to her into her last gifts to them.

The following shows a tact that often wins where criticism would lose: "It was Maude's birthday yesterday ... two friends came to dinner. The second maid had the misfortune to fall down, or rather turn her ankle standing up, and she had to be put to bed. The cook is a good-natured girl and she thought that she could wait on the table. I did not think much of her ability, but thanked her, gave her a few instructions, and told her to put on a white waist and wear a good white apron. Well I was repaid for not showing any doubt to her, for she waited very well indeed, and all went merry as a birthday bell."

She does not hesitate to criticize herself, even to the point of placing herself in a ridiculous light, one of the hallmarks never found on small souls. For instance, she once wrote: "You will be interested in my yesterday afternoon exploits. I started to crochet a white hand-bag, like one that Mrs. S---- is making, and after I had done quite a lot, I found a mistake away back and so went to work and took it out. Then I thought I would fill one of my fountain pens, and when I thought that I had been unusually expeditious and neat, I looked in the glass and found my best white waist splashed up with the ink. Wasn't I a very low-spirited woman! This morning I am trying to reduce the brilliant color of the spots by putting on salt and lemon and putting in the sun, but I know not if they will go, but I consider them a disgrace to Alice Cogswell Bemis."

The letters give glimpses of many personal gifts that were so well concealed from all except those to whom they were made. It is shown that these were not given impulsively, but were carefully thought out and almost invariably planned to meet what seemed to her a definite need. For example: "I have told Mrs. Gregg about my plan for a trip for Gregg and herself and offered to pay all the expense.... I will enclose a check which you can fill out as I have no idea how much it will cost. At any rate please use it and send Gregg away for a while; it will be a benefit to him to travel and be away from servants. Let him look after himself."

She rarely gives advice, but frequently makes friendly suggestions backed by the material wherewithal necessary to carry them out. "I have been sorry to know that Gregg has been having so much cold; it came to me one night that perhaps it would do him good to take a trip down to Hampton. I remember that Mrs. B---- had a son with General Armstrong at Hampton, teaching typesetting, and she went down to see him. She told me of some people who went down there every year to avoid the snows because they never had catarrhal troubles at Hampton. She said that it was a fine climate, so I wondered ... if it would not do Gregg good to go down there and live in the open air of that lovely region for several weeks."

In writing to her son in February, 1907, of the laying of the corner-stone of Bemis Hall, at Colorado College, she makes no allusion to the gift that made this building possible, and says only: "I suppose Gregg wrote you or Sister that I helped lay the corner-stone of the new hall yesterday morning. Mrs. S., one of the 1908 Class, and myself patted on the cement. Gregg remarked if Daddy and Alan had been there, there would have been a lot more put on. The wind was very chilly yesterday, but we were not there very long and we were fairly well wrapped."