I've just returned from an overnight trip with D. to Springfield, Illinois. In 24 hours, we managed to see quite a lot of Springfield, whose downtown is a very compact Land of Lincoln. The main reason for our visit was to attend my alumni reception at the new Lincoln Museum. The museum has its share of detractors, and for a few minutes I was one of them, but it turned out to be a very moving experience, especially as I considered the Lincoln family tragedies and the story of Mary Todd Lincoln, who buried three of four children in addition to her husband -- and then her surviving eldest son had her committed to a mental institution for a short time. That the Lincolns were by all accounts nearly inconsolable after the death of their son Willie in 1862 is well known -- but to see the evidence of it, in Mary Todd Lincoln's letters, in which her handwriting is alternately shaky and steady -- this brought it home, very close to home.
I read history, but sometimes I forget to live it, by which I mean active remembrance and consciousness. Due to medical advances, it's now shocking when a woman tragically dies in childbirth or a child dies at a young age. The tragedy has always been present -- the shock, not so much. I know that in my infertility experience, I've blocked out others' grief. This includes the present day as well as the past. When thinking of secondary fertility or miscarriage, I've sometimes fixated on a broad point -- "Well, at least she had other children, or at least she knew she could get pregnant." But in doing so, I've missed the real point, which is that the other woman has lost something, and I have lost something, and although our losses are not the same, we are part of a long, sad, particularly female history of grief.
In a museum shop, I bought a copy of The Lincolns in the White House: Four Years That Shattered a Family.
Half an hour later and six blocks away, I came face to face with another woman's loss, or the symbol of it, at Frank Lloyd Wright's Dana-Thomas House. Susan Laurence Dana was a 40-year-old widow when she commissioned the house. She loved children, had buried both of hers, and desperately wanted more, and so she insisted that her house have a nursery in case she did have another child. Perhaps to hedge her bets, she later married a man 20 years her junior. On a honeymoon trip to Paris, she bought an infant's christening gown. It's now displayed in the would-have-been nursery. Susan Dana was nearly 50 years old at the time of purchase. I can imagine the hidden smirks of the Parisian shop clerk while ringing up the purchase (even our docent was smiling as she explained the christening gown)-- or did Susan Dana lie and say it was a gift for a younger friend? She worked for women's and African-American rights; she wore extremely flamboyant purple hats; she tore down her Victorian house for a new mode of living. So I like to think that she boldly said to the clerk, "This will be for my baby."
She never had occasion to take off the price tag. Ninety years later, it's still there, hanging from the ivory damask sleeve. Her young husband died soon after their marriage.
But downstairs in the basement are children's-sized bookshelves and tables, hidden iceboxes for the children's parties she loved to host, and a bowling lane. Life went on, and she lived it very thoroughly.
So in that gift shop, I bought a butterfly pin based on a stained glass design in the house, which was Frank Lloyd Wright's own tribute to his client.
Then, having walked in other women's paths all over town, I went home.