“All the philosophy in our house is not in the study; a good deal is in the kitchen, where a fine old lady thinks high thoughts and does kind deeds while she cooks and scrubs.”
LMA on her mother Abigail May Alcott, aka Marmee.
Hello and thank you for joining me in celebrating the birthday of the woman who inspired me the most, my mother, Abigail May Alcatt.
Marmee, as I refer to her in the “Little Women” books, was born this day in 1800 to a prominent Boston merchant. She was a direct descendent of the Quincy and Sewall families. The Quincy family, I am sure you’ve heard of, but let me give a brief bio on Judge Samuel Sewall for those of you who do not know the finer details of the Salem Witch Trials.
Her Great Uncle Sam (I guess that makes me a relative, too) presided over the trials that led to the convictions and subsequent hangings of 19 women presumed to be witches back in the late 1600s. A 20th suspect, a man, was crushed under stones because he refused to enter a plea at his arraignment. Great Uncle Sam stands out because he repented for his poor judgment five years after the trials, that to this day, still cast a dreary shadow on Salem, Mass. It doesn’t do much for the family lineage, either.
(We’re going to reserve judgment on the judge to an upcoming post on the Salem Witch Trials later this month, with Halloween on the horizon, and all. Today, it’s all about Marmee.)
Marme was also the great niece of John Hancock, the first governor of Massachusetts who is probably better known for his stately signature on the Declaration of Independence.
I know you’re thinking, with that kind of pedigree, Marmee must have led a charmed life. I assure you, she did not.
She was the youngest child who suffered the loss of siblings from an early age. She was particularly close to her brother Samuel Joseph May, who encouraged her to embellish her rudimentary education by reading and writing as much as possible and taking advantage of other educational opportunities often denied girls, even those of Marmee’s then social status.
Though informal, education opened Marmee’s mind to injustices of the world. She saw no reason girls should be discouraged from learning history, math and other subjects. She also so no reason why ethnic minorities should be denied an education or the same simple liberties she enjoyed. She also wondered why women should just sit around and look pretty when they could be righting the wrongs of society.
Marmee scoffed the dainty dresses of the time, and even the corsets. A man should love a woman for her mind. This cutting-edge philosophy limited social engagements and dates. She decided against one marital prospect – a promising law student hand selected from her worried family – because she did not love him.
But in 1827, while visiting her brother, now an abolitionist and UU Rev. Samuel Joseph May living in Brooklyn, Conn., she met Amos Bronson Alcatt, a self-appointed philosopher. She was immediately taken with the tall, blonde farmer’s son from upstate Connecticut. They shared much of the same values, although Bronson wouldn’t change his mind about slavery until many years later.
The Mays were not as smitten with Bronson as Abigail was. He had no real job, no formal education and did not seem to understand the need to provide for one’s family. Marmee would not be deterred. She believed in the aspiring Transcendentalist, and would follow him everywhere. They were married, and together had five children, four girls and a son, who died in infancy.
Trust me, it was not all rosy. Our dad would never catch on that a salary was vital to supporting a family. Often he would disappear for months at a time to lecture all over the country and parts of Europe. He did this on borrowed money, leaving Marmee alone with a house full of children to clothe, feed and shelter. She took in boarders and sewing, but it was never enough. We were forever indebted to friends and relatives who covered basic household needs.
My sisters, relatives, friends and I were all worried that Marmee would be overwhelmed, which she was. It did not help that stories would circulate about our dad flirting and spending maybe a bit too much time with young, beautiful women. But our dad is not here to defend himself from these allegations, so let’s move on.
Cash did not flow, and often our family was forced to move from one rental to another. My sisters and I had to help with the household chores, cooking and even the sewing she took in for extra cash. This was exhausting and I vowed that when I was old enough, I would find a way to provide Marmee all the comforts denied her.
Marmee’s health began to take a toll. She became overweight, severely myopic, exhausted, and what today would be called depressed. She did, however, manage to overcome these obstacles enough to provide shelter for slaves escaping the south and vocalize the need for women to vote and educate themselves. She was also the first to prepare a meal for a nearby family in need. In her later years, Marmee became one of the first social workers. She was always thinking of others.
Here is an excerpt from a journal entry she wrote while in her 50s. “I am becoming a dead, decaying thing. Sad that so much time is irrevocably gone – and so little remains.”
As you can see, Marmee was a prolific writer. Not of fantasies and fiction, like me, but regarding the rights of women and minorities. She kept a journal and encouraged us to do the same. We actually kept two journals each. One strictly for ourselves and the other to share with each other. Often we’d leave little notes in each others.
Marmee was my strongest supporter. She knew I loved writing and encouraged, encourage, encouraged it. Soon, I was making upwards of $50 to $100 for my “fairy stories.” That money was used to clear family debts and maybe purchase some extra firewood for our bitter New England winters. If you read “Little Women,” you may notice that Marmee plays a significant role, whereas our father is seldom around. That was no accident.
Marmee died Nov. 25, 1877, following years of declining health. I am happy that I was able to provide her a comfortable home, plenty of food and leisure time before she took her last breath. I was at her side, along with my dad, when she died. Our father may have had his character flaws, but he did love Marmee and us.
In closing, I’ll share a quote Marmee often said to me. It’s not hers, but of writer Arthur Helps. “There are no closed doors for” the writers of fiction.
Here are some quotes lifted from Marmee’s diary:
“Rule yourself,” “Love your neighbor,” “Hope and keep busy.”
“My life is one of daily protest against the oppression and abuses of Society. I find selfishness, meanness, among people who fill high places in church and state.”
and my favorite:
“I am not willing to be found incapable of anything.”