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What I Learned From Alice

Alice Kirk Grierson and Children.jpg

That Alice Kirk Grierson* loved her husband is obvious from her letters. For a woman with her Victorian sensibilities, her passions at times are rather shocking. That she and her husband were one cannot be doubted.

Her life was not easy. A major general in the Civil War, Major General Benjamin H. Grierson, her husband was a hero at Vicksburg, who was, after Appomattox, assigned to the West, then shuffled to often remote forts where sometimes for weeks and months, Alice and the children lived alone and in tents. General Grierson saw lots of action in the Indian wars. His command was the African-American 10th cavalry, "buffalo soldiers." Grierson was an abolitionist, a liberal.

When she was a resident of some well-established fort, she and the children could move out of a tent and into a house.

Her letters sometimes protest a bit at the work her husband's position required, both of his long absences and of her having to play hostess to officers and families.

And a Mom she was too. Given the Major General's frequent absences, their altogether infrequent time together bore some abundant fruit. Alice Kirk Grierson had no trouble getting pregnant, and each beloved baby only served to increase her workload and anxieties.

There were already so many children and so much to do that she told her husband, in a burdened letter, that she couldn't help but fear their reunion again because of what she guessed would inevitably occur.

She tried to explain, retelling the stories of their six children and those who didn’t make it: “I told you before Harry was a year old, that I would rather die than have another child, yet no sooner was he weaned than Georgie came into life.”

Her last two births left her in depression, and then, "When our precious baby died, you said to me, "bear up, darling, she was with us for some purpose." She says she thinks often of his words: "What is the purpose for which she was with us?" She offers no answer.

When she hears news of her mother's illness in Chicago, she determines to leave Ft. Sill. She tells her loving husband that it will be some time before she returns.

He misses her dearly and tells her so. She knows his loneliness, she says, but she refuses to return and stays in Chicago through the winter for a very simple reason: "My darling husband, I should have gone to my grave if I had not gone to my father's house.”

Alice Kirk Grierson abides by what she considered the Bible's directives about being "subject to your husband," of the promise she made to give herself to him and his desires. She was a woman of her day and time. She's come to believe the only way she can prevent another pregnancy is by staying away from her beloved until she's rebuilt strength sufficient to deal with what she sees as eventualities--yet another baby.

For a moment right there, I put the book down, stopped reading.

I suppose it's unfair for me to assume my reaction to her story and their letters may be the same as anyone else's. Besides, times have changed. Birth control today is an industry. Honestly, I don't know that her story adds anything to the debate surrounding the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade or now Bates.

But her story teaches me--a man, a husband, and a father--two lessons I can't help take to heart in the middle of all the debate: first, how very much about the whole subject I just don't, and even can't; and second, that it may be best for me to keep my mouth shut about matters Mrs. Grierson's letters make painfully clear I only dimly understand.

* This essay relies on The Colonel's Lady on the Western Frontier: The Correspondence of Alice Kirk Grierson. University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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