Imagined Encounters IV: Mary Rowlandson in Old Age

Mary Rowlandson died in 1711, in her early seventies.  In an early draft of Flight of the Sparrow I imagined her sitting in her dooryard near the end of her life, looking back on her captivity and pondering how it shaped her life:

I sit in the doorway of the house in the chair my stepson set out for me this morning.  I have taken my scissors out of my pocket and they lie in my lap.  I like to look upon them, though my fingers have so stiffened that I can no longer hold them properly.  They glint in the sunlight, mocking me with their reminder that my days of usefulness and duty have passed.  Yet I take them with me everywhere.  I cannot be separated from them, for they once saved my life.

My second husband built this house.  Samuel Talcott was an upright man, a captain in the militia, a man of boldness and daring.  When he asked me to wed, he promised to provide for me well, and so he has.  In his will he left me a room with a bed and a chest, use of the oven and cellar, land for a garden, and a cow for my own.  His son has honored his word.  I have meat and bread and beer.

Yet I am restive.  It is as if those months of captivity traveling up and down the wilderness, so many years ago, left me with a hunger for adventure that could not be slaked by a pious and civilized life.  As if I once discovered something that filled and gladdened me, but then lost it forever.

My book was my passage back to civilization, the price of my acceptance.  If I had imagined that the good people of Boston would receive me with open arms, I was soon rid of the illusion.  I became the chief subject of the Boston gossips; even my own husband feared that I had been contaminated by the savages.  When Reverend Mather asked that I write an account of my ordeal, it opened a door to my restoration.

Yet I have wondered since if it was too high a price to pay.  If the necessary twisting of the truth corrupted me even more than my reluctant sojourn among the Indians.

I am old now, nearly seventy years.  I did not expect to live so long.  My back is bent like that of the old Pequot woman I oftimes see on the streets of Wethersfield.  She walks with her head bowed as if studying the ground in quest of a place to lie down for her final rest.  She has no doubt borne heavy burdens on her back all her life, whereas I carried them only during my time of captivity.  Yet we are bent the same.

I am troubled with thoughts of my son, Joss, who was recently arrested, and even now lies in the Hartford goal, awaiting trial.  I will post bond for him, though I secretly doubt that he is innocent of the charges against him.  He has nursed a troubled spirit ever since that terrible winter morning when our home in Lancaster was assaulted by Indians and we were carried off into the wilderness.  He was not yet grown, still possessed of a boy’s liveliness and curiosity, and though he only spent a few months with the Indians, he was corrupted forever.

He is accused of the crime of selling his wife’s brother into Virginia as an indentured servant.  This is purported to have happened five years ago.  I do not want to credit it, yet I have long understood that Joss possesses some malevolent darkness within, and I suspect he is capable of this.  And more.

Still, he is my only son.  I must do what I can to save him.  I will use the scissors of my reputation to cut him free from this new captivity.

Life is not what we expect it to be when we are young.  The world is transformed, even as we move through it.  The ground heaves beneath our feet.  The sky darkens suddenly and thunder crashes down.  Whole villages are laid waste; strong houses are consumed in flame.  We are assaulted by our enemies.  We are crushed and betrayed by those we believed were our friends.  We are corrupted by our own iniquity.

And yet we are redeemed, again and again.

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Mary Rowlandson’s Cupboard

Thayer Memorial Library in Lancaster, MA

Thayer Memorial Library in Lancaster, MA

It stands about seven feet tall against a wall in the special collections room of the Thayer Memorial Library in Lancaster, Massachusetts: the heavy wooden cupboard that Mary Rowlandson inherited when her husband, Joseph, died in Wethersfield, Connecticut.  I had the privilege of seeing it when I was in Lancaster early in May to talk about my novel Flight of the Sparrow. It’s both exciting and a little eerie when I see a real-life artifact belonging to one of the historical people I’ve written about.  I stood there, studying it, imagining Mary’s hands opening the bottom cupboard door to put away a carefully folded tablecloth, or pulling out one of the drawers to retrieve her embroidery scissors.  In her time, the upper part of the cupboard was probably draped in a piece of fine cloth, possibly lace-trimmed linen.

It is the work of Peter Blin, the French Huguenot joiner whose work was renowned in Wethersfield.  Built of solid English oak, the joined “court cupboard” is held together with mortise and tenon joints instead of nails.  Nearly indestructible, such chests were a symbol of permanence, stability and power.

Mary Rowlandson's Cupboard

Mary Rowlandson’s Cupboard

The Rowlandson cupboard is carved with tulips and gillyflowers and decorated with trimmings painted black to resemble the ebony trim used on high-fashion pieces in England. The shelf is supported by turned columns and provides a flat space on top for displaying valuable containers and plates.  Below, three doors and two drawers give access to the storage spaces.  The overhanging shelf is supported by pilasters and provides a flat space for displaying silver or ceramic vessels.

The cupboard, though almost certainly the Rowlandsons’ prize furniture piece, was less valuable than the linens it held.  Cloth was one of the most expensive commodities in the early colonies.  The eight tablecloths, twenty-eight towels and napkins were valued at five pounds, while the cupboard itself was valued at two.

When I was visiting Salem, Massachusetts, several years ago, I took a tour of an early 18th century home.  The guide mentioned that researchers had found a list of instructions the homeowner had written for his servants, detailing what to do if the house caught fire.  I was shocked to learn that the bed hangings were to be rescued before the children.

In her narrative, Mary Rowlandson claimed that her time in the wilderness had taught her “the extreme vanity” of the world.  While she no doubt found pleasure in the beauty and utility of her cupboard, I suspect that her own harrowing experiences had given her the wisdom to the perceive the limitations of material things.

Display shelf in Plimoth Plantation home

Display shelf in Plimoth Plantation home