Updated: Jun 11
How Hardships Transform into Thanksgiving
I’m never more aware of my blessings than when I read journals and diaries of women who came before me. Humbled by their ability to find blessings in hardship, I’m reminded of how easy my life is and how I’m not mindful enough of the many, many advantages the modern world offers me.
Inspired by the journals and jottings of women of the past:
Mary Walker Richardson
Take the journals of Mary Walker Richardson. You may not know her, but she was one of the first women to cross the Rocky Mountains. She married her husband, Elkanah, after a 48-hour courtship so she could be a missionary and travel with him to the Pacific Northwest. It was 1838. Their honeymoon was a five-month, grueling journey of more than 3000 miles, from Maine to Washington State. She became pregnant and spent most of the journey sidesaddle.
(Are you thinking about this? How far do you think you could walk? Imagine tromping and riding across 3000 miles of rough terrain with no roads, no restaurants, no restrooms. Collecting firewood. Cooking over open flames. PREGNANT.)
Mary and her husband made it to the Whitman Mission. (The life of Narcissa Whitman is another story altogether, but if you don’t know it, it’s worth a read.) Once they arrived at the Whitmans’ home, Mary Walker Richardson wrote about some of her struggles:
“So cold everything freezes. Door latches stick to the fingers only a few feet from the fire.” — November 9, 1838.
Less than two weeks later, she writes,
“Mr. W. (her husband,) has not bathed for some weeks.” — November 21, 1838.
I don’t know about you, but the idea of pulling my skin off on frozen metal doorknobs or going to bed with a man who hasn’t bathed for weeks makes me cringe.
Then it makes me wildly thankful for central heat, hot water, soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, and simple daily hygiene.
Mary Walker humbles me when she writes in her journal that she isn’t doing enough. That she isn’t giving enough. That in the midst of a primitive cabin with no luxuries or comfort of the life she had known before, she sees herself as being blessed and not giving enough back:
“But with all my blessings, how small my return. How inactive I am…”
She also writes,
“The measles and influenza are very mortal on the east side of the mountains. 100 have died at Red River.” — November 25, 1846.
How thankful I am that smallpox and cholera no longer run rampant in America. I’m grateful we have vaccines against flu, diphtheria, and measles. That we are less likely to die of a common infection than we were 150 years ago.
Elizabeth Dixon Smith Geer
Elizabeth Smith Geer followed the westward trail after Mary Walker Richardson. She left for Oregon with her husband and SEVEN children. Her story is both tragic and uplifting. She says this of a day on her journey:
“It rains and snows. We start this morning around the falls with our wagons…I carry my babe and lead, or rather carry, another through snow, mud, and water almost to my knees. It is the worst road…I went ahead with my children and I was afraid to look behind me for fear of seeing the wagons turn over into the mud. My children gave out with cold and fatigue and could not travel, and the boys had to unhitch the oxen and bring them and carry the children on to camp. I was so so cold and numb I could not tell by feeling that I had any feet at all…there was not one dry thread on one of us — not even my babe. I have not told you half we suffered. I am not adequate to the task.” — November 1847.
Makes me thankful for roads. For cars. For the safety and security of modern-day travel. For dry clothes and warm blankets. For not having to ford streams and mountains and carry children on foot to destinations thousands of miles away. I know for sure that “I am not adequate to the task.”
Elizabeth Smith’s husband died after they arrived in Oregon.
“To-day we buried my earthly companion. Now I know what none but widows know: that is, how comfortless is a widow’s life; especially when left in a strange land without money or friends, and the care of seven children.” — February 1, 1848.”
She did not give up and later, Elizabeth Smith remarried.
She survived, ending up with a second husband and a family with a combined total of 17 children.
“I did not marry rich, but my husband is industrious and is as kind to me as I can ask. Indeed, he sometimes provokes me in trying to humor me so much.”
Makes me thankful for new beginnings. For hope and light at the end of despair and tragedy.
Helen Keller was born a healthy baby in 1880. But at the age of 19 months, she became blind and deaf, probably due to meningitis or scarlet fever.
You may know her story. She was a difficult, enraged child, but with the help of Anne Sullivan, a teacher who taught her sign language and calmed her behavior, Keller went on to become a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union and defender of the rights of people with disabilities.
“It has been said that life has treated me harshly; and sometimes I have complained in my heart because many pleasures of human experience have been withheld from me…if much has been denied me, much — VERY MUCH — has been given me.”
Gratitude for my good health. My eyesight. For tasting and touching. My limbs and my life. I should ALWAYS be thankful.
And then there’s Martha Farnsworth:
Martha Farnsworth was a Midwestern woman who kept a journal from the time she was 14 until shortly before she died in 1922.
In November of 1916, she was thankful for these things:
“Jonesie cleaned my carpets with her vacuum cleaner, the ‘Thor,’ and it certainly cleaned them, too. Electricity is wonderful!” — November 2, 1916.
Several weeks later, Farnsworth acknowledged Thanksgiving Day:
“Thanksgiving Day! and O, we have so much to be thankful for. We enjoyed Victrola music today…we always do without everything in the way of pleasure; we work hard and ‘skimp,’ our noses always on the grindstone and can’t ‘lay by,’ so we decided to get a pleasure of buying a Victrola.” — November 30, 1916.
Oh, the things I take for granted. Like vacuum cleaners. Electricity. Can you imagine a world without electrical current available at the flip of a switch? A world without light, warmth, appliances, computers?
How happy I am that I can have music surrounding me at any given moment. That tunes and sounds and harmonies are transmitted to me effortlessly.
So much to be grateful for. So much to appreciate in the women who went before and who had the fortitude to write about their hardships and their joys.
Mary Chapin Carpenter sings about the women who have made us strong in a song called Family Hands. Women who “are stronger than you know…”
Kudos to you. And thank you for these lessons of gratitude.
Melissa Gouty never ceases to be amazed by the stories of strength and resilience of women who have gone before. The Westward migration and the role of women is one of her favorite topics…along with what she calls “The Personal Pen,” the power of journals, diaries, and autobiographies.