Gathering Together

                   A Mother's Gift

 

9-10

“So ya’ want to be a writer, do ya’?”

A small smile raised the corner of Mrs. Conroy’s mouth as she eased down into her rocker with a heavy sigh. Motioning for me to sit, I chose an old chair across from her complete with overstuffed, faded cushions.

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied eagerly, poising my pen above a fresh sheet of paper. “And I was wondering if you could tell me about your life during the War. I want to write about—”

“No,” Mrs. Conroy interrupted hastily with a wave of her hand, her brow furrowing. “No—I couldn’t do thet.”

“Why not?” I asked, irritated.

“Ya’ don’t need ta know ‘bout such things. Wars is fer men—not young gals like yerself,” the elderly woman replied sharply.

I felt my expression tightening with frustration. “I don’t care what you think, ma’am. I am going to write about it,” I replied adamantly, “and I was hoping that you would help me. But if you’re not, then I will find help elsewhere.” My feet stomped to the floor as I quickly rose from my seat.

Mrs. Conroy seemed taken aback by my boldness, but my mind was made up, and I didn’t really care what she thought about my rude manners.

“There’s nothin’ good thet happened during thet war,” the elderly woman muttered with another bat of the hand. “There’s nothin’ decent to write ‘bout.” Her wrinkled face creased to its limit, and her hands waved in vexation. “Why don’t ya’ write ‘bout somethin’ nicer?” Her face brightened a little. “Somethin’ happy.”

“I want to write about the War, ma’am,” I replied shortly. “So will you help me, or not?” Then, gentler, more encouraging, “Won’t you tell me your story, ma’am? I would like very much to hear it.”

I reseated myself, trying to look as irresistible as possible.

Realizing that I was not to be dissuaded, Mrs. Conroy let out a long, heavy sigh and leaned back in her chair, her eyes clouding over with a look that held distant memories. I waited patiently, but after a minute slipped by, and then another, I was convinced that I would pry nothing from this old soul, and I rose to leave, disheartened. I slowly made my way across the creaky old floor, gazing down with a gloomy eye at my blank paper. But I was suddenly halted as the scratchy voice murmured, “I had five sons.”

Wheeling around with renewed hope, I scrambled back to my seat, leaning forward expectantly as I readied my pen.

“I was forty-three when the War started, and I had jest buried my husband,” Mrs. Conroy began slowly, softly.

My pen began to scribble furiously.

“I remember the day my oldest son told me thet he was enlistin’ in the Confed’rate army.” She paused to swallow. “I begged him not ta. He was a good boy, ya’ know, an’ I needed him ta help me an’ the younger boys with the farm work.”

The woman turned to me with a crooked smile and moist eyes.

“But he was of age, ya’ know, an’ I couldn’t do nothin’ ta quench his youthful spirit. It was his duty ta fight, he told me, an’ he would fight ta protect me an’ the boys an’ our home. He said thet his pa would have wanted him ta fight if he was still livin’ ta say so. I knew deep down thet he was right, so I let him go, ‘though it broke my heart ta see him walkin’ down thet road knowin’ thet he might never come back.” She released a ragged sigh, glancing at me with a look that pierced my heart. “An’ he never did. Dysentery took him before he ever tasted battle.”

There was a long pause, and I didn’t dare interrupt the painful silence.

“I was heartbroken,” the old woman finally said, “an’ when my second-oldest, Micah, declared thet he was joinin’ the Confed’rates ta take his brother’s place, I firmly refused him.” Her voice rose. “I’d jest lost my husband an’ my oldest son, an’ I wasn’t ‘bout to lose nobody else!” She shook her head fiercely. “But my Micah—he was wayward and headstrong, stubborn as a mule!”  

Her tone was bitter, but her expression betrayed an old fondness before her face fogged over again.

“He snuck out one night—” Her voice broke, and she waved her hands violently as if to ward off her gathering tears. Regaining her composure, she whispered, “I never saw him again. Never heard what happened to him.”

A large tear scurried down the aged cheek, and I felt a lump form in my own throat. Mrs. Conroy’s mouth opened, as if she meant to continue, but then she just shook her head, her lips sealing tightly shut.

“What happened to your other sons?” I prodded, clearing the emotion from my throat.

The woman offered another strong shake of the head and a flip of the hand, her eyes closing with finality.

Please?” I begged, now quite anxious to find out.  

“I don’t remember,” she replied shortly. “It was too long ago.”

I didn’t believe her for a moment, and I was unwilling to accept ‘no’ for an answer.

“Yes you do,” I replied firmly. “Now, won’t you finish your story? It wouldn’t do to leave it incomplete.”

The woman released a weary breath and her eyes remained closed, but she didn’t fight me.  

“Malachi was fifteen and jest as headstrong as his brother,” she obliged, although every word sounded like a trial. “It had been a year since Micah had left, an’ Malachi was achin’ ta join in the war too. Well, I wasn’t ‘bout to let him go an’ get himself kilt. I only had three sons left at home with me, an’ I wasn’t ‘bout ta give up another.

“I fought him and fought him. We was both stubborn an’ both intended ta get our way.” She chuckled dryly. “So one day, after pleadin’ with me all mornin’ with no profit, he jest up an’ turned an’ started marchin’ down thet road, carryin’ nothin’ but his old musket. I went after him an’ yelled, threatened, cried an’ pleaded, an’ did ever’thing I could think of ta change his mind. But he wouldn’t have none of it. He told me thet he was man enough ta fight, an’ he would, an’ I couldn’t do nothin’ ta stop him.”

She chewed frantically at her lower lip.

“So there I was, a watchin’ him go, an’ feelin’ utterly helpless.

“But then my second-youngest, Elijah, came a runnin’ up ta me with his own gun in his hand, an’ he said thet if Malachi was goin’ ta war then he was goin’ with him. He started headin’ after his brother, and I felt frantic, fer he was only thirteen and I couldn’t bear the thought of him fightin’ a war. So I grabbed thet boy’s shoulders an’ started ta drag him back to the house. But he jerked away from me an’ took off runnin’.”

Mrs. Conroy paused to catch her breath, weeping quietly.

“I was so mad, I cursed him—though I never meant a word of it.” She shook her head at me with a hopeless expression. “I didn’t know what ta do, I was so scared.

“I was ‘fraid my youngest, Caleb, would get thoughts ‘bout leavin’ too, so I ran into the house and locked all the doors, an’ then I took thet boy in my arms an’ held him so tight he could hardly breathe.”

“What happened to your two sons?” I asked quietly as a grievous lull interrupted her story. I waited several long moments before I received a reply.

“Some said that Malachi fell in Gettysburg,” the woman answered quietly. “Others said he died in Vicksburg. Elijah died in some northern prison.”

“What happened to you and Caleb?”

Mrs. Conroy released a shaky sigh as long-lost love rekindled in her eyes. “Thet boy was my life. He was the only thing thet kept me goin’ durin’ those cruel times. I loved him fiercely! I never let him out of my sight an’ even slept with him at my side.”

A bent hand fluttered up to the woman’s heart.

“An’ then the Yanks came. They took ever’thing that could be of use ta them, an’ then they turned me an’ my boy out of our own house an’ burned it ta the ground. They torched our barns an’ murdered all our livestock. They didn’t leave us nothin’!” Her voice shook angrily. “We watched it all go up in smoke—me an’ my boy—an’ I stood there an’ held him with the protective strength only a mother can have.

“The men didn’t harm neither of us, but we was left with nothin’—no food, no shelter, no clothes or blankets—ta sustain us durin’ those winter months. Our neighbors was in the same fix too, an’ so there wasn’t nobody we could go ta fer help.”

Her face buried itself in her hands, while her voice shook uncontrollably.

“Thet winter brought the worst pain my heart’s ever felt. I watched my boy go hungry ‘til he was nothin’ but a walkin’ skel’ton. He couldn’t even stand on his own two feet!” Her teeth clenched together tightly as her faced screwed into an anguished look I’ve never forgotten.  

“I was helpless ta do anythin’ fer him, an’ thet hurt worse’n anythin’,” she sobbed. “I was plumb crazy with desperation as I watched my boy dyin’ right before my eyes. I swar I could’a kilt if it would’a helped him! I did ever’thing I could ta save him. He was my only child left, and I didn’t think I could stand livin’ if I losed him.

“But then one night…” She struggled to continue. “I remember watchin’ him go ta sleep…an’ then the next mornin’…” Her eyes squeezed shut. “He never woke up.”

I watched as Mrs. Conroy bent so far forward I thought she would fall from her seat, and then an unearthly moan escaped her lips. It took all my willpower to keep from blubbering like a baby.

“I tell ya’, the whole world could’a collapsed on top of me an’ it wouldn’t have hurt as bad as what I felt right then,” Mrs. Conroy wept. “My sons was all dead…every last one of ‘em.

“I tell ya, I didn’t want ta keep livin’ no more. It hurt too bad!

“But one of my neighbors, he come an’ took care of me, an’ so my wretched life went on. But I didn’t have no heart left in me no more. It had been buried, piece by piece, with my five boys.”

She let out a long, long sigh, wiping at her tears.

“But, as time went on,” she continued shakily, “I started ta feel again, ‘though I didn’t want ta at first. But once I did…I began ta feel proud—proud fer each an’ every one of my boys. Some of them had faced war, an’ some of them hadn’t, but I saw each an’ every one of them as a good, brave man. I felt proud of their sacrifices…” Her eyes glistened, and she whispered, “Even little Caleb’s.”

“You made a sacrifice too, ma’am,” I said quietly. “And yours might have been the greatest one of them all.”

Mrs. Conroy turned and smiled at me sadly. “No,” she replied softly, shaking her head. “No, I don’t believe it was. I didn’t want ta sacrifice, ya’ know. But my boys…they did…an’ they did it out of the goodness of their hearts.”

She paused, her face beginning to shine.  

“‘Though they left me, they left me with a gift thet nobody can ever take away. They left me with their strongest love, an’ they showed me the full extent of the love of Another—‘Greater love hath no man than this, thet a man lay down his life fer his friends…’”

I watched as peace settled over Mrs. Conroy’s face, and I was surprised to find the previous pain and suffering erased. In their places was a look of joy—a joy that seemed to shine from somewhere deep, deep within her soul.

I just sat and gazed upon that old woman in awe, the truth of her words branding itself upon my heart. I felt a deep reverence as I recorded her closing statement, but I wouldn’t know its full impact on me until later. 

 

During World War II, I myself saw two sons off to war, and I experienced the pain of a loss. But during my sorrow, I recalled Mrs. Conroy’s seemingly forgotten statement, and with it, her joy.

I began to seek that light for myself.

And now, I hold the gift that she so tenderly spoke of, and I hold it very dear. It is stronger than life itself, and it gives true hope amidst life’s burdens.