Among a treasure trove of ancestral writings I’ve discovered in drawers, attics, and elsewhere, I want to share two that put a pleasant glaze on old age. Since we’re all headed in that direction if not already there, you may find these writings of interest.
Eunice Ferris Frazier wrote eloquently about her grandparents, Dan and Eunice, who, as children, had both lost one of their parents to the rigors of frontier life. Dan’s father froze to death bringing salt back from the fort. Eunice’s mother died the next year, her four young children then being “bound out” to other families to be raised. When Dan died after sixty years of marriage, her granddaughter watched Eunice weather the years of widowhood that followed.
“Grandmother sits in her armchair by the fire and knits. And often her knitting is forgotten, her hands falling idly into her lap while she recalls the past. She takes up the threads of lives that had crossed hers and weaves anew their histories till she loses them in the distance or finds them sinking into the valleys where there is rest to the labor and peace to the pain.
“There are winters with their fierce storms without, but fires shining brightly within—and the spring times with their singing birds and the breath of orchards. She feels the breezes fan her grey hair that once made sunny coils smoothed by hands that are now in the grave. And her face lights up with a holy joy as her dim eyes see clearly through the trees to a day breaking bright and fair, where those hands are waiting to clasp hers for life eternal.”
Those gentle hands that smoothed down Eunice’s curls as a young woman belonged to Dan Hosbrook — a teacher who had met her as a student in his frontier school of the early 1800s. One of Eunice’s brothers, Moses K., had been bound out to Dan’s family, and the two boys grew up together, bonding like brothers. When Moses died at age 21, Dan grieved for years over the loss. Meanwhile, he had gone on from teaching to becoming a state legislator and county surveyor in Ohio.
Eunice’s other brother, Hervey Bates, had been bound out to a family who ran a store and small post office. Hervey quickly mastered both and was soon running the post office at age fifteen. His talents and ambition took him to Indiana where he became a founding father of Indianapolis and a leader in banking, insurance, and railroads. Hervey built Bates House, the state’s finest hotel and where Mr. Lincoln stayed on his way to Washington to be inaugurated president. On the eve of the Civil War, Lincoln’s speech from the balcony of Bates House is commemorated by a historical marker.
Now in his own stages of old age and decline, Hervey Bates wrote a touching letter to Dan’s son, Mahlon Hosbrook, about the burials of his sister — Mahlon’s mother, Eunice—and his brother, Moses, who had bonded so tightly with Mahlon’s father, Dan. Moses had been interred on the Hosbrook family farm, but a regular cemetery had just opened up in the area.
“Indianapolis, March 1870. Dear Mahlon, grateful am I to you my friend that you have undertaken to gather up the dust of my deceased brother and lay it in your lot in the Cemetery..where my sister, your aged mother, together with yourself and family will probably at some future day be joined in the silent circle…
“There existed between your father and my brother in their early years an affectionate regard, a warm friendship passing common. It is therefore fitting they should thus sleep side by side….Now in my 76th year, it is hard for me to write. The grasshoppers have become a burden. Very Truly your Friend, H. Bates.”
Though himself a banker and builder, Hervey’s reference was to an agrarian menace of grasshoppers that literally plagued his farming cousins. Wisdom of words intersects with the accumulation of life experiences, per his phrase of us all someday “joining in the silent circle.”
That’s perhaps an unpleasant thought, and many may fear loneliness in later years as dear ones die off. But be of good cheer for, as Eunice did when her mind wandered off to sweet scenes of the past, we can always keep company with our memories. May they include singing birds, the fragrance of orchards, and warm friendships passing common.
James F. Burns, a Hosbrook descendant, is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida.