Though my great-aunt Mary passed away at age 101 in 1968, her spirit and spunk transcend time. At this time of painfully raw divisions in our nation after the recent election, she would be a healer at your table on Thanksgiving Day. Here’s what she might say, based on a lengthy letter she wrote in 1895.
“Let me first tell you a story about a trip I took when I was in my twenties. I boarded a train in Ohio and headed for Virginia to teach art at a boarding school.
“We rode all night and arrived at Cumberland Gap at 5 a.m.— only to be told the train tunnel had caved in and we’d have to cross the mountain in wagons. The horses were bony and so were the drivers. I climbed in one with six men so I could sit in the front seat.
“I never expected the horses could get us over the mountain — but they did by stopping to rest every 100 yards up the mountain. Incremental progress got us to the top. I was born into a broken nation in 1866. A weak economy, a racial divide, women’s rights an oxymoron. But we had an industrial revolution that energized the economy by the time I was 30, passed women’s suffrage by the time I was 60, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when I was 98. I’m a patient person.
“On the summit of the mountain, we were in three states — Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, and I in a fourth one, a state of bliss. As far as the eye could see rose one mountain after another, a smoky blue haze hovering around the tops. As an artist and an optimist, I see the peaks of my nation’s past and work to fill in the low points of poverty and injustices.
“The rocks rose straight up on one side and straight down on the other—a little jump to one side of the road would have made pressed meat of me. I dug my toes into the hindquarters of the horse when we went down for fear I’d slip off. So while I trusted the driver of our ship of state, I kept a critical eye on him while doing what I could to secure myself.
“And though the road was rocky and solid sandstone in some places, there were beautiful flowers growing out of the stones. Determination often overcomes obstacles.
“They held the train for us in Virginia, and I met a woman who was the wife of a railroad man. We were passing through the loveliest country, so she took me out on the back platform to see better. They put a trunk down for us to sit on, and we had to hold on to the railing as we sailed around curves and over trestles. I had the ride of my life.”
Aunt Mary combined qualities our nation needs. She had the eye of an artist — she carved the wooden panels on the pipe organ at Cincinnati’s Music Hall and had an oil painting in the Corcoran Art Museum — but the head of a businesswoman. She went to Kansas City in 1901 and became a wealthy woman in the book business.
Mary Hosbrook Kincaid left her entire estate to charities because she believed in helping others. But she was also a pragmatist who agreed with President Kennedy’s admonition that we should not ask what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country — and each other. She was an independent woman who also recognized and valued our interdependencies.
At the Thanksgiving dinner table, her attitude would be: “If I’ve got the mashed potatoes and you’ve got the gravy, we need to get together.” Be thankful for your peak experiences, flowers than can grow out of stones, and a future as bright as we want to make it.
James F. Burns, a professor emeritus at the University of Florida, is a great-nephew of Mary H. Kincaid.