So runs the lovely old ballad. My song is about two gracious old ladies, passing by, who have won my heart by their charm. The first one is not really "passing by" - except in the sense that each human being is a traveller, passing this way but once. (Mother Taylor's mother reminded her children often, "Remember you are passing this way but once, leave sunshine, not shadows, in your path.") Mrs. Wilhelmina C. is snugly ensconced in a lovely little home in Highland Park, Ill. She and her unmarried daughter own this home (and several others); it was here that Estelle and Tommy had a sunny room and all the comforts and privileges of home. Estelle wrote often and admiringly of these fine people, but I was hardly prepared for the magnetic charm of the 82-year-old widowed mother, who reminds one of the sterling pioneer women of the north midwest, that Edith Wharton, the novelist, loves to write about. "Queen Wilhelmina," as I call her, is just tall enough for queenliness, with a fine, straight back and erect carriage, in spite of a bad spine that prevents her from doing more than dishwashing and preparing the vegetables for dinner. This condition gives her no inferiority complex. As she said, with a fine toss of her head, the morning I met her, "I've already done my share of work." There is nothing "old" about her, unless it might be the wrinkles in her face - and they are wrinkles of character, rather than of age. Her expressive blue eyes go shut as a preface to every emphatic speech - and snap open, brighter than ever. She must have been a beautiful girl. Her silver gray hair is braided at night, ending in a long pig tail that reaches to her waist. It was that way until after mail time the next morning. From 9:30 on she watches avidly for the mailman, who rewards her daily - almost without fail - with a letter from her married daughter in Texas. This daughter and the indefatigable Mabel at home are all she has. A beloved son died about twenty years ago, and her husband, eleven years ago. Since Estelle was usually absorbed in cross-word puzzles or a magazine, I spent every spare moment with the "Queen." She took me back with her to her girlhood days on her parents' farm, near Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. The land was rich, and the well-kept farms flourished. Everybody worked hard and lived well.
The only son of the couple who owned the adjoining farm was in love with her. (She didn't say so, but how could he help it?) It was all settled by the parents on both sides that she was to marry him. It was considered an "ideal match." Wilhelmina was flattered by the attentions of this very eligible young man. The hope chest was fast being filled, and a frilly trousseau planned. Then, one night, at a country dance, "Henry" came on the scene ... Henry, with the empty pockets, with no title to anything but that intangible heritage of courage, industry, with a stoutheartedness that laughed at all obstacles. When she met this lad with the smiling eyes and merry laughter, her erstwhile fiance dropped right out of her consciousness. She told her mother shortly that she was going to marry Henry. This Spartan mother, with a tone of crisp dismissal replied, "Nonsense." But Wilhelmina, still in her teens was adamant. The stern mother said, "You'll never get your father's and my consent." "Then I'll marry him without it." "You will not get one whit of help from us; and what's more, that Henry may not set his foot inside this house." That was the ultimatum. Which, I can believe, the spirited girl received with a fine toss of her head. She told Henry all about it. Suddenly he realized that he hadn't much of this world's goods to offer her. With that self-abasement that sweeps over lovers at the first full realization of their great good fortune he said, "I haven't money enough to buy you even a tiny house." "Then we'll live in a chicken coop!" What man could fail with a helpmate like that at his side? He went straightway to her parents' home, in the full armor of love. Wilhelmina's mother was down on her knees, scrubbing the kitchen floor, as only those sturdy pioneers knew how to scrub. Henry crossed the invisible barrier, walked right over to the kneeling mother, gave her a friendly pat on the back, said, "How do you do, Mrs. S.?" and grasped her wet hand and shook it. The mother was so flabbergasted that she forgot to denounce him, or to order him out of the house. He had caught her off guard, and he made the most of it. He declared his honorable intentions, and let it be known that with his own two hands he could make a good living for Wilhelmina. But he would like to dignify the marriage with her parents' consent. Well, that boy, with his candor and moral courage, won the consent of her stiffnecked parents. He kept his word. He had learned the carpenter trade, and while they lived in a tiny tenant house he built her a fine, sturdy house with his two hands. They sold it at a good profit, and he built a bigger one. Then he tried his hand at farming. I gathered that he was not a huge success at farming; but Wilhelmina loved him so much that every day was a great adventure. "Not for one hour did I ever regret marrying Henry." Altogether they lived in 32 houses. They defied the old adage "A rolling stone gathers no moss." For they gathered plenty of those greenbacks that you carry to the bank and trade for future security. They travelled all over this blessed land of ours, had a grand time. Henry left his "queen" well fixed. Again and again she shut her eyes, gave her proud head a quick toss, and said, "Oh, a better man never lived!"
And so - although Tommy is far from Fort Sheridan now (in maneuvers in Tennessee) there will always be a twin magnet drawing me toward Chicago - my lovely friend, Dell McQuiston Harmon, and "Queen Wilhelmina."
Florence B. Taylor
P.S. I must tell you about the other lady at another time.
Next - 9/17/42 - A Mother's Day Song
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