March 13, 2012

Death of Mary Wilkins Freeman

At her death at age 77 on March 13, 1930, Mary Wilkins Freeman left behind 13 novels, six volumes of children's stories, two books of poetry, a play, and over 200 short stories. Born in Massachusetts on Halloween in 1852, she became known for her snapshots of New England life, with a special emphasis on ordinary small towns and poor rural women. She herself had reason to be interested in those topics. By 1883, her father, her mother, and her younger sister had died while the family was living in Vermont. Homeless and poverty-stricken, she turned to writing as a means of financial support and produced one story after another in rapid succession.

Her problems, however, did not end there. When she was approaching 50 years old in 1902, she married Charles Freeman and the couple moved to New Jersey. Several years later, she institutionalized her husband for his mental problems and alcoholism. She obtained a legal separation from him before his death. In her last few years, fame and success finally came to her; she and Edith Wharton were the first women officially elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (Hamlin Garland presented her with a medal of distinction on behalf of that organization in 1926).

Freeman's story "A Far-Away Melody" (1887) features two homely twin sisters in their 50s named Mary and Priscilla. As they hang clothes up to dry, it is a beautiful day, where the season transitions towards spring and the trees are beginning to show their green leaves — a peaceful day to die, Priscilla observes. Later, at dinner, she hears the sound of music, like the closing chimes of a bell, though Mary does not and scolds her for imagining the sound. That night, Priscilla dies in her sleep and Mary decides to listen for her music too:

She lived so for nearly a year after her sister died. It was evident that she failed gradually and surely, though there was no apparent disease. It seemed to trouble her exceedingly that she never heard the music she listened for. She had an idea that she could not die unless she did, and her whole soul seemed filled with longing to join her beloved twin sister, and be assured of her forgiveness. This sister-love was all she had ever felt, besides her love of God, in any strong degree... At last she died, in the spring, a week or two before her sister had the preceding year. The season was a little more advanced this year, and the apple-trees were blossomed out further than they were then. She died about ten o'clock in the morning. The day before, her niece had been called into the room by a shrill cry of rapture from her: “I've heard it! I've heard it!” she cried. “A faint sound o' music, like the dyin' away of a bell.”

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