In his poem “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” the English poet Thomas Gray memorably reflected on the legacy of un-famous lives buried in a rural graveyard.
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil //
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile //
The short and simple annals of the poor.
With tender lyrical beauty, Grey conveyed the worth and righteousness of a small, obscure life, one spent in the ordinary hum of love of God, family, and neighbor. It’s a sentiment that cuts across our fame-seeking, platform-building digital age. The idea of living and dying while the world isn’t watching is an idea that fills many of us with horror. But that is the fate of so many of whom Jesus said would be called great in the kingdom.
Here’s something to consider this weekend: Of all these noble unnamed, how many are mothers?
How many women have given their life to their children? How thicker would the books of history be if we could record the daily love and loss of women whose heart was with their home? I doubt it could even be imagined. When it comes to bearing the burdens of our very humanity, surely mothers carry the heaviest and hardest loads. And yet how many of these years—or rather, how many of these lives–of sacrifice ever cue public applause or congratulations?
Meditate with me on two women, two mothers, whose names will probably be strange to you: Mabel Suffield and Flora Hamilton.
Mabel Suffield lived to be only 44 years old, dying of disease. She was widowed less than 10 years into her only marriage, left to raise two children by herself. To make life even harder, she was shunned by both her family and in-laws when she joined the Catholic church during a time of rampant English anti-Catholic sentiment. Living in charitable housing and often relying on the kindness of priests and strangers, Mabel tied her whole self, her entire earthly well-being, into protecting and raising her children.
By earthly standards, her life was a tragic waste. She had married too daringly an adventurer who died in Africa, thousands of miles away. She had chosen religion over relationship and financial support. Nothing about Mabel Suffield’s existence registers on the scale of worldly success. What success she did enjoy, however, was in shaping the imagination and talents of her youngest son. She gave him
…more than a lovely world in which to grow up; she gave him an array of fascinating tools to explore and interpret it. We know little of her own education, but she clearly valued learning and vigorously set about transmitting what she knew…She taught him to draw and to paint, arts in which he would develop his own unmistakeable style.
Mabel was clearly talented, but her talents did not earn her the rewards of ambition or the approbation of her peers. They went, instead, to her son. That was to be, in divine Providence, the outermost borders of her life, her “short and simple annal.”
Flora Hamilton likewise died young, at 46, of cancer. In many ways her life is more obscure than that of Mabel Suffield. You won’t find anything named after Mabel in her native Northern Ireland. Even her love life was cool and temperate; she responds to passionate letters from her husband with, “I wonder do I love you? I am not quite sure. I know that at least I am very fond of you, and that I should never think of loving anyone else.” Imagine if those kinds of words appeared today, anonymously in an advice column. They would be met with pity and calls to radical action.
But nothing about Flora was radical. Her life was small and given to her children. She loved books and taught her boys to love them too. She was imaginative and rational, and educated her boys to think with both logic and fervor. When she passed away, few took note, except for her family. Her youngest son would write years later that Flora’s death had signaled that “all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life.”
Flora and Mabel lived brief, small lives. They invented no great thing and built nothing amazing. The only architecture that bears their names are likely gravestones. What they did do was love, nurture, and teach their children. Their legacies were made in young hearts, not the hearts of adoring fans or thankful shareholders but the hearts of their sons.
What appeared wasted at the time was anything but. Mabel’s youngest boy would put her sacrificial spirit in the characters of his fiction—characters like Gandalf, and Aragorn, and Frodo and Sam. J.R.R. Tolkien’s mother may have been mere biographical trivia to the millions who were moved by The Lord of the Rings, but for Middle-Earth itself, she was a specter whose love and faithfulness and resolve is dazzlingly bright in the pages of her son’s masterpiece.
And Flora? I think we see her too. I think we see the mother of C.S. Lewis in The Magician’s Nephew. She is, I believe, Digory’s deathly ill mother. It’s not outrageous to think that Aslan’s gift of Narnia’s healing fruit is the moment of joy and life that Lewis always wished had come to Flora. She was a beam of happiness in his young life, and it’s not hard to hear lingering sadness in the description of the healing of Digory’s mother:
About a week after this it was quite certain that Digory’s mother was getting better…And a month later that whole house had become a different place. Aunt Letty did everything that Mother liked; windows were opened, frowsy curtains were drawn back to brighten up the rooms, there were new flowers everywhere, and nicer things to eat, and the old piano was tuned and Mother took up her singing again, and has such games with Digory and Polly that Aunt Letty would say “I declare, Mabel, you’re the biggest baby of the three.”
Without the brief, small, hard lives of Mabel and Flora, we may never have known the lives of Frodo and Sam, or Digory and Polly. Without the quiet, unremarkable love of two mothers, how much more impoverished would countless imaginations and faiths be?
How thankful we ought to be for homely joys, and destinies obscure!
Biographical information is taken from The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams