Recollections by Mrs. Henry B. Smith, written to Mrs. Prentiss’ husband after her death
Northampton, January 2, 1879
Dear Mr. Prentiss,
I have been trying this beautiful snowy day, which shuts us in to our own thoughts, to recall some of my impressions of your dear wife, but I find it very difficult; there was such variety to her, and so much of her, and the things which were most characteristic are so hard to be described. I read “Stepping Heavenward” in MS. before we went to Europe in 1869. I remember she used to say that I was “Katy’s Aunt,” because we talked her over with so much interest.
She sent me a copy to Heidelberg, where I began at once translating it into German as my regular exercise. I was delighted to give my copy to Mrs. Prof. K. in Leipsic, as the American story which I was willing to have her translate into German, as she had asked for one. There is no need of telling you about the enthusiasm which the book created. Women everywhere said, “It seems to be myself that I am reading about”, and the feeling that they, too, with all their imperfections, might be really stepping heavenward, was one great secret of its inspiration.
One little incident may interest you. My niece, Mrs. Prof. Emerson, was driving alone toward Amherst, and took into her carriage a poor colored woman who was walking the same way. The woman soon said, “I have been thinking a good deal of you, Mrs. E., and of your little children, and I have been reading a book which I thought you would like. It was something about walking towards heaven.”
“Was it ‘Stepping Heavenward’?”
“Yes, that was it.”
How naturally, modestly, almost indifferently, she received the tributes which poured in upon her! Yet, though she cared little for praise, she cared much for love, and for the consciousness that she was a helper and comforter to others.
On reading the book again this last summer, I was struck by seeing how true a transcript of herself, in more than one respect, was given in Katy. “Why can not I make a jacket for my baby without throwing into it the ardor of a soldier going into battle?” How ardently she threw herself into everything she did! In friendship and love and religion this outpouring of herself was most striking.
Her earlier books she always read or submitted to me in manuscript, and she showed so little self-interest in them, and I so much, that they seemed a sort of common property. I think that I had quite as much pleasure in their success and far more pride, than herself. The Susy books I always considered quite as superior in their way as Stepping Heavenward. They are still peerless among books for little children. [This written 20 years after the Susy Books] “Henry and Bessie,” too, contains some of the most beautiful religious teaching ever written. “Fred and Maria and Me” she used to talk about almost as if I had written it, for no other reason than that I liked it so much.
My sister says that her daughter Nettie read “Little Susy” through twelve times, getting up to read it before breakfast. She printed (before she could write [in cursive]) a little letter of thanks to your wife, who sent her the following pretty note in reply:
My Dear Nettie,
What a nice little letter you wrote me! It pleased me very much. I shall keep it in my desk, and when I am an old woman, I shall buy a pair of spectacles, and sit down in the chimney-corner, and read it. When you learn to write with your own little fingers, I hope you will write me another letter.
Your friend, with love,
(her pseudonym for the Suzy books)
She did nothing for effect, and made little or no effort merely to please; she was almost too careless of the impression which she made upon others, and, on this account, strangers sometimes thought her cold and unsympathetic. But touch her at the right point and the right moment, and there was no measure to her interest and warmth. She hated all pretense and display, and the slightest symptom of them in others shut her up and kept her grave and silent, and this, not from a severe or Pharisaic spirit, but because the atmosphere was so foreign to her that she could not live in it. “I pity people that have any sham about them when I am by,” she said one day. “I am dreadfully afraid of young ladies,” she said at another time. She could not adapt herself to the artificial and conventional. Yet with young ladies who loved what she loved she was peculiarly free and playful and forth-giving, and such were among her dearest and most lovingly admiring friends.
When we met, there were no preliminaries; she plunged at once into the subject which was interesting her, the book, the person, the case of sickness or trouble, the plan, the last shopping, the game, the garment, the new preparation for the table–in a way peculiarly her own. One could never be with her many minutes without hearing some bright fancy, some quick stroke of repartee, some ludicrous way of putting a thing. But whether she told of the grumbler who could find nothing to complain of in heaven except that “his halo didn’t fit,” or said in her quick way, when the plainness of a lady’s dress was commended, “Why, I didn’t suppose that anybody could go to heaven now-a-days without an overskirt,” or wrote her sparkling impromptu rhymes for our children’s games, her mirth was all in harmony with her earnest life. Her quick perceptions, her droll comparisons, her readiness of expression, united with her rare and tender sympathies, made her the most fascinating of companions to both young and old. Our little Saturday teas, with our children, while our husbands were at Chi Alpha, were rare times. My children enjoyed “Aunt Lizzy” almost as much as I did. She was usually in her best mood at these times. When you and Henry came in, on your return from Chi Alpha, you looked in upon, or, rather, you completed a happier circle than this impoverished earth can ever show us again.
Her acquisitions were so rapid, and she made so little show of them, that one might have doubted their thoroughness, who had no occasion to test them. Her beautiful translation of Griselda was a surprise to many. I remember her eager enthusiasm while translating it. The writing of her books was almost an inspiration, so rapid, without copying, almost without alteration, running on in her clear, pure style, with here and there a radiant sparkle above the full depths.
It sometimes seemed as if she were interested only in those whom she knew she could benefit. If so, it was from her ever-present consciousness of a consecrated life. She constantly sought for ways of showing her love to Christ, especially to His sick and suffering and sorrowing ones. Life with her was peculiarly intense and earnest; she looked upon it more as a discipline and a hard path, and yet no one had a quicker or more admiring eye for the flowers by the wayside. I always thought that her great forte was the study of character. She laid bare and dissected everybody, even her nearest friends and herself, to find what was in them; and what she found, reproduced in her books, was what gave them their peculiar charm of reality. The growth of the religious life in the heart was the one most interesting subject to her.
I never could fully understand the deep sadness which was the groundwork of her nature. It certainly did not prevent the most intense enjoyment of her rich temporal and spiritual blessings, while it indicated depths which her friends did not fathom. It was partly constitutional, doubtless, and partly, I suppose, from her keener sensitiveness, her larger grasp, her stronger convictions, her more vivid vision, and more ardent desires. Even the glowing, almost seraphic love of Christ which was the chief characteristic of her later life was, in her words, “but longing and seeking.” She was an exile yearning for her home, “stepping heavenward,” and knowing better than the rest of us what it meant.
These things come to me now, and yet how much I have omitted–her industry so varied and untiring, her generosity (so many gifts of former days are around me now), her interest in my children, her delight in flowers and colors and all beautiful things, her ready sympathy–but it is an almost inexhaustible subject. She comes vividly before me now, seated on the floor in her room, with her work around her, making something for such and such a person. What the void in your life must be those who knew most of her manifold, exalted, inspiring life can but imagine.
“Nay, Hope may whisper with the dead
By bending forward where they are;
But Memory, with a backward tread,
Communes with them afar!
“The joys we lose are but forecast,
And we shall find them all once more;
We look behind us for the past,
But, lo! ’tis all before!”
Mrs. Henry B. Smith
[Above is a part of a poem by an unknown author. It was commonly used during funerals and in obituaries. Although people try to use it to promote ideas of ghosts and paranormal activities, it was written from a Christian perspective. The dead are no longer dead because they have gone to heaven to be with their Father. Below is the complete poem. RP]
O! hearts that never cease to yearn
O! brimming tears that ne’er are dried!
The dead though they depart,
return as though they had not died.
The living are the only dead;
The dead live — nevermore to die;
and often when we mourn them fled;
They never were so nigh.
And, though they lie beneath the waves,
Or sleep within the churchyard dim —
(Ah! through how many different graves
God’s children go to Him!)
Yet every grave gives up its dead,
ere it is overgrown with grass.
Then why should hopeless tears be shed,
or need we cry, Alas!?
Or why should memory veiled with gloom
and like a sorrowing mourner craped*,
sit weeping o’er an empty tomb,
whose captives have escaped?
‘Tis but a mound — and will be mossed
whene’er the Summer grass appears; —
The loved, though wept, are never lost;
We only lose our tears.
Nay, hope may whisper with the dead;
By bending forward where they are;
But Memory with a backward tread,
Communes with them afar.
The joys we lose are but forecast
And we shall find them all once more; —
We look behind us for the past,
and Lo! ‘Tis all before!”
*crape: a usually black band or piece of this material, worn as a token of mourning.