This was unexpected news to me. I knew that his first wife had been tragically gored by a bull while her husband was away from home and her three young children had watched from the house. That part of the story had been passed down. But this new part, this mail-order bride part, had been shut up in the closet with who-knows-what-other skeletons.
My great-great-grandfather and his three little kids lived in Wyoming, which is not the most hospitable place in the world, and he needed help. So apparently, he sent off a letter to a service, and a woman arrived some time later. Nobody seems to have known what happened, but she decided not to say, and g-g-grandpa was apparently so upset about her leaving that he ordered his children to not look at her while she drove away. But they loved her, so they watched her anyway, even though they knew they would get in trouble.
That's how my grandmother told the story, and I'm sure it's true as far as she knew it. My grandmother was a very truthful person.
I hadn't thought too much about that story until I listened to the audio-book version of Sarah, Plain and Tall, yesterday. It's a beautiful little story about a usually-not-for-children topic: mail order brides. The father in this story was in a very similar predicament to my g-g-grandfather's. He is a widower with two young children to raise. He gets matched up with a plain and tall woman from Maine, and after writing a few letters back and forth, she arrives.
What I found so beautiful and haunting about Patricia MacLachlan's story were the children's thoughts and feelings and desires. They adore plain and tall Sarah. They fear that she might leave, and because this is children's literature, she stays. Maybe what made it so haunting for me is that I've heard the story about when "it doesn't work out," and the children and lonely man are left on their desolate farm with no one to dry flowers for them so they'll have something beautiful to look at during the winter.
That's what's so amazing about literature. It takes the heart of humanity and reminds us of who we are. I don't like to define fiction as "made-up" or "untrue" because what could be truer than the longing for a mother?