Posts Tagged ‘Holiday Stories’

Grandma’s Valentine: A Civil War Era Tale

February 12, 2009


(By Georgia Custis)

"The postman! the postman!" cried Dorothy, dancing excitedly about the nursery. "He is coming here; I hear his whistle! Oh, nurse! please may I go down and see if he has brought any valentines?"

"Not with your cold, dearie," said nurse, shaking her head, and so Dorothy had to be content with peering over the stairs, while Donald clattered down and came back again with his hands full of envelopes, large and small.

"One, free, six for me!" he panted, " and one, free, seven for Dorothy!" And how happy the children were as they tore open the envelopes and explained the pretty cards and verses which they contained. And then Sister Nell came in to show them her valentine, a great bunch of beautiful roses and when Dorothy asked her if she could guess who had sent them (for guessing is half the fun on St. Valentine’s day), she grew quite red, and said, "Why, no; of course she couldn’t; how could she?"

And just then dear grandma came in to see what the children were making such a racket about. And, of course, they showed her their valentines and Nell pinned on of her most beautiful roses on grandma’s black dress; and then, quite unexpectedly, Dorothy looked up into the sweet, placid old face, and asked gravely: "Grandma, did you ever get a valentine?"

Grandma did not reply for a moment and then she stooped and kissed Dorothy on the forehead, and something very bright and glistening fell among the brown curls. "Yes, dear," said grandma, softly, "lots of them; but I had one which I think I must tell you about some time."

"Oh! tell us now!" cried all the children at once; and Nell, who had been placing her valentine in a vase of water, joined in the general coaxing.

"Nell," said grandma, "If you really want to hear, I will tell you about it; but wait a moment, I can show you my valentine."

She left the room, and she was gone so long that the children had time to wonder greatly what grandma’s valentine could be, and they were all gathered around her chair, with eager, expectant faces, when she returned. She carried in her hand a small, old-fashioned work box, whose covering, once bright and gay, was worn and faded now. She smiled into the upturned faces as she resumed her place among the children; but there were tears in her eyes as she said:

"Now, children, I will show you my valentine; but, first, I must tell you part of the story. And I must also explain that when I was young people made their own valentines, and, although they may not have been as pretty as the modern ones, perhaps, yet I think they were a great deal nicer, because, you see, nobody would take the trouble to make a valentine unless it were to send to somebody that one was very fond of, indeed. But Donald is growing impatient for the story! When I was a young girl, I lived in a dear old country town, which some of you have seen. My father and mother both died when I was a very little child, and so I lived with my grand parents, and very kind and good they were to me, and I loved them very dearly.

Nevertheless they were very old, and, somehow, they seemed to have quite forgotten how it felt to be young and full of life, and grandma did not understand why I was not always content to sit quietly in the house, reading or sewing all day, when all my young friends were out skating or sleighing, if it were winter, or picnicking or rowing on the river if it were summer. The old people had no amusement, however, of which they never wearied, especially in the long winter evenings; they dearly loved a rubber of whist. I could play, ___ and any of my young friends who would consent to make up a game by taking a hand was always a welcome guest. ‘I think your friend, Benjamin Worrell, is a very fine young man,’ grandpa would say, and then he was dare? to add, ‘He plays an excellent game;  a little reckless, perhaps, at games, but he had a good head.’ Once repeated this praise to Ben" —

"Why, that was grandpa’s name," interrupted Dorothy. "I remember — Col. Benjamin Worrell, it says so under his picture in the library."

"Yes," said grandma, smiling, "he was your grandfather; but he did not seem much like a grandfather then. He was very tall and straight, with flashing black eyes and dark curling hair, and he had a fine way of throwing back his head when he talked. People used to call him ‘Handsome Ben,’ which annoyed him very much; but when I told him what grandpa had said he was quite pleased. ‘But what a hypocrite I must be, Kate,’ he said, laughing, ‘to make the dear old gentleman think that I come here just to play whist, when my real reason for coming is to see you.’ "Your grandfather was always bold as a young man," said grandma, apologetically.

"Well, your grandfather used to come evening after evening, and he played long games of whist with the old people; but he used somehow to get in a little talk about our own affairs, although we seldom had a chance to see each other alone. And then the 14th of February came around, and I had scores of valentines, and great sport it was, for each young man had to deliver his own, and it was no easy task to do this without being seen, which would have spoiled the fun. Well, just toward dusk, I happened to be looking from an upper window, and I saw a tall figure creeping along by the garden wall. He had his hat drawn down well over his face, but I caught just a glimpse of a dark moustache, and, I assure you, my dears, it was all I could do to behave with becoming dignity, when Sophie, our old colored servant, came upstairs with a square envelope addressed to me."

"Oh! I know!" cried Dorothy, clapping her hands. "It was grandpa’s valentine!"

"Yes," said grandma, "and here it is." and she drew from the box an old-fashioned envelope addressed in faded ink and in an elaborately disguised hand, to "Miss Katherine Onderdonk."

She handed the envelope to Nell, who, almost reverently drew forth the valentine. It was a playing card, the Queen of Hearts, and over the back had been nearly pasted a sheet of white paper, on which were written the following lines:

"My Kate is surely Queen of Hearts,
And I will swear she’s queen of mine.
Let’s play a game where Love is trumps;
Sweet Kate will be my valentine?"

The children all declared the poetry to be very beautiful.

"But, grandma," cried Donald and Dorothy together, "what is that queer round hole right through the middle of the card?"

Sure enough, there was a hole, which had pierced card and envelope just as the children had said.


"Wait a moment," said grandma, "we are coming to that." " It was very soon after St. Valentine’s day that your grandfather spoke to my grandfather about making me his wife, and grandpa was very much surprised, although our love-making had been going on for some months right under his eyes. And he hesitated a good deal, but finally, as there was no real objection, he gave his consent."

Grandma paused here for a few moments, thinking, I suppose, of those dear, happy days, now so long past; and the children had to remind her that they were waiting for the rest of the story.

"It was just after that," continued grandma, "that Ben had to go away on business for a few weeks, and he begged me to have a picture made of myself to give him on his return. I dearly loved to tease him in those days, and shortly after he had started on his journey I wrapped the valentine he had sent me very carefully in several thicknesses of paper, so that he would think it contained the stiff case of a daguerreotype, and sent it to him by mail. Meanwhile I had a fine picture made for him with which to surprise him on his return, but he would not give me back my valentine. ‘Do you think,’ he said, laughing, ‘that I am going to return the first present you ever gave me? No, indeed! though I did make it myself.’ And he declared that he should always carry it next to his heart.

"Well, the following spring we were married, and then we began our hut-building. Ben planned the house himself, and I went with him to Boston to select the furniture. It was while we were there tht we hear the news that made our hearts stand still.

"Fort Sumter had been fired upon! We read the announcement in the paper, with white face, and Ben kept saying all day, ‘Oh, Kate! this is too terrible! I never thought it would come to this!’ We went home with sad hearts, in spite of our carload of household treasures, for those were days when private joys and sorrows seemed as nothing in view of the danger which threatened the whole country. The governor of our state had ordered the state troops, and the militia as well, to be in readiness; and Ben mustered quite a company of his friends (the finest and bravest young men in town), and they drilled night and day to be in readiness for the call. And I encouraged him in this work, God knows, with what a sinking heart, but Ben never suspected that I was half a coward. Your dear mother was a tiny baby then, and I used often to sing her to sleep with patriotic airs to keep my own courage. And then at last it came — the call for troops — we were expecting it; but, oh! how weak I was when I heard Ben’s voice shouting upstairs, ‘Kate, Kate, the president has sent for us.’

"I was putting baby to sleep (your mother, you know, dears) and I knelt by her cradle for just one moment, praying for strength. And it came, for when Ben entered the room I was able to smile quite bravely, and to help him pack his knapsack, for they were to start that very night."

Grandma paused here for a moment, but no one spoke, and she went on in a low voice:

"How well I remember that night! It was raining, and very cold and damp; but every mother and sister and wife and sweetheart in town were at the station to see them off. Most of the women were crying bitterly, but I could not shed a tear, and when Ben took me in his arms to say good-bye his lips moved, but he could not utter a word, and I could hear the beating of his heart. As the train pushed out there were shouts and cheers, of course, to keep up the courage of the men, and somebody shouted, ‘Three cheers for Captain Worrell!’ and the crowd took it up with a will. And then I looked up and say my husband for the last time on this earth. He had climbed on top of the rear car and was raising his cap to the crowd (they were all life-long friends), and when he saw me raise my head (with anguish written all over my face, I suppose), his own face was convulsed for a moment, and then he tried to smile, and pointed upwards, meaning, I suppose, that we were in God’s hands. And then the train was swallowed up in the mist."

Again she paused, and again no one spoke.

"I heard from him many times after that," she continued. "Sometimes not for months, and then a whole batch of letters would come at once — always bright and cheerful, those letters, and full of little incidents and anecdotes which he thought might amuse and interest me, seldom a word of his own privations, and even sufferings. I do not know how we women endured the long strain of that waiting for news. If it had not been that your mother was such a very young infant, I believe I would have followed my husband as some wives did, preferring anything to the terrible suspense of waiting quietly at home.

"And then the dreadful slaughter began. But you, children, must wait until you are older to hear about that.

"One day I was walking restlessly up and down the piazza of my little home, my baby in my arms, trying to put her to sleep as best I could without a lullaby (for I could no longer sing), when a soldier came up the path leading to the house. I knew him well, although he was greatly changed, for he was a neighbor and had been in Ben’s company. I knew at once that he was the bearer of bad news, and as he approached nearer, I could not speak, but just held out my hand. He laid a small package in it, saying, ‘God pity you!’ and that was the last I knew for may hours. When I came to myself I still held the package in my hand, and when I had the courage to open it, the first thing I saw was — my valentine, torn as you have seen, by the bullet which had pierced one of the bravest hearts that ever shed its life-blood for our country."

There was silence when grandma had finished speaking; Sister Nell was crying and Donald whispered,

"I say, Dorothy, let’s put away our valentines until tomorrow."

Hayward Review (Hayward, California) Feb 9, 1900