A Tale of Benjamin Franklin's Family
In the Days Leading up to The American Revolution
A messenger knocked on our door this morning. He was sent by Mr. Benjamin Harrison, one of the Congressmen who accompanied Grandfather to Cambridge and has just returned. Grandfather will arrive a little later, we hear, because he is making a detour in order to pick up his sister Jane who has fled British- occupied Boston and taken refuge with friends in Rhode Island. She shall now live with us.
Hearing this, Aunt Sally jumped from her chair as if she had received an electric shock. Almost dropping Hannah, she rushed towards the door, muttering "I must get going immediately," whereupon Uncle Richard, peacefully smoking his pipe, said to me: "When you grow to manhood, Temple, you'll see that every woman believes the first thing a guest will do is look for dust under the bed."
— "That's a mean thing to say, Richard, especially when you don't know what you are talking about" shouted Aunt Sally.
I had never heard them squabble before. I ran after Sally and offered to hold the baby while she attacked this new task, whatever it was. Hannah gave me her usual, angelic little toothless smile. Fearing Aunt Sally might turn her annoyance against me if I started asking questions too soon, I just hummed a tune to the baby's upturned face. Pretty soon, my aunt turned around with a pile of sheets in her arms and said: "What is it you want to know, Billy?
Franklin Family House on Milk Street, Boston
— "Why is the arrival of this sister Jane upsetting you? Where does she fit in the family?
— "Jane Mecom is the youngest of the 17 children in that generation of the Franklin family, and the only surviving female, just as your grandfather, number 15, is the last surviving male. Benjamin, almost seventy now, and Jane six years younger."
— "And what about number 16?"
— "Her name was Lydia. She must have been quite dull, poor Lydia, nobody seems to know much about her, only that she married at some point and died in her forties. Come to think about it, she may have been crushed ever since childhood between those two larger-than-life personalities, Benjamin and Jane. Two of the boys born just before them had died, so that they were a little trio by themselves at the tail end of the family.
— "So this Jane Mecom, your aunt Jane and my great-aunt Jane, is larger-than-life you say?
— "This may sound strange to you, Billy, but the almost incredible amount of pain in her life, the way she has lived so far through the deaths of nine of her twelve children, all that tragedy gives her a heroic dimension. ...I don't know how to explain it properly. Let me show you one of her letters and you'll see how, in the midst of her grief, she could still write so beautifully in what I would call a biblical way."
From under the bed she was making, Aunt Sally pulled out a black lacquer box and handed me the topmost letter in it. And I read:
"Sorrows roll upon me like the waves of the sea. I am hardly allowed time to fetch my breath. I am broken with breach upon breach, and I have now, in the first flow of my grief, been almost ready to say 'What have I more?' But God forbid that I should indulge that thought, though I have just lost another child. God is the sovereign and I submit."
— "Yes," I mumbled, "I see what you mean."
— "And that, mind you, from a woman who has never gone to school. She was married off at fifteen to Edward Mecom, a saddler who could neither read nor sign his name. They lived in poverty, squeezed in her parents' house, then taking in lodgers when they finally had their own place. But all that time Jane kept reading, learning, stretching her mind, making herself as similar as she could to her hero, her brother Benjamin."
— "Did her children die in infancy?"
— "Only two did. The others died in their late teens and twenties, of a mysterious malady. Nobody has been able to explain it."
— "A terrible life, yes, but I still don't understand why the news of her arrival should make you so tense, Aunt Sally."
— "I don't want to sound critical, but I must tell you, Billy, that Jane is a difficult person to live with. Your grandfather used to describe her as miffy."
— "Meaning thin-skinned, quick to take offense. One has to walk on eggs when dealing with her. And she likes to show off her superior culture. That upset my mother when Jane spent some time with us here seven or eight years ago while your grandfather was away in London. Our door, you see, was the place the neighbors always ran to when they were in trouble and Mother always rushed out to help. She thought nothing of spending the night with a young woman in labor. She brought hot soup to the sick, she baked for the poor. Sure, she lost her temper sometimes, quite noisily, but she had the best of hearts, everybody knew that. And then, out of the blue, Aunt Jane asks her: 'Deborah, what's your favorite Shakespeare play?' When I went to kiss Mother good night, she was in tears. 'Jane makes me feel so inferior' she sobbed. To comfort her, I pointed out that Aunt Jane must feel miserable when she sees William, the governor of a colony, or even me, in perfect health, playing the harp, when she admires our good clothes, when she compares our comfortable house with hers. What does she have to brag about? Shakespeare. And I said: 'Don't worry, Mother. She won't be here forever.'"
But today, as I think back on our conversation, I realize that the miffy Jane may well be here forever if the British stay in Boston. Aunt Sally no longer has her mother around to share the burden with. Grandfather will be off to Congress, Uncle Richard busy in town. Who's left to help her? ME!
Aunt Sally is like a mother to me, always trying to keep me happy. I must think of a way to get through to that difficult Jane. There has to be a key to her goodwill. What was that cry of pain at the end of the letter that Aunt Sally pulled from the black lacquer box? It was "God is sovereign and I submit" ... "I submit." ... Where have I seen those words? I try and I try but nothing comes. I'm too tired. Maybe I'll remember tomorrow. Let's submit to sleep.