Today is Connie’s birthday. She was born in 1840, one-hundred and seventy-three years ago. My great-great-great grandfather was born in 1838. So that would put Connie back only five generations from me. Hard to believe!
Shortly after Connie was born, scarlet fever struck the Woolson household, in Claremont, NH, and three of her older sisters died. Two survived the epidemic. The baby Connie was protected by her mother’s breast milk. Her mother was so grief-stricken that the family had to move away and start over in Cleveland, OH. Every year, Connie’s birthday must have reminded the family of the three little girls who died—Emma, Anne, and Julia.
Two years ago, when the Woolson Society held its biennial conference in New Hampshire, we visited Claremont and saw the three little headstones. As we stood there gathered around the graves, imagining how devastating it would be to have three little girls taken from you in the space of two weeks, sleet began to fall upon us, despite the fact that the sun had just been shining. As we ran for cover, the sleet stopped as suddenly as it had begun.
The trauma of those losses changed their mother, Hannah Woolson, forever. But the parents worked hard to make sure the younger children had a happy childhood. They lived in a house they called “Cheerful Corner,” and her father gave her a complete set of Dickens’s novels on her twelfth birthday. Every reminiscence in the surviving letters suggests she had an idyllic childhood.
After she moved to Europe at the age of forty, birthdays and Chirstmases became “dreary” affairs, she said, because, without children around, all she could do was look backwards. “Old memories will creep in,” she wrote. In 1887, her “lonely old birthday” went by “unmarked.”
I therefore take pleasure in “marking” Connie’s birthday today. She might also be pleased to know that many of the “famous birthday” websites include her in their list for March 5, identifying her as the author of Jupiter Lights, certainly not her most famous novel. But it was a pleasure to see her listed, along with Henry II and Rex Harrison. One more day and she would have shared her birthday with Michelangelo.
Happy birthday, Connie!