Summary: The Cartwrights reflect on the impact Marie had on their lives.
Word Count: 3100
Listening as his sons erupted into yet another quarrel over nothing, Ben wondered why they were all so on edge. There were no particular problems on the ranch and as far as he was aware, none of his sons had just suffered a broken relationship. So what was it? Very early or very late spring fever? Were they coming down with something?
Rising, Ben crossed to the door, yanked it open and bellowed, “Will you all shut up right now! I’m sick of the fighting!” Without waiting for a response, he banged the door shut and went back to his desk. There was resounding silence coming through the partially open study window.
And it was then that it occurred to Ben that he was irritable, too, or else why would he have gone off at the deep end a moment ago? The boys did sometimes fight and although Ben didn’t like it, he generally allowed them to sort it out for themselves. What was wrong with them all?
Resting his chin on his hands, Ben’s gaze fell on the photos on his desk and he suddenly knew, without any shadow of a doubt, what was wrong with them all. It was fast approaching the anniversary of Marie’s death.
In many ways, he had become used to her not being there, but he never stopped missing her. There wasn’t a day went by when Ben didn’t think of Marie – Or Elizabeth or Inger – but usually those thoughts were of happy times.
But sometimes, Ben had to admit those thoughts were anything but happy. Those were the times he railed against the fate that had taken his beloved wife from him. He had never been as happy as when he was married to Marie. Much as he had loved Inger and Elizabeth, Marie made him complete. Joe had been the seal on their happiness, although Marie had been disappointed when she had never managed to conceive again, especially as she had lost their first child together.*
Rising, Ben grabbed his hat and went outside to get his horse. The boys were nowhere to be seen, but that suited Ben’s mood at that moment. He had an overwhelming urge to visit those graves by the lake. He didn’t need to go there to remember his wife and the infant daughter who had never known life, but today, he just had to be there.
Standing over the graves, Ben could feel tears in his eyes. “Marie, my love, how I miss you,” he whispered. “How can so many years have passed without you by my side? I hope that you’re as proud of our son as I am. Joe’s been a challenge, as he was from the first day of his life, but he’s a remarkable, unusual man. I’d be lost without him.”
Without warning, the tears began to fall, and wracking sobs shook the patriarch of the Ponderosa. He cried for all their life could have been, had Marie lived; he cried for the shocking suddenness of her death, which robbed his sons of their mother; he cried for the loneliness he had felt ever since; he cried for the joy of having known her; he cried for the richness she had brought to the family and he cried for the precious gift of their son.
Exhausted, but feeling much lighter after the catharsis of tears, Ben wiped his face and sighed. “Marie, I’ve become used to living without you and I enjoy my life. But I do still miss you and I always will.”
A feeling of peace swept over him, as if often did when he came here. Ben fancied it was Marie’s spirit touching his soul and the thought gave him renewed strength and comfort. Blowing a kiss to the grave, Ben paused for a moment by Rose’s grave and remembered the tiny, perfect infant who had never known the joys and sorrows of life. “I love you,” he told the child’s memory and took comfort from the fact that Marie and Rose were together.
Later that same day, another horseman stopped by the graveyard by the lake. Tethering his flighty chestnut gelding, Adam went into the graveyard and stopped for a moment by his sister’s grave. He had grieved long and hard for the loss of the baby and knew that was when he had started to behave in a more civilized manner towards Marie. Stooping, Adam placed a single dog rose on the grave.
As always, when faced with his stepmother’s grave, Adam felt a flush of shame crawl up his neck. He had been stunned when Ben brought Marie home and appalled that this young woman, only a few years older than himself, was to be his ‘mother’. He had behaved about as badly as it was possible to behave and Marie had been gentle and loving towards him, as she had been to Hoss.
It was only later that Adam discovered how much his behavior had hurt Marie. Only after Joe was born did he discover that most nights she had gone to bed and wept because of the attitude of her oldest stepson. In retrospect, Adam was appalled at some of the things he had done, and was amazed that Marie hadn’t told Ben about some of them. He knew his father would have given him a ‘necessary little talk’ had some of those misdeeds come to light!
“I’m sorry, Marie,” Adam offered. “And I’m so thankful that you didn’t give up on me. No one could have blamed you if you’d turned your back on me. It was only really after Joe was born that I completely accepted you and I am sorry. I’m the loser because I missed out on those first years of your love. Hoss was right – I was a fool.”
At the time, Adam had been furious that his little brother – a full 6 years younger than him and barely more than a baby himself – should have the temerity to lecture Adam about his attitude to their stepmother.
“I don’ see why ya don’ like her,” Hoss stated stubbornly, glaring at Adam. “She’s nice an’ pretty an’ kind an’ she loves us. Sides, Pa choosed her, an’ I don’ think Pa would choose a bad person ta love, do ya?”
“He should have told us he was thinking about getting married again,” Adam replied, sulkily. “He shouldn’t have just brought her home! It wasn’t fair!”
“Pa done tol’ ya how it happened,” Hoss persisted. “An’ yer jist plain mean ta her, Adam, an’ I think yer stupid! So there!” Hoss stalked off, outrage and anger visible in every pore in his body.
At the time, Adam had wavered, knowing that Hoss was right, but unable to give up his outrage. He had been desperately hurt by the loss of Inger, Hoss’ mother, and was afraid to love again.
“Thank you for not giving up on me,” Adam concluded. He laid the flower he had brought for Marie onto the grave. “If only I had given in sooner,” he murmured, regret as sharp as a knife. But it was too late; Adam had to live with the knowledge that he had been foolish; however, he also had the remembered comfort that Marie had forgiven him, willingly and readily, and never held his foolish behavior against him.
Slowly, Adam turned away and walked back to his horse. He felt at peace once more.
High above the river, in his favorite spot, Hoss Cartwright looked out over the magnificent view and was silent. He had no memory of his own mother, who had died when he was only a matter of weeks old, and although he cherished her photograph, Marie was the woman that his heart called mother.
He remembered the moment when Ben had brought Marie into the house. He had been very apprehensive, terrified that this beautiful creature his father had brought home would scorn him because he wasn’t as clever or handsome as Adam. But when Marie had smiled at him and opened her arms, Hoss had given over his heart completely and utterly.
Looking back now, in retrospect, Hoss realized that he must have driven Marie crazy in those first few months. He was so enamored of her that he followed her around all the time when he was at home, constantly chattering, filling her ears with the minutiae of his life. But Marie had never indicated to him that she was bored. She listened closely to everything he said, praised him when he did well in school, chided him when he forgot his chores and helped him when he needed it. But above all, she loved him as much as if she had given birth to him. Hoss knew how lucky he’d been; he had friends who’d had step-parents and often the new family did not gel well at all.
The only fly in the ointment had been Adam, who had been sulky and rude whenever he could get away with it, barely polite sometimes and clearly jealous of this new person who had claimed some of Pa’s love. Hoss had tried to explain to Adam that Pa wouldn’t love them any the less if he loved Marie, but it had taken a long time for stubborn Adam to admit that he was at fault.
Shaking his head, Hoss smiled as he remembered Marie’s delight when Adam had finally thawed towards her. And although Hoss had deeply resented baby Joe to begin with, he had soon become reconciled, and more than reconciled, to his baby brother.
Marie had not been a saint, Hoss knew. She had a fiery temperament, just like Joe, and could throw the most magnificent temper tantrums. But Hoss had loved her and as he sat in his favorite spot, he cherished her memory and gave her all the honor he could for being such a wonderful mother to him. He knew how fortunate he had been.
Horse-breaking really should be done with your mind fully on the job. Joe knew this, but still he was slightly distracted that day. He hit the ground umpteen times over the course of the day’s work and couldn’t remember a time when he had been so glad to be finished. Stiff and bruised, Joe rode slowly home.
At the house, Joe was glad to find Ben alone. He wasn’t sure quite how to start the conversation he wanted to have with his father, because he wasn’t entirely sure what was wrong with him, but he knew something was and Ben would be the person to help him.
“I’m sorry we were arguing earlier,” Joe began, tentatively. “I don’t know what was wrong with us.”
“I do,” Ben replied.
“Do you?” Joe asked, astonished. “What?”
Drawing Joe over to the sofa, Ben sat down beside him. “Tomorrow is the anniversary of your mother’s death, Joe.”
At once, Joe’s pupils dilated, the black almost swallowing the green irises. Tears suddenly drowned Joe’s eyes and spilled down his face. He had almost no memory of his mother, but suddenly, her image seemed to be crystal clear in front of him and he could hear her voice and smell her perfume. His loss seemed suddenly fresh, as if it had just happened. He couldn’t speak.
Moved by Joe’s obvious distress, Ben could feel corresponding tears in his own eyes, but he made no attempt to blink them away. He simply drew Joe close to him and put his arms around his son. They sat there for a long time.
“Why is it so hard, Pa?” Joe asked, at last. He dragged a sleeve over his eyes. “Not every day, but at this time?”
“I don’t really know,” Ben replied, thoughtfully. “Perhaps because your mother died in an accident. It’s always hard when you lose someone you love, but when someone dies of old age, you know they have lived a full life, not that I makes the loss any easier. She didn’t have the chance to grow old.”
“Sometimes, I can’t see her face without her picture in my hand,” Joe confessed in a low voice, as though this was a sin.
“Sometimes, neither can I,” Ben admitted. “That’s not wrong, Joe. It just happens. And other times, I feel as though your mother is in the next room, waiting for me.”
“I wish she could have known that Clay was alive,” Joe murmured.
A pang went through Ben’s heart at the thought of Marie’s other son. He was sorry for Clay, but not sorry that the young man had decided not to stay on the Ponderosa, although that was something he would never admit to Joe. For Joe’s sake – and Marie’s – he would have made Clay welcome had he decided to stay, but Clay had had such a different life that it would have been very difficult. Would Marie have been proud of her boy, had she met him? In some respects, Ben thought yes; in others, he knew she would have been disappointed.
“We can’t change the past,” Ben reminded Joe gently. “Don’t spend your life wishing you could change what has happened. Everything you’ve experienced in your life has made you what you are today, Joe, and I know your mother would be very proud of the man you’ve become.”
Once again, the tears spilled over, but this time, Joe was smiling, too. “Thanks, Pa,” he whispered, too overcome to say anything more. He knew that Ben was proud of him; his father wasn’t chary with praise for any of his sons, but it meant a great deal to Joe to learn again that his mother would have been proud of him, too.
As he got changed, it occurred to Joe that grief was a very selfish emotion, yet when grief was shared, it became much easier to bear. He knew that most people would think that they should be ‘over’ the loss of Marie, since it had happened many years before. Yet Joe had learned that although you could become used to living without someone, and could be very happy, the loss never entirely went away. There would some sad times, but life was for living and living a half life – when his mother had lived her life to the fullest extent – would be an insult to the woman who had birthed him and the man downstairs who had raised him.
Drifting over to gaze out of the window, Joe knew that there would be times when he felt the loss of his mother as keenly as if it had just happened and he would grieve for her then. But for the rest of the time, he would live his life to the full, taking the risks as they came.
A noise below drew his attention and he glanced down to see his brothers riding into the yard. Feeling revitalized, Joe hurriedly pulled on clean clothes and went downstairs for supper.
They each apologized to the others for their bad tempers earlier in the day, and confessed their thoughts. “I read a poem about that somewhere,” Adam declared and vanished upstairs to fetch a magazine down. “No one knows who wrote it,” he told the others and began to read:
“Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain
I am the gentle autumn rain
When you awaken in the morning hush
I am the swift, uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry
I am not there; I did not die.”
There was silence after he finished until Adam gently cleared his throat and began to recite again:
“Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other that we still are.
Call me by my old familiar name
Speak to me in the easy way you always used.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow
Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me.
Let my name be the household word that it always was
Life means all that it ever meant.
There is absolutely unbroken continuity…
Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you, for an interval,
Somewhere near, just round the corner.
All is well.”
“Thank you, son,” Ben said at last.
There was another silence until Hoss smiled. “D’ya remember the time Ma dropped the sugar bowl?” he asked, the laughter lurking in his voice. “I hadn’t never heard them words before!”
Sniggering, Adam replied, “Neither had Joe – but he made a good job of repeating them!”
Grinning, Ben remembered his wife’s rage as the full sugar bowl slipped from her hands and shattered on the floor, spilling the precious white sugar everywhere. She was having some ladies around for afternoon tea and spilling the sugar was a calamity, since the ladies were due in a very short time. Marie’s famed temper had got the better of her and she swore aloud, not realizing what she had done until Joe, who was only about two, parroted the words back to her. Hoss and Adam, dressed up and dreading the boring afternoon in front of them, had been hard put to keep straight faces and had been overjoyed when Marie had sent them upstairs with Joe, to keep the infant amused while her friends were in the house. What a scandal it would have caused if Joe had repeated those words in front of the visitors!
It was a favorite story of the Cartwrights and one that never failed to send them all into gales of laughter. As he wiped the tears of glee from his eyes, Ben could hear, in his memory, Marie laughing at the incident once it was all safely over.
Ah yes, my love, he thought, that poet knew what he was talking about. You’re not forgotten and never will be as long as we draw breath.
*Borrowed from Claire’s story When Will I See You Again?
First poem by unknown author.
Second poem by Henry Scott Holland. It was dated 1910, but I borrowed it as it fitted so nicely.
In loving memory of my mother Rona Goodall (1928-1999).