My new friend and fellow blogger, Heather, recently posted to her blog, HeatherBlog, that April is National Poetry Month. (Sigh… couldn’t it be National Donut Month or National Beer Month or National Take a Nap Month?) Anyhow, since she posted that information, she didn’t realize that she was issuing me a challenge. She was throwing down the gauntlet and screaming “CHICKEN!” in my face. I had to call her on it. She’s a Poetry Bully. Yes, you read that right. A POETRY BULLY. Simply by giving me that piece of information, she was bullying me into reading a book I’ve had on my shelf for my entire life.
I’m not kidding. I have had this book on my shelf since birth, and I have never read it. It’s been sitting there, mocking me, for 42 years (Technically, maybe more like 37-ish since I couldn’t actually read until I was about five.) It was never in any danger of being shipped off to the Salvation Army or traded in for any other books, because the book I’m talking about was written by my 2X-great grandmother, and published in March, 1907.
Helen Ekin Starrett and her younger sister, Frances Ekin Allison, had been close their entire lives. Just four years apart in age, the girls shared a love of education, literature, and poetry. Three years after Frances’ death, Helen, who was, by then, recognized as one of the foremost educators in the country, approached her publisher about issuing a compilation of the sisters’ poems. The result was a small volume entitled Crocus and Wintergreen. Although she published numerous books during her life, she considered this volume of poetry to be her best work.
When Helen retired to Portland, Oregon, in 1916, the Oregon Daily Journal printed a story about her role as the new president of the Ainsworth Parent-Teacher Association. It doesn’t surprise me that she “retired” and then kept doing exactly what she’d been doing her entire life—working. After retirement, she remained active in education and social matters, and attributed these things to be the secret to her youth. “Keeping up my interest in life, constant association with the young, and simple habits of living,” she said, also factored in to her longevity. She attributed “persistence and hard work,” as her secret to success, “and following Emerson’s advice to shun the negative side.” She always quoted Emerson.
The more I learn about Helen, the more I admire her. She was a big personality, but not loud, vulgar, or showy. When she wasn’t photographed in profile in the formal, stiff, and professional style of the day, the cheerful and friendly twinkle in her eyes was often apparent. She had a beautiful smile that radiated happiness, and from all accounts, she was a wonderful conversationalist. She was also a cultural and ethical icon, and a mentor and role model to thousands of girls across the country.
At 17, Helen graduated from the public high school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and immediately began teaching. She never stopped. Though not always in a classroom, she used her advanced intellect and gift for education to share her knowledge with anyone who was interested. Whether in a formal school, in a lecture hall, or in print, she was always teaching.
She married her childhood sweetheart at the age of 24 and moved to Lawrence, Kansas, just six months after Quantrill’s Raid on the town. She immediately took to the role of pastor’s wife in the community, but wasn’t content with that alone. She taught music, headed committees, and became involved in the women’s suffrage movement. When her husband left the church and began to study law, it was Helen who stepped in to support their still-growing family. She was a firm believer that a woman should be able to support herself in the event that she should need or want to, and that a good education could only make a mother into a better mother.
When she was 47, Helen was left a widow and single mother of seven children, her youngest only ten years old when his father died. But, Helen never had to scramble to support her family. She was a unique and progressive woman who believed that a woman could do whatever she set her mind to doing. She had never been the classic housewife and stay-at-home mother— though believed that there was no other occupation on earth that was of greater importance, or could adequately or successfully take precedence over the work of rearing the next generation of the human race.
Once her husband had passed the bar and began making money again, Helen never fully left the workforce. When the family relocated to Chicago in 1880 in order to run the Western Magazine, the plan was to sell their Kansas home. However, the house never sold, and after a few years, the Starretts were forced to file for bankruptcy and their Kansas properties were auctioned off for the amount of the back taxes owed. Although the magazine was a bona-fide success, after only three years, the business manager had the books in such a tangle that she was forced into bankruptcy again. Never one to accept defeat, she returned to education. She became the principal of a girls’ school in Chicago, and subsequently founded a school of her own. Within a few years, the Starrett School for Girls was ranked among the finest classical schools in the country—a distinction it carried until long after her retirement and death.
She was a staunch supporter of women’s rights, and counted many of the leading women in the suffrage movement as her close friends. In 1920, she was the only delegate from the first suffrage convention to live to see the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution ratified, and was one of only six women electors to the Hall of Fame in New York City.
Although she published several books, she considered Crocus and Wintergreen to be her best work, and, additionally, she eschewed any notion that she had a great gift for poetry. She proudly asserted that it was her sister, Frances, who was the real poetic genius. A woman of her accomplishments was humble to the bone.
So, Heather (aka The Poetry Bully) I read it! And, once I got into it, I really enjoyed it. It was a fantastic window into their lives. Each page was a little piece of Helen and Frances, and even though I’ve not yet completed Helen’s entire library of books and essays, I have to say that Crocus and Wintergreen just might be my favorite too. So far, anyway. Thanks for inadvertently issuing me the challenge to read it. I am SO happy that I finally did. It’s really remarkable.
(Note: Many antiquarian booksellers have Crocus and Wintergreen in their online libraries. Occasionally, signed copies surface. Of course, in my opinion, the original 1907 version of the book would be my first choice because they are the most intimate, That, and antique books are just pretty awesome in general. The signed copies are my favorites! When it entered the public domain, a few publishers reissued it in paperback with cheesy, stock-photo covers. It is also available for free download from several online libraries and collections.)