Each day’s struggle serves to remind me I’ve reached the final chapter of my life. Consequently, though not without apprehension, I spend my time in quiet retrospection of not only the events I conducted along my journey, but also those thrust upon me. My objective is simply to determine if my scale was at least balanced, if not more heavily weighted, toward the good I was able to perform in my lifetime.
Of my earliest recollections, I remember…
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, her hard-scrabble life. For Bonicia had been born into wealth. Her fortune; however, was lacking in monetary riches. For she was bred into the realm of enlightenment, loftier than herself or her station.
“Mother, can we go to the market and get something to eat?” seven-year-old Bonicia shouted down from the top of the creaky staircase.
“No, my dear, we have no money left,” her mother responded.
“But I’m so hungry!” Bonicia lamented.
“Yes, my child, but you must be quiet. Your father is working.”
Bonicia retreated to her bedroom. Though it was scarcely a bedroom. It was nothing more than a curtain enclosing her small bed from her parents’ only slightly larger bed in the single large room above her father’s work area – a dusty, disheveled space littered with tattered books, papers, quills, and ink spilled across the tables.
Bonicia pulled her quilt up to her chin and softly groaned as her stomach ached and grumbled.
“Father must sell his ideas, his notions, his writings,” she thought, “or surely we will suffer a slow and miserable death from starvation this winter. Or perhaps we will freeze to death!”
For the draft blew powerfully through the rough-hewn boards of the home her father had built on nothing more or less than the strength of his own back.
Years before her birth, Bonicia’s father had interviewed her mother for the role of housekeeper. Though he found the woman to be notably lacking in any discernible cooking or cleaning talents, she possessed a single trait he had most longed for in a live-in companion – she could engage in discourse with him late into the evenings, long after the candle flame died out. He found her to be his intellectual equal in every way. She was both his confidante and his combatant, standing toe-to-toe with him in every conversation. Upon the realization he had met his equal in female form, she became a permanent fixture to engage with him on his notions and compulsions in every way. In a matter of months, they were married.
Together the two discussed mathematics, politics, medicine, philosophy and more. After particularly lengthy and exhausting debates, he would take a seat at his bench and madly scratch his quill across paper for hours until the early morning sun streamed through the windows.
A few years later, their only child, Bonicia, was born. And from a very young age, she couldn’t help but join into their conversations. Her agile mind expanded more swiftly than her body could possibly keep up. She didn’t attend school, for her father knew she was wise well beyond her years and it would serve nothing more than bore her and be an acute waste of her time.
“Ah, my wife, our daughter is the smartest in the land,” he would say whenever Bonicia said something particularly profound. At the age of five, she pronounced her life’s purpose was to change people’s thinking to be more suitable to her mind and sentiments. Her father beamed with pride.
Later that afternoon, Bonicia awoke from her nap as the last rays of the setting sun streamed through the wavy glass window and illuminated her bed with bright orange light. Her stomach felt emptier than it had before she had dozed. She quickly bundled up in her ragged wool coat and boots that were painfully too small for her growing feet. She stomped down the stairs, curling her toes up as much as she could, though they were already a bit numb from the crisp air that had engulfed her as she slept, so she felt little discomfort.
Grabbing a basket, a candle with an inch left to burn, and a bit of flint and steel to light it; she marched to the door and dismissively announced, “I’m off for a walk,” hardly noticed by her parents presently engaged in a volatile discussion about taxation and how it negatively impacted only the poorest of citizens and what should be done to instill fairness into the system.
Bonicia headed away from town, toward the rapidly darkening woods, hoping she could find something to stave her stomach pains. Perhaps an elderberry bush or a cluster of mushrooms they could make into a soup. A few errant dandelion greens or buds could serve to flavor it.
Bonicia livened her pace to find nature’s scraps of bounty before it got too dark and not even a candle could provide enough light to aid in her search. If she was lucky, she might run across some tasty groundnuts her mother could boil and mash. As she searched, she daydreamed about the cattails and their small sprouts they ate when they’d traveled to the marshlands where her grandparents lived. It had been a long journey, but she had learned a great deal about surviving off the land on that trip when their food reserves ran low.
Bonicia stumbled upon a walnut tree she’d never noticed before and began pulling all the walnuts within her reach. As that got more difficult, she dropped her basket to the ground and inched her way up the tree, grimacing and groaning with each effort to pull herself higher up the trunk. At last, she made it to the first sturdy branch and plucked every nut within her reach, throwing them down and filling her basket. “That should do us for tonight,” she said aloud and scampered back down the tree.
Hearing an unsettling sound of leaves crunching nearby, she turned to see a large black bear approaching her. “Must be his dinnertime too,” she muttered, taking long backward strides without ever taking her eyes off him. “Go away!” she shouted, “I’m hungry too!” Once she got several hundred yards away and saw the bear was more interested in climbing the tree for his own tasty treats than in devouring her, she took off running for home.
When she reached home, she yanked the door latch, shoved the door open, jumped into the house, slammed the door shut, then leaned with her back against the door to prop herself up, her chest rapidly rising and falling with breathlessness.
“Yes, but the rich are required to help care for the poor. It’s their responsibility to share their wealth!” her mother shouted to her father.
As soon as she caught her breath, Bonicia interrupted, “Mother, mother, I’ve brought us walnuts!”
She looked down to point at the walnuts, but discouragingly discovered more than half of the nuts had flown out of the basket due to her hasty retreat from the forest. She knew better though than to mention her brush with wildlife to her mother for fear she would be banished from going to the woods in the future, and oh how she loved the woods.
“Yes, yes, that’s wonderful,” her mother exclaimed, seemingly incapable of noticing her own growing hunger, even though the last scraps of bread and their single remaining potato had been devoured the previous day. She turned back to her husband to continue debating the merits of taxing the wealthy.
Bonicia sighed and searched for a small hammer, then began pounding the walnut husks to release their delicious fruit, throwing each one into her mouth as soon as its husk was open.
“I must leave enough for mama and papa to eat too,” she thought as she listened to their debate get more heated, as it often did.
The next morning, her mother thanked her for bringing home the sustenance they had enjoyed late in the evening.
“You’re welcome, Mother,” Bonicia stated haltingly, “But why doesn’t Father sell his writings so we can have money and get food in the market from the farmers?”
“You know he’s tried before, child, but no one is interested in his novel new ideas. New ways of thinking don’t pay for food.”
“But what about the ideas he has for better medicines to heal people? Or what about when he writes about how to make a better government? Won’t they care about that?” Bonicia asked. But she already knew the answer, even if she didn’t understand the reasons.
Alas, when spring arrived, her father would need to help build other settlers’ homes to earn enough money to once again be able to afford the basic supplies they needed. For it was from the sweat of his brow and the ache of his back that he would provide for his family as best a man could, given he was relatively small man who was certainly not known for his physical strength. Her father’s work broke down his body, even as his mind grew ever stronger and sharper. His quill raced across the page every night until he could no longer hold up his head and slumped over in a deep slumber at his desk for a couple of hours until he had to get up and toil some more. He didn’t last many years after that and died when Bonicia had only reached the tender age of ten.
Knowing they would surely starve and that she would not have any clothes or shoes that fit her if she didn’t do something, Bonicia took it upon herself to stand in the town square every morning with her father’s writings and sketches she had bound into small books.
“Brilliant new ideas, written by a genius!” she yelled as she stood next to the farmer’s stands, hoping she could sell one or two books each week. That would provide just enough money she and her mother needed to purchase a few potatoes, carrots, and apples, and maybe even some flour and sugar to make themselves meals. She dared to dream she might even be able to buy some milk and eggs from the farmers someday.
The first few months were a little rough. “It’s summertime,” she thought to herself, “Hopefully they’ll have more interest in books when school is back in session.” Over time, she honed her salesmanship skills and was able to sell a book every so often – mostly the books that contained her father’s drawings, as people seemed to find them interesting to browse through.
Upon hearing school was soon be back in session, Bonicia marched with her basketful of books to the schoolhouse and found the teacher working at her desk preparing for the students’ return.
“Excuse me ma’am,” Bonicia said, to no response. So, she tried a little louder, “EXCUSE ME, MA’AM!”
“Oh my goodness, you startled me!” the teacher exclaimed, jumping out of her seat.
“What do you have there, my dear? Are those books?”
“Yes, ma’am. My father is a very famous author and has written many books on very important subjects,” Bonicia fibbed, trying to contain the raucous sounds of her growling stomach, and feeling very little guilt about the deception.
“Well, isn’t that interesting?” the teacher exclaimed. “Books are awfully hard to come by out here in the countryside. Let me have a look.”
Bonicia set her basket on the teacher’s desk and pulled them out one at a time.
“This one is about mathematical calculations and how you can use them to build things!” Bonicia exclaimed.
“This one is about the problems with our country’s government and ideas about how they could make it better.”
“And this one is about religions of the world and the differences between them.”
The teacher kept pulling out book after book and slowly turned the pages, mesmerized by the contents within each book.
“My goodness dear, these are fascinating! Such vivid diagrams and sketches, and such nice work in binding the books.”
“Yes ma’am. My father was brilliant!”
“I will need to discuss my book budget with the school council tonight and see how many books I’ll be able to purchase for my students,” she said as she continued turning pages and saying “oh” and “my” and “hmm” as she leafed through them. “Come back tomorrow and let’s see if we can make an arrangement.”
“Yes ma’am, I will!” Bonicia smiled, picking up the basket of books, and skipping all the way home, barely noticing the weight of her basket.
“Mother, Mother,” she shouted as she stepped in the front door, “The schoolteacher is going to buy some books tomorrow!”
“Really? Oh Bonicia, that’s wonderful news! We’re so low on food, you need new shoes, and my goodness, I do need to get fabric to make you a new dress or two.”
Bonicia set the basket down and began dancing with her mother around the fireplace until they both laughed so hard they fell to the floor.
The next day, Bonicia set out for town and was happily surprised to learn the teacher wanted to buy every single one of the books she had made and even placed an order for more books – any of her father’s books she could bring to the schoolhouse, the teacher said she would find the money to purchase.
The teacher suggested Bonicia should start attending school, but Bonicia had other ideas. She spent months pulling together more of her father’s stacks of papers, combining them in logical ways, then binding them into books for the school. Before long, she had filled the wooden box her mother kept hidden beneath her bed so full of money the latch would no longer keep the box closed. She and her mother could finally relax and live comfortably for a very long time.
Years later, her father’s thoughts, writings, diagrams, and sketches were shared well beyond their small town and were produced in large quantities by printing houses and taught in schools and universities all over the world. Her father became famous for his knowledge and ideas. And Bonicia and her mother received small royalties for each book that was sold, sustaining them for the rest of their lives.
It’s getting late and I’m quite tired. Yet there’s so much more of my life to reflect on tomorrow. But if I don’t happen to arouse from my slumber, and this was my final day on this earth, I will rest comfortably in the knowledge that my scale was weighted toward the good I performed as a child - for me, for my mother, and for my father. Our legacy will live on forever.