Celia Thaxter celebrated her 58th birthday in 1893 at her cottage on the Isles of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine. She had grown up on the windswept islands as the daughter of a lighthouse keeper until she married her tutor, a 27-year-old Harvard graduate 11 years her senior.
They moved to the mainland, settling in Newtonville, Mass., and immersed themselves in Boston’s literary circles. Celia gave birth to three sons: Karl, who was bright, but nervous, temperamental and dependent; John; and Roland, who became a prominent mycologist. She hated living in Newtonville, but she did publish poetry and stories, achieve literary recognition and make friends among New England’s intellectual elite.
The marriage did not go well, and Celia Thaxter began to spend more time on the islands helping her family with the hotel they ran. Her growing literary fame attracted artists, writers and intellectuals to the hotel, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Whittier, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Sarah Orne Jewett and Childe Hassam.
Her cutting garden in front of her cottage was famous in itself. She wrote a book about it called An Island Garden, illustrated by Childe Hassam. Her garden has been recreated by the Shoals Marine Laboratory, now at the Isles.
At 58, she spent most of her days weeding her island garden. Though she wrote ‘I feel every bone in my skeleton,’ she enjoyed being outdoors and listening to the songbirds that followed her around the garden.
On July 1, 1893, Celia Thaxter wrote a thank you letter to her friend Feroline W. Fox:
How faithful and how kind you are, always to remember me on my birthday! Your lovely letter with its sweetly perfumed leaves was a real pleasure to me, and I thank you for it very heartily, and thank you for your interest in me and mine. Karl is with me. My two youngest sons are in Kittery. Roland and his dear little family moved down there in the first week of June for the summer. Since he has had a professorship in Harvard, he has such long vacations that I cannot be grateful enough.
The two grandchildren, little Eliot and Katherine, are fascinating to their grandmother! Indeed, I don’t think I ever realized what “fun” was until I became a grandmother! Isn’t it delightful?
I went over to see them the other day, and as Eliot and I were walking together and gathering wild strawberries, with the grass and daisies and buttercups higher than the little fellow’s head, he said to me suddenly, apropos of nothing at all, “Are you very old, granna?”
“Yes, dear,” I said, “I am very old.” He heaved a deep sigh and said, “I am very sorry.” “But why, dear?” “Because,” he said, “I don’t want you to be deeded before I am!” He is only four years old, and troubling himself so much!
With thanks to Letters of Celia Thaxter.