From the Vaults: Nephi Anderson’s "How the Lord Was Good to Aunt Johanna" (1909)

Today’s classic Mormon short story is about an aging Mormon mother waiting for a letter from her prized missionary son. It’s an uplifting tale–sort of–with a darker cautionary twist at the end.   

Also, if you get a chance, check out my latest post on Dawning of a Brighter Day: “Novelist Nephi; or Why We Still Need the ‘Author of Added Upon‘”

How the Lord Was Good to Aunt Johanna.
By Nephi Anderson, Author of “Added Upon,” “The Castle Builder,” Etc.
Improvement Era 13.2 (December 1909)
The house stood well back from the road, allowing the apple orchard nearly to surround it. A broad driveway led from the road up through the trees to the front door. There was no lawn, but a bed of chrysanthemums and dahlias bordered the walk and extended half way around the house. Ivy clung to the adobe walls. The gray house, broad path, the gay flowers, and the trees laden with red and yellow fruit,-all lay peacefully reposing in the pearly haze of an autumn afternoon.
An elderly woman sat on the front porch knitting. Her white hair and deeply furrowed face glowed in the light of the western sun, which crept under the limbs of an apple tree standing so near to the house that it leaned caressingly over the porch. Every few moments the woman looked up from her knitting and down the road; and when she saw the dust of an approaching horseman, a half mile away, she slowly arose from her chair and limped down the path.
The rural mail carrier soon rode up and handed her a parcel saying, “Only a paper today.”
“No letter?”
“No letter this time, Aunt Johanna. We’ll hope for better luck tomorrow.”

He rode off, and the woman stood looking after him as she leaned heavily on the gate post. Presently she walked slowly back to the porch, resumed her seat, but not her knitting. She pressed her head against the cushion on the back of her chair, closed her eyes, and became very still. The sun sank lower and then disappeared behind the western mountains.
A middle aged woman, wrapped in a big, blue work apron, appeared in the doorway from within. “Johanna,” she said, “it is getting cold out here. You had better come in.”
The gray-haired knitter gave a little startled shiver, then arose and followed her sister into the house.
“There was no letter again today, Rose,” she moaned, as she stood in the kitchen doorway. “I don’t know what to think. The poor boy must be sick, an’ alone, an’-I don’t know what.”
“Not a bit of it, Johanna,” replied the other woman cheerily. “He’s just too busy, or he’s been moved to another conference. My boy, Thomas, didn’t write for nearly two months once because he was moved about so, and hadn’t any sure address to send me. Besides letters do get lost sometimes. Quite a number of Thomas’s never reached us. So don’t get discouraged, sister. Sit here while I get a little wood for morning. Why, I declare, your hands are like ice! You must have got chilly out there. The bread’s in the oven, but I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
When Rose came back, she found Johanna sitting by the stove, looking at the fire through the grate. “There,” said the younger sister, as she threw the wood with a clatter into a box, back of the stove, “that will last you for two or three days. Now I’ll get you a bite of supper, and then I must go home. John and the boys will soon be back from the field as hungry as bears.”
“Rose,” said the other, “it’s kind of you-all this is, when you’ve such a lot of work of your own to do; but the Lord will repay you,-and Seaton, when he returns.”
“Tut, tut,” replied Rose impatiently, “I can surely do this much for a sister who is not well, and whose only son is on a mission.”
The table was soon set, and Rose would have gone, but she saw that her sister was unusually disturbed, so she sat down by the table for a few minutes.
“I have just finished my second pair of stockings for him,” remarked Johanna, “but how shall I send them to him, if he doesn’t write and give his address? He’ll need them soon, when the cold weather comes. An’ then, there’s the Christmas box to be got ready. He did so want to get some of my dried apples, he said, and I have a bag of the best to send him.”
“Oh, you have plenty of time to do that. You must remember that it doesn’t take so long now to get to England as it did when we came over in a sailing ship. Two or three weeks is ample time.”
“But it takes time to get the packages ready, and into the office in Salt Lake. Then it depends on whether or not a company is going, and if there is room in any of their trunks. There are a good many things to consider, but-but I wouldn’t care for these things, if I only knew that he was well.”
“No news is good news, Johanna.”
“Sometimes it is. I hope he got the last money I sent him. He said he would need an overcoat and some other things. It takes a lot of money now to keep a boy on a mission. It doesn’t seem to me that you sent Tommy so much money.”
“Fifteen dollars a month furnished Thomas with everything, and I don’t see what Seaton does with twenty-five and sometimes thirty.”
“Times must have changed. Anyhow, I wouldn’t have my boy a-wanting anything, even if I have to sacrifice some comforts. He’s out in the Lord’s work, bless him, and if his old mother can help him, she’s going to. . . . . The apples are ready to pick, and they will bring a good price. I think he ought to have a little extra for Christmas-but you must be going now, I’m feeling better.”
After her sister had left, Johanna slowly finished her supper. Then she cleared away the few dishes; took the bread out of the oven, and put a few orderly touches to the kitchen. With her lighted lamp she went into a small bed room. It was her son Seaton’s when he was at home. But shortly after he had gone on his mission, she had moved into it, as she thought it more comfortable than her own. She placed the lamp on the bureau, and the light fell on a large unframed photograph standing on a stack of books. It was of a group of elders in missionary attire. Seaton was the third from the right, in the front row. He was dressed, as were the others, in a long “Prince Albert” coat and a tall silk hat. They were a lot of fine looking men, as everybody could see.
“Doesn’t he look fine?” muttered the mother, as she gazed at the picture. “Reminds me of his father-all but the ‘stove-pipe’ hat. That would hardly have suited him, out here in the early days of the farm. But Seaton-well, the new generation ought to be better than the old, or else where’s the improvement. The fathers were the founders, the rough stones of the foundation, as it were; the sons are the finishers of the great gospel structure, and now ornamentation as well as stability is needed. Yes, the hat is all right for Seaton.”
Johanna opened a drawer, and drew forth a package of letters. She looked them over, opened and read a few of the latest, and then put them back. As she did so, she saw some of Seaton’s discarded ties which she, having thought too good to throw away, had preserved. Seaton was very fond of ties. Ought she not to send him some in the Christmas box? . . . . And there was a photograph of Nellie, the girl who had said that her boy Seaton was not good enough for her, and had refused to go out with him. But Nellie had no doubt repented of that long ago. He would be coming home one of these fine days, and then Nellie and all like her would see what a man her son had become, and then,-and then!
The next morning Johanna was not feeling well. When her sister came, towards noon, she was still in bed. “I must have caught cold last evening,” she said. “Look out for the mail man, Rose. Sometimes he comes quite early. No, I don’t care for breakfast. I shall get up after a while and get me some. Tell John he had better begin picking the apples right away, because I am sure cold weather is coming.”
The sick woman got up for a short time in the afternoon, but when the mail man passed the house without even looking in her direction, she went back to bed. No letter came the next day, nor the next. A week passed, and yet no word came from the English missionary to the anxious mother, who kept to her bed and seemed to grow weaker as the days went by. The autumn haze changed to wintry storms. The apples were harvested and some of them marketed. The Christmas package was well under way. Rose, with the help of kind neighbors, looked after the sick woman and her interests. They did well, but one thing they could not do: they could not bring to the helpless mother a letter bearing the English stamp and postmark, and that was the one thing above all others which she wanted.
Besides Seaton, Rose was Johanna’s only living relative. Years ago the father had died, and two children had followed him. As one by one her family had gone, all interest had centered in her boy. Her life had narrowed to Seaton. For him she planned and worked. For him she lived, and for him she would gladly have died. She could afford to lavish all she had on him; for would he not repay her by being her comfort and support in her old age? When the call for a mission came for him, she was glad, for that would sober him down and make a man out of him; besides it would give her opportunities to do more for her boy, to pour out in a more abundant stream her mother love. He would also do what his father was prevented from doing: he would preach the gospel to her kindred in Old England, and thus be a savior to her father’s house. Then he would come back, big and strong and true; full of faith and wisdom gained from the practical experiences of the mission field. He had been gone for nearly a year, now. From the first he had sent her a letter every week, but recently they were somewhat irregular, and then they had ceased altogether. Six weeks passed without a letter. The mother lay ill in bed, pale and weak, with seemingly very little life left in her poor, worn-out body.
As the days went by, the fields became bare, and a cold wind whistled through the naked limbs of the apple trees. Johanna became very weak, but her spirit was hopeful. She was not going to die yet awhile, she said to her sister. No; she was going to live to see Seaton return, and then-well, then it didn’t matter much.
The bishop came one afternoon earlier than usual. He called at Rose’s first, which also was an uncommon thing. Together they went to the sick woman’s house. Plainly, there was something the matter, for the usually florid and cheerful Rose was pale, tearful and quiet. She would not go in to her sister’s bedside. So the bishop went alone.
“Good morning, bishop,” she said, “I am glad you came. I want to tell you something. I dreamed last night that a big fat letter came to me from Seaton. It was full of all sorts of explanations which I couldn’t understand.”
“Yes,” was all the bishop said. . . . “How are you today!”
“Better, today, thank you.” She was always “better,” though now she could hardly speak the word. “Bishop,” she asked softly, “have you heard from any of the missionaries? or from Seaton, or from anybody that would know about my boy?”
“How should I hear?” he replied evasively. “There have been no missionaries returning for some time, and I have received no letter from Seaton, but-“
The sick woman looked at him as if to say, “But what?”
The bishop hesitated. He had come with a message, but he could not deliver it. His courage failed him. He looked away from the woman to the missionary group on the bureau. She saw the direction of his gaze, and she smiled faintly.
“Think of Seaton in such a hat!” she said; “but it becomes him, don’t you think so, bishop?”
“He looks fine.”
“Yes; he’s handsomer than his father; hut then, he had to work so hard. Bishop, Seaton told me in his last letter that he distributed a hundred tracts and preached twice on the street each week. That’s pretty good, isn’t it? and he’s becoming a fine singer, too. He can always draw a crowd. He hasn’t been away so very long, you know. What will he be when he’s been his full two years!”
The bishop arose, and going to the window, he looked out through the trees to the fields beyond.
“I said two years, bishop,” came faintly from the bed, “as if I thought that was a full mission; but I didn’t mean that. I think a missionary should remain as long as he is required, even if it is three or four years. I want my boy to. . . . . If I only knew he was well.”
“Oh, he is well-“
“How do you know? have you heard?”
“Some time ago, sister.”
Just then Rose came in and asked if the invalid would have a little gruel; but she would have nothing. Presently she closed her eyes and went to sleep. Rose and the bishop withdrew into the kitchen.
“I didn’t tell her anything,” said he. “I didn’t have the heart.”
“But she must know,” whispered Rose, “and I can’t tell her. She is so weak that it will kill her. O bishop, what can we do?”
“I don’t know,” he replied meditatively, “I don’t know. I hope the Lord will be good to her-good to her,” he ended softly.
All that night they watched at Johanna’s bedside. The doctor said she might linger for days or even weeks, or she might pass quietly away at any moment. The bishop called next morning. Johanna lay as if asleep, a peaceful expression on her wan face. There was a fire in a big, old-fashioned fireplace in the adjoining parlor, and a soft warmth came through the open doorway to where the dying woman lay. The bishop rubbed his hands before the fire, remarking that there was snow in the air. He talked with Rose in low tones, and there was something in their conversation of graver import than that of a soul passing from earth-life to one of peace and rest in the paradise of God,-some impending event, dark and terrible, that could not be averted.
As they stood by the open fire, a movement drew them to the window. It was but the rattle of a wagon coming down the road from the town.
“I thought it was him,” exclaimed Rose under her breath.
“No;” replied the bishop. “He could hardly get here today, even if he came straight through. He landed in Boston last Friday.”
“But, bishop, he mustn’t come straight home to his mother,-and she so unprepared, and so trustful. The shock would kill her instantly.”
“No;” he agreed; “he mustn’t come home-not yet. I’ll watch for him and see that he doesn’t.”
The wagon stopped at the gate, and a shrill whistle sounded through the air.
“Rose, Rose,” came from the sick room. The two hurried in and saw Johanna throw the coverlets away from her arms and sit up.
“Rose, Rose!” she cried, “that was the postman’s whistle. He has a letter for me,-a letter from my boy. The postman-always whistles when he has-a letter for me-go get it, Rose.”
“I’ll get it,” said the bishop, as he passed out. Rose laid her sister gently down again, where she lay as if waiting. The bishop went down to the gate.
“Here at last is Aunt Johanna’s letter,” said the postman. “Knowing how anxious she was to get it, I brought it around before I began my regular route.”
The bishop thanked him and replied to his further questions regarding her health. Then he went back to the house. Rose met him at the door.
“Ought she to have it, do you think?” she asked.
He passed into the bedroom. Johanna lay perfectly still with her eyes closed. “I think it is perfectly safe to give it to her,” he replied. “She will never read it. . . . Johanna, here’s your letter.”
She reached out an arm, and the letter was placed in her hand. She held it up to her face as if she were looking at the well-known handwriting: and the English postage stamp. Then she pressed her son’s final message to her bosom, and smiled.
The first snow of the season came softly and silently with the dusk of the evening, whitening, through the gloom, the barren fields and distant hills. In the hush of the closing day, Aunt Johanna died. The smile remained on her lips to the last. The letter lay in the cold, unfeeling hand, pressed closely to the silenced heart, now beyond the reach of earthly pain or sorrow. The Lord had been good to Aunt Johanna to the last, for she never knew that within that letter there were tidings, not of glorious victories for the truth, but of defeat and disaster: her boy-her missionary boy-had made a failure of his mission, had been dishonorably released from his missionary labors, and was now on his way home.
Salt Lake City, Utah.

3 thoughts on “From the Vaults: Nephi Anderson’s "How the Lord Was Good to Aunt Johanna" (1909)”

  1. .

    I'm not so sure about this Saki-like ending—especially since the “twist” was made plain long before this point. It would take a pretty lacking-in-alertness reader to miss that Seaton was coming home without any trails of glory. Better to just let the ominous unopened letter remain without further comment. And, probably, better to let the irony of the Lord's goodness remain in the title alone without refrain in the denouement.

    Says I.

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