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Emily Dickinson


1865–1874: Deaths in the Family

Summary 1865–1874: Deaths in the Family

Dickinson's poor health worried her family. They felt sure that her earlier shock (which today would be called a nervous breakdown) was causing all her health problems. Dickinson's sister Lavinia carried the burden of all the household chores so that her sister could spent her days locked away in her room, writing and reading. Dickinson's writing haven was filled with plants and flowers. She often sent notes to her sister-in-law Sue Gilbert with a pretty dried flower enclosed.

In 1866, Austin and Sue welcomed another baby into the family, a girl named Martha, whom everyone called Mattie. Dickinson adored her little niece and nephew, and they deeply loved the aunt across the lawn who often gave them sweets and notes in a basket lowered from her bedroom window.

In 1870, Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Emily Dickinson would finally meet face to face. In early August, Higginson wrote Dickinson a note saying he would be in Amherst for business around the fifteenth and would like to come see her. She replied saying she would be delighted to finally meet him. After dropping off his suitcases at a hotel in Amherst, Higginson arrived the Dickinson home. We have detailed facts of the meeting, because Higginson wrote a letter to his wife that night. While waiting for Dickinson in the parlor, he spotted two of his recent books displayed on the shelves. When Dickinson did enter the room, she looked almost like an apparition, holding two day lilies in her hands. She held the flowers out to Higginson, whispering: "These are my introduction." The two had a lengthy, odd conversation. Higginson spent most of the visit staring at the unusual woman in wonderment and trying to guess at the meaning of her inscrutable statements. Their conversation that day ranged from her dog, Carlo, who was now dead, to Shakespeare, to her poetry. Dickinson gave Higginson a picture of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's hands as a parting gift.

On June 15th, 1874, Edward Dickinson, who was now serving on the Massachusetts State Legislature, left for Boston to attend the first session of the legislature. The night before he left, he and Dickinson shared a quiet evening together in the parlor. She played the piano for him and he seemed unusually mild and reflective. Although he and Dickinson had had their differences, Dickinson loved him immensely, and she was his favorite child. When Edward left that June day, the rest of the Dickinsons stayed home, as they usually did when Edward traveled to Boston or to Washington. The next day, just as Mrs. Dickinson, Emily Dickinson, and Lavinia were sitting down to dinner, Austin appeared in the doorway holding a telegram in his hand. It was a note from a doctor in Boston, advising the family to hurry to Tremont House where Edward Dickinson was staying. Edward was gravely ill. As Lavinia and Austin hastened to prepare the horses (Emily would stay home with Mrs. Dickinson), Austin received another telegram saying that Mr. Dickinson was dead.

On June 19th, so many mourners were packed into the Dickinson house in Amherst that they spilled out onto the lawn. Emily Dickinson remained in her room during the funeral. She had made a lovely funeral wreath of daisies and this was the only adornment on Edward Dickinson's coffin. For a week after the funeral, Dickinson wandered around the house in a daze. Exactly one year after Edward's death, Dickinson's mother woke up and found she couldn't move her limbs. She had likely suffered a severe stroke. She was feeble and required constant care, which Dickinson administered to her. In her confusion, Mrs. Dickinson often asked for her dead husband.

That same year, tragedy was tempered by joy when Sue Gilbert gave birth to a third child, Thomas Gilbert. Ned was fourteen by this time, and Martha nine, and they called their little brother Gib. The child, with his long blond hair and rambunctious spirit, was a delight to everyone. His doting aunt Emily spoiled him.

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