SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL and Memories of Losing my Mother

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I remember sitting on our striped couch in the TV room, watching Sarah Plain and Tall, the made-for-TV movie starred Glenn Close and Christopher Walken, with my mom. Whenever someone mentions these two award winning actors, I still think of them as Sarah and Jacob from a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie. My mom and I had just finished reading the slim, 80 page book together; I was about 7 years old. I reread the book many times, listened to the audiobook so often I almost memorized it, and watched our VHS copy of the movie until the voices were garbled and the tape wore out.

Sarah, Plain and Tall book coverIf you are unfamiliar with Patricia MacLachlan’s book, it is about a widower named Jacob Witting and his children, Caleb and Anna. Anna narrates the story, and I always thought that she and I would be good friends. Needing help raising his children and running his farm, Jacob advertises for a mail order bride, and Sarah Wheaton from Maine arrives by train to be his new wife. Caleb adores her immediately. Anna, older and more loyal towards her mother, who died while giving birth to Caleb, is more standoffish. Throughout the story, Sarah strives to become a wife to Jacob, a mother to Caleb and Anna, and a valued member of a society that does not always accept strong, independent, overall wearing women.

There is one scene at the beginning of the movie, before Sarah arrives, in which Anna comes onto the screen. She is about 8 years old, with a slouchy, ill-fitting dress. Her hair braided in two messy plaits on either side of her face. I remember my mom sadly saying, “That little girl looks like she needs a mother. She looks like a motherless child.”

In less than two years, I would be in the same predicament as Anna—a little girl without a mother. My own wonderful, book loving, soft, and snuggly mom died from breast cancer when I was 9 years old.

After my mom died, I used Sarah, Plain and Tall as a sort of guide as to what to do after your mom dies. In the story, Anna says that her mother died on a day that was “cruel and sunny.” My mom did as well, a beautiful spring morning very close to Mother’s Day. I remembered Anna’s short but precise description of the morning of her mother’s death. I almost felt like Anna was reaching out from the pages of the book, to hold my hand and remind me that it doesn’t always rain when someone dies. It was as if we were sisters, going through the same experience.

She then tells us: “They had come for her in a wagon and taken her away to be buried. And then the aunts and uncles and cousins had come and tried to fill up the house. But they couldn’t.” My mom was taken away. My family arrived in droves. I was so excited to see them, but then was taken aback when I found my favorite cousin crying on my aunt’s shoulder in our hallway.

They all left and I thankfully returned to school. I loved being back with my comfortable teachers and friends. I enjoyed the structure of the day and knowing what to expect. School had not changed, even though everything at my house felt different.

At the end of that 3rd grade year, we read Sarah, Plain and Tall as a class. My teacher took the story and created a readers’ theater. We would all sit in a circle on the carpet, and she would rock in a rocking chair. Calmly, she assigned parts for each chapter. Students read parts for Jacob, Caleb, Sarah, Anna, and Maggie, the mail order wife of another widower farmer. I remember reading Maggie’s line, “There are always things to miss, no matter where you are.” How can one line from a book be so true and so soothing at the same time?

Of course, I still miss my mom. By rereading the books we read together, I can still feel close to her.