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Building Barns and Bridges

Brenda Bliven Porter

26 Untitled

They should never have built a barn there, at all – Edward Thomas

In “The Revolt of Mother” New England wife Sarah Penn learns that husband Adoniram plans to build a barn on a piece of land set aside for a new house. Sarah speaks directly to her husband later that same day, imploring him to build the new house instead of another barn. Adoniram is unmoved by her eloquent and reasonable argument, and says several times: “I ain’t got nothin’ to say.” The issue is unresolved, and the construction of the barn takes place without further discussion.

When Adoniram is called away on an errand, Sarah takes action. She moves the entire household from the old cottage to the empty new barn. Upon his return, a shocked and then remorseful Adoniram finds Sarah and the children living quite comfortably in the barn.

In Sarah Penn, writer Mary E. Wilkins Freeman gives us a model for conflict resolution. When confronted with the knowledge that Adoniram has decided to build his barn without including her in the plans, Sarah refuses to criticize, telling her daughter, Nanny, “You hadn't ought to judge father.” There is little evidence of smoldering silences, nagging, or family discord. Sarah goes on with her work----baking, cooking, sewing, cleaning---until eventually she takes advantage of Adoniram’s absence to move the household to the barn.

What might have happened if a resentful Sarah had badgered and hectored her harried husband, and then taken over the barn? Adoniram might have set the hired hands to moving things right back to the little house, and he may have felt perfectly justified in doing so. Or what if Sarah had ignored her needs, stayed in the little house, and lived out the remaining years of their marriage in silent resentment? Think Ethan and Zeena Frome.

Sarah Penn refuses to criticize her husband, and she refuses to set aside her own real needs to languish in self-imposed unselfish silence. Refusing to rebuke Adoniram for his barn building, she effectively preserves her husband’s dignity and the dignity of their marriage. She bridges the gap between the two of them with virtuous behavior. There is no accusatory tone in Sarah’s voice when she explains the move to the barn:

"We've come here to live, an' we're goin' to live here. We've got jest as good a right here as new horses an' cows. The house wa'n't fit for us to live in any longer, an' I made up my mind I wa'n't goin' to stay there. I've done my duty by you forty year, an' I'm goin' to do it now; but I'm goin' to live here."

Finally, Adoniram understands. He yields the barn and weeps as he experiences real remorse at his own unjust action. He even agrees to build partitions and buy new furniture. I suspect he will find life in the large new house with a contented wife rather pleasant after all. If Mother ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!

(Painting by Arline Kroger)