Old Mrs. Harris
Genre: Short Story
- Sirridge, Marjorie
- Date of entry: Oct-24-1997
- Last revised: Sep-05-2006
This work, originally entitled "Three Women," is a semi-autobiographical story of Willa Cather, her mother and grandmother, four younger children--all boys--the father, and a servant girl, who all lived together in a small midwestern town. The roles of the three women are beautifully described: the gentle grandmother who cared for and taught the children, her daughter, a displaced "southern belle" who was spoiled in many ways but wise and loving with her children, and her granddaughter, a teenager set upon her own needs and ambitions but dutiful toward her family.
Another part of the story is the relationship of this family to a well educated neighbor couple who "kept a tender watch over the comings and goings of the household." It was in their home that the granddaughter found a library she could use and encouragement for her studies. Eventually it was this couple who made it possible for her to attend college.
The gradual, unnoticed deterioration of the grandmother ended with her death. The response of the family to this event is well described. Also the empathic relationship between the grandmother and the servant girl is very poignant. Even the death of a family cat adds to the depth of the story in a metaphorical way.
This story is appreciated by students because of the simple and meaningful way in which it documents the life of a family in which the differing needs of three generations are represented. It shows the many ways in which people can relate and be helpful to each other.
Tomas Masaryk, a Czech philosopher and statesman and the first president of Czechoslovakia, was a great admirer of Willa Cather. Masaryk had read all Cather’s works because so many of them were about immigrants from Czechoslovakia and neighboring countries. He particularly liked this story, and might have quoted from its last lines: "Thus Mrs. Harris slipped out of the Templetons’ story; but Victoria and Vickie had still to go on, to follow the long road that leads through things unguessed at and unforseeable. When they are old, they will come closer and closer to Grandma Harris. They will regret that they heeded her so little . . . They will say to themselves: ’I was heartless, because I was young and strong, and wanted things so much. But now I know.’"