Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge to Henry S. Randall

I have been prevented from writing, my dear Mr Randall, by the illness of one of my sons, and the absence of a confidential domestic who has for years been a sort of right hand on all household matters. I resume my pen uncertain how soon I may be compelled to lay it down.

You ask for the particulars of my mothers death. It is twenty years since, but no lapse of time, whilst I retain the power of feeling at all, can make me think of or speak of this event without deep emotion, for surely if there ever was a mother whose children should rise up and call her blessed that mother was mine!

Her illness was very short and I alone and Septimia also [. . .] of all her daughters, was not with her when she died. She had passed the winter of 1835. 6. with me in Boston and left me late in the spring, to return to Edgehill for the summer. In October she was to be with me again. I accompanied her to the Railway station and as the train glided off she gave me a sweet parting smile. Those looks of love were the last I was ever to receive, from one who had loved me better than any other being on earth could do—for under heaven there is no love like that of a mother!

I passed the summer at Newport where I heard regularly of and from her. Her health was better than usual and her spirits, as usual, cheerful. I had returned to Boston and was expecting her daily, for it was now the month of October and I knew she had been making preparations for her journey and was to be accompanied by one of my sisters. I, on my part, had been busy preparing for her arrival. One morning I made up my mind that she would certainly be with me the evening of that day. Her chamber was ready, but going in and looking around to see if all was right, it occurred to me that there was something wanting to complete the arrangements for her comfort. I hastened out to procure the necessary articles and they were in place before I sat down to dinner. I dined with unusual satisfaction though alone. Mr Coolidge was in China and my children all very young. I rejoiced in the thought that this was to be my last solitary dinner. My mother and sister were to be with me all through the winter. Mr & Mrs Trist and their family, and my other unmarried sisters were to sail in a short time for the Havana where Mr Trist was American Consul.

My dinner being over I went into my little library where a cheerful fire was blazing, and where my mother was in the habit of passing a great deal of her time. She had always retained her love of reading, and of reading good books, well-selected and on various topics. I had been in this room but a short time when the door opened and my best and dearest friend out of my own family, and one who was herself much attached to my mother, Mr Coolidge’s aunt, Mrs Storer, entered. Her sweet face always welcome to my eyes, wore a sad and grave expression, and I saw at once that she had something to announce. It was my mothers death! Just at the moment I was expecting her arrival! Thanks to a merciful Providence the human heart can feel but a few times in the course of it’s existence the unutterable pang which mine experienced then! My mother had been the idol of my early years and had continued through life inexpressibly dear to me. And well she might be; for by wisdom, kindness, deep love and self-sacrificing devotion, she had established the most enduring claims on the grateful affection of her children.

Our mother had been in uncertain health for some years. She had been for a very long time subject to sick headaches of a very aggravated character. These were occassionally accompanied by flushing and sometimes swelling of the face, but no serious alarm had ever been excited among those to whom her life was of the greatest importance, nor did the physicians express any uneasiness or seem to consider her case as at all [. . .] critical

In October 1836, she was, as I have said, preparing for her return to Boston. She was not quite as well as she had been during the greater part of the summer, but there was no unusual symptom, & her occasional attacks of indisposition were not such as to cause either surprise or alarm. No person imagined for a moment, not those who watched over her most anxiously, that she was even approaching a crisis, much less a dangerous one, in her long protracted but never apparently very serious ailments. “On Saturday the 8th October,” wrote my sister Mary some days after our mother death, “Mamma was partly employed in preparing for her journey to Boston. We sat together in her room engaged in little preparations of our own and were all cheerful and unconscious of what was to follow. Sunday morning I heard when I awoke that she was unwell, and when I went into her chamber I found her suffering from headache. It appeared to us to be one of her accustomed sick headaches and we did nothing more than apply the usual palliatives. In the course of the day the pain increased & was accompanied by nausea. I thought she seemed oppressed and she spoke but little. We were with her all day. At night she took a little food. I do not remember at what hour Virginia and myself left her to go to our own room, leaving Cornelia, who occupied a bed in her chamber, to take care of her during the night. It did not appear necessary that anyone should watch by her, and we knew how positively she would object to it. She gave Cornelia several little directions for the night, and when the last thing before I went to bed, I returned to her room to see if there were any change, she appeared to be sleeping. Cornelia told me that the few moutfuls of arrow root she had taken seemed not to have disagreed with her, and I went back to my own room to lie down and sleep in fatal security. [. . .] She passed a bad night but this was so usual a thing in these indispositions that Cornelia did not feel alarmed, and more than once when she got up to attend to the fire or do any other little thing Mamma expressed uneasiness at seeing her disturbed. By morning the pain in the head had increased so much that Cornelia sent for our brother Jefferson. I heard he had been sent for and got into the room before he did. Cornelia and sister Jane were by the bedside. When brother Jefferson entered Mamma spoke to him, but immediately after became sick, heaved convulsively and fell forward into his arms and drew her last breath. He soon became aware of the dreadful truth but we could not admit it. For a long time we continued to apply our useless remedies, but death was in her countenance. I knew it, I felt it, at the very time I was holding her feet in my hands and trying to keep them from growing cold. Life was gone! I kissed her cheek and her forehead—I kissed them more than once, but I did not call on her then. I felt that the time had come for which every minute of my life ought to have been a preparation, when I should call on her and she would not answer me.—”

My brother wrote to me under the same date. 14. October.

“My short letter will have been communicated to you ere this. I do not think our beloved mother was seriously ill more than fifteen minutes before she expired. She died of apoplexy caused by the rush of blood to the head in heaving ______ the heaving which produced the fatal catastrophe was not unusually violent __ one momentary spasm and her sufferings were over ____ She died in my arms __ nothing was omitted, from confusion or alarm, to restore her. our sisters were not immediately aware of the result—my hand was on her pulse and felt it’s last throb—I saw the last swell of her chest and closed [. . .] her eyes with my own hand. ____ I superintended every thing to the minutest particular and to the last act of depositing her body in the grave.” __ And there she has been sleeping for twenty years by her fathers side. In death she was not divided from him whom in life she had loved so dearly.

These have been sorrowful details for me to go into my dear Mr Randall, and renew a grief which time has softened but not removed. I give them to you, sacred as they are, because you earnestly asked for them. I commit them to your good feelings. They will help to complete a family picture in your mind, and they give the last moments of one whose whole life had been a preparation for death, if the fulfilment of every duty and the development of every good affection be a proper preparation for death. My mother was deeply and purely religious and taught her children to love religion. It was her comfort in sorrow, her support in every trial, and would have been her consolation in dying had it not pleased God to spare her at the last, all pain of mind and almost of body. Her death would have been, at any time, too soon for her children. For herself it was not too soon. Her work was done—she died before old age with it’s pains and infirmities had come to embitter life, and yet not before she had lived to the best purposes that a woman can live, exemplary in every domestic relation, as daughter, wife, mother, mistress of a family, and friend, honored and beloved. She had passed through her appointed trials, and they were many and severe, with mingled courage and meekness. To the last her sweet temper was never roused nor her cheerful [. . .] spirit subdued. Under the most difficult circumstances she had acted with equal judgment & self-command, and her disinterestedness was carried to a fault.

But it is time I should close. In any mention that you may make in your life of my grandfather, of his daughter, my dear Mr Randall, you can hardly say too much in her praise. What a family group was that which consisted of Mr Jefferson, his wife and his two daughters! How much excellence, how much intellect, how much beauty! No portrait in marble or on canvas remains to give an idea of the exquisite loveliness of my aunt, and none that words can make could ever convey the charm of my mother’s character.

Very truly yours,
Ellen W. Coolidge
Tr (ViU: Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge Correspondence, Letterbook); in the hand of Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge; dashes in original.