Isabella was surrounded by writers. Her sister, niece, son, and friends all wrote stories, articles and lessons for publication.
Her husband, the Reverend Gustavus Rossenberg Alden—“Ross” for short—was no exception. In addition to writing his Sunday sermons, he wrote many short stories for The Pansy magazine, authored a memoir of stories about his boyhood while growing up in Maine, and (with his brother-in-law Charles Livingston) wrote a series of weekly Bible study lessons.
Ross was also an accomplished poet. He created lovely rhymes about a wide variety of subjects.
Here’s Ross’s poem “April” to help us welcome a new month:
O Spring is coming now, don’t you see?
The birds will be followed by the humble bee.
The frogs are singing their evening song,
The lambs are skipping with their dams along,
The buds are out on the pussy-willow tree,
On the bough of the birch sings the chickadee.
The cows come lowing along the lane,
With suppers all ready for us again.
Old Speckle scratches for her chickens ten,
New piggies are squealing in their pen,
From the top of the tree the robin calls,
From the top of the dam the water falls,
And everything to the eye or ear,
Tells to old and young that April is here.
Isabella Macdonald Alden was born the youngest child in a loving, and very tight-knit family.
She and her sisters were especially close, even though there was a vast difference in their ages.
For example, Isabella celebrated her first birthday the same year her eldest sister, Elizabeth, married and moved into a home of her own. But since Elizabeth’s new house was only a few steps from the Macdonald’s front door, Isabella and Elizabeth shared a close relationship.
The same was true of Mary, who was 14 years older than Isabella. When Mary wed and set up housekeeping, her home was built on property that abutted the Macdonald’s back garden. As a result, Isabella spent a lot of time with Mary and they, too, had a special bond.
It’s no wonder, then, that when Isabella married and began keeping a house of her own, she made certain the door was always open to family members. She wanted her sisters to feel the same welcoming spirit in her house as she had always felt in theirs.
When her son Raymond was young, Isabella and her husband Ross began taking him to Florida, hoping the southern climate would benefit Raymond’s health. To their relief, Raymond’s health did improve, so the Aldens decided to make Florida their winter home.
They bought a plot of land in the new town of Winter Park, and began building a house that would be big enough to accommodate plenty of family members.
They built on an oversized lot on the corner of Lyman and Interlachen avenues, right across the street from All Saints Episcopal Church.
The house was completed in 1888. Ross dubbed it “Pansy Cottage,” a name that stuck and was soon known all over town. This photo shows the size of the “cottage”:
The inviting home was three stories tall, with large yards in front and back, and a wrap-around porch that invited family, friends and neighbors to sit down and enjoy a cozy chat. It was the perfect place for the family to gather, far away from the cold New York winters.
In this photo you can see family members on the front steps and porch, in the yard, and even peeking out of the top-most windows. They look like they’re having fun!
Isabella and her family members spent many happy winters at the Pansy Cottage; and the Florida climate did improve Raymond’s health.
In 1906 Ross and Isabella began their preparations for retirement. They sold Pansy Cottage and moved to their new house in Palo Alto, California where, once again, everyone was welcome in Isabella’s new home.
In fact, she and Ross shared the California house with their son Raymond, and his wife and children, as well as Isabella’s sisters Julia and Mary.
After Ross and Isabella sold Pansy Cottage, it was passed along to different owners. Eventually, it was turned into a rooming house; and in 1955 Pansy Cottage was demolished. But thanks to photos like these, we can still peek into Isabella’s world and imagine a bit of her life with those she loved in turn-of-the-century Florida.
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In a newspaper interview, Isabella once confided her method for coping with troubling events that upset her:
Whenever things went wrong, I went home and wrote a book about it.
Many of the trials she weathered in real life ended up as turning points for characters in her books. One such situation occurred when Isabella was a young bride and was working hard to make a good impression on her husband’s new congregation.
About a week after she and her husband arrived at a new church where he was to minister, Isabella received a gift from a member of the congregation. It was a “pitiful little bonnet,” clearly made out of the sleeve of an old brown dress. Whoever fashioned it had not tried to hide the wrinkles and pin holes still visible from the bonnet’s former life as a dress.
“In my ignorance [I supposed] it to be a love-gift from some dear old poverty-stricken soul.”
So Isabella, filled with gratitude, wore the unattractive bonnet to church the very next Sunday. There she discovered the truth: the person who made the hat and gave it to Isabella was the wealthiest woman in town. She’d sent it to Isabella because she deemed Isabella’s own bonnet was “too gay for a minister’s wife!”
It was a stinging insult, and, like she always did, Isabella used her pen to write about it in her novel, Aunt Hannah and Martha and John.
In the book, Martha Remington was, like Isabella, the newly-wed wife of a new minister. And Martha, too, received a gift from a wealthy lady in the congregation.
When the bandbox was opened, she struggled with her inward conviction that she ought to feel grateful. Therein lay a bonnet—a very remarkable one. It was made of mixed green and black silk, shirred after the fashion of our grandmothers. Some of the shirrs had been laid in the old creases, and some had not. Between every third row came an obstinate crease, made in the times when the silk did duty as a dress sleeve—a crease that refused to be covered with stitches, or ironed out, but told its tale of “second-hand” as plainly as though it had a tongue.
Poor Martha thought the black and green bonnet was “grotesque,” and she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when she looked at it. But she did know one thing: she would not wear it to church!
As the story progressed, one of the ladies who created the ugly bonnet confronted Martha on Sunday after church, and added further insult to injury by demanding to know why Martha was still wearing her usual hat, instead of the gift the ladies had sent. Martha’s reply was friendly, but dignified—a response that was much different than Isabella’s reaction had been in real life.
Isabella later said that writing about the bonnet helped heal the woman’s hurtful actions, and, eventually, she was able to look back on it all with humor … possibly because writing about the woman’s insult really did help her see the whole incident in a more forgiving light.
You can read more about Martha and the “grotesque” bonnet in Aunt Hannah and Martha and John. The book also contains a few more examples of awkward situations Isabella encountered in her years as a minister’s wife. Click on the book cover to learn more.