Isabella had a special bond with her father, Isaac Macdonald. She might even have been what we would call in today’s world a “daddy’s girl.” But the truth was that her father was undoubtedly the single most influential person in her life when she was growing up.
In his younger years Isaac Macdonald earned his living as a farmer, but with a wife and six children to support, he left farming and established a box-making business in Gloversville, New York.
Many years later, after Isabella became a best-selling author, a Gloversville newspaper wrote a brief article about her early years in that town. The writer of the article briefly mentioned her father:
Isaac was a box maker, and if his boxes are any index to his character, he was staunch and worthy. He lies in our pleasant cemetery, but there are boxes still in use made by his faithful hands.
It’s a brief paragraph, but with its use of the words character, worthy, and faithful, we get a glimpse of Isaac Macdonald’s reputation among his neighbors and friends.
In the many stories and anecdotes Isabella shared about her father, she paints a picture of a loving man of immense faith.
In his home circle, he ably fulfilled his role as provider, protector, leader and teacher. He was eternally patient with his children and grandchildren; and he instilled in them an unbreakable faith in God and His Word.
Most of all, Isaac valued honesty, a fact Isabella illustrated in a story that took place when she was an adult and her young niece Minie was staying at the family home.
Isabella’s sister Julia teasingly told little Minie that she was going to serve butterflies and caterpillars for tea, which greatly shocked and upset the little girl. Julia, however, thought Minie’s reaction was funny; she told the story to the family later that day “with many descriptions of Minie’s shocked tones and looks, and much laughter.”
Only Isaac looked grave. When the laughter was over he said to Julia:
“How many years do you suppose it will be before Minie will discover that you haven’t told her the truth?”
“The truth!” said Julia, in surprise. “Why, of course it wasn’t truth. It was only in fun, you know. Whoever supposed that the absurd little monkey would believe it?” and she laughed again at the thought.
“But, you see, she did believe it,” Isaac said. “She believed it because you told it to her. She has great faith in your word, you see. I would be very careful not to give that faith a shock if I were you.”
“Why, dear me!” Julia said, with puzzled face; “I never thought about its being anything serious. Don’t you think it is right to say anything in fun to a child?”
“I don’t think it is right to say anything but the truth to anyone,” Isaac said, emphatically; “least of all to a child.”
Isabella never forgot the lesson.
Isaac’s teachings with Isabella extended beyond those that would shape her character. In an interview with The Ladies Home Journal, Isabella said that it was her father who taught her to write at an early age.
He was the first to encourage her to keep a diary; and he also taught her to take notes during their minister’s sermons on Sunday morning. Together they would review her notes, and he encouraged her to use her own imagination to expand on them and weave stories from the lessons and bits of wisdom she had recorded.
That early discipline soon bore fruit. When she was about seven or eight years old Isabella wrote a story about the family clock (read more about her story here).
Her story was published in the local newspaper (coincidentally, the newspaper was owned by her sister Mary’s husband and little Minie’s father). Isaac insisted that the story be published under a pseudonym, saying:
“We don’t wish anyone to know that you wrote it, and so we will sign it, Pansy, for pansy means tender and pleasant thoughts, and you have given me some thoughts that are tender and pleasant.”
This incident, too, offers a glimpse into Isaac Macdonald’s character, and his desire to protect his daughter from public scrutiny and the hazards of fame.
Thereafter, Isabella was often writing or telling a story. Her books Four Girls at Chautauqua and Ester Ried made “Pansy” a household name around the world. It was while she was writing Ester Ried that her father became ill.
Isabella mentioned that when she was young, she always hoped she would never have to tend to anyone who was sick; she thought it would be “so dreadful to look at anybody knowing that he was soon to die.”
But she found it made a difference who the sick person was, and how he felt about death himself. Her father, she knew, wasn’t afraid of dying. He used to say to her:
“It is nice to have my children all about me, and it seems sad sometimes that I must go and leave them—sad for them, I mean. But what a blessed thing it will be when we all get up there where none of us will have to go away any more. It will be vacation there all the time, won’t it?”
When her father fell ill in the summer of 1870, Isabella spent as much time with him as she could, and often read to him from his Bible. She described it as a large-print Bible, all full of leaves turned down and verses marked.
She said there was no need to ask which verse was his favorite; he had left “marks of his love” all through the book.
One afternoon when Isabella was with him, she read verses here and there as her eye caught his different markings:
“And they shall see his face, and his name shall be in their foreheads.
“And there shall be no night there.”
“And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with Songs, and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads.”
And there was this verse:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed thee. I have called thee by thy name, thou art mine.”
She knew that verse was among the dearest to her father in the entire Bible. (Read the story behind the verse here.)
During that summer of Isaac Macdonald’s illness, Isabella was writing Ester Ried.
Her father, as always, was interested in her writing progress; but he showed particular interest in the story of Ester Ried. He told Isabella that “he prayed that it might be a blessing to some young life.” Sadly, he passed away on July 26, 1870, before Isabella finished writing the novel.
Isabella later wrote:
“It was while the tears were gathering thick in my eyes as I looked out upon his grave that I wrote the last chapter of the book, feeling that my closest, strongest friend and critic, and wisest helper had gone from me.”
Isaac Macdonald’s prayer for Ester Ried was answered over and over again. Ester Ried was a great success and proved to be a blessing to generations of girls and young women who read it.
Isabella’s love for her father was evidenced in the books she wrote. She used him as the model for many of her male characters who were wise in judgment and strong in faith.
You’ll catch glimpses of him in Dr. Deane in Wanted and in Dr. Everett in Workers Together; an Endless Chain.
You can read more about the special bond between Isabella and her father Isaac Macdonald in these posts: