How can an author squeeze sweetness from such bitter facts: A mother must give up her son upon his birth. Forced to work in the cornfields 12 miles away, she gets to see her boy only a few times before she dies.
That motherless child would become the famous writer and activist Frederick Douglass, who wrote in his groundbreaking autobiography, “I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of day. She was with me in the night. She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone. Very little communication ever took place between us. Death soon ended what little we could have while she lived, and with it her hardships and suffering. She died when I was about seven years old, on one of my master’s farms, near Lee’s Mill. I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial.”
In her moving debut, Love Twelve Miles Long, Glenda Armand takes us back to 1820s Talbot County, Maryland, to imagine how precious those few visits could have been for the two. Wrapped in her shawl, Mama arrives late at night, bringing Frederick her full heart and a slice of ginger cake. Mr. Bootman strews soft candlelight in his lush watercolor painting of the reunited mother and son sharing smiles no one can buy or sell.
Of course, the boy longs to spend more time with his mother, but she tells him it’s too far for him to walk. How, then, does she do it?
“The way I walk makes the journey shorter,” she says.
“Tell me how you walk, Mama. Tell me how you make it shorter.”
What follows is a beautiful evocation of the mother’s loving ritual, as she makes each mile special. The first is for forgetting: “I forget how tired I am. I forget that my back hurts and my hands and feet ache. I forget that I’ve worked all day and have to be in the fields again at sunup. And when the forgetting is done, I start remembering. That’s what the second mile is for.”
Other miles are spent observing the stars, praying, singing, remembering happy times, giving thanks, hoping, loving, and dreaming of a good life: “We’ll have our own land, and we’ll work for ourselves. There will be no slaves or masters. . . . You are going to do big and important things one day. But right now it’s time for you to go to bed.”
In a story brimming with hope and love, the real-life horrors of slavery lie elsewhere, where an older audience can grapple with them. The author’s note gives additional information about Frederick Douglass, who changed his surname in order to obscure his identity from the master he escaped. Douglass wrote that his mother, Harriet Bailey, taught him a powerful lesson: that he was not “only a child but somebody’s child.” How remarkable that she accomplished this under such despicable constraints.
But let us leave the mother with her miles to go before she sleeps. We can all use a comforting story of love, even—or especially—if it is ripped from a brutal past.
Reprinted with permission from New York Journal of Books