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Children's Story Garden  >  The Hunger for Happiness

Girl standing in wild undergrowth, casting milkwood seeds to the breeze.

The Children's Story Garden

The Hunger for Happiness


IT was a hot summer morning in one of the poorer streets of Boston. At one open door there stopped many women on their way to work, leaving their babies to be cared for during the day; and boys came there to play, and girls who brought their smaller brothers and sisters with them. At the door of this mission playroom there also arrived a little later a lady of gentle manner and smiling face, whose name was Alice Freeman Palmer.

Every week she came, and this morning as she stepped into the front room, she found many young girls each holding a baby, and even babies without these young care-takers, awaiting her. She said, "What shall I talk to you about this morning?"

It might be expected that on such a summer day they would think of the green fields, or the shaded woods, or the breezy seashore, that they had seen on some country day excursion. Or, perhaps, glimpses of children from favored homes might have reminded them of pretty gowns and gay dolls, and automobile rides with father and mother. But none of these themes was suggested. Up spoke a small, pale-faced, heavy-eyed child, with a great fat baby on her knee. "Tell us how to be happy!"

It was hard then for this loving woman to meet the eyes of these over-weighted little creatures, almost in their infancy, bearing the heavy burdens of life. But the quick sympathy and wisdom that made her a trusted and beloved guide as president of a college, did not fail her here. Her mental vision easily reached to their horizon, taking in all the possibilities open to them. She was ready with these three rules for their pursuit of happiness. But first she required of them the promise that they would not skip a single day, for skipping would be fatal.

"The first rule is that you will commit something to memory every day, something good. It needn't be much, three or four words will do; just a pretty bit of poetry, or a Bible verse." She was afraid they would not understand, but one little girl with flashing black eyes, cried from a comer of the room, "I know; you want us to learn something we'd be glad to remember if we went blind!"

Then she gave them her second rule: "Look for something pretty every day; and don't skip a day, or it won't work—a leaf, a flower, a cloud. You can find something.'' A leaf or a flower in the stifling city slums? Yes, there might be here and there a beauty-loving soul that would keep itself alive upon the ministry of God's green leaf or a flower. But the clouds, whose glowing tints and wondrous forms thrill us with their beauty! It has been discovered that there are little children whose eyes are never lifted up to the sky-line so far above their heads. The teacher added this instruction: "Stop long enough before the pretty thing you have spied, to say, 'Isn't it beautiful!' Drink in every detail, and see the loveliness of it." They promised, to a girl.

The third rule, Mrs. Palmer feared, would seem very hard to such tiny children. She said: "My third rule is—now mind, don't skip a single day—do something for somebody every single day." And their response was, "Oh, that's easy!" That was their life. They were trained, these little creatures, to make the baby their first thought; and errands for the tired mother must be their play. It may be that fate was kinder to them than we know, making it the very alphabet of their lives, that the hunger for happiness finds its satisfaction in what we do for others.

Mrs. Palmer tells us that the following week, in hotter weather, if possible, as she was making her way along a very narrow street, she was suddenly caught by the arm, and heard the exclamation,"I done it!" "Did what?" she asked of the tiny girl beside her, with the big baby asleep in her arms. "What you told us to do; and I never skipped a day, neither," she replied. Then the sleeping infant was deposited on the sidewalk while the sympathetic teacher heard the little pupil's report. "Well," she said,"I never skipped a day, but it was awful hard. It was all right when I could go to the park, but one day it rained and rained, and I couldn't go out without leaving the baby, and I was standing at the window 'most crying, and I saw" — here her little face brightened up with a radiant smile — "I saw a sparrow taking a bath in the gutter that goes around the top of the house, and he had on a black necktie, and he was so handsome! Then there was another day," she went on, "and I thought I would have to skip it, sure. There wasn't another thing to look at in the house. ... I was feeling terrible, when" — here the most radiant look came into her face — "I saw the baby's hair! Yes, a little bit of sun came in at the window and I saw his hair, and I'll never be lonesome any more."

Need we pity the poverty of her resources, this child of the poor, who came to see as Titian saw!

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In The Children's Story Garden. Stories collected by a committee of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting — Anna Pettit Broomell, Emily Cooper Johnson, Elizabeth W. Collins, Alice Hall Paxson, Annie Hillborn, and Anna D. White. Illustrated by Katharine Richardson Wireman and Eugénie M. Wireman. Published in 1920 by J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia.

Notes and links

The Hunger for Happiness
Retold from "The Life of Alice Freeman Palmer" by her husband, George Herbert Palmer. (Historical Notes.)
Alice Freeman Palmer (1855-1902)
Educator and social activist. See an online edition of the book Alice Freeman Palmer: The Evolution of a New Woman, by Ruth Bordin. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.)