Gabrielle Burton
Impatient with Desire

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Excerpt from Impatient with Desire:
The Lost Journal of Tamsen Donner


~1846

Imagine all the roads a woman and a man walk until they reach the road they'll walk together.
I never intended to marry again after Tully died.  It wasn't for lack of chances, but that's nothing to boast about.  In Ohio, and in Illinois, even an outspoken woman like me has her pick of men.  Most of the men were barely older than my Thomas would have been had he lived.  Some women marry those boys, and I say to each her own, but young or old were not for me.  I thought I had buried my heart with Tully.

I met George Donner in a cornfield, and the beginning wasn't auspicious.  I had stripped an ear of corn for my students, discovered a larva, and put it on my finger for them to see.

"Corn borer larva," I said.  "It's the larva of a moth.  If unchecked, this little thing will feed on and destroy the hardiest crop of corn, potatoes, or beans."

As my students examined the tiny worm crawling on my finger, I looked up to see a tall gentleman in his fifties watching me intently.  As I met his eyes, he said, "You need permission to be in this field, Ma'am."

How many tall gentlemen have hectored me about one thing or another in my lifetime?  I drew myself up to my full height, forcing myself to speak civilly because of the children. 

"I am the teacher, sir.  My students are gathering botanical specimens."

He considered that a moment, then said, "I'll still need to know when you're here, Ma'am.  When the corn gets taller, I may have to send in a search party for you."

My students snickered.  I am hardly taller than some of them, but I've never equated height with strength or virtue, and certainly not with good manners.  I was about to give this gentleman a piece of my mind, when I noticed how his eyes crinkled as he smiled, how benign and good natured he looked, and yes, how handsome he was. 

"Never underestimate the power of small beings, children," I said, and not breaking gaze with him, I squashed the borer between my fingers.

His smile grew broader and he made a small bow. 

"George Donner, Ma'am." 

I smiled and bowed back. 

"Tamsen Eustis Dozier, Sir."

Here in the mountains surrounded by snow, I have had occasion to remember that golden day, the corn rustling, the sun shining on all of us, the giggling children looking from me to him and back again as we smiled at each other, really one could not help smiling at this genial man.  I remember writing my sister Betsey soon after we married, "I find my new husband a kind friend who does all in his power to promote my happiness & I have as fair a prospect for a pleasant old age as anyone." 

The first part remains true to this day; there has never been a time I wasn't happy to see George walk in the door.

He always told the story of our first meeting the same way.  "She came into my fields looking for specimens," he said, and after a pause, "and I'm the specimen she found."

For both of us, time stopped for a moment that day.

Now time has stopped in quite a different way.  Instead of a golden moment being suspended, each day is relentlessly endless, relentlessly the same.  During the day I move in ceaseless activity.  I have never had less to do and each day it takes me longer to do it, and still there are hours left over to fill.  At night when everyone sleeps, I try to make sense of it all.  Try to retain hope.  Try to pass the time.

I must sleep.  Sitting here at the table thinking or writing hour after hour while the others sleep or lying on my platform listening to their sighs and groans and caught breaths, it seems I never sleep.  But then I awaken with dread, and it is morning with another day of interminable hours of unbidden intimacy.

We came here November 2nd, 1846.  The day before, we were trying to outrun a sudden fierce snowstorm, my sister-in-law Elizabeth and I and our older children walking ahead of the wagon to spare the oxen, our eyes on the looming mountains.  My little Frances was bravely trudging along, and

I said to her, "Every step we take gets us closer to California."  The huge flakes fell faster, thicker, and suddenly a sharp crack rent the air, I turned, saw the broken axle, the wagon heaving sideways, started running, screaming, "The babies," but George and Jacob were already pitching things out of the overturned wagon.  They reached Georgia first, screaming, scared, but unhurt.  Then Jacob uncovered Eliza and put her limp body in my arms.  For a terrible second I thought she was dead, and I thought, I will not be able to bear it.  Then she opened her eyes and began screaming.  We all laughed with relief.

It was November 1st, my 45th birthday, and I gave thanks that Eliza was unhurt, and I did not have to hold a dead baby in my arms a third time.

All my life I never had enough time, and now I have nothing but time.  My senses have become very acute.  Several times here late at night, it seems I can even recall the precise sound of the corn rustling.


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