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The Heroism of Motherhood

  • Gretel Deem Home School Enrichment
  • 2012 19 Mar
The Heroism of Motherhood

Hanging on the wall in the Abigail Becker Ward of Simcoe Town Hospital is a portrait of a heroine known as "the Guardian Angel of Long Point Bay." This heroine is not dressed as a firefighter, police officer, doctor, nurse, or member of the military—though without a doubt, many heroes emerge from these callings. Instead, if painted in the garb she wore at the time of her heroic service, she would be shown in a simple house dress, barefoot. On her lap she holds a Bible, and she wears a large golden medal given to her for her heroism.

She did not ask for this medal, nor for any of the other awards she received in response to her noble deeds. She did not act out of a desire for fame or recognition. Webster's Dictionary defines a hero as one who is "renowned for his courage or feats of valor." Because of what she did, Abigail Becker was indeed a hero. However, first and foremost, Mrs. Becker was a mother, and it was this role she was called to fill long before she was needed as the heroic lifesaver she would become. I would even suggest that it was her calling as a mother that prepared her for her heroic task of saving seven men from a sinking ship in the cold November waters of Lake Erie. In fact, who's to say she was not a lifesaver already, even before she plunged into the waves to rescue drowning men?

On an average day, mothering may not seem that heroic: washing dishes, dirtying dishes, cleaning potty training messes, refereeing disputes, clarifying vocabulary words, dictating spelling tests, putting in the fourteenth load of laundry for the day, preparing to dirty (then wash) yet another set of dishes, wiping away tears, holding little hands, cuddling little bodies (and every once in a while, bigger ones). We may tuck our precious ones in with prayer each night and thrill to answer questions about the Lord and His Word any time of day, but we certainly do not see ourselves as heroes. Through all we do, we strive to teach God's truth diligently to our children when we sit and when we rise, when we walk by the way and when we lie down, that we and our household should "fear the Lord [our] God, and serve him" (Deut. 6:13).

We desire for our children to follow in our footsteps and love the Lord our God with all their hearts, with all their souls, and with all their strength. We sacrifice sleep, money, time, and patience for the wellbeing of our children. We go down on our knees for our offspring, crying with all our heart that God would hear our prayer and meet their needs. At times, we must love in the face of defiance, teach despite deafened ears, guide lagging steps, and encourage defeated spirits. And we do not call ourselves heroes? Of course not; for like Abigail Becker, we are not in it for the fame or fortune. We would appreciate loving recognition once in a while, but that is not why we do what we do. We do what we do because woven into the very fiber of our being is a keen desire to nurture, to save, to comfort, to heal, to guide, and, yes, to rescue. 

It may well have been the same for Mother Becker. It is likely we will never encounter strangers surrounded by such dire conditions or in such grand distress as those men shipwrecked in a late November storm on Long Point Bay. Still, we can be inspired and encouraged by the tale of this inspiring lady lifesaver. Who knows? Perhaps we will come away with a new perspective on our own lot in life, a willingness to jump in and pull out the drowning man in our midst, and a fortitude to stand on the shore, no matter what, and cry out, "Swim! I will help you ashore!"

Abigail Becker lived in the vicinity of Lake Erie's Long Point, just off the northeast shore of Ontario, Canada. The low sand point was a likely spot for shipwrecks. It is unknown exactly where Abigail was when she noticed the wreck on November 23, 1854: whether she was in her home caring for her nine children, or whether she was out on the beach walking barefoot (her family had no shoes, for they were too poor to afford them) gathering firewood. No matter where she was, the moment she saw the ship's crew clinging to the rigging for all they were worth, she flew into action. A poem written by Amanda T. Jones describes it this way:

Sped Mother Becker, "Children, wake;

A ship's gone down, they're needing me;

Your father's off on shore; the lake

Is just a raging sea."

With the Long Point Lighthouse 14 miles away, her husband kept away from home by the storm, and the precarious state of the sailors' lives, she knew they had only one hope for survival. A strong, tall woman, 23 years old, six feet tall with 215 pounds of muscle, she stood on the beach, cupped her hands around her mouth, "and called for encouragement across the water," records William Ratigan in his account of the episode in his book Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Survivals. She told them, "Swim! I'll fetch you to shore. But swim!" Her presence was a witness to constancy and devotion. A bonfire going on the beach, hot tea ready to warm the men, she continued to cry out to the sailors on the shipwreck, volunteering that she would help them get to land if only they would jump overboard and start to swim.

One man, the captain of the vessel, finally put her words to the test.  He jumped into the water and headed for shore. At first, she supported his efforts from the beach, as he struggled against the waves. When he began to go down just a few strokes out, she plunged into the water, dressed only in her house dress, and hauled him in to shore. The first mate came next, whom the captain tried to help bring in. Abigail came to the rescue of both men when the two began to flounder.

One by one, she repeated the act, as the men swam as far as they could and she hauled them the rest of the way—all but the cook. Frederick Stonehouse, in Women and the Lakes: Untold Great Lakes Maritime Tales, explains that the cook was frozen in fear in the rigging. Feeling helpless to battle the ferocious waves and horrid cold of the lake's stormy conditions, he was unwilling to move, but Abigail was not. She helped the rest of the crew, now safely on the beach, to put together a crude raft, row out to the wreck, cut the cook down, and bring him in. 

Abigail's assistance to the crew did not stop at the beach. She not only saved their lives but sustained them as well. She welcomed them into her home, and with the meager provisions she had to feed her own crew, nourished the sailors, too. For six days, she "mothered" them with hope, encouragement, and whatever she could scrounge up from her cupboards.

Abigail Becker was rewarded for her efforts. Her heroic act of bravery was honored by the Canadian Parliament, who awarded her a 100-acre farm and $1,000 in gold. She was also awarded a special medal by the Life Saving Association of New York, because two of the men she rescued were U.S. sailors. She also received a lifetime supply of shoes for her and her family from the owner of the shipwrecked schooner. He paid her a visit shortly after the rescue, desiring to meet the woman whose compassion and courage had saved the lives of his men. He later sent a large crate full of shoes, clothing, and a little Bible for Abigail, inscribed with the gold letters, "To Abigail Becker, Life Saver of Long Point, Lake Erie, November 1854."

Rescuing a potty trainer from having a mess on the living room floor, or rescuing a 4th grader from giving up for good on learning, or rescuing our oldest child from a habit of self-condemnation and exaggerated critique, may not seem even remotely similar to the acts of valor a member of the United States Coast Guard performs on a daily basis. However, let us not forget to remind ourselves of how much God can do with even the simplest heartfelt act. Aren't we following orders and implementing our training, just like the Coast Guard rescuers?

Abigail Becker, a mother of many children, spent years devoted to the mundane tasks of being a mother. Being of a poor family, she had to be creative and resourceful in taking care of her brood. The bulk of her adult life was spent wiping tears, changing diapers, scrubbing dishes, cleaning floors, washing windows, calming quarrels. Only one day—indeed, only part of one day—did she spend her time as "a lifesaver." After she rescued the men, she went right back to mothering, now including the sailors in her care, until such time as they were able and ready to venture on. It was one day in her life for which she received heroic acclaim, but, as a mother, Abigail Becker spent most of her life before and after November 23, 1854, earning the title of "guardian angel and lifesaver." 

Mother Becker's story has had a personal impact on me. I am inspired by Abigail Becker's selfless concern for others, her willingness to risk all to meet the needs of someone else. God placed before her a chance to forever change the lives of seven men and make a lasting impact on her world, and it was right outside her front door. Not only that, but she stumbled upon it in the process of going about her regular duties as a mother. I am humbled by the realization that every mother, including myself, has an opportunity to make a positive difference in the world. To believe otherwise is to entertain a lie. 

President George Washington, Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, Union General Ulysses S. Grant, President Theodore Roosevelt, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, A.W. Tozer, and Noah Webster each had a mother to nurture, care, guide, teach, protect, and love them. These were great men who performed great deeds, their names and exploits forever recorded in history's hall of fame, but each one had to start as a small child. Their first steps had to be encouraged by someone. Their feverish brows had to be wiped by someone. Their questions needed answering, their energies needed channeling, their minds needed challenging, and their faith needed nourishing. It is up to God what role our children will play in the days to come, but it is up to us to do our very best to prepare them for that day. Who's to say that the spirit of heroism is not needed for the daily grind, or that one self-sacrificial act for those within our circle of care will not have a greater impact on the world some future day?

I am also reminded of what Jesus Christ did for me. He had the heart of a Savior, selfless concern for others, willingness to give all for them. He saw me sinking on my ship of sin, swam out to me in the freezing cold water, and carried me to warmth and safety. He loved me enough not to leave me there. He is still there, on the edge of a vast expanse, venturing out in frigid, tempestuous waters to rescue needy souls. 

Thank you, Mother Becker. Years after your heroic deed, I am inspired and encouraged, reminded of the heart of a mother and the salvation of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. May God grant me the strength, courage, and stamina to follow in your footsteps, to see those in need of a hand, some warmth, or a life-giving word, particularly if it is one of my own children, and may I be willing and able, through God's grace, to meet that need.

When she awoke on November 23, 1854, Abigail Becker had no idea the difference her life would make. What difference will I make today? 


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Gretel Deem cherishes the gift of motherhood and the 4 treasures within her household, her husband and 3 children.  She enjoys homeschooling, writing, reading, an occasional good movie, and is determined to continue calling out, "Swim!  I'll fetch you to shore.  But swim!" 

Originally published in the May/Jun '09 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine.