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Some Dayton Saints and Prophets
Mary Houk Ramsay

MARY HOUK RAMSAY

 

      THERE looks at you, from the opposite page, the face of Mary Houk Ramsay.  It will not need to be said that her's was a strong character, the mouth and upper lip tell that; nor that she was a sweet one, the eyes bear witness.  I should like to be able to tell truly, and graphically the whole story of Mrs. Ramsay's life, but I have promised not to be biographical, at least not offensively so.

      Her life was not eventful, but because it was so rich and full, on apparently small groundwork, that I should like to tell it.  She never traveled, or wrote books, or went largely into society, or did impressive things, but she lived well, and she taught others how to do it.  She was so plain, and unassuming that it is difficult to write of her life without passing into praise, which her quiet spirit would have resisted.  Mary Ramsay's life was one of good deeds, and hard work for other people, but so quietly done that neither her right hand nor best friends knew it all.  She had a large share of these four attributes of a perfect character--humility, faith, charity, and cheerfulness--but even these virtues were different from other people's virtues, so we somehow need a new language to tell of them.

      If we call her "gracious," it will mean more than the mere social graciousness of one who desires to appear well; for her bright eyes, and kind smile belonged to the large, cheerful soul behind them, and shone unconsciously upon all whom she knew and met.  If we call her "unselfish" and "self-sacrificing," it will mean nothing except to those who knew the history of her daily life.  The law of her existence was effort, and the law of her judgment mercy.  If we call her "benevolent," we must forget the ordinary sense of the word.  Her's was no pocketbook charity, but a grand sharing of her days, her strength (little enough at times), her belongings, herself, with every one who was needy.  She could not sign checques for benevolent institutions, but she was a whole benevolent institution in herself.

      If a little child without parents, or friends strayed into her life, he was her's thenceforward.   She did not find a place for him in the Children's Home, and leave him there.  The place she found for him was in her own home, where she cared for him, mended his trousers, taught him to work, to fear God, and to speak the truth.  If a young girl in acute distress of body and mind went to Mary Ramsay, she found in her not a mentor, but a helper, and help there meant an offer of Mrs. Ramsay's own home, and Mrs. Ramsay‚Äôs own hands and heart.

      She never had a child of her own, but she gave a mother's care to two of her husband's children by another marriage, and to a brother's child.  These three with Mr. Ramsay---Squire Ramsay," as he was always called, made up her family, and gave her unbounded love and gratitude.

      Besides her regular cares, and what might be called her incessant occasional cares, Mrs. Ramsay ran a dairy, and a greenhouse, was much interested in the Horticultural Society, wrote literary papers, read books, and visited her friends.

      Whatever of labor, or effort lay before her, she attacked with an all-conquering energy that carried her miles above what others would call difficulties.

      She was the cleverest woman I ever knew. She could do anything.  Work was a kind of religion, and domestic management a creed.  The remembrance of some of her contrivances will bring a smile to our lips.  She came to see me one day, and after a pleasant chat of half an hour, in which she touched upon books, people, flowers, the weather, and even politics, with most delightful zest and humour, she said she had something to show me.  Following her out to the street where the horse was hitched, she exhibited, with great pride, her last achievement.  She had lined the buggy throughout, herself!  Pointing out how the worn-out lining had been stripped off, she showed how she had cut the brown cloth into sections to fit each fold in the leather top, sewed them up on the machine, tacked them on, pulling every wrinkle smooth.  The hanging curtain, at the back, was neatly covered; no bad edges even at the button holes.  The cushions also were renovated, each button covered with the cloth, and pulled into place with a large needle. All was smooth, neat, and workmanlike.  This was done by a woman who could paint, read literary essays, enjoy Shakespeare, write charming letters, experiment with new bulbs, and converse like Madame Recamier!  The accomplishment seemed to me so admirable that it fired my zeal for similar laurels, and I began the next day on a baby carriage, without, however, achieving results like Mrs. Ramsay's.  It occurred to me at the time that a similar process of renovation applied to the horse she drove, would have added quite as much to the appearance of her equipage, but I of course did not mention it.  It would have implied a limit to Mrs. Ramsay's inventiveness, or a criticism of her horse. I loved her too much to do either.

      Many stories of this kind could be told, and other kinds too.  I was one day, in a Third Street car, on my way to the Soldier's Home.  Opposite me sat a young girl, pretty, neatly dressed, and with a quiet nice manner.  An old soldier, bearing the marks of too recent, and too frequent visits to the saloons in that part of the city, was watching her, to her evident annoyance.  As the people left the car there were only the three of us, and I motioned to her to come and sit at my side.  Unwarned by this effort at protection, he crossed the car, and seating himself by her side, began to talk.  I must have been both sudden and peremptory, for when I had finished with him he was glueing himself to the forward end of the car with terror in his face, and abjectness in his attitude.  Tears were in her eyes when I came back and sat down.

      "Was it my fault, do you think?" she asked.

      "Not in the least. Why?"

      "Oh I should so hate to have Mrs. Ramsay think I had encouraged him. I live with Mrs. Ramsay.  She has been so good to me. It would break her heart to think I had forgotten all she has taught me." I assured her that Mrs. Ramsay should know from me that her conduct had been quite what it should be.  During the remainder of the trip she talked of her benefactress, of the new views of life that had come to her from living in the Ramsay home, and of her admiration, and love for her.  It was the kind of tribute that should go in an epitaph--only there is no room on tombstones.

      What Mrs. Ramsay did for people she did for animals.  Her humanity, and mothering instinct covered every creature within her reach; chickens, untimely hatched; orphaned cats; crippled puppies; and robins blown out of a tree by a storm, all found a haven in her hands.

      Those who knew Mary Ramsay will recall her sense of humor.  It gilded everything she talked about, and made a piquant charm to her personality that it is impossible to describe.  I know of no closer following of the true Emersonian theory of life,--"plain living, and high thinking," than was enacted in the little brick cottage at Oakwood. Courage, sympathy, cheerfulness, and hospitality emanated from its very walls, caught from the spirit of her who has left them vacant.  As we sum up the beauties of Mary Ramsay's life, it is not a showy, or a brilliant list, but oh! how noble, and how lasting!  And when we come to the end, the best thing we can find to say of her, and that which she would have best liked to hear us say, is simply this,--that we loved her very much.

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