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Some Dayton Saints and Prophets
Mrs. Sarah Davis



      IF I close my eyes I see a garden; I know it by heart though it is twenty years since it disappeared into the foundations for new brick houses.  I could make a plan of it and show you just what shape and size the flower beds were; separated from each other by shell walks.  I could tell you which was the rose bed and the phlox bed; where the crocuses came up first, and where the Johnny-jump-ups grew that we were allowed to pick without asking.  I could mark the bunch of ribbon grass, the trellis of Madiera vine, the grape-arbor, and the wooden cistern top, which made a sounding board for ripe pears to drop upon.  Never were such Easter lilies, such gladiolis, such cabbage roses as came out of that garden; never such heterogeneous bunches of flowers, rare and plebeian.  They grew because they loved the place, and bloomed because they could not help it.

      The garden was separated from Fourth Street by a high, white paling fence, and the neighbors used to stop, and admire the flowers, and ask Mrs. Davis how she came to have such luck with them. It was not luck at all that did it, but simply genius, that is, the capacity for taking pains.  Work and love did wonders for Mrs. Davis' garden, as they will for other things if used unstintedly.  In all seasons Mrs. Davis could be seen with a queer bonnet and black mitts, and a watering pot; raking, weeding, snipping, spraying and tying up her precious plants and shrubs.  I never stayed long outside the fence, but lifted the latch of the high gate near the corner and appeared at Aunt Sally's side.

      "Well, Lottie! How's your ma? Don't step on the beds---and the baby? Has she got a girl yet?  Well! well! I'm that pore-ly, seems like I'd never live through another day!  I've been countin' on comin' over to see your ma ef this neuralgy don't git no worse, and you tell her ef I'm spared I'll be 'round some time soon."

      (Aunty Davis recognized the inscrutable possibilities of life and death by never making any plans for even one hour ahead without the provisional amendment "Ef I live.")

      During her soliloquy of welcome, Mrs. Davis had been gathering a bouquet, for no one went empty-handed from the garden.  First, she picked some sprigs of coral honeysuckle (which everybody knows never grew to be tied in a bunch) then some heads of blue larkspur, and a crimson "cockscombs," a few pinks with very short stems, a rose (not too fresh.  She never could go the length of an unopened bud from the top of the bush for even the best. of neighbors!), a tuberose for fragrance, and without any stem, a stalk of "lady slipper," a sprig of lemon verbena, with some asparagus for greenery.  The stems of all these were tied round and round with a cotton string, wrapped in a piece of wet newspaper, then in a dry piece, and bestowed with the advice to "put jest a leetle salt in the water, and they'll keep beautiful."

      For the sake of those who never saw Mrs. Davis (and never will see her like again) I must sketch her portrait.  To begin with, she was forcibly homely.  I never saw plainer features or pleasanter ones.  A funny little chuckle that her shoulders took part in was an habitual thing with her, even when telling us that the past night was the worst she ever had in her life.  Mrs. Davis' nights were always the beginning and end of every conversation, and they were always "bad." She never seemed to expect any expressions of sympathy; it was sufficient that you were there to listen.  She parted her hair a good deal short of the middle, combed it over her ears and under her cap, which consisted of a series of excrescences of narrow velvet ribbon, and was always on crooked.  She wore hoops of course, (for this was in the Sixties,) but I cannot think they represented the "ton" even of that Period.  Coming only about half the length of her stature, they indicated a ridge around her ample skirts, below which the folds of the fabric fell inwards, and flapped against her ankles as she walked.  Her gait was the most characteristic thing about her, and consisted of long, teetering steps, which communicated a rippling movement to her unstarched gown.  To guard against possible cold she wore black cotton wool in her ears all the year round, and changed from winter to summer garb by cutting an inch strip off her undervest once a week, beginning the first of April.  A black framed breast-pin, carrying a picture of Mr. David Davis, and a lock of hair was her only ornament, and fastened a wide, flat collar.  So much for the outside personality.  The spiritual part of Mrs. Davis was a queer, quaint mixture of virtues and small failings.  She possessed an affectionate interest in every neighbor; a generosity tempered with thrift; a keen love of a joke even when centered on herself, and inexhaustible stores of anecdote.  A gossip? Why, to be sure! She

belonged to the days when personal interchange was the only intellectual food, and "They do say" was the whole of life.

      To forestall ignorant assumptions, however, I wish to testify, that, although Mrs. Davis' talk was mainly about people, no malicious stories ever found expression upon her lips; neither did she dwell upon other people's shortcomings, nor pry into personal affairs.  Measure this fact with another, that the fullness of her life consisted solely in the care of her home and yard, piecing quilts, making "jell," and the all-suffering subject of her own aches and pains, and the greatness of it will grow upon you.

      Having been introduced mentally to Mrs. Davis, you must go into her house; not at the front door; oh, no!  During twenty-five years I never knew it to be opened but twice---once when Mr. Davis was carried out, once for her.  When people wanted to come in they went around to the side porch.  The house stood flush with Wilkinson Street, and the passer-by could look right in the window, with its 5 x 6 panes of curdled glass.  When Mr. Davis built the house, (he was a master carpenter), people up by Newcom's wondered what he was going so far "out" for, and asked the young bride if she was not lonely way down in the woods.  Wilkinson Street was but a cart rut through the hazel bushes, and between there and Cincinnati, nothing but the primeval wilderness of the young century. I do not know in what year of our Lord that young couple went to housekeeping, but I would be willing to wager that not in sixty years was one iota of the internal arrangement of that house altered.  The same chair stood in the same place while children grew up, married, and had children of their own.  The same low table held the same lamp from the days of the Missouri compromise to the Hayes-Tilden campaign.  The tall clock, with its representation in flaming pigments of Washington crossing the Delaware, and having perilous times among tallowy-looking blocks of ice, ticked three generations in and out from the corner of the little bedroom. Fashions and laws might alter; dynasties rise and fall, but always, under the distorted looking-glass by the bedroom door, hung a white crocheted tidy flat against the wall.  The use of this decoration, or the beauty of it remains a mystery, but it was evidently an expression of aberrated aesthetic instincts too subtle to be analyzed.

      My earliest recollection of Mrs. Davis' house was a tin closet, where the pans were bright and dazzling, and fit into each other like nests of blocks.  This fascinating place might never be touched because little fingers left marks, and each pan had its own place.  But once, I was left to play unchecked, to my intense delight Cake-pans, muffin-rings, egg-beaters, colanders, and tins of all sizes were hauled out and scattered about, and the long day because a red-letter one.  When I got home I found a new baby brother, which was interesting, of course, but not to be compared with having seen the inside of that cupboard.  That was not the only time that Mrs. Davis helped out her neighbor's domestic crises by taking charge of the child that was one too many for the time being.  The little exile sat contentedly at the feet of her hostess who pieced "nine block," and told how "David" that is, Mr. Davis, moved the household goods down to the new home in a wheelbarrow, or how he helped build the first school-house in Montgomery County, or how he voyaged down the river with Thomas Morrison, and Gorton Arnold, with a load of goods.  Another pleasure was to hear Mrs. Davis unravel family relationship; she knew the shades of kinship of every family in Dayton, from the earliest settlers down, and kept the collateral branches free from confusion.   She remembered everybody's first wife's maiden name, and guessed at probable marriages in the future, as she commented upon the accomplished ones in the past.  She kept a scrapbook full of cake receipts, funeral invitations, auction sales, and birth, and marriage notices.  That book, if it could be found, would be the history of Dayton, (saving the memory of the Steeles), for not a local name but figured in it, either in a matrimonial, or a mortuary manner.

      One fact deserves to be chronicled to Mrs. Davis' credit.  She had learned to read and write in her early youth, but correspondence, and business all through their married life having been attended to entirely by Mr. Davis, at his death she found herself an old woman, with considerable property to manage, and unable to use a pen.  With quiet determination, and the aid of a writing teacher, who came to the house to give her lessons, and she succeeded in writing a very passable hand.

      Mrs. Davis never sat alone in the evening.  Her sitting-room was a kind of neighborhood "salon."  In the truest sense that Emerson meant it, her friends were the ornament of her house.  The truth was, though I dare say, I have not made it plain enough, Mrs. Davis was a most interesting woman, whose philosophical comments upon men and things were much relished, and whom people liked often to see.  The chairs about her fire, as I remembered their disposition, bring to mind, clearer than an inscription in Woodland, more than one vanished face and figure.  Mrs. Edward Davies used to sit there, and Mrs. J. D. Loomis, Mrs. Valentine Winters, Mrs. Thomas Parrott, Mrs. Schenck, Mrs. Brooks, Mrs. Daniel Kiefer, Mrs. Dr. Green, and of course the neighbors, Mrs. Houghtelin, Mrs. Mary Garst, Mrs. Whitmore, Miss Lizzie Johnson.  The impression is strong in my mind that all these visitors were asked to wipe their feet on the mat; but I shall not insist upon it, since my own unvarying experience may give a general color to what was individual and occasional!

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      Once a year we were all invited to tea, a plethoric occasion when the fullness of Aunt Sally Davis' housekeeping (and of our appetites) was made manifest.  No effort was too great to set forth any and every viand that each member of our family had been known to enjoy.  Feathery waffles, little puff-ball biscuits, jelly-pink and clear; three kinds of meat, two of sweet pickles, jelly cake, cucumber pickles, grape jam, brandy peaches, crullers, cold slaw, and a species of home invented confection made of rolled pie-paste, and filled with whipped cream, which was called "cornuocoposis."  This title was a composite arrangement of the words "cornucopia" and "coreopsis;" neither of which Mrs. Davis ever could get straight.  Her difficulty with words was as chronic as her "neuralgy," but it gave her small embarrassment. She "heerd tell" once, "that Mrs. Lytle was having her home refrigerated."

      "Having it what?" was the puzzled query.

      "Why, refrigerated, you know---fixed up with paint, and all, on the ceilin'."

      An explanatory wave of the arm in the air seemed to cast light on the subject, and we suggested timidly---

      "Frescoed, perhaps."

      "Well, yes, it's all the same,---frescoed."

      But to return to the tea party.

      After the fashion of old-time hospitality, Mrs. Davis did not seat herself with her guests, but waited on table; urging each dish with affectionate insistence.

      "Now, Miss Reeves, do have some more pie; you ain't eat a bit. Doctor, I b'lieve you aint tried my plum jell yit.  My! my! how my feet do pain me.  Seems like I can't take another step so long's I live.  Now, you must let me git you another cup of coffee; there's a plenty right out on the stove.  Them cups don't hold a mite.  They was brought up from Cincinnati on horseback in 1833.  Aint the posies on 'em pretty?  Laws, my back!  It's the lumbago, I guess. Kep me awake the whole livelong night.  I could'nt lay.  I jest set.  Hev more maple molasses?  No?  Nor a pickled onion, nor a slice of cake?  Why you aint eatin' nothin' to speak of.  There's tea too in the kitchen, and I forgot to ask if you'd like some. Can jes well make it as not. Dear! dear!  My legs!  They hurt that bad they most kill me."

      Dear "Auntie Davis!" How my heart goes out to you as I remember it all! Never since those vanished days have I been entertained with more of the genuine hostess feeling; the spirit that said: "What's mine is thine," (if legs do fail!)  Her limping gait as she went from chair to chair around the table; piling every conceivable eatable on one plate, and urging her guests to finish it all; her garrulous monologue, wherein she mingled pioneer reminiscence, personal gossip, and physical lamentation, is as plain to my senses as though it happened yesterday."


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      My last visit to the corner of Fourth and Wilkinson was one rainy April day in 1882. The sacred front door was open and men were hauling things out. I walked back to the "sittin' room" to find bare floors and empty walls. An auctioneer had disposed of the old familiar chairs, tables, and dishes.  The clock, Washington and all, had gone for $4.50; a solid cherry four-post bed for seventy cents, and other precious relics in proportion.  I hoped to find something to keep in remembrance of this home, so intimately connected with my childhood, but everything was gone.  What would I not have given for her wooden rocking-chair, or the little low stand she used to sew by!  I had heard her say, once, "I wisht I had a leetle table jest so high," and Mr. Davis had exclaimed, "Keep your hand right there, Sally, while I measure"; so the tape was brought and held, laughingly, and in due season the little table came from Mr. Davis' workshop, mahogany, polished and "jest so high".  But ill was gone; the row of tall elms on the street, planted by Mr. Davis' hand, remained the only visible reminder of these two lives, who were, with their belongings, a type of the early times, and society of our Dayton.

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