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Some Dayton Saints and Prophets
With Thimble, Thread and Thoughts


IN these days of Women's Clubs, Browning societies, and universal progress, the older-fashioned, serener occupations of the house-mother are somehow lost sight of. Our lives seem to be shredded into little bits, and the fragments we parcel out, as equally as may be, among the children, the household interests, church and charity work, reading clubs, and now and then a remnant is left for the husband. When do we find time for those hours of calm thought which the sewing-basket afforded our mothers? Is there less mending done now than in former years?
     Considering my own experience with latter-day fabrics, I should say yes. It may be that the very cheapness, both in price and in quality of modern manufactured goods makes it useless to give the time which our mothers did to neat and careful mending. If so, what ever the gain in time and labor, it is equalized by a loss in another, less-considered direction. An hour or two with the week's stockings is a good time for mental digestion. We are surfeited with new books, with music, with society---alas, sometimes even with friends, who give and take, and give and take, until our faculties are deadened by the demands upon them. Some quiet hours we must have. In summer they may be had in a tent on the seashore, or in a farm-house among the mountains. At home, in the winter, with social and literary life in full swing, the family mending-basket may become a solace and a refuge. My needle flies in and out over the gaping knees of stockings, long and short, and among the meshes of the darning-cotton are interwoven thoughts of last nights concert, the children's lessons, the spring sewing, and Mathew Arnold's "Essay on Criticism." Some points in a sermon, which failed to make an impression at the proper time, recur now with edifying force, when my thoughts are no longer distracted by bonnets and carved wood-work. I plan a "fetching" letter to the editor of the "Recent Review"; I settle a prospective difficulty with my cook; I resolve how best to treat a fault in my own disposition ; I recite from memory Tennyson's latest and sweetest song. It is a time of introspection, of assimilation, of self-communion.
     On rainy days the prospect for uninterrupted thought is still better. "The tumultuous privacy of storm" is an aid to both the increase of meditation and the decrease of the pile of mending. To-day the rain washes the western windows in gusty splashes, and the wind makes a querulous din of all the loose boards and creaking hinges about this loose and creaking house. The children are at school; lunch-baskets have been packed, umbrellas and overshoes disinterred from a dark closet and distributed, with a kiss apiece and the inevitable moral injunction:

     "Now, be real good, my dears."

     "Yes, mamma, we surely will."

     And they were off.
     Am I myself or my own daughter? Is not there some mistake? Only a short time ago I had another part in this same dialogue; not the admonitory part, however. How have we changed places so suddenly? And will it be next year or to-morrow that my daughter's daughter passes out of that gate with slate and school-books, and brown braids tied with ribbon? Ah, these sudden changes of twenty years! They make one dizzy.

     * * * *

     My sewing-basket abounds in family reminiscences. The wicker stand itself was a Christmas present years ago, and it was lined and trimmed by fingers now forever at rest. How the faded pattern of the sateen brings it all back to me---that afternoon in January, and the things we talked of. She never got her Christmas presents ready on time, and it was a regular part of the family festivities for Minnie to distribute unfinished slippers, sofa-pillows, and party bags to the various relatives, and take them back afterward to add a few necessary stitches. This gave rise to a family proverb, originating, of course, with the boys, that Minnie's Christmas gifts always had a "string tied to them." After she was gone and the time came for that sacrilegious meddling with personal belongings which makes the hearts that are left ache to the core, the most poignant moment for us all was when we came across, in an upper drawer, a dainty bit of linen with a partly finished design on it and a needle full of floss silk stickin the hem.
     To four sorrowing women that little implement preached a mute sermon. ---"In the midst of life we are in death." With streaming eyes we passed it to Helen---"The Christmas present she began for you." And it was kept undisturbed and laid away tenderly among those treasures of the heart such as all have hoarded somewhere.
     So it was this belated Christmas work that occupied us that afternoon so long ago; our fingers, I mean, for there was an important confidence on hand which filled heads and hearts and sympathies as no other theme can in this world, and we hope the other also. I can see her now. The bowed head with its pretty hair; the deft fingers as they fastened the corners of the pockets and patted bows of ribbon. I can hear her voice as she told, shyly, yet proudly, the old, old story, so old, so oftrepeated, and yet forever new and overwhelming as it comes afresh into each young life. The love-story of one woman's life is stitched into the worn lining of my basket and the faded knots of ribbon. Ah, the supreme pity of it, that these perishable things should outlast the wealth of such a life!

     * * * * * *

     Here are the marks of little vandal fingers in my basket. The tape-measure never could have gotten into such a state except through being used to play horse with. And my box of spool silk---what a delightful plaything it is when one is tired of a cotton elephant and stupid blocks. The great thing is to find an empty spool and wind several colors on it at once. That fastens all the spools together; then they can be lifted out, shaken about, and gotten into the loveliest kind of a snarl. Don't I know? Have I not come unexpectedly upon a small culprit and watched his enraptured pawing among spools and patterns, and ached inwardly because the little meddling fingers must be punished? Here are the marks of two sharp teeth on my beeswax. We can guess where they came from; but let that pass. Didn't I love to bite my mother's beeswax? Surely "the sins of the fathers ------,"
     It is pleasant enough penance to darn a table-cloth or to repair freshly-ironed garments, but if there is one kind of mending that my soul rebels against, it is the mending of school-clothes. They are chalky in spite of brushing, and a musty mixture of school-room odors clings to them. Generally, there is a button that is needed, or a handful of gathers that have been wrenched from the belt in one wild leap through the school-yard. To-day it is a hole in the pocket that needs my attention. Most of us, in our younger days, have written a composition on, "The Contents of a Schoolboy's Pocket." What would become of the long-suffering race of teachers if that well-worn subject was wiped out of existence along with "Spring" and "Friendship" and "A Trip to the Country?" "A School-girl’s Pocket" would be the next alternative. Here is one that will serve as a type. Oh, my daughter! What business can she have with strings and a brass clock-spring, chewing-gum (when she knows I abhor it!), pop-corn, three stumpy pencils, a slate-rag, car-tickets, cracker crumbs, her birthday pen-knife glued fast to a chocolate caramel, a handkerchief (such a handkerchief!) and a letter? The letter, by the way, is written on my vellum stationery, and is addressed to "Jack and Harold Smith and Co., in the Back Bedroom." What has the child been about?

     SIRS : Does your honor remember that I said I would not bring you your night-gowns any more? So you must hunt them yourself. Respectfully,


     This explains the racket at bed-time last night, when an injunction had to be read at the foot of the stairs. So the elder sister is tired of her responsibilities! What effect will it have on the little boys? I should like to indite a similar epistle to the young lady herself, and watch the result. For example, this:

     Miss Marian Isabel Smith,

     DEAR MADAM : Does your honor remember that I am tired of (1) hanging up your cloak and hat; (2) folding your napkin; (3) hunting your rubbers; (4) putting away your school-books; (5) shutting your bureau drawers; (6) closing the piano after you practice; (7) telling you not to slam doors; (8) supplying you with pens, pencils, sponges, hair-ribbons, button hooks, and thimbles as fast as you can lose them, and that I am not going to do it any more?


* * * * *

     I said my sewing-basket was an accumulation of souvenirs. Here is a gold thimble, bearing the same date as my wedding-ring. This case of scissors brother Julian gave me, with a whimsical allusion to the old saw about sharp blades and love. Dear Julian! I wish he would come home and not waste the best part of his life wandering through South America. Our brothers are not so plenty that we can spare months and years of their companionship out of our lives.
     The scissors and the thimble have had a busy time of it since they first became neighbors in my workbasket, with dresses to provide for the first baby, then short gowns, aprons, bibs, and one day the first trousers ---ten inches long on the outside seam! I can imagine my shears grinning to their utmost spread at this event in their history. One pair of scissors in a family of my acquaintance cut out three generations of first trousers. There 's a steel patriarch for you!
     Don't laugh at this pin-cushion; it has a history, too; and brings a crowd of associations to my mind, some of them sad, but most of them cheerful, helpful, and amusing. My Marian said to me not long ago:

     "Mamma, why do you use this funny, fat, worn-out pin-cushion when you have a new one that is so much prettier?"

     "Because," I answered, "this cushion belonged to your great-aunt Sabrina, many years ago; the very feel of it makes me think of her, and I loved her very much. That is why I keep it and use it every day."

     "Is she dead now?" with the wondering tone of childhood that does not understand the question its own lips utter.

     "Yes, dear; years before you were born."

     Dead, indeed, and with the immortals! Yet there is no sadness in my heart as I answer her. I smile at the remembrance of Aunt Sabrina's queer gowns that never fit, the big hoops that she clung to years after they had gone out of fashion, and her worn, old hands, stiff with hard work. I can see her now, as she sat, busy and patient and thoughtful, under the evening lamp, with her basket of mending and the green velvet pincushion on the edge of the table. Those were days of Latin lessons and algebraic problems. A row of heads outlined the library table. Leaves rustled, pencils flew, the coal fire crackled in the grate, and auntie's scissors clicked and snipped. When an equation became too desperately difficult for our sophomoric brains, we appealed to auntie. Work was dropped, her needle jabbed energetically into the cushion (I never do it now myself without a pang of loving remembrance), and she gave us prompt and practical help. Algebra and Latin were more to the flavor of her mind than darning stockings and making over dresses; but to her everlasting honor be it said that only sometimes did she lay down the humble necessary work to take up the higher; never the other way. With hands perpetually tied to sordid things, her thoughts soared the higher. A more unworldly, supermundane spirit there never was. I used to wonder if in her early years she possessed any elements of the grosser feminine traits, such as vanity or jealousy, or the love of dress. She never was known to look in the mirror, and would settle her bonnet with a jerk first at one string and then at the other, leaving it jocosely perched over one ear, to the distress of her daughter, who had an eye to the proprieties as her mother had to the moral entities.

     "Oh, ma," she would say, appealingly, "do let me straighten your bonnet."

     And her mother always yielded passively to these feeble attempts at her adornment, but she would just as soon have worn her bonnet wrong side before, with the cape hanging over her eyes. She never said so, but we knew it. The inside of her head was of much greater importance, and that was filled with more enduring subjects than the style of a bonnet or the drapery of a skirt.
     How calm she was, how contemplative, how appreciative! Her thoughts were with the great minds of the world; Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Goethe, Carlyle were her firm and constant friends. An aroma of good books exhaled from her society. She talked of the great writers and thinkers as she would mention acquaintances on the same street, frequently and intimately, but without the slightest affectation. It may be imagined what a zest for the best reading this gave to young minds too likely to be attracted by the mass of floating fiction and benumbed by the use of it. How well I remember some of our discussions, when we all talked at once; hurled arguments at each other with more positive denials; dragged in the testimony of our teachers, the minister and the almanac to support our side of the question; "uttered platitudes in stained-glass attitudes" like Bunthorne in the opera; and altogether were as noisy, opinionated and mistaken a set of young people as any there are at the present day. Nothing but an amused expression around the corners of auntie's mouth betrayed her interest in the discussion. She never interrupted until one or the other of the disputants appealed to her for an opinion. Then with the fingers of her left hand spread out in the heel of a stocking, and a needle full of yarn in her right, she looked at us- over the tops of her glasses and said, oracularly and deliberately:

     "Well, my dears, Plato, you know, has said---"

     Then follow a quotation so apt, so forcible, and so convincing that it seemed to have been invented to suit this one occasion. Now, at this late day, I may confess to a feeling that somehow it was not quite fair of Plato to have used up the whole subject before we began to talk about it. He and Auntie together generally put a stop to our argumentative conflicts, as there never seemed anything left for us to say. That was the temporary good accomplished, for which I am sure the other members of the family must have been grateful; but the influence went still further with us. "Did Plato really say that?" Then he must be a sensible, every-day sort of a writer, and not as far above and beyond the scope of our fifteen-year-old intelligences as we had always imagined. "If he said one good thing he must have said others. Let us find out."
     The gate was open.
     So as a reward for all her unconscious teachings, for the stimulus she has been to young minds, for the verities she has unlocked to older ones, she deserves, I have thought, a seat among the immortals. "With my mind's prophetic eye" I see her, in a celestial corner, with Plato on one side of her and Bronson Alcott on the other, the shades of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the beloved Emerson in near companionship. And she is happy.
     That is the reason why I keep the green pin-cushion and am not sad.

     "When to the sessions of sweet, silent thought I summon up remembrance of past things."

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