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THE essence of neighborliness is fine-grained. Its charity suffereth long and is kind; its humanity never wearieth; it is unbound by custom; unbought by price; a perennial spring; an invaluable gift. Behold in a woman your model country neighbor. She is lynx-eyed, but not over-curious; spontaneous, but not familiar; helpful, but not aggressive. She takes note of your necessities, which she relieves without ostentation. So great is her generosity of effort that she keeps no account in memory of those deeds by which she has made you her debtor. If she needs you she freely asks of you. She is more reticent of her words than her works; and weighs well her speech, that by it her social relations may not be marred. She is unmoved by impulse or prejudice. She may be hard of exterior, but tenderness dwells in her. If bidden to a feast she goes to it in her best attire, with serious dignity; but into the sick-room she glides with unchanged garments, bearing with her the healing of herbs, softness of presence, and a feeling heart.
My first-born was buried from a country home. His short life had been of no use to any one outside of that home. To my neighbors he had left nothing worthy of remembrance; he had made hardly a ripple upon the surface of their quiet lives. He had simply come and passed away. Lo! what was wrought by the silent mystery of his death. They thronged about him. They touched his white garments with exquisite tenderness, and let fall upon them tears of pity and love. One of them wrapped him in his winding-sheet, smoothed his hair prettily, and touched his brow with a holy, motherly kiss.
Beloved country neighbors of another home, dear are the memories of your spontaneous kindness to me and mine, — you true, tenderhearted, free-handed, helpful, bygone neighbors. Tirzah, O Tirzah the good! you were hard-worked and plain; but you were so clothed upon with self-denial, kindness, and charity that my children loved you, and you were beautiful to them. They never missed in you any graces; to them you were pure gold. Dear old woman! when your weary feet shall pass over to the shining shore, two, I am sure, will gladly go down to meet you. Bind old Tirzah, may I some time see you in the beautiful garments of immortality! "God bless Tirzah!" lisped Marion, in infantile speech; and night after night went up this simple petition until the child's tongue forgot its cunning.
My grandfather's neighbors were scattered over a wide space of country. The nearest one of them was half a mile away; but distance only seemed to lend zest to their intercourse with one another. Lack of diversion also gave impulse to it. The drama they all helped to play was upon a narrow stage, with few acts; and they, the actors in it, were so far apart that each stood out to the others most conspicuous for the right or wrong rendering of his part. Every incident and accident of one's daily life was, to his neighbor, what his costumes are to the player in the theatre, a sort of marking of him. His horse, his oxen, his wagon, and his dog identified him, like the wearing of a stage garment; and all his incomings and outgoings, all the ways of his household, were most familiar to his townspeople. Sunday noonings made neighbors; the courtesies of hayings and harvestings brought them together; and the leisure of winter revealed each to the other. They were compelled to be dependent upon, and so kind to, one another, — these simple, isolated people. They found relief from the restraint of labor and the suppression of their working days in their holiday garrulousness, and their eager recognition of every other man and woman as their neighbor. When clad in their best suits, with a little respite from toil, their whole natures seemed to rebound; and silent, stern men became eager chatterers. Very simple gossip it was, mainly of herds and crops and town affairs. They thronged the meeting-house steps on Sundays, gathered in knots about the village stores, and never failed on the highway to salute one another with much speech. The smallest mishap to the one was speedily known to the rest, and this large recognition came back manifold in sympathy.
Extreme deference was exacted from children to parents, and from youth to old age. Amongst the men there was little social assumption, save that the best thinkers, known as such, took unto themselves a certain boldness of speech. Their salutations followed custom, and their common talk ran in grooves; but the mass of them were as strong in logic as their soil was in rock; and they were almost as easily turned as the latter from their slow formed opinions. They were weather-wise almost to accuracy, and foretold to one another the coming and shifting of storms.
Nothing could be quainter upon the highway than the meeting in midsummer of two anxious farmers in their high-backed wagons. They stopped, compared the size and state of their exposed crops; and then fell to watching the clouds, each shading his eyes with his hand. Hardy, resolute, half-defiant, they had a sort of heathen aspect — these sons of and worshippers of the soil. Their hopes, and so their hearts, were bound up in the signs of sun and wind and cloud, and they naturally grew into such picturesque and harmless idolaters.
The women of my grandfather's neighborhood were more given to social distinctions than the men. The wives of "forehanded" farmers and professional men were apt to be somewhat exalted, or, in the speech of the times, "looked up to." This was because of a partial exemption from toil; and they lacked the intensity, the wild flavor, of those humbler women, who threw their whole strength and will into their vocations, and thus made themselves worthy of better things. What if these latter did seem like drudges, and grow hard and ugly to sight; the patience and the power and the will to do were still in them, and the price they paid for their fidelity gave a pathetic nobleness to the sacrifice.
The women were, as a class, religious. They were not emotional, busy, bustling Christians. They knew little about missions and Dorcas societies. There was not much poverty to tax their sympathies. They were learned in doctrines, firm of faith, and full of a simple reverence. They were never so fagged or burdened that they could not, on the Lord's day, lay aside their cares and toils, and go up to His house. It ought to have been an easy thing for these women to enter into the kingdom. Their life here was so hard upon them that the life to come must have held out to their weary souls a picture, beyond all measure delightful, of the eternal rest, the everlasting peace of the true gospel.
The meagreness of their lot begot in many of them a stinginess about dollars and cents; but the most carnal-minded of them were truly reverent on the Lord's day; and they all endured frost-bites and long sermons, in their unwarmed churches, with a praiseworthy patience. Sweet to them was the hush of their restful Sabbaths. It was the sign and token to them of a Sabbath that should never end.
When their children were young, these ancient mothers had to clothe them with garments spun and woven by their own hands; and for the daughters, as they grew up, table-linen and bedding were to be stored away for their "fixing out." In my grandmother's day this thrifty forecasting of fate was the custom in farmers' families, and she was deemed rich to whose treasures gifts of silver and china were also added. Daughters were expected to marry. Marriage brought extra care and toil to a woman; but she did not shrink from that, for labor was her lot; and she of the humbler sort, to whom no suitor came, was quite sure to take up her narrower vocation as tailoress or dressmaker or household servant. It was thought to be generous in a farmer to let his daughter "learn a trade," thus freeing her from the heavier drudgeries of farm-work. There must have been cheapened lives, but there were, at least, no idle ones amongst these women. They began their lustrous webs in early girlhood. They accepted their condition as they found it; they did with all their might what the Lord gave them to do, and so were in their calling true livers.
The tailoress, with her awkward goose, stitching and pressing coarse cloths into homely garments, grew gray-haired in the service of friendly neighbors. Her meagre pay, through long hoarding, rolled up with years. She got to be a house-owner and landowner, and so a woman of repute and weight amongst others. Lucy and Hester were two such humble neighbors of my grandfather's. They were in middle life when I knew them; two sisters, to whom their father, in dying, had left a life interest in his house and estate. This was the usual way in those days of providing for the old age of unmarried daughters; not the most safe or generous way for them, but consistent with their training and habits of self-reliance. With health, they were sure to be self-supporting, and in sickness and old age they would be cared for, grudgingly it might be, in the rooms set apart for them in the old homestead.
Lucy and Hester might have well dreaded any possible dependence upon their brother, a crabbed, morose man, whose surly nature seemed to infect his home and all its surroundings. It was a dismal, joyless-looking house. Seen from a distance, it had a most inhospitable look, unsoftened by any green, growing thing, uncorniced, unpainted, grim, cold, forbidding. The room of Lucy and Hester seemed to catch all the sunshine lying about it. Their goose was always pounding at seams, their tongues were always going in concert, and they were the busiest, cheeriest, plumpest, most prosperous of old maids. They had money in the bank; how much no one knew, but rumor added to it faster than their nimble fingers could ever have earned it, until they came to be esteemed rich women. People wondered why they had never married, for they were fair-faced and womanly, and full of lovableness in their low degree. They were fond of children, and took several little boys to bring up, but somehow these all turned out badly. One stole some of their hard-earned money, another tried to burn their house. People said the sisters were too easy with them. It may be, after all, that they had fallen upon their true vocation, and that they were jollier and more useful with their goose in hand than they would have been as wives and mothers.
Joseph their brother did not mar their comfort much, for they were not in his power. His wife died early of overwork, leaving her tasks and her discomforts as an inheritance to her daughter. This daughter, Abigail by name, was a tall, thin, but sweet-faced girl, who, when I first saw her, was drudging her life out for her cruel father. She had a lover in a well-to-do farmer from the next town, but she never married. The linen was all spun and woven and packed away; the bridal dress was made ready, and then, one June day, she who was to have worn it was borne out to the family burial-place.
Not long after the father died suddenly and unmourned. Then Lucy and Hester came into full possession of the farm. They took down the little sign "Tailoring done here" from their window, planted lilacs and rosebushes about the house, and trained a creeper over the front door. They did not make many changes, but somehow the dismal look went out of the place, and the cheer, which before was confined to their own one room, now seemed to pervade the whole house. They were become, for the country, truly rich women; but, from force of habit, they kept basting and stitching and pressing until their goose grew too heavy for them. Then, from being the two tailoresses who worked about the town, they passed into the two cheerful old sisters, whose serene latter years and calm end were a rest and a lesson to their weary neighbors.
Very faithful to each other in their marriage relations were these ancient men and women. They were given neither to sentiment nor demonstration. The women promised to honor and obey their husbands; and they did honor and obey them, not with weak servility but with trust and willingness. The twain were truly yoked together to bear life's burdens; and, working side by side, year after year, they grew to be most helpful and needful and dear to each other. Theirs may not have been the highest type of marriage, but such as it was it made each a necessity to the other, and whatever it lacked in grace and beauty it made up in truth and stability. If there was in it any actual or implied degradation of woman, this was shown in the preference of sons over daughters in the disposition of their small estates. The thrift and "fixing out" of the latter were thought to be sufficient for them, and the farm with its belongings was given to the sons. As a subject of contemplation, as a Sabbath picture divorced from toil, the pastoral, patriarchal life of one of these ancient families has a Biblical aspect, — something of the sweetness and simplicity of those historical households of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. It was the life of a race of strong-minded, heroic, Christian laborers, who, from a substratum of mental, moral, and religious strength, sent forth a stream of migration as potent as the rivers which take their rise from the granite rock of their farms. If the women had been put forward forty years, many of them would have lost what now seem their peculiarities, and with them their chief charm, under the weight of what we call our superior civilization. But there was a certain class, small in number as it always is, whom no time nor circumstance could have spoiled. They were noble women, — women full of all manner of well-doing; fair to look upon, with the beatitudes stamped upon their features as upon the pages of a written book; women who, walking in their humble condition, meek and lowly, came to be looked upon as in a measure sanctified, and were called "mothers in Israel." Their faces, set heavenward, cling to memory like the portraits of painted madonnas.
Other women there were, more worldly wise, under whose cunning hands the plainer women of the neighborhood were as potter's clay, — my grandmother was of such, — sensible, handsome women, whom no measure of labor could belittle, — full of magnetism and power and wide influence.
The stories of many of these ancient home-workers, written out, would be so many leaves from that pioneer, formative life which so embellishes and enriches the early history of New England. They were home missionaries, who gave to their neighbors their unsalaried labor, and to posterity the fruits of their wide-sown humanities and Christian graces. I have seen a whole village uplifted by the superior nature of a single grand, thinking, faithful, Christian woman. She was the wife of a poorly-paid country minister. Her home was meagre, but her love of beauty great. She was not therefore poor, for what the country could give to any woman it gave to her. Her field seemed narrow, for her ability was large; but if her standard of living overreached that of her neighbors, her example stimulated their children to higher effort. Her mission was peculiar. Analyzed, its integral parts were small, in its aggregate not greatly recognized at the time, afterwards felt. The life of this well-poised woman, wide in creative power but narrow-gauged by circumstance, in aspect bare, in actual experience full of the sadness of suppression, went day by day into the children about her, and that scope which was denied to herself she helped to give through them to their posterity.
She was neither stranded nor martyred. It was her vocation that, because of the nobility of her nature, she should shape those who copied after her. It was her lot that the self-sacrifice which was engrafted upon her other virtues should give to her life a pensive beauty; that she should better others by a certain impoverishment of self. What she longed for and got not, guided by her, others found. Her glory was that her true being was not bound by circumstance. She was not simply a village woman, she was a citizen of the world, for in giving wider sphere to others, she was only committing to them that part of her higher life most worthy to be developed and remembered.