Washington Irving And The Old Nurse At Sunnyside
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
I CALLED at the residence of Mrs. D. F. Johnson, in Tarrytown, N. Y., and said, " I am told that you knew Washington Irving." She replied, " Yes, I did. When I was a girl of fourteen I was a waitress at the table and did other tasks in Mr. Irving's home. My name is Elizabeth and I was called Betsy. Mr. Irving always called me ' Bee.' My place was just behind his chair at the table. He carved the meats. His brother Ebenezer, and the latter's five daughters, were usually with him at every meal. Each of Mr. Irving's nieces took turns week by week in acting as housekeeper, and occupying a chair opposite to his as the mistress of the table. What a jolly time they all had!
"The Irving's all possessed a great deal of humor. Ebenezer was as funny a man as Washington Irving. He was so deaf that we had to yell into his ears to be heard. He spoke in a whisper, but he was always saying very smart things. He hardly ever opened his mouth without making us laugh. As Mr. Washington Irving was a match for his brother, or any one else, in his expression of fun, you can imagine what a cheerful and happy time they all had together.
" Washington Irving was one of the sweetest-spirited men I ever saw. In all the time I was at his house I never knew him to be angry, nor did I ever hear him say an unkind word to or about any one. In speaking to his five nieces he invariably said, `Dear, will you have this?" Dear, will you do that?' As they looked into his kindly eye, they knew that he meant more of tenderness than the most affectionate words could express.
" I have," Mrs. Johnson continued, "a table-cover which Mr. Irving gave to my mother. Would you like to see it ? " " I certainly would," said I. " Alma, will you go upstairs and get it," she said to her daughter. The cover was brought. It is woollen, dark blue, with a border of orange-colored flowers woven into the fabric.
I said to her, " What are the circumstances under which Mr. Irving gave your mother this present? " " They are these," said she. " There was a woman who nursed Ebenezer's daughters from the time of their infancy, and when their mother died she was almost a mother to them. She grew old and crippled with the rheumatism. The girls were careful of her, and when she became entirely disabled my mother was sent for to take care of her. Mother was with her the two years preceding her death. Mr. Irving was as kind and considerate of this old nurse as he would have been of a queen, and it was in recognition of this service in her behalf that he gave mother the present I prize so highly."
Lord Bacon truly said, " All our actions take their hues from the complexion of the heart as landscapes their variety from the light." Irving's heart was sun-shine which was refracted in beautiful colors in his home, his writings, his personal presence and in his character. By nature and by the Providence which took away from him his first and only love, there was just enough of the sombre introduced to lend an added charm to his life and labor. When the Knickerbocker History of New York was first published, Sir Walter Scott read it aloud to his family and laughed till his sides were sore. The world is laughing at the same humor just as hard to-day. The sombre element in Irving's writings charmed Lord Byron, who wept as he read the Broken Heart.
As I looked at the table-cover, and through it at the great author's care for the old nurse, I called to mind his appreciation of lowly merit as expressed in The Widow and Her Son, in these words : " When I looked round upon the storied monuments, the stately hatchments, the cold marble pomp with which grandeur mourned magnificently over departed pride, and turned to this poor widow, bowed down with age and sorrow, at the altar of her God, and offering up the prayers and praises of a pious though a broken heart, I feel that this living monument of real grief was worth them all." Irving was not greater with his pen than he was in his tender care and solicitude for the old nurse in his home.
Returning to my study, impressed with the new story of Irving's intense affection for those closest to him, I took from the shelf The Tales of a Traveler, and read : " I sank upon the grave, and buried my face in the tall grass and wept like a child. Yes, I wept in manhood upon the grave, as I had in infancy upon the bosom of my mother. Alas, how little do we appreciate a mother's tenderness while living ! How heedless we are in youth of all her anxieties and kindness ! But when she is dead and gone ; when the cares and coldness of the world come withering to our hearts ; when we find how hard it is to find true sympathy, how few love us for ourselves, how few will befriend us in our misfortunes ; then it is we think of the mother we have lost. Oh, my mother ! ' exclaimed I, burying my face again in the grass of the grave ; ` oh, that I were once more by your side, sleeping, never to wake again on the cares and troubles of the world.' "