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Autobiography Of An Elderly Women:
Shadow Of Age

My Mother's House

Conventions Of Age

Other People's Medicine

Compensations Of Age

Spending Of Time

Land Of Old Age

Grandmothers And Grandchildren

Young People And Old

Unspoken Words

Read More Articles About: Autobiography Of An Elderly Women

My Mother's House

( Originally Published 1911 )

As my years crowd upon me, I read the meaning of certain things in the past that as a young woman I never understood, for there is nothing more variable than our past. Young people regard the happenings of yesterday as a fixed quantity, but the past is just as insecure as the future, for all events have meaning and gather value only according to the personality they visit.

This being so, as time changes, the tragedy of yesterday softens and smiles at one. The small and meaningless event, in the light of those which follow it, grows and grows until it overshadows all.

The boundaries that fix life itself birth and death — are perhaps the only events that keep their primary importance with us as we age. Mysterious is the past and strange and fortuitous. It veils its face like the future. We cannot remember what we will ; we forget the very things that we have loved and felt and suffered. The memory of the emotions passes from us, and it is as if they had never been. Why should I keep this trivial memory and discard the other ? Who can tell me ? I know that this and that, when I was a girl, made my heart beat ; this I remember, but not with my emotions. Why it beat is now mysterious to me.

As I grow old I find myself in a thousand looks and gestures of my mother, the memories of which come crowding to me out of the past. We go down to the grave as egotists ; so it is the mother of her later years who now returns to me as I tread over the path she trod.

Especially significant is her house, the little place so liberally fenced in and not thrown into the next place in the modern and odious fashion. Up the side of the brick path were posy beds, — for that is the true name for such a garden, — and posy beds there were in front of the house, and behind grew other flowers. These my mother tended herself; the lawn was cared for by a gardener. This man was a great thorn in the side of all of us who visited her.

He spent his days gossiping cheerily over the fence, telling the neighbors details like the difference between the thermometer in the shade and in the sun.

He would communicate to them at what hour he had arisen that morning and how his hens were laying. His cheerful and ceaseless babble went on whenever he found an ear to receive it. This old man annoyed us, as I said. He was a kindly soul, and we had no objection to him as an individual, but his prattle bored us, and we felt that he should work for the stipend he received for mowing the lawn and raking up the leaves. This feeling our mother did not share; she was contented to let him dawdle through the hours of the day if he chose, so that some time or other the lawn was cut; and as she pottered about her flowers, gloves on her hands and a wide shade hat on her head — for she was of the generation whose gentlewomen were taught to be careful of their complexion and their hands, and thought it unbecoming in a delicate female to get blowzy with sunburn and blackened with tan— she would stop and talk with him.

We would point out to her that she was encouraging him in his idle habits, and were always ready at a moment's notice to furnish her with a strong likely boy of eighteen in place of this doddering and garrulous individual. I can remember conversations like this :

" Mother, I've heard that Widow Johnson's boy wants to work -"

" Widow Johnson's boy! That weedy bean-pole — all legs ! "

" He's eighteen, "

"I know your eighteen-year-olds," my mother would cry. " They stop working the moment your back is turned.

I like my man I can depend on him."

"Yes," we would reply bitterly, " you can depend on him to do nothing. Besides, you '11 be helping the boy's mother."

We knew that a practice of my mother's was to help along solitary women less fortunately placed than she had been.

But to this suggestion she would reply with a masterful definiteness :

"I'm not an eleemosynary institution, my dear."

There was no arguing with her there was no making her see that that was precisely what she was. There was no use offering her men in the prime of life to mow her lawn any more than there was in offering her what she called " tittering and hooting boys."

She was just as bad about the bits of carpentry that there were to be done around the house. There was a certain workman who came occasionally on odd jobs and whom we tried to have her get rid of, but for whom, after all, we had a sneaking fondness.

I can remember this old man well.

He seemed no thicker than a piece of paper and gave the impression of some odd ghost, so bent-over was he, so pale, a strange, tanned pallor, framed in by tenuous hair and sparse, white whiskers. He moved brokenly and feebly, and yet clung with the tenacity of a fly to the side of a roof. He liked shingling, he said ; it kept him young.

This I doubt, nor have I ever yet tried it for the disease of age.

My mother claimed he was a good carpenter. That may have been ; at any rate, all the carpentering that was done, was done by him, from shingling to pottering over a broken piazza rail. What especially irritated us about him was that his memory had departed from him.

It was impossible for him to remember for ten consecutive minutes where to find his tools. One could find him at any unexpected place, always, he said, looking for the nails or the screwdriver or the hammer. He strewed them about him with as lavish a gesture as Millet's Sower, so one might judge from the length of time he spent looking for them. He would wander from room to room, peering with nearsighted eyes into every corner ; and sometimes he would forget which tool it was he had lost, and would have to go back to find out, and then begin the search all over again. He never became impatient at this, but continued his long wanderings like some little New England " Wandering Jew, " in sorrow over the unnatural perversity of his tools rather than in any anger against them.

A third person my mother employed of this same kind ; this one a painter.

He was elderly also ; garrulous, but in a different way from the childlike prattle of the gardener.

No, he couldn't tell how much a thing would cost. Perhaps it would cost so much, and perhaps so much; he couldn't tell until he got through. No, he couldn't tell you how long it would take him, perhaps a day, perhaps longer; — he didn't know. When would he come? He didn't know; maybe tomorrow, — maybe next day, he couldn't tell.

" But," my mother would persist,

" we 've got to have that kitchen floor painted and we 've got to know when you're coming, Mr. Bunner."

" Well, now, Mis' Paine, I can't tell you. Now, I '11 tell you how it is; I'm waitin' now for some paint to paint Malcolm's house, an' when I get that paint, I '11 paint his house, an' when I get that done, I 'll do your kitchen."

" But while you 're waiting," my mother would urge.

And you can imagine us fairly tramping up and down with rage, wishing to poke forth from the doors the old piker.

And thus it would go on, and after spending more or less of kindliness on him, my mother would at last persuade the old man to come the next day.

As I look back on it, it seems as if always one or the other of these feckless elderly workmen was engaged in doing some odd job or other around my mother's place, and I think this was very likely true. I know now why she did it; it gave her that feeling with which we older people like to deceive ourselves, — and succeed according to the clearness of our mental capacity, — the illusion of activity, of really accomplishing something; and my mother accomplished this: that she kept up her house spick and span to her last moment. I know now, too, why she had these elderly people about her, and why she couldn't abide the smart, modern methods of younger and more efficient people.

Not only had they worked for her for years and she had a loyalty towards her own generation, but I think she had some deeper sympathy and liking for their failing powers. Possibly she saw her own mirrored in theirs; perhaps she remembered when the old carpenter was as spry as a kitten and when he never so much as mislaid a hook-eye.

They were old and she was old, but they were older than she, and I think that the contrast between them gave her a sense of youthful power. I have seen an aged mother be almost a fountain of youth. There lives here an old woman who is upwards of ninety, and with her live her unmarried daughters, — women well along in their sixties.

The old lady still calls her daughters " the girls," and orders them about smartly. They are all of the old school and they obey her very well, but in turn they tyrannize over her, look after her; " do for her," as we have it here. One can never drop in on them without their having a story to tell about some new rash deed of " mother's "; and so they are young in spirit, having a work to do in the world; some one to run, and no chit of a younger generation to run them. Another reason for their youthfulness is that the house has not had so much as a new matchsafe for twenty years : they yet have about them things all of their own choosing; they have not had to part with the familiar friends of their youth.

My mother's house was like this.

While she was particular about repairs, new things she would not buy. Within - doors, combined with an austere order, there was a certain dilapidation of armchairs due to over-use; the lamp was old; everything about her had been used for years, and the presents which we made her stuck out like so many sore thumbs, — I am sure that many of them disappeared into cupboards and drawers when we took our departure.

And when we broke up our larger house in which we lived, and she and father came to live in this little one, I remember she gave us with lavish hand what seemed to us the pick of the furniture, and kept for herself those things that belonged to her earlier years.

Have you ever noticed when it is that people have their houses " done over " ? I have. It usually occurs soon after the daughters have been " out " a while, and have had time to develop a taste of their own. Then the moment comes when the furniture is rearranged, new touches are added, old-fashioned things sent away to the attic for a long rest, and the house passes from the older generation to the younger. The altered aspect of the house shows that the young people are beginning to take possession of their own. Do you remember when so many of the parlor carpets throughout the land were done away with and little slippery rugs put in their places ?— and a wonder it is that we didn't all break our necks sliding across the floor on them !

I have an old friend who picks her way gingerly across the shining, polished floor, as much in fear for her poor stiff bones as if she were walking on ice. As she walks carefully from one treacherous oasis of a rug to another and deposits herself on a Chippendale chair, I can but remember the time when the room was full of billowy, upholstered chairs, faulty in line, perhaps, but holding out ample, inviting arms to you. And as she perches herself on the uncompromising colonial furniture, I know that she regrets her comfortable old chairs, though she bravely pretends she thinks the new furniture a great improvement.

Here is another of the milestones of age; we pretend as hard as we can that we like many things we don't like, that we may not seem old-fashioned to our dear ones. We do what we can to keep pace with them until our old legs are weary with running; but our children, do the best we may, are far in advance of us. We make concession after concession of our own preferences, even to giving up the things that lived with us when we were young and which grew old with us and old - fashioned even as we did. To please our children we treacherously discard them, pretending we think them, in their old-fashioned comfort, as hideous as do our young people. My friend points out the purity of design of the new furniture, but she has had one of the old parlor chairs done over and put in her own bedroom. She sits there a good deal. I have noticed that older women work and read much in their own rooms, and I sometimes wonder if it isn't because the rest of the house has become strange and unhomelike.

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