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The Long Ago
by Jacob William Wright
1 The Garden 2 The River 3 Christmas 4 Butter, Eggs, Ducks, Geese 5 The Sugar Barrels 6 Jimmy, the Lamplighter 7 Flies 8 The Autumn Leaves 9 Getting in the Wood 10 The Rain 11 Grandmother 12 When Day is Done
Then said he unto me, Go thy way, Weigh me the weight of the fire, Or measure me the blast of the wind, Or call me again the day that is past. II Esdras IV:5
The day is done, and yet we linger here at the window of the private office, alone, in the early evening. Street sounds come surging up to us - the hoarse Voice of the City - a confused blur of noise - clanging trolley-cars, rumbling wagons, and familiar cries - all the varied commotion of the home-going hour when the city's buildings are pouring forth their human tide of laborers into the clogged arteries.
We lean against the window-frame, looking across and beyond the myriad roofs, and listening. The world-weariness has touched our temples with gray, and the heaviness of the day's concerns and tumult presses in, presses in . . . . presses in . . . .
Yet as we look into the gentle twilight, the throbbing street below slowly changes to a winding country road . . . . the tall buildings fade in the sunset glow until they become only huge elm-trees overtopping a dusty lane . . . . the trolley-bells are softened so that they are but the distant tinkle of the homeward herd on the hills . . . . and you and I in matchless freedom are once more trudging the Old Dear Road side by side, answering the call of the wondrous Voice of Boyhood sounding through the years.
It was the spirit of the garden that crept into my boy-heart and left its fragrance, to endure through the years. What the garden stood for - what it expressed - left a mysterious but certain impress. Grandmother's touch hallowed it and made it a thing apart, and the rare soul of her seemed to be reflected in the Lilies of the Valley that bloomed sweetly year by year in the shady plot under her favorite window in the sitting-room. Because the garden was her special province, it expressed her own sturdy, kindly nature. Little wonder, then, that we cherished it; that I loved to roam idly there feeling the enfoldment of that same protection and loving-kindness which drew me to the shelter of her gingham-aproned lap when the griefs of Boyhood pressed too hard upon me; and that we walked in it so contentedly in the cool of the evening, after the Four O'clocks had folded their purple petals for the night.
Grandmother's garden, like all real gardens, wasn't just flowers and fragrance.
There was a brick walk leading from the front gate to the sitting-room entrance - red brick, all moss-grown, and with the tiny weeds and grasses pushing up between the bricks. In the garden proper the paths were of earth, bordered and well-defined by inch-wide boards that provided jolly tight-rope practice until grandmother came anxiously out with her oft-repeated: "Willie don't walk on those boards; you'll, break them down." And just after the warm spring showers these earthwalks always held tiny mud-puddles where the rain-bleached worms congregated until the robins came that way.
There's something distinctive and individual about the paths in a garden - they either "belong," or they do not. Imagine cement walks in grandmother's garden! Its walks are as much to a garden as its flowers or its birds or its beetles, and express that dear, indescribable intimacy that makes the Phlox a friend and the Johnny-Jump-Up a play-fellow.
The best place for angle-worms was underneath the white Syringa bush - the tallest bloomer in the garden except the great Red Rose that climbed over the entire wall of the house, tacked to it by strips of red flannel, and whose blossoms were annually counted and reported to the weekly newspaper.
Another good place was under the Snowball bush, where the ground was covered with white petals dropped from the countless blossom-balls that made passers-by stop in admiration.
Still another good digging-ground was in the Lilac corner where the purple and white bushes exhaled their incomparable perfume. Grandmother forbade digging in the flower-beds - it was all right to go into the vegetable garden, but the tender flower-roots must not be exposed to the sun by ruthless boy hands intent only on the quest of bait.
Into the lapel of my dress coat She fastened a delicate orchid last night. It must have cost a pretty penny, at this season - enough, no doubt, to buy the seeds that would reproduce a half-dozen of my grandmother's gardens. And as we moved away in the limousine She asked me why I was so silent. She could not know that when she slipped its rare stem into place upon my coat, the long years dropped away - and I stood again where the Yellow Rose, all thorn-covered, lifted its sunny top above the picket fence - plucked its choicest blossom, put it almost apologetically and ashamed into the buttonhole of my jacket - stuffed my hands into my pockets and went whistling down the street, with the yellow rose-tint and the sunlight and the curls on my child head all shining in harmony. The first boutonniere of my life - from the bush that became my confidant through all those wondrous years before they packed my trunk and sent me off to college!
To be sure, I loved the bright-faced Pansies which smiled cheerily up at me from their round bed - and the dear old Pinks, of a strange fragrance all their own - and the Sweet William, and even the grewsome Bleeding Heart that drooped so sad and forlorn in its alloted corner. Yet it is significant that last night's orchid took me straight back over memory's pathway to that simple yellow rosebush by the fence!
Tonight, with the forgotten orchid in my lapel, and all the weight of the great struggle lying heavy against my heart, I stand where the night-fog veils the scraggly eucalyptus, and the dense silence blots out all the noises that have intervened between the Then and the Now - and I can see again the gorgeous Peonies, pink and white, where they toss their shaggy heads, and gather as of old the flaming Cock's Comb by the little path. I hear the honeybees droning in the Crab Apple tree by the back gate, and watch the robins crowding the branches of the Mountain Ash, where the bright red berries cluster. I see the terrible bumble-bee bear down the Poppy on its slender stem and go buzzing threateningly away, all pollen-covered.
And shining clear and true through the mist I see her who was the Spirit of the Garden. There she stands, on the broad step beside the bed where the Lilies of the Valley grew, leaning firmly upon her one crutch, looking out across her garden to each loved group of her flower-friends - smiling out upon them as she did each day through fifty years - turning at last into the house and taking with her, in her heart, the glory of the Hollyhocks against the brick wall, the perfume of the Narcissus in the border, the wing-song of the humming-bird among, the Honey-suckle, and the warmth of the glad June sunshine.
The river wasn't a big river as I look back at it now, yet it was wide and wandering and deep, and flowed quietly along through a wonderful Middle West valley, dividing the Little Old Town geographically and socially. Its shores furnished such a boy playground as never was known anywhere else in all the world - for it was a gentle river, a kindly playfellow, an understanding friend; and it seemed fairly to thrill in responsive glee when I plunged, naked and untamed, beneath the eddying waters of the swimming-hole under the overhanging wild-plum tree.
Its banks, curving in a semi-circle around the village, marked the borders of the whole wide world. There were other rivers, other villages, other lands somewhere - all with strange, queer names - existing only in the geographies to worry little children. The real world, and all the really, truly folks and things, were along the far-stretching banks of this our river. Down by the flats, where the tiny creek widened to a miniature swamp and emptied its placid waters into the main stream, the red-wing blackbirds sounded their strange cry among the cat-tails and the bull-rushes; the frogs croaked in ceaseless and reverberant chorus; the catfish were ever hungry after dark, and the night was broken by the glare of torches along the little bridge or in a group of boats where fisher-lads kept close watch upon their corks. Far below The Dam, where the changeful current had left a wide sand-bar and a great tree-trunk stretched its fallen length across from the shore to the water's edge, the mud-turtles basked in the sun-shine, and, at the approach of Boyhood, glided or splashed to the safety of the water.
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