The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
My Mother's Memories of Her Childhood.
by Anna Mary Harrison
At the request of my daughters I dot down the recollections of my early life; which I have often related to them and to my grandchildren. In doing this I am struck with the fact that some of the earliest impressions of infancy have had a prominent influence on my life. I believe that whenever it is possible to trace the date of first impressions, it will astonish us to find to what an early age such recollections carry us back. My parents were to me what Providence is to the deeply religious mind. I revered them; my love became a sort of adoration, which at times overpowered me to tears. Then the love of my little sister was almost a passion. We were always together. We never wanted any other playmate. It was our mother's chief aim to make us dear and necessary to one another. Our books--for toys we had none--were all marked with our united names "Anna and Mary"*; and before we could speak plainly she taught us Cowper's verses, beginning--
"The rose had been washed, just washed in a shower,
because of the two names. No separations or circumstances of life have ever dulled or dwindled the joy of this first love. From our earliest consciousness it has grown with our growth and deepened with our years. I cannot picture to myself what the world would be without Mary in it.
*Afterwards Mary Howitt.
I must have been a timid child, not given to utter my thoughts. My mother was concerned at my backwardness in speaking and that I might have more conversation than was usual in our quiet household, she placed me each morning under the care of her pretty protogee, Hannah Taylor. Hannah, with other young girls, worked at the lace frames, set up by a benevolent lady, Mrs. Copesteak, in a large room in her own fine old half-timbered house. Here she gave employment to about a dozen girls of a superior class of tradespeople. I was much made of by these young girls. They gave me a needle and some of the smooth silky thread they used, so that from the happy associations of those infantine days, the intricate patterns and sprigs of lace have had for me a tempting fascination; though as a Friend I could not indulge in its possession. I recall, as a sort of fairy land, the Old Hall where Mrs. Copesteak lived and where she carried on her benevolent enterprise. The great fireplace was ornamented with bright brass knobs; at the back, all round the open chimney, were Dutch tiles depicting the history of Joseph and his Brethren. Then, too, as I was carried through the large garden with its mossy walks and yew hedges, some one stooped and gathered for me fair Roman hyacinths, which I eagerly accepted, and held fast in my small hands as precious treasures.
We lived constantly with our parents, and always took our meals with them when they were alone. Our ever-active mother did not relax other duties to devote exclusive attention to us. We were simply allowed to be with her, and she never was worried by our following her up and down the house and garden, while she talked with the maids or planned the flower beds with good old William Troughton, or ordered in the vegetables for the day's use.
Our mother was indefatigably industrious, frequently reading aloud and knitting at the same time. Her work-table stood in a broad bay window. While she sewed she would repeat verses or tell us stories, which she did to admiration; and she employed us to thread her needles, and stick them in readiness in a heavy pincushion. We sate at her feet, each on her own footstool--Mary's was brown, and was called "Terry"; with the smooth skins of two favourite terriers, whose hides mother had had tanned for this purpose. Those were happy times! Now and then our mother would interrupt the flow of her story to say, with a smile, "Now, my dear, don't nurse thy sewing; learn to talk and work. Do not be like Betsy Jennings, who sate idle all day, and could do nothing but chatter and play."
I was scarcely five years old when the following incident happened. At dusk one winter's evening we were with my mother in the parlour. Needing something from the kitchen, and knowing the servants were out, she rose and went for it herself, we following her. We had hardly got there when a sharp rap was heard at the courtyard door. The latch was lifted by a tall figure dressed in a hooded cloak and bonnet, the bonnet tied down by a woollen shawl. Our mother hastily pushed Mary and me within the folds of a clothes-horse, covered with a clean wash airing before the fire. A gust of wind blew aside the cloak and she perceived beneath its folds the thick boot and leg of a man. "Oh, missis," said this figure, in a hurried tone, "I've been ill; for mercy's sake give me some clothes; I'm nearly killed with cold." Our mother gave a doubtful glance at the strange beggar, but without a moment's hesitation she seized from the rails some under-garments of her own, and, rolling them into a bundle, she pressed them into the man's outstretched hands. He then hastily strode off, and was lost in the darkness. Then, closing and barring the door, she sank into the nearest chair to recover her composure. That evening, at the tea-table, our mother related the circumstance, saying how she had discovered the beggar to be a man in disguise; and, fearing he might lay hands on one of us; she was impelled to thrust us beyond his reach behind the clothes-horse. Our father suggested that the man was a deserter, or that he was flying from the press-gang, and seeing the clothes through the kitchen window, he had hoped to help out his scanty disguise from the store either by begging or stealing. "Yes," said mother, "the poor fellow looked desperate; and there was that in his face which convinced me that, had I refused him, he would have rushed past to snatch the things himself."
About this time I had scarlet fever, and my little sister was sent away for fear of infection. My illness was a sad one, for according to the treatment of those days, I was bled and blistered and after the weakness was very protracted. Of the illness itself I have but a slight remembrance, but of my mother's unwearied care a lasting one. The small Indian China teapot with its dragon running round it, that held my red currant wine; the tiny basin, with a lid, of the same precious ware, out of which I had my gruel; the pet apostle spoon, only used on rare occasions, can never be forgotten, or the thrill of thankful joy for my mother's unwearied tenderness.
One day, when I was recovering and had been set in my little chair by the bed-room fire with a low stand beside me, my mother went for a few minutes downstairs. Feeling lonely, I tried to follow her, and walked to the top of the stairs. I was very weak, the exertion was too great, and I fainted and fell to the bottom. I have no recollection of any pain or sad consequences except my mother's tears, as she laid me on my bed, where I believe I had to remain for many days.
The next house to ours--which belonged to my father--was lived in by a widow lady and her son of the name of Weldon. Our gardens were only separated by a hawthorn hedge. Soon after they came, the son died of decline. His funeral and its details made a deep impression on me. The narrow, winding staircase of the old-fashioned house would not admit the coffin, so it was lowered by ropes from the chamber window and then gently swung into the hearse. All this I saw from the nursery window as I was held in my nurse's arms. It filled me with extreme sorrow and an undefined terror. No one spoke above a whisper; a sense of silent sadness fell upon my spirit. It was the foreshadowing of life's mystery.
Shortly before this happened my mother had been to the Potteries, and had brought back for me a dainty little China tea service. A day or two after young Weldon's funeral, Mary and I were entertaining imaginary company, with the little tea service spread under the Arbor Vitae, when Mrs. Weldon came down her garden by the hawthorn hedge. I saw she was weeping. This and the remembrance of her son's funeral filled my heart with the distress that most children feel at sight of grown-up people's tears, and running to the hedge I said, "Oh Mary Weldon, please do not cry so, and I will give thee my new tea things." She must have felt my childish impulse of sympathy, for with a sad smile she stooped and gathered me a handful of flowers and gave me them over the hedge. It must have been spring time, for they were daffodils and southern-wood that she gave me; and all through the summer, whenever she saw me, she never failed to renew her gifts to me of a nosegay from her borders.
At Midsummer she left and the house was let to the Independent minister, Stephen Chesters, as we, being Friends, were taught to call him. He and his wife had no children of their own, but they had adopted his two nieces, Peggy and Bessy Chesters. He was a tall, grave-looking man. His small and poor congregation could not offer their minister more than the poorest income, and I suppose his straitened circumstances made his life very sombre,--but whatever the cause might be, he and his wife and nieces always had a pinched look of poverty about them. Bessy was taught dress-making, and Peggy was the drudge of the family--for servant they kept none. From the window of our bedroom we could overlook the Chesters' court yard, and well do I remember seeing poor Peggy at the pump in all weathers filling the kettle for breakfast or the pail for the day's consumption. When we lay snug in our beds on dark winter mornings, we heard the working of the rusty pump handle, and with pity in our hearts we said to each other, "There's poor Bessy pumping." Connected with Stephen Chesters, I must relate a trifling incident anything but creditable to myself. With the obliquity of childhood I had, ever since good Mrs. Weldon's days, begun to think of the flowers on the other side the hedge as in a way my own. I had had so many of them given to me. On a sunny spring morning, soon after the Chesters arrived, my eye caught sight of a tall red and yellow tulip, pushing its open globe temptingly through a break in the hedge. How splendid it looked! We had, as it happened, no tulips in our garden. It was not to be resisted, and I plucked it! The very next moment I beheld the grave countenance--very stern, as I fancied it--of Stephen Chesters looking at me over the hedge. Like a flash of lightning the truth darted through me, that I had taken what was not mine. He looked down at me, but said never a word of reproach, but passed on. I stood and gazed on my flower. What had happened to it? It looked no longer beautiful or tempting. I hated it. I was in despair with misery, and flinging myself on the grass I crushed the flower with my weight. "Oh," I thought, "if I could only give it back to that good old man who neither scolded nor reproached me. If I could only say how sorry I am for gathering his flower." But I could not do it. I could only think this, and I bore a sense of crushing remorse in consequence. I am now upwards of seventy, and with all my life-long love of flowers these red and yellow tulips, since that day, have no charm for me.
Anna Mary Harrison.
Typed by Roxanne, August 2015
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