FADING FOOTPRINTS. OR THE LOWLY LIVES

OF LONG AGO

 

A  series of articles that appeared

in the 1879 Arthur’s Home Magazine

She put up her lip, baby-wise, to cry, Aunt Lydia did. They all pitied her. She was alone in this world, only for cousins, and nieces, and nephews, and such kindred — none that came very near to her.

 

And would you believe it? Every time that Lydia Cummings had one of her "poorly spells," her mind went right back to the twilight-time, in which she stood in her blooming twenties at the meadow gate with her lover, John Long — a great while ago, that was. When she had said for no man's love could she leave her lonely old mother, John had impetuously and indignantly sketched Lydia Cummings an ugly old maid, friendless, poor, not overly loved, and sheltered by the strong and true affection of no husband's watchful care. Then, with life all before her, strong, and vigorous, and hopeful, the man's words seemed selfish and cruel, and she turned her head away and smiled, and looked up into the tops of the hawthorns, and heeded them no more than she did the sleepy twitter of the young birds nested among the tangled boughs so securely.

 

But the picture John Long drew was now almost a truth. She was often sick; she had no real home of her own; she felt that no one loved her; that frequently she was a burden; and many a time she pressed her poor old hands tightly against her face as if to shut out the reality.

 

But this day, Aunt Lydia, as we called the dear soul, was covered up on the lounge, in a warm corner, suffering from rheumatism, in second-cousin Sally's house. Now second-cousin Sally did not feel that second-cousin Lydia was any trouble at all; she liked to have her about; her ways of managing the turbulent little folks was wonderful — she had the very knack of knowing what to say and do, and she could assuage a storm the easiest of any woman Sally had ever seen. If Tom made a fist, and let Jerry get the benefit of it, and Jerry bristled up, and vowed he'd stand up for his rights, after the manner of children of larger growth, then came Lydia, with a smiling face, and never a sign of a wrinkle between her eyes, or at the corners of her mouth, and she said something cheery and pretty, and in less than a minute, Tom would be trying to trade his string for Jerry's arrow, and likely calling him Jeremiar, in full, the same as the preacher did the day he baptized them both, down at the school-house by the cross roads. And Jerry would invite Tommy to warm his hands in his breeches-pockets, 'cause they were the "nestiest."

 

Sally could appreciate the ministrations of a woman like second-cousin Lydia, so Lydia did really not have cause and reason to put up her lip baby-wise, at any time, at all, at all. But you all know that we women do cry sometimes — we feel so badly, that it cries itself; we imagine that we are lonely, that we have trouble, that such trials no other woman ever did hare, and then same one, mother, or husband, or husband's mother, or one of the grown boys or petulant daughters, is sure to say something that cuts to the very heart, and while it bleeds, we cry out in a very tolerable degree of anguish. Perhaps at any other time we might have made more allowance — the words would have had no sting at all — we wouldn't have cared what he or she said, we knew they were hasty and "flashed like powder," and we knew, and had said so thousands of times, that no kinder heart ever beat, none more loving, none truer.

 

Aunt Lydia lay and looked at the figures on the wall-paper back of the lounge. Taken this way, six of the flowers formed a circle; taken that way, six of them made a half-circle; from that crack to that line, the flowers formed diamonds —taken this way, a rectangle; and so a pentagon; so, a hexagon; and this way, they fell into blocks, like a nine-patch quilt. This reminded her of the first quilt she ever made, and alone with no one to guess what thoughts came to that mussy, little, tucked-up, lounge-pillow, with her tired head perched up on it, she did wish she could look at that wonderful quilt. It had been laid away in the north end of her "cedar chest" for a long time. She had not looked at it since the day second-cousin Sally was at Wilson's, and their baby tumbled over in a spasm of a worm-fit, and she, Sally, plumped it into warm water and then poulticed it with pounded horseradish leave," and it opened its eyes and smiled, and said, "goo-goo!" before she came home.

 

Sally was never at her wits' end, like the fussy sort of the average female. She knew a remedy, or a substitute for one, as quickly as did the next woman. Sally had her own notions, but where was the person who hadn't? She, second-cousin, would rise at the dead-hour of midnight, to relieve any one in pain of body, or distress of mind. Didn't she run over to Miller's that night their east chimney took fire, and the blaze just spouted out like a jet, while the cinders flew far and near; and didn't she run clear there in her stocking feet without her garters even, and buttoning her dress in front as she run, and right afore all them men, with her coal black hair streaming like a mermaid's? And she went on thinking -- Aunt Lydia did — of the time the powerful preaching sent a dagger clear through the stony heart of Anna Maria Myers, and she couldn't sleep for thinking of the danger of her immortal soul, and she got up and walked the floor with her hands clinched, till the nails nearly brought the blood, and her man couldn't pacify her, and he had to come over in the blackness of the stormy, moonless March night, and got second-cousin to go over, and converse and pray with her. And before Sally had come to the most earnest part, Anna Maria cried out that she was redeemed and had found peace. And the very dews of despair had gathered on Anna Maria's forehead, and would have remained there, only for cousin's efforts in her behalf.

 

Yes, cousin was a noble woman. And then when Sally, singing a hymn, as she passed the door with the clothes-basket tilted on her hip, full and heaped, like a milking pail with snowy foam, peeped in, then Lydia, with a half-smile, said: “The first time you go up-stairs, cousin, won't you please look in the north end of my cedar chest, under the snuff-colored merino shawl and the  embroidered pillow biers, and bring down my nicest patchwork quilt? While I can't do anything, I can look at it for company. May be it would be kind o' soothing, and help to pass away the time;" and Lydia pulled her middle fingers in an embarrassed way, until she made the knuckles crack.

 

And second-cousin said she would go right away to fetch it, that her work was none of the hurrin' kind, that she thought while the hops was scaldin' and gettin' ready for to make the Wednesday evenin’ emptyin's, she'd just sprinkle the duds and put 'em down, so as to iron the next day, while she tended to the bakin'; that she might as well make one fire do double service — same as to kill two birds with one stun. That was the way economizing mother allus did, and her grandmother before her. That it was a wife's duty to save all, while her husband earned.

 

She brought the patchwork quilt. It had been pieced, oh, so long but never quilted. It had happened that when Lydia had lining, she had not the wherewith to buy the batting; and when she had the batting, she had not the lining; and somehow, one went before she could get the other. Then even if she'd had both, why there wasn't room in second-cousin's chamber to put up a quilting-frame, and leave it stand, while one quilted feathers, and checks, and stars, and plumes and herring-bone border. Why the little heads would go a-bobbing round, under it, from Monday morning till Saturday night! Their regular line of travel would extend corner-wise, right acrost that chamber continually. That was the way with young ones, generally, when a quilt was in the frames.

 

The first time second-cousin went up into the chamber she brought down the quilt. Lydia took off the towel that wrapped it as carefully as she would have uncovered the face of a dead baby.

 

"Dear, oh, dear," she murmured, "who'd 'a' thought! It 'most puts the spring into my ankles to even look at ye, ye old tell-tale!"

 

There was a block of pink chambrey, a piece of the sunbonnet she wore the summer that she taught district school at the Drift. The Drift was where the logs, and brush, and stuff had lodged in the bend of the creek, and the low little school-house stood under the beeches on the rise above, and the swish and the swash of the curving, whirling waters sounded distinctly, even at the desk in the far corner. Lydia slid her rheumaticky old fingers over and over the pink chambrey, and she smiled so broadly, that one could have seen the tooth away back — the one that ached every time a storm was brewing, either in the summer or the winter. She remembered what a compliment the old pudgy doctor had paid her lace under that same sunbonnet; he had called her a "sweet wild rose, the one that bloomed on the bank above the Drift." All girls like flattery, especially when it is worded in such a poetical manner, and old men, village doctors who are used to seeing new faces every day, know how to say pretty things, if they are good men.

 

This purple was of the dress she had on the day she was examined for the school certificate; and how her heart did beat when she had to step out and read a couple of verses from the old English Reader; she read from the Grotto of Antiparos, and her breath was never so short and so much needed. And this bit of blue, oh, my! How she did hate blue calico! It was not proper, but 'Liza Bennett told Lydia once what Ralph Fielding said the time of Rob Parson's sleighing party — that he'd rather had her, second-cousin Lydia, for his partner than any girl in Bloom, only that her best dress would be home-made plaid flannel or that everlasting blue calico, that the old man bought at the lake by the quantity. And that was the reason Ralph took Hester Burnell to the party. She had good clothes. Her mother was the only daughter of old Sam Bradley, the great stock dealer, and he was proud of her; her cheeks were like ripe peaches, and she could spell every word without missing, from " baker" on through the "chism table," and the hard words clear to the 'breviationa at the back of the spelling book. He dressed Het like a princess born.

 

And Lydia lay there and winked as fast, and meanwhile her thoughts just sailed, and galloped, and flew. They took in the burdens of the years agone, like a river would drink in the wayside brooks that came purling down through field, and wood, and meadow. Anger, and sorrow, and joy, and a sense of bereavement, all crowded together at once. Anger for this memory, and sorrow for that, and joy for the other; like birds alighting on an old branch, chirping an instant and then away on the wing, hither and thither, never to come back any more.

 

This square of black mourning calico was of the dress she wore when Johnny died; that when poor old daddy died in the dead, dead of the cheerless midwinter, when the north wind blew steadily a cutting blast, and the funeral procession just dragged itself like a sluggish snake through the heaps of snow that piled and drifted as high as the stumps in the clearing, and sifted through the air like splintery, particles of tine glass. Oh, that dreadful day! And the mother fainted, and they spread a coverlet in the sled and laid her on it; and there was no house a-near; and the grave-yard was on a lonely hillside among girdled trees, whose snowy branches looked stark as bleaching bones. And the ill-clad little ones huddled round Neighbor Brown's sled, and cried for fear mamma would never come back to life. And the winter months — how they lingered! How the mother spun, and wove, and kept the family together. How Tom, the eldest, was lonely, and went away nights because he didn't like to hear mamma sing hymns, and the buzz of the spinning wheel was so doleful, and daddy's hat on the peg seemed to reproach him, and look at him just as natural as with eyes! And her memory reached out a tendril, and took in the sorriest thing that came to her child-life. When the overseers of the poor — two stern-faced well-to-do farmers — came out in a pung one raw day to see what the circumstances of the widow were. They sat in the two good chairs before the chunk-fire, and they rubbed their hands and shivered, and leered up the stick-chimney, and looked down at the bare, blue legs of the feebleminded little boy on the box in the corner. And then they hinted about binding out the children. And the frantic cry of the mother, who sat listening with her hand on the rim of the little wheel; and the hard, cold, calculating faces of the town officers; and the scared faces of the little ones huddling in a heap, and feeling of one another; all this came up to her as she lay on the lounge — came like the shifting scenes of a picture, like the views in a panorama.

 

What sad pictures some of us have stored away in our memories! How kind to our poor selves if we could only forget or efface them!

 

And this little corner patch of dainty gingham was of the dress her mother wore when she married old Silas Ketchum, and the grown children were ugly and abusive, and imposed upon the new mother, and old Silas took sides with them, and after a stormy year or two they separated. And the other days could not come again, the wounds would not heal, and time could not obliterate; and the widow and her own family took up the broken threads and managed somehow — made the best of untoward circumstances. And this was of the dress she had on when she and John Long stood at the gate that memorable time. Ah, well, well! This check was of the gown her grandmother spun, and dyed, and wove, all with her own hands. She touched the satiny linen — copperas and white — to her lips, it was so soft to the touch — so old, and though there was not an atom of sentiment, none of the novel reader's notions about Aunt Lydia, she almost kissed the telltale patch in that old quilt. Grandmother was so truly a grandmother, so sweet and tender, and her touch was healing, and her words were balm, and so her memory was sacred.

 

That bit of pale blue was of her hood, made long ago, when hoods meant comfort, and warmth, and good sense. They bundled the ears away in the soft folds, till they were like ducks in their nest; only the pinky tip of the nose, and the round, hard, red cheeks of the wearer were visible. And she said, dreamily, as she caressed the pretty blue atom, "How sensible they did dress then, and how the plump ankles used to show below the petticoats, clad in yarn stockings, whose gray or blue tint was the pride of the woman of one or two accomplishments, dyeing reckoned as the noblest and the best."

 

And then second-cousin Sally came in to sit a little while, knitting her man's double mitten as she walked, three threads — blue, and red, and white — caught round her fingers, after the fashion familiar to speedy knitters. And while she counted off the thumb stitches, second-cousin Lydia happened to catch sight of a striped, brown and buff patch in one corner, and that instant her tongue was loosed cheerily, and she reeled off a story about it as swiftly as she reeled the brown thread off the spool long, long ago. And Sally listened and nodded, "Eh heh, eh heh," and said, "Law me!" and "Well now!" and "Did I ever!" A story something about it being a piece of her apron; and while the apron was yet new, and smelling of the store, she cut it up to make a slip for somebody's baby — a tiny mite for which the mother had made no preparation. The tale didn't seem to have much point to it, so Sally thought; but before it ended it was like the stories in books. The little creature died, and the mother died, and her body was stolen by grave-robbers, and while they were bearing it away it seemed to speak in a sepulchral tone, and the robbers were frightened and ran, and left it lying beside a stump, and early the next morning the neighbors buried it over again. And he, the husband of the ill-starred wife and mother, took up with a woman not divorced, and they lived miserably and in fear, and finally his life ended in suicide.

 

All this did the little quilt patch tell, and the narration ended with, "Poor Jasper Nicholls! Folks said he would come to some bad end. He insulted a Catholic priest one time, and the priest laid a ban for evil upon him, and lie could not escape from it."

 

This fine check was of Lottie Edwards'  infant gown; "he" got it for her; and this, with a gay, rosy heap of swamp flowers in clusters like handfuls, was a dress grandmother had sent her from over the mountains; this came from old Philadelphia, when Cousin Lewis used to team it with four awful nice creatures; he hauled dry goods and groceries for the storekeepers before canals and railroads were known. This green stripe was a present on her birthday; she had it made up with bows on the sleeves, low in the neck, and gathered full on to a wide belt; was so plump that it filled up smoothly as a pillow.

 

And so the second-cousins looked at the old-time patchwork, and sometimes they laughed and sometimes they were sad; and again the tide would run on into a story that was really quite like reading from a woman's magazine.

 

But this was long years ago; and, after all, that quilt had a tale, for second-cousin Sally coaxed second-cousin Lydia to make a quilting in her new house in the upper chamber, and invite everybody to it. And she did; and then what? Well, they set long tables, and the women ate first, and then the men and boys came in from the corn-husking and ate at the second table. They had a sight of merriment, too. And after the supper they flirted the new quilt, and waved it, after an old-time custom, and gave it an upward toss, and away it flew like a winged bird, and spread itself all over the bald, shiny pate of Deacon Merrill, a widower, with two boys just entering their teens. How the youngsters did roar out their laughter! Then, according to custom, the men tossed the quilt over to the side of the room where the women were huddled, and that perverse and shameless quilt just flew as direct as a bird of prey, and folded itself in a soft, puffy, smothering way all over the sleek head of second-cousin Lydia Cummings! She flirted it off quicke'n one could say "Jack Robinson," and looking over at Andrew Hunt she said: "Did I ever! Now, Andy, for shame on ye!"

 

Her blushes made her downright handsome; and I suppose the deacon thought so, too, for he stroked his twig of gray hair forward over the broad, bald space, and looked first this way and then that way, as though he didn't feel disposed to quarrel with the dispensations of a wise providence.

 

Andy said, an hour afterward, when he went to hand the deacon a cup of nog, he grabbed away off to one side for the handle of the tin cup, and it was because his head was turned awry looking into the shadowy chimney-corner where Lydia was engaged untying a linen bag to get out some hops to send Lucy Ellen Kimball for her earache.

 

Margaret Monahan said she'd bet a curl that Deacon Merrill was "teched with a warmin' about his old dried-up heart like he'd not felt since Sarah Ann's death."

 

We don't know what the gossips said about the affair of the quilt, but we do know that there was a sign in it, and that the sign came to pass; it was a true sign, for one evening in the May, second-cousin Sally had fixed up real smart both herself and her square room. And in the loft, looking out of the window for a deacon astride a sorrel horse, sat second-cousin Aunt Lydia; and she did not look long, for sure enough here came the deacon and the circuit preacher. Both wore stiff cravats, and rode as if they were starched from crown to sole. They never smiled at all. Why should they? Marriage is no child's play.

 

Second-cousin Sally told us that the last time she saw Lydia's quilt it was somewhat faded, but still in a good state of preservation, and covered two little brownies of grandsons, the children of one of the boys who was in his teens when Lydia rose like a full moon in her majesty to shine, a new mother, in that lonely household. The quilt for years was on the big trundle-bed of the rollicking, growing lads of the deacon's. They made tents out of it on their uplifted feet many a time, and jerked it about until the stitches cracked; but Lydia didn't care, so long as they were happy, and had a sunny childhood filling up with memories so much pleasanter than her own. She rather enjoyed having the lads “take the tailor'' out of the venerable quilt, for both she and the superstitious deacon often averred that, if it had not been for that very same article of bed-gear, their lives had flowed on apart, both lonely, each needing the other, and not knowing it at all. That patchwork was the link that welded together two separate lives; it was the omen if good, the best, and prettiest, and most useful quilt that any girl ever made. It was a blessed quilt, and they both said thousands of times that it was

No. 1 … Second-Cousin Lydia and the Patchwork Quilt

© 2011 Peggy Mershon                                                                                     Contact at marwelmer@aol.com