LET’S GO VISITING
“Let’s go visiting–it’s such a fine day. Let’s go out to Sam’s and Abner’s, or mebbe we’d better go dovn to Bill Tossy’s, or had ye rather go up to Mose Plummer’s?”
Grandfather had just come into the kitchen from driving the cows to the upper pasture in the dewy morning, goadstick in hand, and thus addressed Grandmother in a most coaxing tone of voice, as she stood before the kitchen sink, washing the breakfast dishes.
But Grandmother, flustered by such an array of suitable places to visit, feigned lack of interest, and pled as an excuse for staying at home the desirability of putting the shed chamber in order. “There’s lots of rubbish up there to be rid of,” she said, ”and what’ s to be saved should be put to rights, and the whole place needs a good sweeping.”
“Well, jest as you’ve a mind to,” replied Grandfather in dubious resignation. Which is to say that he was more resigned to Grandmother’ s refusal to go visiting than to her suggestion that he sweep the shed chamber. Candidly, he had no bent in that direction.
“But, as I said before,” continued Grandfather, in a final attempt at persuasive eloquence, “it’s such a fine day, and seeing it’s sort of betwixt seasons–hoeing and weeding all done, and haying coming on ’bout next week, and we can’t go then.
” M-m-m-m,” interposed Grandmother.
Grandfather’s voice suddenly lost its coaxing tone and became matter-of-fact.
“Well, I’m going out to clean the pasture spring.” (By the way, Grandfather made this statement twenty-five years before Robert Frost embodied it in a famous poem.)
Then, waxing still more emphatic, he continued, “I’m going to take along the fish pole and drop a hook into a deep pool I know of. There’s an overgrown trout been hanging ’round that spot fer a year or two.” And louder, still, “it’s time he had his jacket warmed in the frying pan!”
Judging from Grandfather’s tone of voice at this last remark, one might well have believed that he was harboring a grudge against that overgrown trout. In reality the poor fish was getting the tongue-lashing he’d liked to have inflicted on Grandmother for her unwillingness to cooperate; and when he walked out of the room in quest of the angle-worm box, he didn’t merely close the door; he slammed it, that is, mildly. In half a minute he was back again, meek as Moses. Opening the door a mere crack, be thrust in his nose, and said very sweetly: “I’ll be back long before dinner time. D’ye want me to get you anything before I go?”
“Wait a minute, Pa,” Called out Grandmother to the nose sticking through the narrow slit. “Mebbe I’ll go visiting with you. Yes, I think we’d better. But we’ve been down to Bill Tassy’s since they were here. Let’s go out to Sam’s and Abner’ s.”
The door opened wider and a head came through. “Ye don’t mean it, do ye–really? Oh Ma!”
I wonder if your grandfather and grandmother used to “go visiting.” They did if you were a New England back-country lad or lass in the eighties and nineties.
There were no automobiles in those days, or radios, or movies, or but few telephones.
So, if your grandparents wanted entertainment to soothe a body weary with the round of farm labor, or a mind vexed with the problem of making ends meet–balancing the budget, they used to say in Washington–they had recourse to whatever diversions the age afforded them, not the least considerable of which was to go visiting, plain, unvarnished visiting.
Of course they couldn’t go visiting whenever the urge overtook them. To have done so in a community of thrifty Yankees would have brought opprobrium on their heads, and made them social outcasts. No, there was a “time for everything under the sun.” Planting, cultivating, haying, harvesting, maple sugar making, and all the rest had to be attended to in season. Moreover, when the season was “on,” they were supposed to take no vacation, and listen to no Siren song until the task at hand was completed.
But there were times “betwixt seasons,” to use Grandfather’s apt expression, when the “stern daughter of the voice of God” didn’t pound too loudly or too incessantly on the New England Conscience–breathing spells, so to speak, when one could slow up a bit, and view with satisfaction, or otherwise, the work accomplished, and, plan intelligently for work that was to come. There were times for a little vacation, like a trip to the county fair, or a more expensive “excursion” to Boston, with the inevitable climb up Bunker Hill Monument and a visit to the Navy Yard, to say nothing of a surreptitious evening at the theatre, or, what was much more respectable, a Sunday service at Treemont Temple.
There were times, also, for the less expensive luxury of just being neighborly–of going out to Sam’s and Abner’s and making a day of it among friends.
But in the case of my grandparents, going out to Sam’s and Abner’s could not be accomplished by the formula of the fairy story, “No sooner said than done.”
No, it was a real event–this going to visit–and, as such, required time, both in preparation and execution. Old Flying Tiger had to be polished up with currycomb and brush, and the tangles in his heavy mane and tail straightened out. This process had no exaggerated fascination for the old horse who laid back his ears, tossed his head impatiently, and with snapping teeth made many a pass at the seat of Grandfather’s trousers as the old man stooped to polish the hind fetlocks.
If Flying Tiger had to be groomed, so, also, did Grandfather. He had to be shaven and his side whiskers trimmed just as if he were going to meeting or a wedding or a funeral. There was a difference, however, with his apparel.
“What shall I wear, Ma, my second-best or my third best?” shouted Grandfather from the corner bedroom.
“Oh wear your third-best,” replied Grandmother as she pottered about the kitchen in an attempt to make a spick-and-span place to return to. “You’ll be going all around among the cobwebs in the hen house and cow stable. Then Abner’ll have ye traipsing out to the back pasture to see the sheep and young critters, and you’ll climb no less than forty-eleven splintery rail fences.”
After that oration there was only one thing for Grandfather to do,—-don his third-best. In fact the third-best was a pretty good-looking suit, and very neat in appearance was Grandfather when wearing it, although a critical eye might detect a suggestion of rustiness on the shoulders. At an earlier day, when it was demoted from second-best to third-best, the front edges of the coat had become slightly threadbare; but Grandmother had bound them neatly with black silk braid–an achievement which was conclusive evidence of her skill with the needle, and her spirit of frugality which had played an important part in bringing up a large family and in canceling a fair-sized mortgage. In all other respects, however, Grandfather was in his best style: :b’iled” shirt immaculately white, standing dicky, black silk cravat, fine boots that squeaked politely with their wooden pegs.
And Grandmother? Well, she donned her second-best which buttoned in front with about half as many buttons as a centipede has feet, if his name is a true indication of number. On this particular morning she began at the top button, and made the grievous mistake of thrusting button number one into buttonhole number two–a mistake she didn’t discover until she tried to entice button number fifty into buttonhole number fifty only to find that the latter had accepted a previous engagement. Poor Grandmother! As she straightened up from that back-breaking ordeal, with one side of her dress an inch or two higher than the other, she could not have looked more awry had she presented to view a dislocated jaw or suddenly turned cockeyed. What a boon a zipper would have been to her as she stood there looking so helpless and utterly discouraged! And what a boon it would have been to that member of the family who went to her rescue, unbuttoned her from top to toe, buttoned her up again, placed a lace collar about her neck and fastened it with a fine gold brooch.
Shall I ever forget that June morning in the early nineties when Grandfather and Grandmother started off for their visit to Sam’s and Abner’s? It was indeed a “fine” day, as Grandfather had said–fleecy clouds afloat in a delphinium blue sky, bobolinks singing, dandelions and buttercups blazing on every hillside and meadow, long rows of corn and potatoes scrupulously weeded, clover just coming to bloom.
Viewed from the roadside as they passed by, the old couple presented a striking silhouette. Grandmother, with posy-topped bonnet tied under her chin with black silk ribbons, with a paisley shawl drawn tightly over her shoulders, sat well back in the carriage seat, feet braced against the metal foot-rest, jaw firm set, eyes looking straight ahead. Grandfather, scarcely less relaxed, sat dangerously near the front edge of the seat with his body leaning forward like a jockey’s and with ribbons held tightly in his outstretched hands.
It took an amazing amount of chucking and get-up-ing and yanking and slapping to get Flying Tiger out of a very moderate walk. When being driven away from home only one thing ever gave him more than an infinitesimal spark of motivation, namely, the sight of a wooden bridge at the foot of a hill. This would inject into his system more zest than a spur in his ribs, a whalebone whip applied to his rump or a string of lighted firecrackers tied to his tail. Down the hill and over the bridge he would plunge at a two-thirty clip. The sound of his own hoof-beats and the rattle of the loose planking was music to his ears. This accomplished, he would relapse into his all but stand-still gait.
On this particular June day the old horse, slapped and yanked and shouted at by Grandfather, and stimulated by a generous number of wooden bridges distributed quite evenly along the route, at last came to a dead stop at Abner’s front door, and began to break his fast of an hour on the lush grass of Abner’s front lawn. Then, for a bit of relish, he took, a good bite out of a syringa bush, blossoms and all.
“Now isn’t it just splendid to see you!” said Abner’s wife as she gave the old couple a most sincere and hearty welcome. “We were saying to Sam’s folks only this morning that it was about time for a good visit from Otis and Esther. Come right in and lay off your shawl and things.
“Abner home?” inquired Grandfather.
“Yes, he is, and he’ll be glad to see you. He’s fussing with the bees out in the orchard.
There’s a hive of ’em a-swarming. I’ll call the hired man, and he’ll help unhitch the horse and take him to the stable.
As Grandmother and her hostess went into the house the latter continued, “The early June peas, are ready for picking; we’ll have some of ’em for dinner. Perhaps you’ll help me pick and shell ’em. Abner can’t do it- he’s tied up for a spell with the pesky bees.”
Do you wonder that country people had the audacity to descend upon a family, with no invitation? Well, that’s what made it interesting; its very informality smacked of neighborliness. Of course you were invited to weddings and wedding anniversary gatherings, but for just plain visiting, never. When you wanted to go visiting you’d simply harness up the old horse and go. If the people at your objective were away from home you wouldn’t be riled a bit: you’d pick up the ribbons and drive on to Aaron’s or Jethro’s. And if they, too, were away, you’d drive around to the general store and get your tea and salt codfish, then you’d drive over to the post-office and pick up your mail that had been accumulating for a day or two (there was no rural free delivery in those days); then you’d drive home with the expectation of better luck–perhaps tomorrow, perhaps the day after.
Another interesting characteristic of country visiting in the eighties and nineties was the utter unconcern over the question of food, both on the part of the visitor and the visited. If there was no roast in the oven, the chances were that there was an extra rooster strutting around the barnyard, that would be far more serviceable browning in the oven than crowing from the top of the tall gatepost. Lacking the rooster, there was always the spacious pork barrel which never got quite empty. There was always corn meal for a hastily prepared johnny-cake; and as for sweet things-did you ever know of Yankee pastry totally bereft of pies, cookies, and doughnuts?
Not that the grandfather and grandmother in this particular instance were indifferent to their food. Of course they liked their food, especially Grandfather, abstemious as he was.
And his visit was rendered all the more satisfactory if his palate was tickled by some choice viand the recipe for which could not be found in Grandmother’s voluminous cookbook- her remarkably retentive memory. All the same, Grandfather and Grandmother went visiting to visit.
What did Grandfather and Abner talk about as they sallied forth with full stomachs to inspect the crops, the live stock, and to ramble over the daisied fields to the sheep pasture that climbed in easy, sweeping slopes to the very foot of the great dark mountain?
Well, for one thing, they discussed the qualifications of Seth, Bart, and Frank to represent the town in the next session of the General Assembly. They praised the tariff views of Congressman McKinley and damned those of President Cleveland and his ilk. In this they were in perfect accord, for they were both high-tariff Republicans. Then they dug up the corpse of Free Will versus Foreordination, scrutinized the smelly object from various angles, and buried it again in utter disagreement, for Abner was a Methodist and Grandfather a Baptist of the Calvinist or hard-shell variety. Then they argued over the merits of Bowker’s and of Bradley’s fertilizers, but shortly agreed on a compromise verdict, namely, that good old cow manure, right out o’ the dunghill–and plenty of it –was “wuth more ‘n ary one, and both together” as Grandfather expressed it with the stamp
In the course of the afternoon fully a score of questions pertaining to the social, political and moral welfare of the town, the state, and the nation were at least discussed, if not definitely settled. And all the while the warm June sun smiled down upon them; the buttercups and daisies nodded approval as the gentle breezes swept over the hill mowing; the meadowlarks sang endless benedictions, while from the forest’s edge came the clear, sweet response of the white-throated sparrow.
“Listen, Abner” broke in Grandfather in the midst of a discussion of cottonseed meal as a fattening food for beef cattle, “did you hear that whittling bird?–all-day-whittling-whittling. I’d give a ten-dollar bill if he’d nest and sing on my farm. I never hear ’em there. I used to hear so many when I’s a boy. It brings back my boyhood.”
And Grandmother inspected all the rugs and bed quilts and fancy work that had been turned out in a twelvemonth; she heard new recipes for ginger bread and sweet pickles, and passed on the new twist she had discovered in making dried-apple pies. Oh yes: she must have the recipe for that dish that Grandfather had so relished at dinner, and of which he had had a second helping, much to her consternation. She’d try it out on him some day as a surprise, perhaps on his birthday. Then there was talk on genealogy as the knitting needles darted in and out; for Grandmother was a living encyclopedia of genealogy, and knew the lines away back, and who was third cousin to whom.
Altogether it was a very happy day both for visitors and visited; and as the sun moved nearer to the great dome of Knox Mountain, Grandfather and Grandmother walked over to call on Sam’s folks; for Sam was Abner’s brother and lived just across the road from Abner. Here was more talk, politics, social betterment, genealogy, farming problems, town gossip–accompanied by tea, soda biscuits and luscious strawberries and cream.
And then old Flying Tiger was harnessed and brought around to the front door.
Abner’s folks came over to witness the final departure, and both families showered the old couple with cries of “Good-bye, come again; come again real soon!”
Then Grandmother, as was her wont when parting from intimate friends, gave her benediction: “If we never meet again on earth, I hope we’ll meet in Heaven.”
This last remark was somewhat mutilated and its solemnity utterly nullified by old Flying Tiger’s sudden and noisy bolt for the open road. Grandfather’s timing had short-circuited he had loosed his taut hold on the ribbons a second too soon.
The road home seemed much shorter than the same road in the morning for old Flying Tiger, stimulated by a touch of homesickness and the thought of a measure of oats at journey’s end, struck up a lively pace. It was trot, trot, trot, all the way home except over the bridges there it was a full gallop. Even the long hill near home didn’t faze the old horse a bit, for he cantered fully half way up, dragging the carriage bumpity-bump over a half-score of thank-ye-mams, technically termed “water-bars,” constructed for the double purpose of turning water into the ditch, and of serving as wheel-trigs to enable tired horses more easily to enjoy a “breathing spell. Flying Tiger rendered no thanks to the highway department for wheel-trigs. To him they were vanity and vexation of spirit, and something to be over with, the sooner, the better. With a final spurt of energy-he vanquished the last steep grade, and came to a full stop, puffing and trembling, by the great shed door. And Grandfather and Grandmother were home again.
When chores were done, and evening devotions over, Grandfather hied himself to bed, for his long walk in the early afternoon had wearied him. As he lay there waiting for Grandmother to wind the clock, put out the cat, and do the hundred-and-one things in her evening ritual, he remarked:
“Had a nice day, haven’t we, Ma?”
“M-m-m-m,” said Grandmother.
“Abner is a stubborn cuss, though,” continued Grandfather.
“What make s ye say that, Pa?”
“I told him the very chapter and verse where Saint Paul said
‘Whom ( He did foreknow, them He did predestinate.”
“He predestinated them because He did foreknow, “ explained Grandmother, “and what’s more, you know as well as I that Abner’s folks and Sam’s folks are jest as good Christians as you and I, even though they are Methodists.”
Grandfather, apparently not hearing, continued, “Next time we go out there a-visiting, I’ll take along Jonathan Edwards’s History of Redemption; that’ll give Abner some nuts to crack – if I could be sure he’d read it.”
In a moment Grandfather was breathing heavily, and when Grandmother at last was ready to retire, Grandfather merely stirred and faintly mumbled,
“stubborn cuss, that Abner!”