Mary Elizabeth Darling - part three



(part three of four)

My Early Girlhood Days In Berwick

(By Mary Elizabeth Darling)

(Continued from last week)

The new house was a well-built, two story and a half structure, with well finished attic rooms. All the windows had large panes. There was but one front entrance; it had double doors and the upper panels were figured, ground glass. Instead of the old-fashioned, dignified knocker there was a bell. The broad hall inside had doors opening into the rooms of both families. I was delighted with this, in storm or sunshine I could visit back and forth at will. At the lower end of the hall, back of the broad stairway, was a barrel-shaped stove for winter use. My father had made every provision to keep us warm. Across the front of the house was a veranda that he thought would be a pleasant place for my grandmother to sometimes sit out in the open, as of late she had little disposition to leave her cozy corner.

A picket fence with gate enclosed the property from the street. Our possessions were divided the pasture and woodland and orchard on the south, while across the street we had a driveway leading north to the meadow. The front yard looked rather barren the first year. How I missed the dear old garden we had left behind. The kitchen garden was all we could wish for. There were plenty of good vegetables from the planting that my grandfather had made in the spring, and the fruit trees of pear, plum, cherry and crabapple were bearing well. There were also black and red currant and gooseberry bushes.

In a short time the newness wore off and we settled down quite contentedly. Visitors as ever continued to seek our hospitality. One day after school hours my younger brother and I was planning a race on stilts when we were interrupted by the approach of a carriage. A man seated in it called out to us, asking for my father. We went forward and informed him that my father was not at home, my mother and brother were with him, and we did not expect them until evening. He took from his pocket what I suppose was a letter of introduction. We had seen this performance so often we did not bother to read it; father had never turned anyone away. My brother got into the carriage and they rode together to the stable where he found an empty stall and plenty of feed. When they came back to the house I pulled out an easy chair and opened a package of books I found on the table and offered him one. After these courtesies we excused ourselves and ran off to our own pleasure. Between races I tripped in to find him asleep on the large horsehair-covered sofa, and the book placed back with the others. My father was greatly amused at our proffering the stranger a family genealogy. While we were at school one of our "degree" cousins had left these books with the idea that relations journeying through the Valley, stopping with us, would purchase these books and thus pay their share of publication expense.

Genealogy was a new word and the picture the front leaf, the coat of arms, interested us. It was the custom of my father to gather us children about him after the evening meal, and this particular evening all were eager listeners. It would be impossible for me to repeat what he told us. I gathered only a brief lesson that it is indeed a dull person who does not appreciate worthy ancestry and good lineage. He took us back to the very early times in English history when the upper class, whether titled or untitled gentlemen, bore arms, in the era of heroism and chivalry. The war outfit was a helmet, a coat of mail, a banner and a shield. The shield was the important part; on it were the colors and charges, and the seal of identification. He told me that many years ago the young gentlewoman of England made armorial bearings the models of their decorative art and fancy work; painting on glass and in needlepoint. The parallel, perpendicular and diagonal direction of the stitches represented a color, and that I should be clever enough to do both. What he most wished to impress upon us was that the pride of descendants holding such possessions, should each in their day and generation, contribute some honor to the name and escutcheon.

You can imagine my surprise before the year was out in the new home, a dear baby brother came to us. I never shall forget the thrill when the nurse rolled back the coverings from his little head and let me see his face. Henceforth I had a new interest in life. Two years later another baby boy was born, and this completed the family circle. After the first one came I packed my dolls very carefully away, taking them out on rare occasions. My best beloved had blond curls and a lovely pink satin dress. It was a sorrowful time for me when the first little brother selected this one as a toy, and smashed her beautiful wax face. The shock of seeing the irreparable damage to my idol was almost as hard to bear as being lost in the woods, or falling into the river. That night at evening prayer I had to humble myself considerably to ask God to forgive my resentment against a little baby who did not realize the grief he had caused me.

It was fortunate that in the sixties many of the earlier and more diversified household duties for women had gone out of date; as it was, with the two additional children my mother’s time was fully occupied. My grandmother was born and brought up by candle light and still preferred that way of lighting. In winter, in the early part of the evenings, she and grandfather sat in the firelight, the unlighted candle, tray and snuffer near at hand. They retired very early. In our side of the house lamps were in vogue; small glass ones with handles for bedroom purposes, and larger standing ones with porcelain shades for the living rooms. The spinning wheel and the loom, objects of industry in the old home, had no such standing in the new; they were relegated to a spare room in the attic. My grandmother was too feeble to use them, my mother was too busy, and the maid, competent in both, had all she could do in cooking the meals and keeping the house in order. The English mills had supplanted the home-made woolens and linen.

There is something very charming about the practical arts and handcraft of women of earlier times, their capable genius and their proficient industry. What can be a more prized heirloom, than the quaint, artistic, woven coverlet, and the needlepoint worsteds and fine embroideries of our grandmothers?

One of the greatest helps in my mother’s time was the introduction of the sewing machine. "Ready to wear" had not been introduced; a tailor and dressmaker made semi-annual visits at our house, making clothes for the women folk and children.

My father was the skillful shopper; when he went to the Capital City, Halifax, he was commissioned to fill the long list of needs. I distinctly remember my mother’s bonnets and my hats were a little different from those of our neighbors.

At this time public interest was centered on the United States’ Civil War. The weekly newspapers were eagerly awaited. President Lincoln, General Grant and General Lee became familiar names to us children. Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" had its influence among the Provincial people and won many sympathizers for the abolitionists.

In these years books were scarce and highly prized. Our collection included the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress, Shakespeare, Scott, some histories, Arabian Knights, Robinson Crusoe, Macaulay’s Essays, Wordsworth, Jayne Eyre, Thackery’s Vanity Fair, some fairy tales, and some English educational books. On my grandfather’s shelf I remember two, Pintarch’s Lives and Saint’s Rest; of this latter I sometimes looked over this shoulder and read a line or two; but in my young mind I was more interested in knowing about the things of this life.

The two little brothers added a new zest to our Christmas festivities. There were two more stockings to be filled and more gifts required for the tree that, year by year, grandfather took such pleasure in selecting for us. We did not have the modern toy shop to choose from; we had to depend upon individual ingenuity and manufacture our gifts. My older brothers made tops and whistles, and I fashioned animals out of cloth. My parents had replaced my injured doll with another, larger and more richly dressed. Grandfather had whittled out a wonderful chair for her queenship to sit in, but the most prized gift of all was a book, "The Christmas Carol," telling about "Tiny Tim, the crippled boy."

On my eleventh birthday my father gave me a fine new piano; this put new joy in my heart. Several girls in the village had the same. Piano playing was a common accomplishment of young women among the well-to-do families. My first teacher was Miss Davies, one of the daughters of the Methodist clergyman who lived diagonally across the street from us. Miss Charlotte, her sister, taught me something of botany and drawing. We gathered field flowers, daisies, red clover, buttercups and wild violets, and used them s models. I adored these two refined maiden women and took great pleasure in my music and art lessons with them.

(Continued next week)