A Family Sage in Poetry

A Family Sage in Poetry

By Barbara Shenstone

Gazette Editor

Mrs. Annie Paterson came into the office of the Gazette last week, bringing with her a copy of a poem written by one of her ancestors, Andrew Gemmill. The poem and the story of how it came to be written provides an interesting commentary on the life and times of the settlers who came here 150 years ago.

Mrs. Paterson is a great great grand daughter of Mr. John Gemmill and Ann Weir, who with their family emigrated to Canada from Scotland in May 1821.

With eight children, John Gemmill settled on a homestead in a lot 12 and 13, 8th concession of Lanark Township. The difficulties the early settlers faced when they came to Canada are of ten mentioned in early accounts of the period: all the hardships of clearing the land, building a homestead in our isolated climate.

John Gemmill must have faced all these, but he had another more personal burden, told about in the poem, which brings alive the history of this family.

Anticipating the hardships he would be facing in the new land, John Gemmill left behind in Scotland one son, Andrew Gemmill, who was lame and therefore not fit for physical hardships of homesteading.

Andrew was eighteen years old at the time, and it must have being a sad parting, for in those days, the family must have realized they were saying goodbye forever.

"When a Boy ye left me weeping.

To the kind Creator's keeping,

Lonely, week and almost friendless,

Seemed my sorrow almost endless

As I lingered on the shore."

Wrote Andrew many years later. What a blessing from heaven it must have felt when, 20 years later the family was reunited.

In August 1842, Andrew Gemmill, by then established in Glasgow, Scotland and calling himself a "writer" by profession, visited America, and joined his family after a separation of 21 years. They were reunited at the family's stone house on lot 12, concession 8, Lanark.

"Twenty changeful years had pass'd me.

On the Atlantic broad I cast me,

All my youthful thoughts to returning.

Set my yielding breast aburning.

As I near'd my Father's door;

Those I knew, no longer knew me.

So they spoke as Strangers to me."

The occasion was one of the great excitement for the family and it was to commemorate the event that Andrew wrote the poem which is printed in its entire form below.

Andrew also made for his father a family tree showing all those members who were present at the reunion "Assembled around the Parent Stock, on the Green Lawn in front of the Residence, New Lanark, Canada, on the 23rd of August 1842."

The poem called "What is Life" was printed below the family tree. Andrew later returned to his own family in Scotland.

Mrs. Paterson does not know what happened to his descendants, but she has the family tree and the poem as a reminder of the family chronicle. Her Canadian family grew and prospered in the new land.

Mrs. Paterson took me out to Lanark at last week to see the stone house where the family gathered on the lawn 140 years ago.

A house is no longer in the possession of the family but Mrs. Paterson checked first with a neighbor to see if it would be alright.

We drove past Rosetta and stopped to look at the graveyard there where John Gemmill, Ann Weir and several of their children and grandchildren are buried.

We continued past the house where Mrs. Paterson's own mother, Martha Campbell Bolger, was born and grew up.

Then we'll end up the 12th concession and finally stopped by a gate and pasture where a track along one side and a low stone wall where the only indications that this had been the driveway to a house.

We could not see the house from the road but Mrs. Paterson was familiar with the land and we enjoyed our walk up the hill through the Brown-eyed Susans and the wild Asters.

At the top of the hill, in grass up to the window sills, stands the fine old house. "It gives one quite a feeling, thinking about the family coming here and clearing these fields," said Mrs. Paterson.

We pushed their way to the long grass and weeds to the still pretty wooden porch, with its carved decoration.

We could see what a fine house it had once been, although now it is falling sadly in disrepair.

Built entirely of field stone, with high ceilings and gabled roofs, the house must have easily accommodated John Gemmill's large family.

We peered in the windows and were delighted to see remains of fine wood paneling, and midst the wreckage of empty beer bottles and trash left by some later occupant.

Mrs. Paterson was also delighted by the remains of a flower garden by the house.

"Why it's a flox," she said pulling the pretty flower out from under the skunk cabbage. We also found peonies and roses.

To one side of the house, a tangled wood fenced off amidst the pasture fields, contains strange trees like black ash and oak as well as apple and plum. Underneath enormous puff balls (the size of pumpkins) reminds us of the season.

Mrs. Paterson also found hops growing, recognizing it she thought, from seeing her mother using it, like yeast, to make bread.

This today is what remains John Gemmill's house, built just before Andrew came to visit in 1842.

Mrs. Paterson and I walked down the hill again to the car, thinking about the poem and a family. Mrs. Paterson carried a flox and a sprig of hops.

Andrew Gemmill's Poem. What is life?

What is life? Behold this page?

There is Youth and There is Age.

Thus in mingled calmness lying.

Births, and Marriages and Dying,

Fill the little scroll of Being.

Thoughts of unnumber'd and unspoken,

Vows that we're not all unbroken,

What do not, such things betoken.

As the table thou art seeing.

But when they a Brother found me,

All their arms were circled round me.

Tears of Joy and Tears of Sorrow,

Tears no Hypocrite can borrow.

Flow'd to ease the heart of feeling.

Age awhile forgot its sadness.

Infancy its sportive madness.

All was love and all was gladness.

In a thousand charms revealing.

Breathes it not retrospection?

Speaks it not of sweet affection.

Shows it not how time is stealing,

Oe'r each soul of kindred feeling:

Thus to friends far far away,

Often when alone I'm sitting,

Fancy is her forms transmitting,

As they seem'd in life's young day.

Many children young and pretty,

Many children young and pretty,

Welcom'd me from Glasgow City,

Running round and round delighted,

With their little hands united,

Laughing loud in sportive glee.

Little bribes inspired their pleasure.

Little things to them seem'd treasure.

Thus the hours I had of leisure.

Were in rapture spent by me.

When a Boy ye left me weeping,

To the kind Creator's keeping,

Lonely; Weak, and almost friendless,

Seem'd my sorrow almost endless.

As I linger'd on the shore;

Though o'ercome with soft emotion,

Still I fear'd no angry Ocean.

But a wayward deep devotion,

Made me love old Scotia more.

All too soon the hour of parting,

Saw the tears of sorrow starting,

All too soon love's link's were broken.

Sighs were heard, and words were spoken,

Which my soul can ne'er forget.

Now one more at Home reclining,

Still these well spent hours are shining,

Like a halo past devining,

While with love me eyes are wet.

Twenty changeful years had pass'd me.

On the Atlantic broad I cast me,

All my youthful thoughts returning.

Set my yielding breast aburning.

As I near'd my Fathers door:

Those I knew, no longer knew me.

So they spoke as Strangers to me.

Yet they keenly did review me,

As they'd seen my face before.

Taken then, this dear pledge I send you,

May kind Heaven still defend you,

May the bliss that knows no sorrow,

Fall like dew on you each morrow.

And may ne'er a friend disem'le,

But be all sincere and loving.

Faults correcting, and good approving,

From the right path never roving.

Is the prayer of Andrew Gemmill.