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My Father’s Memoir
by [?]

Every one whose thoughts are not seldom with the dead, must have felt both these conditions; how, in certain passive, tranquil states, there comes up into the darkened chamber of the mind, its “chamber of imagery”–uncalled, as if it blossomed out of space, exact, absolute, consummate, vivid, speaking, not darkly as in a glass, but face to face, and “moving delicate”–this “idea of his life;” and then how an effort to prolong and perpetuate and record all this, troubles the vision and kills it! It is as if one should try to paint in a mirror the reflection of a dear and unseen face; the coarse, uncertain passionate handling and color, ineffectual and hopeless, shut out the very thing itself.

I will therefore give this up as in vain, and try by some fragmentary sketches, scenes, and anecdotes, to let you know in some measure what manner of man my father was. Anecdotes, if true and alive, are always valuable; the man in the concrete, the totus quis comes out in them; and I know you too well to think that you will consider as trivial or out of place anything in which his real nature displayed itself, and your own sense of humor as a master and central power of the human soul, playing about the very essence of the man, will do more than forgive anything of this kind which may crop out here and there, like the smile of wild-flowers in grass, or by the wayside.

My first recollection of my father, my first impression, not only of his character, but of his eyes and face and presence, strange as it may seem, dates from my fifth year. Doubtless I had looked at him often enough before that, and had my own childish thoughts about him; but this was the time when I got my fixed, compact idea of him, and the first look of him which I felt could never be forgotten. I saw him, as it were, by a flash of lightning, sudden and complete. A child begins by seeing bits of everything; it knows in part–here a little, there a little; it makes up its wholes out of its own littles, and is long of reaching the fulness of a whole; and in this we are children all our lives in much. Children are long of seeing, or at least of looking at what is above them; they like the ground, and its flowers and stones, its “red sodgers” and lady-birds, and all its queer things; their world is about three feet high, and they are more often stooping than gazing up. I know I was past ten before I saw, or cared to see, the ceilings of the rooms in the manse at Biggar.

On the morning of the 28th May, 1816, my eldest sister Janet and I were sleeping in the kitchen-bed with Tibbie Meek,[1] our only servant. We were all three awakened by a cry of pain–sharp, insufferable, as if one were stung. Years after we two confided to each other, sitting by the burnside, that we thought that “great cry” which arose at midnight in Egypt must have been like it. We all knew whose voice it was, and, in our night-clothes, we ran into the passage, and into the little parlor to the left hand, in which was a closet-bed. We found my father standing before us, erect, his hands clenched in his black hair, his eyes full of misery and amazement, his face white as that of the dead. He frightened us. He saw this, or else his intense will had mastered his agony, for, taking his hands from his head, he said, slowly and gently, “Let us give thanks,” and turned to a little sofa in the room; there lay our mother, dead.[2] She had long been ailing. I remember her sitting in a shawl,–an Indian one with little dark green spots on a light ground,–and watching her growing pale with what I afterwards knew must have been strong pain. She had, being feverish, slipped out of bed, and “grandmother,” her mother, seeing her “change come,” had called my father, and they two saw her open her blue, kind, and true eyes, “comfortable” to us all “as the day”–I remember them better than those of any one I saw yesterday–and, with one faint look of recognition to him, close them till the time of the restitution of all things.