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An essay by Helen Hunt Jackson

A Day With A Courteous Mother

Title:     A Day With A Courteous Mother
Author: Helen Hunt Jackson [More Titles by Jackson]

During the whole of one of last summer's hottest days I had the good fortune to be seated in a railway car near a mother and four children, whose relations with each other were so beautiful that the pleasure of watching them was quite enough to make one forget the discomforts of the journey.

It was plain that they were poor; their clothes were coarse and old, and had been made by inexperienced hands. The mother's bonnet alone would have been enough to have condemned the whole party on any of the world's thoroughfares. I remembered afterward, with shame, that I myself had smiled at the first sight of its antiquated ugliness; but her face was one which it gave you a sense of rest to look upon,--it was so earnest, tender, true, and strong. It had little comeliness of shape or color in it, it was thin, and pale; she was not young; she had worked hard; she had evidently been much ill; but I have seen few faces which gave me such pleasure. I think that she was the wife of a poor clergyman; and I think that clergyman must be one of the Lord's best watchmen of souls. The children--two boys and two girls--were all under the age of twelve, and the youngest could not speak plainly. They had had a rare treat; they had been visiting the mountains, and they were talking over all the wonders they had seen with a glow of enthusiastic delight which was to be envied. Only a word-for-word record would do justice to their conversation; no description could give any idea of it,--so free, so pleasant, so genial, no interruptions, no contradictions; and the mother's part borne all the while with such equal interest and eagerness that no one not seeing her face would dream that she was any other than an elder sister. In the course of the day there were many occasions when it was necessary for her to deny requests, and to ask services, especially from the eldest boy; but no young girl, anxious to please a lover, could have done either with a more tender courtesy. She had her reward; for no lover could have been more tender and manly than was this boy of twelve. Their lunch was simple and scanty; but it had the grace of a royal banquet. At the last, the mother produced with much glee three apples and an orange, of which the children had not known. All eyes fastened on the orange. It was evidently a great rarity. I watched to see if this test would bring out selfishness. There was a little silence; just the shade of a cloud. The mother said, "How shall I divide this? There is one for each of you; and I shall be best off of all, for I expect big tastes from each of you."

"Oh, give Annie the orange. Annie loves oranges," spoke out the oldest boy, with a sudden air of a conqueror, and at the same time taking the smallest and worst apple himself.

"Oh, yes, let Annie have the orange," echoed the second boy, nine years old.

"Yes, Annie may have the orange, because that is nicer than the apple, and she is a lady, and her brothers are gentlemen," said the mother, quietly. Then there was a merry contest as to who should feed the mother with largest and most frequent mouthfuls; and so the feast went on. Then Annie pretended to want apple, and exchanged thin golden strips of orange for bites out of the cheeks of Baldwins; and, as I sat watching her intently, she suddenly fancied she saw longing in my face, and sprang over to me, holding out a quarter of her orange, and saying, "Don't you want a taste, too?" The mother smiled, understandingly, when I said, "No, I thank you, you dear, generous little girl; I don't care about oranges."

At noon we had a tedious interval of waiting at a dreary station. We sat for two hours on a narrow platform, which the sun had scorched till it smelt of heat. The oldest boy--the little lover--held the youngest child, and talked to her, while the tired mother closed her eyes and rested. Now and then he looked over at her, and then back at the baby; and at last he said confidentially to me (for we had become fast friends by this time), "Isn't it funny, to think that I was ever so small as this baby? And papa says that then mamma was almost a little girl herself."

The two other children were toiling up and down the banks of the railroad-track, picking ox-eye daisies, buttercups, and sorrel. They worked like beavers, and soon the bunches were almost too big for their little hands. Then they came running to give them to their mother. "Oh dear," thought I, "how that poor, tired woman will hate to open her eyes! and she never can take those great bunches of common, fading flowers, in addition to all her bundles and bags." I was mistaken.

"Oh, thank you, my darlings! How kind you were! Poor, hot, tired little flowers, how thirsty they look! If they will only try and keep alive till we get home, we will make them very happy in some water; won't we? And you shall put one bunch by papa's plate, and one by mine."

Sweet and happy, the weary and flushed little children stood looking up in her face while she talked, their hearts thrilling with compassion for the drooping flowers and with delight in the giving of their gift. Then she took great trouble to get a string and tie up the flowers, and then the train came, and we were whirling along again. Soon it grew dark, and little Annie's head nodded. Then I heard the mother say to the oldest boy, "Dear, are you too tired to let little Annie put her head on your shoulder and take a nap? We shall get her home in much better case to see papa if we can manage to give her a little sleep." How many boys of twelve hear such words as these from tired, overburdened mothers?

Soon came the city, the final station, with its bustle and noise. I lingered to watch my happy family, hoping to see the father. "Why, papa isn't here!" exclaimed one disappointed little voice after another. "Never mind," said the mother, with a still deeper disappointment in her own tone; "perhaps he had to go to see some poor body who is sick." In the hurry of picking up all the parcels, and the sleepy babies, the poor daisies and buttercups were left forgotten in a corner of the rack. I wondered if the mother had not intended this. May I be forgiven for the injustice! A few minutes after I passed the little group, standing still just outside the station, and heard the mother say, "Oh, my darlings, I have forgotten your pretty bouquets. I am so sorry! I wonder if I could find them if I went back. Will you all stand still and not stir from this spot if I go?"

"Oh, mamma, don't go, don't go. We will get you some more. Don't go," cried all the children.

"Here are your flowers, madam," said I. "I saw that you had forgotten them, and I took them as mementoes of you and your sweet children." She blushed and looked disconcerted. She was evidently unused to people, and shy with all but her children. However, she thanked me sweetly, and said,--

"I was very sorry about them. The children took such trouble to get them; and I think they will revive in water. They cannot be quite dead."

"They will _never_ die!" said I, with an emphasis which went from my heart to hers. Then all her shyness fled. She knew me; and we shook hands, and smiled into each other's eyes with the smile of kindred as we parted.

As I followed on, I heard the two children, who were walking behind, saying to each other, "Wouldn't that have been too bad? Mamma liked them so much, and we never could have got so many all at once again."

"Yes, we could, too, next summer," said the boy, sturdily.

They are sure of their "next summers," I think, all six of those souls,--children, and mother, and father. They may never again gather so many ox-eye daisies and buttercups "all at once." Perhaps some of the little hands have already picked their last flowers. Nevertheless, their summers are certain. To such souls as these, all trees, either here or in God's larger country, are Trees of Life, with twelve manner of fruits and leaves for healing; and it is but little change from the summers here, whose suns burn and make weary, to the summers there, of which "the Lamb is the light."

Heaven bless them all, wherever they are.

[The end]
Helen Hunt Jackson's essay: Day With A Courteous Mother