Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Aunt Libby

from In the East Riding of Yorkshire:
(Quasi-Auto-Biographical. Written for one’s children.)
by Jesse Halsey 

There was the remains of an old fort not far from our house and adjoining our farm. It was near enough the little school house, where we went, that during recess all the boys would run there to play war. On lucky days I commanded the attacking party. That was the American army—the attacking one for the fort had been built by the British when they occupied East Riding after the battle of Long Island.

The house where the British General Sir Wm. Erskine dined still stands next door, but one, to mine. It is a veritable museum of the accumulated colonial wealth of many generations. Its present owner is one of my closest friends. Likewise our children, as were our father and their fathers before them. This kind of consanguinity of the spirit is thicker than blood and defies time.

Of an evening neighbors would come in, Uncle Bill Fowler who had been to California in ’49, had mortgaged his farm to go; came home penniless and had to go back to his masons trade. His nephew John Fowler who mixed mortar for him lived on for many years. He would come to help my father hoe corn. I would be given one row between the two men, Father with two rows on one side and uncle John two rows on the other. He was short and fat but could hoe his own roe as the saying goes and help with mine. “Hi by golly” I can hear him now . . . then he’d start off on some whaling yarn.

This was always the theme of conversation and while the old men would sit spinning yarns little Jess quiet for once, sat listening.

“The year the ‘Old Sabina sailed,’ or the ‘Old Neptune,’ or the ‘Old—“ that careening adjective prefixed all ships’ names. Ten miles away was the Harbor. The hurricane of last month [ed note: Wednesday, September 21, 1938] toppled over the lovely towering spire from the old church that the whale oiled money built a hundred years ago. There for a century it has stood a beacon by night and spire by day. The little village has now sunk to diminutive economic proportions. It cannot be rebuilt. Ichabod—the glory hath departed.

But even in my boyhood a vessel occasionally sailed for the whale fishery and across the sound from New Bedford whalers put out until ten years ago. Every Long Island boy with few exceptions went to sea, all through the years from the Revolution till after the Civil War.

Two years, three years, a hard life but they loved it. And the tales they could tell! I have listened by the hour. Captain Austin Herrick wrecked on the coast of Patagonia and working his way along the coast among the savages and coming home long after he was given up for lost. Willie and Eddie Fowler never heard from, and their mother, my great aunt, telling me in a moment of confidence one day as I went through her yard on the way to school that though they had been gone for fifty years that her gate never clicked but that she went to the window or the door to look and see if they might yet be coming home.

[Great] Aunt Libbie [ed note: Elizabeth P Halsey Fowler 4 Jul 1815] —she gave me my first bath and first spanking I imagine the spanking came first)—was the village midwife and practical nurse, the adviser of its gentry and poor folk alike. Her cookie jar (with raised doughnuts in the winter) was accessible to all the boys of the North End. Her yard (next to the graveyard) was the short way to school. In the Cemetery—and only there—was I allowed to stroll on Sunday. (I can take you on the darkest night to any stone you name.) After the walk in the cemetery, father and I would slip through the back gate to Aunt Libbie’s. He was her favorite nephew. She nursed him when he was a baby, too. And I have one little cloth shoe (beautifully made) that she fabricated for little Charles Henry. In her old age she was still active. I can remember her helping my mother in the care of a sick neighbor—or my mother helping her. They came to our house one morning before daylight, went to the attic and got a pig’s bladder that hung on the rafters. (It had been inflated at butchering time.) This was before the day of rubber water bottles. The bladders of slaughtered animals were always preserved. (Sometimes when the old crop was not exhausted, we boys were allowed to have a new one for a football—not often, however.) My brother was sent off into the night to get ice from the one ice house in the community, over a mile away. Birth and death and all the occasions in between Aunt Libby was always there and most welcome.

Back to my whalers—and the fireside. Capt’n Guss (Halsey) would come and spend the day. He and my Uncle Will (a real uncle—Father’s brother) were my favorites. (When I was seven Uncle Will drowned before my eyes one day when we were clamming—I was too young to understand what was happening but not too little to help had I only known.)  Well, Cap’t Guss would come from Watermill two miles away, and once or twice a year father would go and spend the day with Cap’t Guss (and take me with him). Most Cap’ns’ who came would pat me on the head and straightway forget (I caught on to what they were saying to themselves-“poor child, with no mother”). But Captain Guss thought it worthwhile to talk to a boy. So did Uncle Will who lived across the street. He and father had married sisters. I’d go across the street after our early farm breakfast, in time for theirs. My aunt would try to send me home, but I can hear Uncle Will now . . . “Feed him . . . feed him.” Between Uncle Will and Aunt Libbie I was well supplied.

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