My Grandmother's Religion

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Sidney H. Morse. "My Grandmother's Religion." The Ethical Record. III, 1 (April, 1890) 39-44.



She was ninety-two when she died. She might have lived to be a century old, but for an accident. One afternoon, under her favorite pear-tree, on the sunny slope of the little hill that rose gently from the rear of the old farm-house, she was bringing down pears with her cane. Somehow she slipped, fell, and broke her leg. The bone would not unite, and death ensued. The clergyman came, but he only asked, "How do you do this morning?" "Very well, I thank you," she replied; then the conversation turned to the weather and other topics not related necessarily to the last moments of a departing soul.

"It looks like a beautiful day out," said she. "How I should be enjoying it, but for breaking my poor leg."

There was a dish of pears on the stand near by.

"Give me one, please, just to hold. The tree was just twenty years old last March, twenty-first day. I planted it myself, and grafted it. How it did grow! Never a tree thrived like it. How I watched it to see it grow. It seemed almost as if it knew I was watching it, and tried to do its best. Pears are good.' Don't you think so ? I never lost my relish for them since I was a girl."

"I am quite fond of them," said the clergyman.

"I am glad to hear you say so. Take one, do. Liking pears is a good sign, I've always thought. . . . Have you been to the barn ? No ? Well, you ought to. There are three of my calves out there. I wouldn't permit them to kill them, they stood up so fine and looked me so straight in the eye when I went out to see them. One's light red, one's brindle, and one's deep red. The last'll make the best cow, I guess. You must go and look at them. Oh, they're good size now. Do you like calves ? /laugh till I most cry when they come bunting around three or four days old. They're so awkward and cunning. I like anything that's got life that way, and don't know too much, isn't puffed up, and swelling with its own conceit. You must go out and look at them for me; but take care they don't upset you. That wouldn't sound well to your congregation if they heard of it.

"I knew some of your people once,—Deacon Halloworthy and his wife; they used to come here to play whist. He was so fond of cards, and of my pippin apples, and cider,—he didn't like the cider too sweet, either. He'd put a grain of saleratus in it and drink it down foaming. His wife used to play (and eat the pippins, too, I thought), more for his pleasure than her own. When there were four partners without her, she got out of it, and sat snugged up in one corner of the fireplace, knitting. She was a dear, kind soul. You have a good attendance on your ministrations ?"

"Why, yes, fairly good. The membership has been increased of late, and that is encouraging. There will be twenty confirmations when Bishop Morehouse comes."

"You enjoy preaching ?"

"Yes, it's a pleasant duty." '

"All duties should be pleasant, and perhaps are, after their fashion. But, some way, I never had so much experience with them as some people do. They kind o' slipped through my fingers, I suppose, when I didn't know it.

"But I guess I mustn't talk more now. You can call again, if you like. You'll find me here, I reckon, some days yet. Don't you keep in-doors too much these fine October days. They're worth more than books. Go up to the barn, by all means. Marcus is there. He'll show you the calves, and he's got a new horse,—a fine animal, they say, but I haven't seen it. Good-by, sir. I wish I had a few of my nice doughnuts to send the children,—but I fear I shall make no more in this world. Good-by, sir; good-by."

When the clergyman came a few days later it was to read the burial service of the Protestant Episcopal Church.

"The old lady, whose calm, sweet face lies before us," he said, closing his few remarks, " was not a communicant, nor had she been a visible member of the church in all her life. And yet, at this solemn moment, I am constrained to say that she is with God. I know not how it is, but somehow God seems to be satisfied with some people just as they are. What a gathering of neighbors from near and far is here! All come in grief that this good old lady is dead. So many pleasant memories have been imparted to me. She went her own ways, so simple, modest; so unpretending, not even her own left hand knew what her valiant, most charitable, so capable, and so loving right hand was doing. And I believe God is satisfied.

"The day I called on her she told me of the pear-tree she had planted twenty years ago. There were some of the fruit on the stand near by. How she loved that pear-tree. But the real secret of that love, I think, she did not confide to me. Perhaps she did not even think of it herself. It would have been characteristic of her whole life not to do so. You, her friends and neighbors, need not to be reminded of it by me. You have all eaten pears from Mercy's pear-tree. That was her name, though I am told she was christened Merciles. When she was a little girl she would repeat it over and say, ' Merciles, Merciles,—Mercyless. It sha'n't be. It shall be only just Mercy, and that's enough!' No wavering from that on to the end, and they let her have it so. The change was made in the parish records. Her pear-tree and its bountiful harvest, so widely distributed, were the symbols of Mercy's religion. Brave little woman! in all things she kept her faith. Her wan, care-worn body is here before us, resting after ninety-two years of life. Was she not, though she prideth not herself in it, nor much thought of it, perhaps,— was she not all these years a veritable servant of the Most High?

"Good neighbors and Christian friends, tell the stories of her life, as you all know them, over and over again among yourselves; tell them to your children and your children's children; and may the blessing of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost be with you all forever. Amen."

My two maiden aunts were both members of Rev. Mr. Playfair's church, and were, as everybody said, consistent members. They believed in the church; thought everybody else ought to, and labored with all diligence, not forgetting home duties, to further its interests. With their mother, whom they loved tenderly, as children should, they had expostulated in vain. No word was ever vouchsafed in reply. Only a smile,—a forgiving smile,—and their non-church-going mother went the daily rounds of her busy life, with Monday and Saturday and every day as sacred as Sunday, bestowing herself wholly on the things of this earth. " Life here is so pleasant to me, and there is so much to do, I shouldn't mind living here forever." She kept the flowers blooming o'er the grave of her first-born in the field hard by, where a picket fence with a little gate protected it. What she thought of that Future into which he so early fled no one ever knew. This only was plain, she was content to live on without pretending to a wisdom beyond this world's ken. "Life is life! be alive; that is all," she cried, rather brusquely, to a neighboring woman who had much vexed her by droning, dolefully, "After all, what's the use of living!"

Ten miles away was the city of New Haven. That was the farthest she had ever been from home. So her experience of "the round world and they that dwell therein" was limited; but, such as it was, she wove it into sweetness and light. She was a persuasive power. One day Henry, fourteen, a son of Marcus, came crying into the house. His father had struck him. Grandmother stroked his head, but made no comment. That evening she said to Marcus, "Marcus, when you were about fourteen years of age, you gave your father much trouble. He was a mind to be severe with you, but I did not permit him to strike you. I called you in one day,—do you remember,—we had a talk. From that on you and your father were companions and friends. I had been hoping that lesson would stay with you through life."

"I see," Marcus broke in. " I was wrong. I "

"Send Henry to me."

As with Marcus so with Henry. The result the same. Henry stole out, placed his hand in his father's, and looked him in the eye. There was no word spoken. The forgiveness was mutual. A new friendship was born.

This peace-making power was not confined to her own immediate family. It had extended itself through the neighborhood and won many a victory.

Hence it was when her good church-going daughters, o'er- swayed by theological tenets and anxiety for her spiritual weal, had urged upon their clergyman the great need of his speaking to their mother on the subject of " vital religion, including Sunday and church observances," this same Mr. Playfair, after repeated visitations (from all of which he had gone having uttered no word of the sort required), declared to them,—

"I simply can't do it. The duty doesn't give me the courage. I am ashamed in her presence of the purpose I am harboring. It all appears to me superfluous. And I tell you now, had I a congregation made up of souls like her, I believe I would dismiss them all, and go seek a new flock elsewhere. I should be abashed in their presence as I am in hers. I must have sinners to preach to, not saints. My supplication would be, ' Lord, have mercy on me, the sinner, and let these, Thy people, depart from this house to carry their light and peace to the waiting world beyond.' "

Rev. Mr. Playfair, as I remember him, was a comparatively young man. His discourses, I heard it said, were "brilliant, but..." There the matter dropped. But I now suspect that in that word, beginning an unspoken sentence, lurked much meaning. Somewhat amiss the good church-people evidently felt. More amiss, I opine, than they dreamed of. For I take it that the Rev. Mr. Playfair was a discerner of spiritual qualities, and had the good judgment to not press the church forward for service when she had been, by whatever reason, bereft of a mission. He had caught a meaning from Emerson's lines, perhaps, or had in his own native bent anticipated them.

"I like a church, I like a cowl,
I love a prophet of the soul;
But not for all his faith could see
Would I that cowled churchman be."


[page 65, of the same issue] Mr. Sidney H. Morse, who appears among the contributors to this number of the Ethical Record, was the editor of the famous monthly journal, The Radical, published in Boston twenty years ago. Mr. Morse has for several years been devoting his entire attention to sculpture. His bust of Emerson is an eminently successful likeness, and has been highly praised by Emerson's closest friends.