Father believed in marking the boundaries of his property. Like Robert Frost’s ‘New Englander’ he said that “Good fences make good neighbors,” and he built a board fence around the home property. It was four or five planks high with generous spaces between so we children could see out and climb it, and we understood that we were not to go beyond its boundaries without permission. On the top a flat plank made it possible for us to sit and count the horses, ladies, or buggies passing by. Our advantages sometimes went into reverse however. “Good fences make good neighbors,” didn’t always prove its thesis.
Across the street from us lived a family by the name of Hauser. There were two sons in the family about the age of Brother. They were classed, in common parlance, as bad boys and Father had advised Maynard to avoid an encounter with them. They had no special interest in baseball anyway and hung around saloons and questionable places. Their delinquent tendencies often landed them in the courts and Father’s association with law and order quite naturally irked them. Frequently after one of the boys had broken into print, we children were made to suffer in little ways.
One day they they were hauled into court and were fined a very substantial amount for having engaged in a riotous escapade. The fine was the largest ever imposed on them and their grudge against society like “the peach of emerald hue” grew and grew till they had to do something about it. Father had had nothing to do with their appearance in court but he apparently became the symbol of society for the malevolent expression. The next morning we arose to find a collection of dead cats, garbage, and unlovely articles standing like bric-a-brac on the top plank of our fence. The incident was passed over lightly by our family but it made us children afraid of the Hausers.
Father was not always popular with our neighbors. He had a habit of being slow to make up his mind on a question. This characteristic was annoying to friends and family as well. A neighbor who was eager for his sanction of an improvement would approach him for co-operation. Father would agree to think it over and hold up the operation. He was generous in giving his time to discussion of the project but he would not endorse impulsive action. In civic matters he was a thorn in the flesh to a promoter eager to rush a measure through the council, often for political reasons.
“The people must be given time to investigate both sides of the question,” Father would entreat. “And they cannot come to a wise decision without due deliberation.”
Mr. and Mrs. Cathright were our next door neighbors on the north. One day Mother called me indoors from play and said:
“Una, please take this over to Mrs. Cathright. Go around to the back door and be sure you don’t go in to the house.”
I took the jar she handed me and crawled through the board fence that separated the Cathright lot from ours. As I passed the front door, I looked in where Mr. Cathright had lain in bed for months with a mysterious illness, coughing his life away.
Mother always warned us about going inside the Cathright house though she didn’t need to for all the Howell children were susceptible to unpleasant odors. Besides they had fertile imaginations and the combination spelled caution. The Cathrights however had a baby - a blonde-haired baby - and babies held lures for us. Even dirty ones could smile away disgust and our hearts warmed to the next-door baby. Then one night without warning the baby died.
Next morning Mrs. Cathright came to the fence near our back door and called Mother. Mother hurried out and stood by the cellar door.
“Did you call, Mrs. Cathright?” she said walking closer to the fence at the same time wondering if Mr. Cathright were worse.
“Yes, I called,” the younger women said in a stoical, unemotional way,
“My baby’s dead.”
She was only eighteen, a mere girl, and Mother fairly gasped at her self-control.
“She took sick in the night. Miz Allen got the doctor but he couldn’t do nothin’ for her.”
“How awful!”Would you like us to come over or is there anything we can do to help?” Mother asked, her tongue tripping on its volubility.
“Her paw’s too sick for a wake but I want you should see her, and the children too. She looks just like an angel, so sweet.”
Mother aching for the grieving little mother whose sorrow was mitigated by the image of her infant now haloed, agreed to take us in to view the baby.
I can see it now lying in the tiny casket dressed like a dolly in a pale blue shroud with blue slippers on its feet and candles burning at the head and feet. Gold hair lay in ringlets on its forehead and a tuberose was clasped between clean little hands. It was my first encounter with death and I noted all the details. I was saddened by the Mother’s wistfulness but the baby looked so lovely I felt no shock, only a gentle nostalgia.
The neighbors who bounded us on all sides while not our intimates were part and parcel of the panorama of every day and without them a picture of life in Springfield would be incomplete. Part of that shifting scene was the Stoner family. They too, had a little girl named Piney who we heard indirectly was ill. Those were the days of sitting up with sick people and in neighborly fashion, Mother called at the Stoner cottage to offer her services in caring for the child
As she walked into the room where Piney lay she was aware of the foul air in the room. In the ‘eighties’ there was a great fear of fresh air even for the well, and an open window in a sick room was regarded as a direct invitation for death to enter. Piney flaming with fever lay in a trundle bed dressed in her red flannel underclothes. Her hair was matted from neglect and her hands were very dirty. Only a glance was needed to tell Mother that she was a very sick child.
Mother took the small hand in her own. It was hot and dry and she said:
“Mrs. Stoner, have you had a doctor for Piney?” the woman answered quickly,
“No, we don’t want nobody givin’ her no medicine. Ef the Lord wants her to git well she will.”
Mother guessed that no doctor would willingly undertake to care for the child against the parent’s wishes as she tried another tack.
“Suppose we give her a nice soothing bath and lower her temperature. I’ll help you,” Mother said pulling out her most persuasive selling manner. At the same time she knew full well that she ran the risk of offending her proud-spirited neighbor.
The ruse failed to work. Piney’s ma drew herself up to her full height and her dignity compelled respect as she said:
“Mrs. Howell I thank ye fer yer intrust but I’d like ye to know that we aim to be respectable people and we ain’t no intension of tinkerin’ with our bodies cuz we think it’s indecent. I ain’t never had no bath and I don’t aim to do to Piney what I ain’t willin’ should be did to me.”
Having delivered her ultimatum, Piney’s mother walked toward the door and Mother properly humbled followed her.
“If there is anything we can do you will call us won’t you Mrs. Stoner?” she said feelingly.
“We won’t need nothin’,” a voice answered and the door closed. It was soon evident that the Lord did not want Piney to get well and the plumed hearse in the alley gave the last touch to the saga of the Stoner family.
To children who had been known to rebel vigorously against stopping their play for baths in the wooden washtub, this horrible example had a sobering effect, and henceforth we accepted the code of our parents honoring cleanliness. We even felt that ostracism from polite society was not too severe a penalty to be exacted from those who repudiate a tubbing.
Not all our neighbors were eccentric. Across Market street and nearer town lived the Eberhart family. Mr. Eberhart and his father “Grappy,” owned and operated a flour-mill. The big delivery wagons marked Eagle Mills, stood every night in their back lot and Mr. Eberhart’s clothes were always dusty with flour. That flour dust worried me inordinately and the knowledge that Father dressed well was a satisfaction. Mr. Eberhart was a charming and indulgent father though, and we children loved him.
Grappy was another story. He was crabby and went on sprees and we were afraid of him. His room was built with an outside entrance so that he could go and come as he chose free from spying eyes. But that was a false assumption. We children nearly always knew when he had imbibed. The word would be passed along.
“Grappy’s drunk, look!”
Then from a safe vantage point we would watch him stagger up the steps and through the door into his room. We wouldn’t have missed that shuddering experience even for safety’s sake. We waited till the door banged, then promptly streaked home where we righteously exploded the sensational news that: “Grappy was drunk again.”
The Eberhart children were about our ages. Fred commonly called ‘Feen’ was the oldest. He was about Brother’s age and was a member of the scrub baseball team on which Mayne played.
Then came Dell, a sweet-dispositioned and gay person slightly older than Lilly, and Nellie my senior by six months.
Father and Mother picked our playmates for us and while we didn’t especially endorse the system, it was a sort of take it or leave it plan. The first essential was that they had to have social relations with the parents. By this means Nellie had the official endorsement. She also had nerve and verve and what it takes. At time our parents sat uneasily and remembered the Arabian proverb,
“Trust God, tie up your camel and sleep with an eye open.”
They did all three for Nellie.
Nellie was unhampered by the still small voice of conscience, and she had a persuasive tongue. When faced with the fact that her Parcheesi man had been moved on the board without proper credentials she would say in a silken voice: “It couldn’t have been.”
If Mary and I were too outraged to let the soft answer blot our wrath she would be ready with another “Why my sleeve must have caught it,” or “Maybe I misread the dice.”
To conscientious children reasons like these were poison. They placed us in the light as young Shylocks exacting our pound of flesh. Cheating in our household was on par with murder and woe to the one who tried it. We were deadly moral at games and while we played to win we played according to the rules. The only sure way to meet us was to change the rules and on the spur of the moment Nellie could invent a whole new set.
“That’s not fair!”
Mary or I would yell as she began to run wild with croquet and whammed her ball without rhyme or reason.
“Why don’t you remember I told you the other day that my game book says you can etc. and etc.” and wearily Mary and I would capitulate. Whatever was printed was true and though deep in our harts we thought it was shady we were not smart enough to prove our points. The next minute she would say:
“Let’s not play anymore. Let’s go to my house and gather chinquapins. Shall we?” and flash a smile that only a hardened soul could resist.
Times without number Mary and I in a bedtime conference determined to blacklist her but with the coming of dawn propinquity guided us back to her deceptions as filings to a magnet.
Nellie’s tears were as winsome as her giggle and as easily induced. One of her favorite stories was the heroic tale of Fido who in the course of the journey on horseback had slipped from the saddle-bags and been lost. He barked in excitement and dashed between the horse’s feet with such abandon that his master decided the little beast was mad. It was at this juncture that Nellie’s tears uncorked. By the time the doggie had stopped a bullet and the story had ended, Nellie was in need of first, second and third aid. The more lachrymose she became the greater the story’s popularity. Each time she cried earlier in the tale till finally the sight of the book was enough to break the dam. At that point we hid it.
Among other gifts Nellie numbered salesmanship. A plan that had no appeal when presented by her suddenly seemed the most desirable thing in life. On a dull day her ideas seem to flow more easily and have greater charm.
“Let’s lock ourselves in the attic,” she suggested, “and scare the family shall we? Just a little, I mean.”
She added as she saw me questioning the expediency of the proposition. There was a tinge of wickedness about it that was very tempting. I had always wished I could die for a few minutes just to see how my family would take it. With slight misgivings I endorsed the plot.
“It’ll be a good joke on our mothers, won’t it?” I said and laughed hilariously. There was a curve at the bottom of the attic stair, and as we closed the door Nellie locked it. All we could see was a dim light at the top of the stairway. The attic was unceiled and she took hold of the railing she said: “Let’s throw the key down the wall, shall we?” and suiting the action to words dropped the precious hardware with a clack between the two-by-fours. Our enthusiasm at that point became a little forced. We walked to the front window where he had a play-corner, picked up some of the toys and tried to be gay. It failed to work.
“Where’s your mother?” Nellie suddenly inquired.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“I didn’t see her as we came up the stairs.”
Nellie was doing some active mental exercises. It was too tedious waiting for things to happen.
“Maybe she’s gone away,” I said.
“Well, she has to get supper, doesn’t she?” Nellie asked, rather flippantly I thought, and nodded.
Anxiety a very active gland in my framework now began to function in real earnest. The attic had high gabled windows and as the sun sank in the west, the room grew more shadowy until to my imaginative eyes, eerie shapes took form. The place was like a prison.
“Suppose we call,” said Nellie selling me on the idea as she spoke.
“You do it.”
I went to the door and called.
There was no response and I began to feel as if I had swallowed an apple whole.
My mind was not functioning at all now. Only my feelings were swelling to the bursting point. Crying was one of my talents but it came high in cost and I was accustomed to use it only when I had a sympathetic audience.
Nellie was a different specie. Emergency unloosed all manner of latent talents within her. Now in a grand burst of dramatics she dashed over to the window that overlooked the street. While I held my breath she crawled out on the roof, shrieking and waving her hands. At first she had no response, then the attention of a passerby was attracted. Galvanized at seeing a child standing unsupported on the steep roof, he stopped his horse and dashed around the porch looking for some one to notify. There was no one at our place so he moved on to the Eberhart’s house and Mrs. Eberhart and the hired man attacked the attic door.
“Now Nellie don’t cry. Remember you are the oldest.”
Mrs. Eberhart had counseled through the door as the rescue work proceeded. They tried keys first and when that didn’t work removed the door from its hinges, and the light from the window fell on two penitent and tear-stained youngsters sitting on the steps.
Here was my cue. I rose nobly to the task and wailed long and appropriately; so long that Mother had difficulty stemming the tide when she arrived some time later. As for Nellie, only the taste of liberty was needed to restore her effervescent spirits. Mine had suffered a greater shock. I had found that crime does not pay and Nellie’s magnetism suffered a short circuit.
Though I was equally to blame with Nellie, Mother never thought so. At such moments her impulse was to say to the visiting miscreant,
“You go straight home and don’t ever come back here again,” but experience taught her restraint. Besides whenever personal grievances occupied too much attention, something really startling was sure to shake the neighborhood. One such cataclysm arrived on an evening in spring.