My Birth and Infancy

Well up the sloping western side of the Valley of the Nanticoke Creek, more fully described in Our American Ancestry, perhaps ten miles north of the Susquehanna River in Broome County, New York, there stood, in 1853, the Dudley Slosson House. This country farmhouse stood midway between my Grandfather Gates’ home on the north and my Grandfather Bowers’ home on the south, about two miles from each. In the lower front room of the upright part of this dwelling, at about eight o’clock in the morning of July second, 1853, as my mother used to tell me, I was born.

Father and Mother had been married on my mother’s twentieth birthday, September nineteenth, 1850, Father being a few months past twenty-one. While both had been reared in comfort and abundance, the young couple were themselves without any means, except such trifling sums as each had saved from school teaching. Father was without fixed employment, and he had made no choice of a vocation. We can guess that there was no elaborate wedding and no costly honeymoon. For nest, the bride and groom secured an upper room or two, in a farmhouse not far from Mother’s home. Father was elected to the Board of County Supervisors with some pay by the township soon after, a considerable honor for one so young. He got various remunerative odd jobs besides, and thriftily began to read medicine in leisure hours. His Grandfather Paine and other relatives had been doctors. So, the young pair managed to support themselves, and even to find time to study. In not quite ten months a baby boy appeared, whom they named Frank. Twenty-four months later they accepted me, as we saw above, with a warmth that I never had occasion to question. There were no more children. For three hundred years, however, the entire ancestry on both sides had been very fruitful.

The marriage of Granville and Sarah Jane was a genuine love match. Both were quite heedless of those wise and prudent maxims which in docile and well-regulated families govern marriage today. Perhaps Granville and Sarah Jane might well have postponed their marriage until Sarah Jane was twenty-five and Granville had achieved a fixed income and a settled profession. No doubt that is so, prudent friends. But then it would have been quite another baby born later than myself that would have entered the more discreet and conventional household. And in that case, my children, where would you come in? I think a parent owes wise counsel to his children in the matter of marriage but, considering the unseen and probably momentous issues involved, parents may well decline the responsibility of imperative interference, except in cases of bad habits and bad heredity. Granville and Sarah Jane were perhaps wiser in obeying the promptings of a pure love than the parental prudence of today, and that is why you and I are here.

About three years after his marriage, my father gave up his medical studies. He had decided to enter the ministry. In due time he was ordained and became pastor of the little Baptist Church at Lambs Corners, his home church, about three miles north of Grandfather Gates’ home. I could not have been more than two or three months old when Father moved to the comfortable and commodious house at Lambs Corners. There we remained until I was more than two years old and could toddle around in dresses and talk a little. It was there that I woke out of the eternal silence into the light and consciousness of life and began to see persons and things and to record them in memory.

My earliest memories are of winter and snow at the Lambs Corners house and front yard, when I would be thirty months old. It was the occasional experiences only, not the habitual ones, that photographed themselves on my mind. Two dear old ladies, who petted me and sometimes gave me cookies and pennies, lived across the way. I remember them and their house vividly, but not the features of my parents or my brother. A merchant, Mr. Cary, who had a long, full, sandy beard, the only one in town, as it was then the custom for men to be clean-shaven, used to give me candy and raisins and tell me I could have a beard like his, if I would grease my face and let the cat lick it off.

The church was back of our house, with a fence intervening. One Sunday during sermon I got into my father’s boots and put on his high hat, the two nearly meeting in the middle, and thus suitably attired, escaped my aunt Achsah’s eye, and was just climbing the steps to go into the church where Father was holding forth, when I was snatched up by my breathless aunt. I have always regretted that I did not succeed in going up the aisle, as I intended, and interviewing my loving father in his pulpit.

On April first, 1856, when I was two years and eight months old, my father took a new pastorate. It was at Centre Lisle, a hamlet in the same County of Broome, about eight miles north. During the first year of this pastorate we lived about a mile east of the little town, in a cozy neighborhood called Manningville, from the leading family there, and our new home was called by us the Manning House from its owner. This year is more distinct in memory. Even some of my usual plays I can recall, but it is the several more tragic sensations that are, of course, the most vivid and indelible. I have always remembered the surgical bleeding of Father’s fatally sick horse. It was my first sight of blood in large amount, and very dreadful. Why? How do we come by our instincts? Across the creek there came from a lonely pasture, day and night, forever, a mysterious and awful sound, seemingly out of the bowels of the earth. It went Ca-Chug, Ca-Chug, Ca-Chug, and filled me with wonder and awe. To me it was supernatural—a miracle—a weird and haunted place. And today, my familiarity with the hydraulic ram, for such it was, has not dissolved the awe of my childhood.

A house which I sometimes passed had geese which came at me and hissed. They were a terror that whole year, and so I have ever since been sensitive to any interference at all with passersby on the public highway, whether of geese or dogs, or what not. I trained our first dog not to chase passing wagons, and not even to bark at them from a distance. As a motorist I have winked at my boys’ use of sling shots and ammonia pistols on annoying dogs.

I went to school at three and learned, not the alphabet so as to distinguish the letters, but to say the alphabet by rote without following with my eye the teacher’s pencil down the line. Great was the scandal to my mother when she found that I could repeat the alphabet rapidly in correct order without recognizing by sight a single letter of it. She effectually took me in hand herself. Kindergartens were then unknown, and I was too young to be sent to school. My intelligent mother knew that. But I would sometimes run away to school, where my older brother and all the other children were, and so Mother finally let me go as the lesser of two evils, willing also perhaps to be relieved of me for six hours out of the twenty-four. I got no good from the school, but no other harm than that of being bottled up in a close room for six hours daily, when I ought to have been running about in the open air. I slept a good deal, with rolled-up wrappings for pillow kindly arranged for me by the good-hearted girl who taught.

It was in that year that I caught my first notion of death and of heaven. Mother made the picture very beautiful. There was, to the west of our house half a mile, a little hill on the summit of which was the village burying ground. The hill formed the horizon from the west windows of our house, and behind it was the golden sunset. One Sunday afternoon there was a burial there with carriages and people, and I asked Mother what it was, as I sat on her knee. She explained to me that we all die, and are buried in the graveyard, and angels come from above to carry our souls to the beautiful place up in the sky called heaven, where we live forever in perfect happiness, clothed in white. This lovely vision was not much disturbed when, a little later, a dear little girl playmate died, and I was allowed to look down on her, “clothed in white,” and on her placid, still face. But it was not long before my beautiful illusions about death, which should have been carefully preserved throughout childhood and youth, were shattered and destroyed. Another funeral came. It was of an adult. My mother has since told me that the corpse was hideous and horrible, the most so she ever saw. Childlike—Mother was always in the choir—I went around to the front with the procession that filed by the open coffin for the “last look,” and some thoughtless creature, oblivious of the danger of frightening a child, lifted me up and held me right over a face of unimagined frightfulness. From the shock of that error I have not to this hour recovered. I did not attend a funeral, or again look on the face of the dead, until I had reached manhood. For many years after, never would I enter a dark room alone, nor close my eyes for sleep, that I was not confronted with that open coffin. On the other hand, my son Frederick, who, with all his brothers and sisters, had been kept by me from seeing a corpse until he was grown, used to sleep during his medical course with a box of human bones under his bed, and never give it a thought. There are those who believe, as Ruskin did, that the character and worth of men is stamped indelibly upon them while they are infants in arms—like coin fresh from the mint. Certainly, we are not likely to overestimate the importance of the impressions of early infancy.

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Part One: The Early Years, The District School