Grandfather French's Nightshirt
I HAVE just committed an irreverence. I have run Grandfather French’s nightshirt through the electric mangle. I had no business to do it. Not even the electric hand-iron should have been thumped upon it. I should have climbed to the pantry’s highest shelf, fetched down the big ancestral ‘flats,’ stirred up the coal fire to heat them, and pressed Grandfather French’s nightshirt with them, testing them with delicate sizzling forefinger, polishing them on a beeswaxy brown paper, smoothing every gusset and needlestroked gather to perfection.
But the thing is done. Grandfather French’s nightshirt, grossly wrinkled by my hasty mangling, hangs airing on the rack, alongside X’s sleazy machinestitched blue pajamas, and much yet more ephemeral feminine gear.
Do not think that Grandfather French’s personal lingerie is part of my weekly care. If, after fifty years in the many mansions, he still needs such garments (but is it not said, ‘There shall be no night there’?) I am sure that old Susan and Charlie, black and faithful retainers, will have long since undertaken their accustomed laundering and valeting. This, which I have just dealt with so crudely, is one of the chance survivals of matter over spirit that make a New England garret the strolling-ground for healthy ghosts. It emerged as by fate from an old tin trunk exactly when I was in bitter need of a smock-apron to cover me over while I picked currants and made jelly. I slipped it on without a qualm, spattered it well with clear pink juice, and washed and ironed it before a realization of my irreverence laid hold of me.
It is a simple vasty garment, made of fine white cotton, with a double yoke, a full body, sleeves close-gathered into tight buttoned cuffs, and a standing collar, also buttoning well up at the throat. I can but wonder at such insistence upon decorous neck and wrists in a robe that treats the nether limbs so sketchily. Grandfather French is reputed to have stood six feet three in his stockings: his nocturnal smock barely reaches the knees of me, who am but five feet eight. A brief problem in mental arithmetic leaves me with seven inches unaccounted for.
But it is unseemly to question such brevity. A nightshirt made every stitch by hand, with tiny rolled hems, corners mitred as by a cabinetmaker, buttonholes firm as New England backbones, may surely be of whatever length it pleases without offense. No one now would set such stitches but a mother working her dreams into her first baby s soft white ruffles; and few modern mothers could if they would.
This homely garment could have been no special labor of love. It is all the more a symbol and a sign, left behind by Grandfather French when he mounted the chariot and rode away to glory, I can fondly imagine that it reveals him, as I know him to have been: a holy man, yet a shrewd one, with the clear gray-blue eyes, thin nose, and sensitive lips of his tribe; a courtly yet powerful man in his own sphere; a scholar and dreamer, and an executive; a typical New England nineteenth-century product.
How dared I treat his nightshirt with no more respect than my husband’s khaki camping-clothes ?
Yet use is respect. Grandfather French would not have found me a light woman when I stripped the currant bushes of their blazing ruby globes and strained the rich juice, dripping with the fragrant blood of summer. He would have smiled upon his nightshirt in the role of a decent calico apron. He believed that bread-making and jellybrewing were proper work for women. ‘Put ‘em to the tubs; put ‘em to the tubs,’ he would have prescribed for the restless nervous women whose hands leave too much time for their heads. He would have rebuked me for sitting here scribbling rat her than for wearing his nightshirt among the currants.
But his potential rebukes cannot scare me much. For he should know, as I know, that with all my rudeness to his manes I do respect them deeply. My respect even leads to wonder whether the manes of the present generation can ever hover with such powerfully brooding wings over the generation after next. How can we expect our lavender soisette and peachtinged crepe de Chine to survive fifty years, instinct with such vitality that grandchildren will reconstruct us, even to our morals and spirituals, from them, like a megalosaur built from a single toe-bone? It is a unique spirit that can nullify the comic quality inherent in a nightshirt and make it significant as a toga.
Undoubtedly, as a generation we have our strong treasures. But as individuals? I am not too sure. I remember a recent June, when the first president of a great woman’s college walked dowm the long aisles of waiting alumnæ, giving them his old-time benediction — the courtly bow, the radiant yet austere smile. No one was ashamed of the lump in her throat or the cloud in her eyes. They were instinctive tributes, not only to the choking rush of each one’s private memories, but to the rare spiritual strength of a whole half-century, permitted here one of its final and most complete personifications. Has any man now in his thirties or forties or fifties the germ of that strange special magic?
Grandfather French’s nightshirt does not call for too tender consideration. My coarse dealings have not robbed it of one shred or thread of semicomic dignity. Underneath the currant-stains, the careless wrinkles, it must know that I am saying: —
‘Thank you for your nightshirt, Grandfather French! I have left your portrait in the attic; your sermons are crumbled or burned. But I have n’t forgotten you, Grandfather French. Little bits of big past things: the Unitarian Controversy, Emerson, Channing, Sumner, Abolition, Lincoln, the bitter days of war, shrewd dreams and holy dreams, narrowness and vision — they are all stitched into your nightshirt; and stitched, tight and small and far below the surface, into the very drops of my blood. Thank you, Grandfather French!’