Montana Voices: A little poetic relief from Mr. Riley
By Jim Elliott
When I sat down to write today I became immediately depressed about the possible topics at hand, so I decided to share with you a poem by James Whitcomb Riley, a framed copy of which has graced a small room in my parents’ home and then my home for almost a century. Happy Valentine’s Day.
The Passing of the Backhouse
When memory keeps me company and moves to smiles or tears,
A weather-beaten object looms up through the mist of years.
Behind the house and barn it stood, a half a mile or more,
And hurrying feet a path had made straight to its swinging door.
Its architecture was a type of simple classic art,
But in the tragedy of life it played a leading part;
And oft the passing traveler drove slow and heaved a sigh,
To see the modest hired girl slip out with glances shy.
We had our posy garden that the women loved so well;
I loved it too, but better still, I loved the stronger smell
That filled the evening breezes so full of homely cheer,
And told the night-o’ertaken tramp that human life was near.
On lazy August afternoons, it made a little bower,
Delightful, where my grandsire sat and whiled away an hour;
For there the summer morning its very cares entwined,
And berry bushes reddened in the streaming soil behind.
All day fat spiders spun their webs to catch the buzzing flies,
And flitted to and from the house where Ma was baking pies.
And once a swarm of hornets bold had built a palace there,
And stung my unsuspecting aunt—I must not tell you where,
Then father took a flaming pole—that was a happy day—
He nearly burned the building down, but the hornets left to stay.
When summer bloom began to fade and winter to carouse,
We banked the little building with a heap of hemlock boughs.
But when the crust was on the snow and the sullen skies were gray,
In sooth the building was no place where one would wish to stay.
We did or duties promptly there, but one purpose filled the mind;
We tarried not, nor lingered long, on what we left behind.
The torture of that icy seat could make a Spartan sob
For needs must scrape the goose-flesh with a lacerating cob
That from a frost encrusted nail, was suspended by a string.
My father was a frugal man, and wasted not a thing.
When grandpa had to “go out back” and make his morning call,
We bundled up the dear old man with a muffler and a shawl.
I knew the hole on which he sat—‘twas padded all around,
And once I dared to sit there—‘twas all to wide I found.
My loins were all too little, and I Jack-knifed there to stay,
They had to come and get me, or I’d a passed away.
Then father said ambition was a thing that boys should shun,
And I must use the children’s hole till childhood days were done.
But still I marvel at the craft that cut those holes so true;
The baby hole, and the slender hole that fitted sister Sue.
That dear old country landmark; I tramped around a bit,
And in the lamp of luxury my lot has been to sit.
But ere I did I’ll eat the fruit of trees I robbed of yore,
Then seek the shanty where my name is carved upon the door,
I ween the old familiar smell will sooth my faded soul;
I’m now a man, but none the less I’ll try the children’s hole.
Jim Elliott is a former chairman of the Montana Democratic Party and a former state senator from Trout Creek.