Wasn’t it pleasant, O brother mine,
In those old days of the lost sunshine
When we went visiting, me and you,
Out to old Aunt Mary’s?
— James Whitcomb Riley—1849–1916
I wish that I were talented enough to produce something as evocative as Riley’s phrase, “in those old days of the lost sunshine.” It has a direct pathway to my heart.
A friend who is thirty years younger than I reads my column. When I saw him recently he said, “Your columns that I enjoy the most are the ones about the old days.” Tom and Pam Otto, the son and daughter-in-law of our beloved friend, Phyllis, also enjoy those essays. I pointed out that I’d “mined” my youth, and they replied, “We don’t care if you repeat things since we can’t remember what you wrote in the past, anyway!” Neither can I!
Until I started looking for material, I had forgotten this passage from my book that I put together ten years ago:
Riley’s phrase, “Those old days of the lost sunshine,” embodies every summer day of my childhood — our games and clubs, 4-H led by Miss Tipton, eating foods that you could have only during the summer, and making dolls out of hollyhock blossoms and toothpicks with Wanda Frazier.
I understand why Riley was the most beloved and highest paid author of his generation. I don’t believe that any writer has surpassed his understanding of how much people enjoy excursions into a past that’s bathed with a golden glow. I heard a talk at the Greenfield Library by the best-selling writer, James Alexander Thom who is also from Indiana. He repeated the advice that a creative writing prof gave his class: “Write to their senses.” That’s what Riley did.
Riley has been dismissed as just a “homespun” poet because of his use of dialect in some of his poetry and his portrayal of “simple” folk such as the raggedy man and little “orphant” Annie. However, he was no rustic bumpkin, but rather a very sophisticated individual.
Well-chosen words and fine writing are of supreme importance in my life. Riley has a flowing facility that I envy. I would rank him as an American wordsmith right up there with Mark Twain and Henry David Thoreau — the best of the best.
“Out to old Aunt Mary’s” tells a story about an aging man’s golden memory of a beloved relative and bygone days. My mother’s nostalgic memories of her childhood, her grandmother and her uncles and aunts were much the same as Riley’s.
It all comes back so clear to-day!
Though I am as bald as you are gray,—
Out by the barn-lot and down the lane,
We patter along in the dust again,
As light as the tips of the drops of rain,
Out to Old Aunt Mary’s.
“As light as the tips of the drops of rain . . . “ Isn’t that lovely? My mother reminisced about the thousands of little blue butterflies that rose into the air in a cloud when she and her cousins scuffled barefoot along the dusty country lanes near Michigantown. Ah, the days of youth when we ran at a trot and skipped and jumped in mud puddles!
Why, I see her now in the open door
Where the little gourds grew up the sides and o’er
The clapboard roof!—And her face—ah, me!
Wasn’t it good for a boy to see—
And wasn’t it good for a boy to be
Out to Old Aunt Mary’s?
It’s a matter of connectivities: Riley’s memories and those of Granny and my mother are overlaid with my own memories of walking along Knightstown’s quiet streets where I knew every house and the people in it over to old Granny’s house on Adams St. I spent many an afternoon, dunking graham crackers into weak coffee with cream and several spoons of sugar while listening to Granny’s soliloquies about her sunny, olden days. More to come. firstname.lastname@example.org