The Passing of the Backhouse by James Whitcomb Riley 1929 – later recited by Walter Brennan
THE PASSING OF THE BACKHOUSE – By James Whitcomb Riley With Special Sketch
The Passing of the Backhouse
When memory keeps me company and moves to smiles and tears,
A weather-beaten object looms 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 steaming soil behind.
All day fat spiders spun their web to catch the buzzing flies
That flitted to and from the house, where Ma was making pies.
And once a swarm of hornets bold had built a palace there,
And stung my unsuspecting aunt–I must not tell where;
Then father took a flaming pole–that was a happy day–
He nearly burned the building up, 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 sullen skies were gray,
In sooth, the building was no place where one could wish to stay.
We did our duties promptly there, one purpose swayed the mind;
We tarried not, nor lingered long, on what we left behind.
The torture of the icy seat would make a Spartan sob,
For needs must scrape the goose-flesh with a lacerating cob,
That from a frost-encrusted nail hung pendant 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’d bundle up the dear old man with 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 too wide I found;
My loins were all too little and I jack-knifed there to stay.
They had to come and get me out or I’d have passed away.
Then father said ambition was a thing boys should shun,
And I must use the children’s hole ’till childhood’s 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’ve tramped around a bit,
And in the lap of luxury my lot has been sit;
But e’er I die 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 soothe my jaded soul;
I’m now a man, but none the less, I’ll try the children’s hole.
Sketch courtesy of Dave Weaver of Sunbury, PA, formerly of Spencer