Intersections: Fanny Barrow and Stanford White

Like a number of stories appearing in Aunt Fanny's [Frances Elizabeth Mease Barrow]'s books, the one below features several of her relatives -- including "Stanny," architect Stanford White (1853-1906), at approximately age three.

The story first appeared in Aunt Fanny's Life among the Children (Stanford & Delisser, 1858) and was later included in her novel Wife's Stratagem (Appleton, 1862). The latter title also carried a note that the sketch "was written by [the author's] daughter." The sketch was reprinted for a third time in one of Aunt Fanny's series books, More Mittens with The Doll's Wedding and Other Stories (Appleton, 1862), essentially a retitled edition of Life among the Children.

Stanford White's mother was Fanny's younger sister, Alexina Black Mease White. The story's author, Fanny's daughter, Sarah L. Barrow (1842-1906), was thus Stanford's cousin. (Several years after the story was published, she also married an architect, H. Hudson Holly.) Aunt Mary, too, was a real person -- Mary Sheldon Graham (1783-1867), the eldest sister of Fanny and Alexina's mother.

Aunt Mary

A Sketch, by a Girl of Fifteen

It is my opinion that in spite of my being a very young girl, I might, without exciting much surprise, personate the character of a respectable old lady; for all kinds of antiquities seem to agree extremely well with me.

Thus, an old book has a peculiar charm for me; an old dress always sits better than a new one; and certainly every one will allow that there is no comfort in the world equal to a pair of old slippers.

But most particularly am I fond of old ladies and gentlemen, with their quaint stories of the days when they were young; those magical days, when the sun shone quite differently from now, "so much longer and brighter;" the soft summer breezes were sweeter and cooler, and the winter snows were not the six inch deep affairs we have at present, but were up to the second story windows; then the birds sang far more sweetly than they ever do nowadays; the peaches were twice as large, the apples three times, and the gentlemen bowed four times lower and twenty times more respectfully.

The dearest of all my elderly relatives is my mother's aunt, my great-aunt Mary. I wish you could see her sitting in a corner of the fireplace, in a funny little black rocking chair of hers, that is no one knows how old, with a mosaic patchwork cover on the back, always busy with her knitting or sewing, and just the sweetest, dearest, little old soul in the world; though she is my great-aunt, I am so much larger and stronger, that I could, if I pleased, catch her up in my arms and run all over the house with her, without her being able to help herself. I mean to try it some time.

Aunt Mary's face is wrinkled; but her blue eyes are still clear and bright; her soft gray hair is parted over a placid brow; her smile is very sweet, and her voice so pleasant and kindly, that you feel as though you could never do enough for her, and you love her instinctively the very first time you see her. I believe that is the reason everybody calls her " Aunt Mary." It seems as if they could not help it; but I think it is a great liberty.

Aunt Mary is not one of those old old ladies, who think little folks should sit upright on a hard wooden bench, with nothing to rest their poor little spines against, and nothing to do but stare at the fire and twirl their thumbs.

She took a great nephew of hers to church, not long ago; a little bit of a fellow, and I think a perfect darling. Stanny had never been to church before, and he was so surprised with the great painted windows, and the quantity of people, that he sat up, in wondering silence, as grave as a judge; and Aunt Mary was just thinking to herself "How well Stanny behaves! really I am quite proud of him!" when suddenly the organ struck up very loud; and Stanny, well remembering the organs in the street, which he always ran to the window to see, shouted out loud, "Why, Aunt Mary! there's an organ! but where is the monkey?"

Of course everybody around laughed; how could they help it? and dear old Aunt Mary, instead of wanting to shake his head off, as some old ladies would, laughed too; but whispered to him to speak more softly next time, and gave him a gum drop out of her pocket.

She loves all the children, and is the soul of indulgence to her little nephews and nieces; she don't scold a bit, when they run away with her snuffbox, as Fanny and I have often done; although she is naturally very quick-tempered, her patience and forbearance are beautiful to observe.

Aunt Mary never uses spectacles; she reads the finest print, and stitches far more neatly than I can, without them; and those faded, but small and pretty hands, have knit more stockings for the poor, and made more patchwork bed quilts than I have time to count.

Then she is very lively, and has often made me scream with laughter; her comical expressions, with many a quiet, sly cut at our faults and nonsensical notions, and her funny stories, are far better than the writings of many an author who tries to write as though his fun was not the hardest work in the world for him, instead of coming right from his heart like my dear Aunt Mary's. Time has not soured her, as it does some old people; you never see her going about, with her brows tied up in—oh! such a hard knot! with a querulous moan of " W-h-e-r-e-'s my spectacles? why d-o-n-'t you come and light my fire? who's got my snuff box? oh dear!" Not at all; but it is, "Do let me read you this in the paper," a noble act of heroism or a funny anecdote, that has excited her admiration or laughter; and presently we will all be admiring or laughing with her, to her immense satisfaction.

You can't get Aunt Mary to put on a hoop skirt, or wear gaiter boots. She remains steadfastly by her narrow skirts and prunella shoes.

Once, as a very great favor, she permitted me to try on a dress of hers, which she wore to her first ball, when she was about sixteen years old. You may imagine what a singular figure I made in it, when I tell you that there were but two breadths in the skirt, and tiny gores at the sides; while the sleeves stood out as though they were lined with buckram, and the waistband was just under my arms. The material was the thickest of white silk, with lovely bunches of roses all over it. You perceive that fashions have changed considerably since she was a girl; and I often think how queer it must seem for her to look back on all the fashions that have come up since her first ball dress.

And now I will tell you something very interesting indeed about Aunt Mary. She has seen the great General Washington alive; and I would be willing to be just as old if I could say the same.

Yes, my dear old aunt is of another and past century. It always seems to me as if she should be dressed with the powder, high-heeled shoes, and ruffles of real lace that she wore long ago.

But in any dress we shall always love her dearly; for she is to us a kind monitor, a sincere friend, and a simple, earnest Christian. God bless dear Aunt Mary!

Copyright 2011. Transcribed by Deidre Johnson. Please do not use on other webpages without permission.

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