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Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson

A Shadow

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But behind that cottage curtain, at any rate, a new and prophetic life had begun. I cannot foretell that child's future, but I know something of its past. The boy may grow up into a criminal, the woman into an outcast, yet the baby was beloved. It came "not in utter nakedness." It found itself heir of the two prime essentials of existence,--life and love. Its first possession was a woman's kiss; and in that heritage the most important need of its career was guaranteed. "An ounce of mother," says the Spanish proverb, "is worth a pound of clergy." Jean Paul says that in life every successive influence affects us less and less, so that the circumnavigator of the globe is less influenced by all the nations he has seen than by his nurse. Well may the child imbibe that reverence for motherhood which is the first need of man. Where woman is most a slave, she is at least sacred to her son. The Turkish Sultan must prostrate himself at the door of his mother's apartments, and were he known to have insulted her, it would make his throne tremble. Among the savage African Touaricks, if two parents disagree, it is to the mother that the child's obedience belongs. Over the greater part of the earth's surface, the foremost figures in all temples are the Mother and Child. Christian and Buddhist nations, numbering together two thirds of the world's population, unite in this worship. Into the secrets of the ritual that baby in the window had already received initiation.

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And how much spiritual influence may in turn have gone forth from that little one! The coarsest father gains a new impulse to labor from the moment of his baby's birth; he scarcely sees it when awake, and yet it is with him all the time. Every stroke he strikes is for his child. New social aims, new moral motives, come vaguely up to him. The London costermonger told Mayhew that he thought every man would like his son or daughter to have a better start in the world than his own. After all, there is no tonic like the affections. Philosophers express wonder that the divine laws should give to some young girl, almost a child, the custody of an immortal soul. But what instruction the baby brings to the mother! She learns patience, self-control, endurance; her very arm grows strong, so that she can hold the dear burden longer than the father can. She learns to understand character, too, by dealing with it. "In training my first children," said a wise mother to me, "I thought that all were born just the same, and that I was wholly responsible for what they should become. I learned by degrees that each had a temperament of its own, which I must study before I could teach it." And thus, as the little ones grow older, their dawning instincts guide those of the parents; their questions suggest new answers, and to have loved them is a liberal education.

For the height of heights is love. The philosopher dries into a skeleton like that he investigates, unless love teaches him. He is blind among his microscopes, unless he sees in the humblest human soul a revelation that dwarfs all the world beside. While he grows gray in ignorance among his crucibles, every girlish mother is being illuminated by every kiss of her child. That house is so far sacred, which holds within its walls this new-born heir of eternity. But to dwell on these high mysteries would take us into depths beyond the present needs of mother or of infant, and it is better that the greater part of the baby-life should be that of an animated toy.

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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