My father, Earl Emerson, loved to spout poetry. Quit often at parties he would play the banjo and sing. And he would close his performance by reciting poetry. His two favorite poems were “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” by Robert W. Service and “The Passing of the Back House” by James Whitcomb Riley.
Quite often when we would be working together he would spout poetry from Robert Frost, John Keats, James Whitcomb Riley, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman and occasional quotes from Shakespeare. I asked him if he was required to memorize these poems in school and he said that he had to recite a few poems, but most of the pieces he had memorized were poems that he liked and so he memorized them.
My favorite was “The Passing of the Back House.” He would usually precede reciting this poem with a story or two of when he was a boy and on Halloween the young men would go around town and succeeded in knocking down many outdoor toilets during the evening. One young lad was not very nimble and he fell into the pit. At another house they started to tip it over and the owner busted out of the toilet and fired his shot gun. Dad said, “I don’t know if he was aiming at us or not. I was busy running as fast as I could.”
Up at the old Emerson cottage at Lake Wisconsin we did not have an indoor toilet for the first couple of years, so dad built an out house. It served its purpose well but it was only in use during the warm weather. I’m sure it would have been much more unpleasant if I would have used it in the winter.
I have been busy this past week in sorting through some framed prints and I came upon “The Passing of the Back House.” It was framed and given to me by my nephew who remembered my father reciting the poem at a family gathering. He came across it when sorting through things after his mother passed away. As I read it, it was as though Earl was once again saying his favorite poem to me. I’d like to close my column this week by reprinting the last few lines of “The Passing of the Back House.”
Here’s to you Dad:
And 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 to sit —
But ere 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 sooth my faded soul.
I’m now a man, but none the less I’ll try the children’s hole.