That sly old gray fox, Ben Franklin, was smart enough to be born at a time when writers could get away with a bit of plagiarism. That line about cats was in a book of proverbs written by John Heywood in 1540; the original wording was "When all candles be out, all cats be gray." I don’t know whether Heywood thought of it himself or stole it from somebody else; but
I do know college freshmen who have got F’s on essays for quoting things without giving credit to the original authors. And now that the internet has made it so easy to check sources, we hear we occasionally hear of journalists like Mike Barnicle or writers like Stephen Ambrose getting in trouble because they forgot or neglected to make proper citations. Of course it’s possible
that Franklin might have thought of the gray cat line independently, but it’s more likely that he read it in Heywood’s book and was lucky enough not to get caught; or, maybe it just didn’t matter so much back then. Whatever the case, I always think of Franklin when the subject of gray things comes up, as it did recently.
It was the last week of October, and fall was well under way. It wasn’t really cold yet, but a lot of trees were already bare, and the ones that hadn’t lost their color were past their peak. The sky was overcast… tired-looking rather than threatening, the kind of day that puts you in a reflective mood… and as I started off to the post office I decided it was a gray day. You
need a day like that once in a while. You wouldn’t want every day to be bright and sunny, any more than you would want rain every day; a little variety is good for you. So I decided that when a nice, quiet gray day comes along, I should take advantage of it. It offers the chance to think instead of complaining or worrying.
As I said, I was going to the post office, but my mind wasn’t with me; it had wandered off on its own. First it visited Ben Franklin and his cat, and then it started wondering whether the day was gray or grey. That led it to recall my aunt, who knew things like that. She had been a teacher for a couple of years around 1920… back when being a schoolmarm was one of the few
jobs an unmarried woman could take outside the home without arousing gossip. When I was little, she was always correcting my spelling and grammar. She taught me the rule, "i before e, except after c," and scolded me for saying "aint" (that puzzled me because a lot of grown-ups said it, even nice people who went to church, so I knew it wasn’t swearing). She died about 20 years
ago, so I couldn’t take the gray/grey question to her, but I enjoyed thinking about her until I got home, and then I looked it up in the dictionary.
The answer was a bit of a let-down. I was expecting to find an elegant Latin word that had split into two forms when it passed from medieval French to Old English, and got sanctified and set in stone when they wrote the Oxford English Dictionary; but it was not to be. Both spellings are acceptable; in England things are grey, and in America they are gray. It was just a case
of careless spelling that someone like Noah Webster probably decided should be standardized after the Revolutionary War. I grumbled about it to my wife, but she just gave me that "Not Again!" look and said she had more important things to do than quibble about spelling.
She obviously hasn’t completely mastered the art of being retired yet, but I had to admit that she might be right, so I resolved to put it out of my mind; but it wouldn’t go. I was in a good mood, but everywhere I looked, there was gray. The carpet in my room is gray; the chair where I read, watch TV, do my serious thinking and take naps is gray. Outside the kitchen window,
the chickadees, titmice, juncos, nuthatches and goldfinches that populate the bird feeders are gray. Most of my friends have gray hair. Off in the distance, the mountain is gray. The logs I bring in for the fireplace are gray. So I sat down in the chair and thought about it, and by the time I woke up, half an hour later, I decided gray is a pretty good color. It isn’t showy,
but it’s useful; it does its work quietly and competently, and creates a restful background that makes brighter colors show up better. The world is a kinder, gentler place with some gray in it. Just think how much higher everyone’s blood pressure would be if everything was red or orange.
A few weeks after the gray day, I was going to the post office again and noticed a number of walnut shells on the sidewalk at the corner of the schoolyard. The shells were not in the random pattern that occurs when they fall from the tree; they were lined up in a more or less orderly row along the edge opposite the pavement. I looked at them for a minute or two, but no
explanation came to mind; so I went on my way, happily engaged searching through the gray corners of my skull for a theory to explain why the random arrangement of things in nature should be violated by a row of walnut shells. The answer appeared on the way back home. As I approached the corner of the schoolyard a squirrel came up from the field with a walnut in its mouth. It
was a gray squirrel, and when it started to cross the road a car came by. The squirrel turned and came back, but instead of scurrying up the nearest tree it sat down on the edge of the sidewalk and began peeling the shell off the walnut. Apparently it didn’t want to waste time while it waited for traffic to pass. When the way was clear, it went on across the road and buried the
nut in the nearest yard. Obviously, it was running a regular supply route; the row of walnut shells was evidence of both its industrious habits and its prudence. It must have been an elderly individual who had profited from reading Robert Frost’s poem, "Provide, provide!" and was putting its education to practical use.
No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.
Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!
Winter is a gray season, but that doesn’t automatically make it bad; you can decide not to let it be so if you choose. There is wisdom out there, even if you have to accept it from a squirrel. The Christmas lights will look good again this year, even if they are against a gray background. So, let’s enjoy the holiday. We’ve earned it.