Along with the rubber band, the eggcup, and the square knot, the clothespin must take its place as one of the enduring simples of the civilized world. My favorite is not the forked peg with long tapered slot, but rather the wooden/spring variety, capable of holding securely in its gentle jaws a sock, one-half a towel, a recipe card above a kitchen counter, a saucy page of a score on a music stand, a metaphorical nose in bad odor, a forest love note for some latter-day Rosalind, or a rough draft on a journalist's copyholder.
But I know of other uses - more abstract, more significant. ''Comfort me with apples,'' sighs the bride in The Song of Solomon. ''Comfort me with clothespins, '' I might rejoin, for such was precisely the office of this humble device in a touching incident, some years back, when my five-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, managed to present me one under unusual circumstances.
I had been asked for the first time - as I have been many times since - to fill the pulpit for a congregation suddenly without a Sunday preacher and willing to settle for a layman. I chose for the subject of my sermon the parable of the sower in Mark's Gospel, using as text the sentence, ''For there is nothing hid, which shall not be manifested'' (Mark 4:22), a prophetic choice, as will presently appear.
In such an unaccustomed role as guest preacher, I was well aware that as Sunday drew nigh, I began to exhibit to my family a case of the jitters. By Friday, the essential preparations had already been completed: sermon written, prayers outlined, hymns chosen, sentences for response memorized, benediction selected, which left nothing for Saturday but minutiae - and an easy opening for fussing.
I looked over the tie rack, shined my shoes twice, and cancelled my weekly tennis match in favor of pressing my white linen ''preacher's suit,'' which I then aired in a sunny part of the backyard, fastening the hanger securely to the line with, I suppose, a clothespin (what else?).
With nothing left to do, I now began to grumble and snap at my family. Two of the three girls simply kept clear. My wife said it would have been better if I had played tennis, after all. But five-year-old Elizabeth, with her large, liquid eyes, seemed more concerned, as if she alone understood my problem. Perhaps she remembered the loneliness of even the short-distance dancer in her recent recital at the local YMCA.
But on Sunday, the outward signs of uneasiness had disappeared, though inside I knew that had that hymn been on the board, I still might have announced ''Kinkering Kongs Their Titles Take,'' as the befuddled Rev. William Spooner had once done at Oxford. But by the time I came to the sermon, confidence had pretty well returned.
Then as I stepped to the pulpit and announced the text, ''For there is nothing hid, which shall not be manifested,'' I inadvertently reached my left hand into my jacket pocket. And there, to my astonishment, my fingers curled around of all things a clothespin! What would a mere father trade for it? ''Comfort me with clothespins, indeed!''
I later learned that Elizabeth, aware of my jitters, had inquired of her mother, and her mother had explained my snappishness by saying that perhaps Papa feels a little insecure about Sunday. The child, looking at the situation through her own eyes, slipped the clothespin into my pocket, thus giving me an ersatz thumb or corner of a blanket. To tell the truth, the clothespin did comfort me, and I have thought about it many times since. In fact, nowadays I never preach without one. ''Out of the mouths of babes hast thou ordained strength,'' as the Psalmist said. . . . When Elizabeth gets married, you can be sure one of her gifts will be a clothespin.