The Passing of the Spare-Room

OF course, there still are guest-rooms. People in the country have them, and rich people have them in the city. There are guest-rooms ordinary and guest-rooms extraordinary — modest little corners in which to tuck away a transient friend or relative, and imposing suites fit for the entertainment of a royal family. There are guest-rooms with secluded marble temples of Hygeia attached, and guest-rooms with moveable wash-bowls. But I contend that the spare-room, as an institution, is passing from our national life. As a nation of a hundred millions, we don’t spare rooms.

As a family, we have none. A spareroom in a city flat means a tiny family. Mother and father settled the question for us in the good old Brierly days by having eleven children. Even now that John and Tryphena are married and the twins are away at college, we are entitled to be called an old-fashioned family, and an extra empty room would be a riotous extravagance now that we pay for space by the cubic inch. When people spend the night with us, Caroline moves in with Frances. Thanks to the fact that mother has never outgrown the habit of inviting acquaintances to ‘make this house their home while they are in the city,’ we have come to refer to ‘Caroline’s guestroom.’

So I meditate on the changes of life as they have affected us among the millions.

We did n’t pay for space by the cubic inch in the Brierly days, but we paid in countless sacrifices, little and big, to keep that one room clean and empty. And it was mother who paid the most. From the beginning of her married life she was determined to have a spareroom. Before her honeymoon was over she had instilled something of this desire into father, and together they knocked down the partition between the two little rooms that opened off the parlor. They sawed through the beams, stripped off the lathing, and made one splendid ‘parlor bedroom.’ Through all our life at Brierly this remained mother’s spare-room. Our respect for its sanctity was so great that Bartlett pears could be stored in the spare-room closet to ripen and reach mellow perfection undiminished in quantity.

The spare-room! By shutting my eyes I can see it again in all its wistful and aspiring hospitality. I can see the red cherry furniture, with brown marble tops on the bureau and the washstand; the Nottingham lace at the windows, the fawn-colored Brussels, neatly tacked down over layer on layer of folded newspapers; the cross-stitched canvas wall-pockets, and cornucopia hair-receivers. Sometimes we put things in the spare-room because they were too nice for the children to play with, and sometimes because we did not know exactly what else to do with them. But mother censored all our contributions, and so great was her zeal for its perfection that I remember hearing John say to her, ‘Mother, I miss the new hair-brush from my dresser. I suppose you put it in the spare-room?’ I can see the intricately embroidered pillow-sham, and the sheet-sham, so elaborately starched and fluted that on the day a guest arrived it was lifted gingerly by two of us and carried into the parlor, where we draped it over the square piano. There was an elaborate splasher behind the cherry washstand. A motto—‘After Clouds, Sunshine’ — hung behind the bed, just over the cluster of fat pears that was carved in the headboard. This was worked on canvas in worsted yarn, the clouds being done in gray, and the sunshine in yellow, shading to orange.

And just as the word ‘October’ brings its hint of wood-smoke; just as certain religious phrases used by father in family prayers bring to me, whenever I hear them, the faint smell of the pillow in which I buried my nose when we all knelt down together, so ‘spareroom’ brings the odor of starched window-curtains, of eastile soap, of sulphur, — that was after John’s diphtheria, — of matting, and of mother’s rose-jar. And there steals over me an old familiar emotion — the awe that always took possession of me when I stepped across the threshold of that room.

One reason for my awe is that mother’s babies all arrived there. The nurse could keep the children out by locking the parlor doors, and could bathe the baby by the coal stove in the parlor. Almost my earliest memory is of being led in to look at Edward as he lay in the red cherry bed at mother’s side. I can clearly recall my passionate concern for his complexion, which was dark red with suggestions of purple, and my indignation at the way the nurse laughed when I whispered, ‘ But, mother — it’s a little colored baby!’

The solemnity was heightened by the fact that if any one of us was seriously ill, mother put him in the spareroom. This was an honor so great that only a real catastrophe — like typhoid, or broken bones — commanded it. It was something to look back on with elation; it lent an anticipatory interest to the merest sore throat. Any tonsillitis might turn out to be spare-room diphtheria, the way John’s did.

But it never took long to transform hospital into hospitality. With her skirts pinned up and her head wrapped in a towel, but wearing the look of a priestess who makes ready her temple for ceremonial, mother swept and dusted and renovated the spare-room. When she came out and closed its door behind her, she left it clean and sweet and ready for the next guest.

Most of our visitors were annuals. Many people made the rounds once a year, spending a night, or a few days, or a week or two, with every relative and intimate they possessed. They often came without warning, by train or stage, on foot or on horseback, in two-horse wagons or jingling sleighs, across the Illinois prairie. Frequently they brought with them the children with which they had been blessed, and sometimes other things — parrots, for example. Occasionally they seemed to take root. Cousin Sarah came out of the far New England east with her three children and stayed four months, until father guessed the trouble she was too proud to tell, and gave her the money to go home.

We looked forward to some of our guests with glee. Cousin Ben was a great favorite. He had a wooden leg — a relic of the Civil War — and we never tired of hearing him tell how he lost the original member. It was some years before I realized that he gave us a different account of that tragedy at every visit. He was as bald as any egg, and in winter he wore a wig. But as the dog-days drew near he used to take it off, and age terribly before our very eyes. ‘Gosh!’ he would say, ‘it’s like an overcoat on my head!’

The most undeviating of all our annual guests was Uncle Samuel, who was not really an uncle at ah, but a stepaunt’s second husband. Punctually on the first of June he started on his grand tour, and he spent a day and a night with every relative and every ‘connection by marriage.’ As the children married and moved into homes of their own, he widened his circle to include them, and they accepted Uncle Samuel as a part of their family heritage, with their share of Grandmother Carrol’s silver spoons and Great-aunt Louise’s rule for ginger-snaps. He was undaunted by our move to the city. Changing customs and smaller quarters found him still punctual — a little older every year, but proud of his record, the sole survivor of a dying custom. And then one June morning, Edward, in opening his mail, found a newspaper from the little Minnesota town where Uncle Samuel had always lived. He saw a blue-penciled column, headed with ‘Samuel Alcott. 1816-1906.’ He noticed that many leading citizens had sent flowers, and he telephoned mother at once.

‘Dear old Uncle Samuel has passed away at last,’ he told her; and that night he brought the paper home with him.

At supper we were more or less subdued — kindly reminiscent. Caroline expressed regret that we had n’t always been as glad to see him as we might have been.

‘He was a faithful soul,’said mother.

‘ I must write a letter of sympathy to his son. Give me the paper, Edward, please.'

A minute later she laid it down with an exclamation of horror, and exclaimed, ‘My dear boy, you really must be more careful. I might have made a dreadful mistake. Uncle Samuel is n’t dead at all. This is an announcement of his ninetieth birthday.'

Uncle Samuel now rests with his fathers, and the spare-room, as a part of our daily lives, has passed with him. With it we have lost something intangible and precious; something that mother — then as now the guardian of our ideals — worked for, sacrificed for, and attained. But while she lives, and Caroline is generous with her bedroom, the spirit of hospitality will still laugh by our fireside.