Love's Minor Frictions
MINOR friction is the kind that produces the most showy results with the smallest outlay. You can stir up more electricity in a cat by stroking her fur the wrong way than you can by dropping her into the well. You can ruffle the dearest member of your family more by asking him twice if he is sure that he locked the back door than his political opponents could stir him with a libel. We have direct access to the state of mind of the people with whom we share household life and love. Therefore, in most homes, no matter how congenial, a certain amount of minor friction is inevitable.
Four typical causes of minor friction are questions of tempo, the brotherly reform measure, supervised telephone conversations, and tenure of parental control. These are standard group-irritants that sometimes vex the sweetest natures.
The matter of tempo, broadly interpreted, covers the process of adjustment between people of hasty and deliberate moods. It implies alertness of spiritual response, alacrity in taking hints and filling orders, timely appreciations, considerate delays, and all the other delicate retards and accelerations that are necessary if hearts are to beat as one. But it also includes such homely questions as the time for setting out for places, the time consumed in getting ready to set out, and the swiftness of our progress thither. When a man who is tardy is unequally yoked with a wife who is prompt, their family moves from point to point with an irregularity of rhythm that lends suspense to the mildest occasions.
A certain architect and his wife Sue are a case in point. Sue is always on time. If she is going to drive at four, she has her children ready at halfpast three, and she stations them in the front hall, with muscles flexed, at ten minutes to four, so that the whole group may emerge from the door like food shot from guns, and meet the incoming automobile accurately at the curb. Nobody ever stops his engine for Sue. Her husband is correspondingly late. Just after they were married, the choir at their church gambled quietly on the chances — whether she would get him to church on time, or whether he would make her late. The first Sunday they came ten minutes early, the second Sunday ten minutes late, and every Sunday after that, Sue came early, Prescott came late, and the choir put its money into the contribution-box. In fact, a family of this sort can solve its problem most neatly by running on independent schedules, except when they are to ride in the same automobile or on the same train. Then, there is likely to be a breeze.
But the great test of such a family’s grasp of the time-element comes when they have a guest who must catch a given car, due to pass the white post at the corner at a quarter to the hour. The visit is drawing to a close, with five minutes to spare before car-time. Those members of the family who like to wait until the last moment, and take their chances of boarding the running-board on the run, continue a steady conversation with the guest. But the prompt ones, with furtive eye straying to the clock, begin to sit forward uneasily in their chairs, their faces drawn, pulse feverish, pondering the question whether it is better to let a guest miss a car or seem to show him the door. The situation is all the harder for the prompt contingent, because usually they have behind them a criminal record of occasions when they have urged guests to the curb in plenty of time and the car turned out to be late. The runners and jumpers of the family had said it would be late, and it was late. These memories restrain speech until the latest possible moment. Then the guest is whisked out to the white post with the words, ‘If you could stay, we’d be delighted; but if you really have to make your train—’ Every punctual person who lives near a carline knows the look of patronage with which the leisured classes of his family listen to this old speech of his. They find something nervous and petty in his prancing and pawing, quite inferior to their large oblivion. As Tagore would say, ‘They are not too poor to be late.’
The matter of tempo involves also the sense of the fortunate moment, and the timing of deeds to accord with moods. In almost any group there is one member who is set at a slightly different velocity from the others, with a momentum not easily checked. When the rest of the household settles down to pleasant conversation, this member thinks of something pressing that must be done at once.
The mother of three college boys is being slowly trained out of this habit. Her sons say that she ought to have been a fire-chief, so brisk is she when in her typical hook-and-ladder mood. Whenever her family sits talking in the evening, she has flitting memories of things that she must run and do. One night, when she had suddenly deserted the hearthside to see if the maid had remembered to put out the milk-tickets, one of the boys was dispatched with a warrant for her arrest. He traced her to the door of the side-porch, and peered out at her in the darkness. ‘What’s little pussy-foot doing now?’ he inquired affectionately. ‘Can she see better in the dark? Come along back.’ But her blood was up. She thought of several other duties still waiting, and went at once to the kitchen and filled the dipper. With this she returned to the room where sat the waiting conversationalists, and systematically watered the fern. It was like wearing orange to a Sinn Fein gathering. At the chorus of reproach she only laughed, the throaty laugh of the villain on the stage. Six determined hands seized her at once. The boys explained that, when they wanted to talk to her, it was no time to water ferns. As habitual breaker-up of public meetings, she was going to be reformed.
But the reform measure, a groupirritant second to none, is generally uphill business in the home. Welfare work among equals is sometimes imperative, but seldom popular. Any programme of social improvement implies agitation and a powerful leverage of public opinion not wholly tranquillizing to the person to be reformed. There is one family that has worked for years upon the case of one of its members who reads aloud out of season. When this brother William finds a noble bit of literature, he is fired to share it with his relatives, regardless of time and circumstance. He comes eagerly from his study, book in hand, when his public is trying on a dress. Or he begins to read without warning, when all the other people in the room are reading something else. Arguments and penalties never had the slightest effect until one of the company hit upon a device that proves a defensive measure in emergencies.
Brother William started suddenly to read aloud from a campaign speech. His youngest sister was absorbed in that passage in Edwin Drood called ‘A Night with Durdles,’ where Jasper and Durdles are climbing the cathedral spire. In self-defense she also began to read in a clear tone as follows: ‘Anon, they turn into narrower and steeper staircases, and the night air begins to blow upon them, and the chirp of some startled jackdaw or frightened rook precedes the heavy beating of wings in a confined space, and the beating down of dust and straws upon their heads.’
The idea spread like wildfire. All the others opened their books and magazines and joined her in reading aloud selections from the page where they had been interrupted. It was a deafening medley of incongruous material — a very telling demonstration of the distance from which their minds had jumped when recalled to the campaign speech. Brother William was able to distinguish in the uproar such fragments as these: ‘Just at that moment I discovered four Spad machines far below the enemy planes ’; ‘ “ Thankyou thankyou cried Mr. Salteena— ‘Thomas Chatterton Jupiter Zeus, a most dear wood-rat’; and '"It is natural,” Gavin said slowly, “that you, sir, should wonder why I am here with this woman at such an hour.” ’
This method did not work a permanent cure, because nothing ever cures the real reader-aloud. His impulse is generosity — a mainspring of character, not a passing whim. But at a crisis, his audience can read aloud in concert.
The reform measure is more hopeful when directed, not at a rooted trait, but at a surface phase or custom. Even here success is not without its battles. The combined talents of a Congressman’s daughters were once bent upon teaching their youngest brother Sam to rise when ladies entered the room. The boy Samuel, then at the brigand age, looked at this custom as the mannerism of a decadent civilization. He rose, indeed, for guests, but not as to the manner born. One day he came home and reported that the lady next door had introduced him to an aunt of hers who had just arrived on a visit. ‘And,’ said he, with speculative eye upon his sisters, 'I did n’t get up to be introduced.’
The effect was all that heart could wish. Tongues flew. Sam listened with mournful dignity, offering no excuse. He waited until the sisterly vocabulary was exhausted.
‘ Why don’t you ask me where I was when she introduced me?’ he asked at length. ‘I was crawling along on the ridgepole of her garage catching her cat for her, and I could n’t get up.’
His sisters, however, were not to be diverted from their attempt to foster in him the manly graces. They even went so far as to make an effort to include their brother in afternoon teaparties with their friends. But a tealion, he said, was one thing that he was not. On such occasions he would be found sitting on the kitchen table, dourly eating up the olives, and refusing to come in. The girls were too young then to know that you cannot hurry a certain phase. But now, when they meet that brother at receptions, they smile at their former despair. Reformers often find their hardest tasks taken out of their hands by time.
Few brothers and sisters, however, are willing to trust to time to work its wonders. There is a sense of fraternal responsibility that goads us to try to do what we can for each other in a small way. The friction that ensues constitutes an experience of human values that the hermit in his cell can never know. Whenever people of decided views feel personally responsible for each other’s acts, a type of social unrest begins to brew that sometimes leads to progress and sometimes leads to riots.
For this reason, in any home that aspires to peace at any price, the telephone should be installed in a soundproof box-office with no glass in the door. There is nothing that so incenses a friendly nature as a family grouped in the middle-distance offering advice when a telephone conversation is going on. The person at the receiver looks so idle; there seems to be no reason why he should not listen with his unoccupied ear; and when he is so evidently in need of correct data, it seems only kind to help him out. It is the most natural thing in the world to listen. The family listens, in the first place, to find out which one of them is wanted, and they continue to listen to find out what is said. When the wrong thing is said, all loyal relatives feel responsible.
The person telephoning is unfairly handicapped by necessary politeness, because he can be heard through the transmitter and his advisers cannot. Only extreme exasperation can unleash his tongue, as happened once when a professor’s son, Stanley, in his father’s absence, undertook to answer a telephone-call while his sister Violet in the next room, corrected his mistakes. Stanley, pricking both ears, was doing very well, until the lady at the other end of the line asked a question at the exact moment when Violet offered a new thought. ‘What did you say?’ inquired Stanley. Both Violet and the lady repeated. ‘What is it?’ said Stanley, waving one foot at Violet. Violet, not seeing the foot, repeated, and so did the lady, this time more distinctly. ‘I beg your pardon,’ said Stanley anxiously, ‘but what did you say?’ Like an incredible nightmare the thing happened again. ‘Shut up!’ roared Stanley; ‘what did you say?’
His sister, recognizing instantly that part of the message directed to her, wrote her suggestion on the telephone pad, and stole prudently away to a safe place. Minor friction, she had learned, can sometimes lead to action on a large scale. Only after some such extreme experience as this, do we allow a kinsman to conduct his own telephone conversations, taking his own responsibilities, running his own dark risks.
But the sense of mutual responsibility is, after all, the prime educational factor in family life. Every good parent has a feeling of accountability for the acts of his children. He may believe in self-determination for the small states around him, but, nevertheless, he holds a mandate. The delightful interweaving of parental suggestion with the original tendencies of the various children is the delicate thing that makes each family individual. It is also the delicate thing that makes parenthood a nervous occupation. When suggestion is going to interweave delightfully as planned, and when it is not going to interweave at all, is something not foretold in the prophets.
The question of parental influence becomes more complex as the family grows older and more informally organized. Sometimes a son or daughter wants to carry out a pet project without any advice or warning or help from anybody. There is nothing rash or guilty about his plan. He simply happens to be in the mood to act, not in committee, but of himself. To achieve this, surrounded by a united and conversational family, becomes a game of skill. To dodge advice, he seems to avoid the most innocent questions. At such times as these, the wisest parents wonder what they have done to forfeit confidence, They see this favorite son of theirs executing the most harmless plans with all the secrecy of the young poisoning princes of the Renaissance. When this happens, the over-sensitive parent grieves, the dictatorial parent rails, but the philosophical parent delicately picks up whatever interesting morsels he can on the side, and cocks a weather eye.
‘Robert seems to have a good many engagements,’ wrote the mother of a popular son in a letter to an absent daughter, ‘but whether the nature of the engagements is social, athletic, or philanthropic, we can only infer from the equipment with which he sets out. I inferred the first this morning when he asked me to have his dress-suit sent to be pressed; but I could not be certain until Mrs. Stone said casually that Robert was to be a guest at Mrs. Robbins’s dinner next week. Don’t you love to see such tender intimacy between mother and son?’
Secrecy of this kind is not the exclusive monopoly of sons. Excellent young women have chopped ice and frozen sherbet behind closed doors because they did not want to be told again to be sure not to get the ice all over the back piazza. Certain warnings go with certain projects as inevitably as rubbers with the rain. The practised mother has so often found the warnings necessary, that the mere sight of the act produces the formula by rote. Model sons and daughters should accept these hints with gratitude, thus avoiding all friction, however minor. But rather than be advised to do that which they were planning to do already, the most loyal of daughters will resort to clandestine measures, and go stealthily with the ice-pick as with a poniard beneath a cloak. This annoys an affectionate and capable mother very much. And she has a right to be annoyed, has she not? After all, it is her ice-pick. There is something of spirited affection about the memory of all these early broils. They were heated enough at the time, for the most violent emotions can fly out at a trifling cause. Remarks made in these turbulent moments are often taken as a revelation of your true and inward self. The sentiments that you express in your moment of wrath sound like something that you have been repressing for years and are now turning loose upon an enlightened world. There is an air of desperate sincerity about your remarks that makes your hearers feel that here, at last, they have the truth.
With friends, after such an outburst, you could never be the same again. But with your relatives, such moments can be lived down — as once occurred when a busy father had sent his youngest son back to town to perform a forgotten errand. The daughter of the family had not heard of the event until she took her place at table.
‘Where’s Tom?’ said she.
‘I sent him back to get a letter he forgot,’ said her father.
‘In all this heat?’ she protested. ‘Well, if I had been in his place, I’d have gone away and stayed away.’
‘Well, you could,’ said her father serenely.
‘Well, I will,’ said little Sunshine, and walked out of the door and up the street in a rage.
After you have left your parental home as suddenly as this, there comes a moment when you have the sensation of being what is termed all dressed up with no place to go. You feel that your decision, though sudden, is irrevocable, because going back would mean death to your pride. You try to fight off the practical thought that you can hardly go far without hat or scrip. Therefore, when Tom met his eloping sister at, the corner, it was with some little diplomacy that he learned her history and took her back to the table under his wing. The conversation barely paused as they took their places. Their father went on affably serving the salad to the just and the unjust alike. If the returning Fury had been treated with the contumely that she deserved, the memory would be disagreeable in the minds of all. As it is, the boys, now grown to manhood, speak of it as the time when Susan ran away to sea.
The only thing that can make minor friction hurtful is the disproportionate importance that it can assume when it is treated as a major issue, or taken as an indication of mutual dislike. It is often an indication of the opposite, though at the moment the contestants would find this hard to believe. Kept in its place, however, we find in it later a great deal of humorous charm, because it belonged to a period when we dealt with our brethren with a primitive directness not possible in later years. An intricate ambition, this matter of harmony in the home. Ideally, every family would like to have a history of uninterrupted adorations and exquisite accord. But growth implies change, change implies adjustment, and adjustment among varied personalities implies friction. Kept at the minimum, kept in its place, such friction does not estrange. Instead, it becomes a means to an intimate acquaintance with one another’s traits and moods — an intimacy of understanding not far remote from love.