Orchids Are Perishable



AT first we were pitied and embraced. The more glamorous among us had lost fortunes in the Crash — all the money our clever young husbands had been able to make so quickly in the approved American manner, all gone, and more too. It sounded well when we talked about it. ‘Crash’ is a finer word than ‘depression.’ The duller among us took successive pay cuts, or were ‘staggered,’ or simply lost jobs. Whatever one calls one’s work, it becomes a job when it is lost, twentieth vice president or no.

We went to live with our parents — for a few months; until this thing blew over; until we could catch up with our dwindling income. Helpfully we were dragged to shore, sputtering, indignant.

The months went by and people ceased to feel sorry for us. We became Ancient Mariners and not even one in three would listen. And, seeing the slowly descending scale still slowly descending, we made over our ideas of life and ourselves and started out again.

We are not dated as a class yet, but as soon as young people can sensibly hope to make fortunes we shall be set apart and ticketed. We shall be the poor older people, the simple-livers, the ones who can never amount to anything financially, having been blighted in our productive years.

We belong to the generation who grew up when America was earning its European reputation of worshiping Mammon. All our young men were going to be rich, successful. Starting with bare feet on the bottom rung, they could conquer the world. The young women would, of course, marry for love, but find themselves rich in due time. The rise in the world for young married couples was marked by wellobserved signs — the number of maids, cars, bathrooms; the place in the country; the width of the diamond bracelet. Old school friends watched each other carefully. Fraternity brothers pledged themselves to see that no Alpha Alpha was making less than twenty thousand by his thirtieth birthday — less would be a stigma on old Alpha Alpha.

We were almost professionally good at games — no place like the links for making contacts and contracts. We could n’t afford not to be seen everywhere. We had positions to keep up. The husbands put in long days at the office and came home exhausted, to pull themselves together for a gay evening in as large a company as possible. They had no time for reading, so the wives attended lectures and read book reviews and kept their husbands enough in touch with the world of literature and art to enable them to make correct replies at dinner. That was what wives were for. The husbands brought home the bacon and the wives supplied the garnishing. The United States became a lecturer’s Eden, and Europeans gained their idea of the American wife as a lonely, neurotic culture seeker.

But the days when any good clean American boy knew that he could achieve whatever he wanted to, as long as he worked and willed hard enough, were pulled from under us. So were the days when he set his jaw and determined to support his wife in the manner to which her parents had carefully accustomed her. Nowadays he can’t support her even in the manner to which she became accustomed with him.

Parents used to pump their young full of ambition and then watch them soar in a world of jostling opportunities. Now the least a parent can do for a child is to teach him to face facts: Hang on to your wagon and pull it yourself.

No father and mother, contemplating with unshaken satisfaction the bills for a large and expensive wedding, dreamed of having a poor son-in-law come to live under one roof with them in his late twenties or early thirties. A ghastly idea — shameful; un-American. No daughter, leaving her girlhood room as a bride, but would have fainted at the sight of herself ten years later squeezing back into it for an indefinite stay, complete with her husband and children, dog, cat, and love birds.


Gradually, as we began to see things as they were, we left the parental rooftree. Most of us moved to the country, where it is easier to be poor and better for the children. We moved either for all the year round, instead of only for the summer, or just plain to the country — even those city souls of us who had considered the country fit only for picnics and nervous breakdowns. Little farmhouses were at a premium. No one wanted Great-Uncle Harry’s sandstone palace, fit for a Bombay rajah — not even to live in free. We entered into the simple life with zest — for one thing, it was exciting to be alone again as a family, a financial unit, however low. The wives learned to cook and the husbands to carpenter, and we quarreled about the best way to prune apple trees. We put away the best linen and silver, because we could n’t keep it and the children clean at the same time. We affected a passion for salt-fish dinners and good corned beef. And we settled down to be poor temporarily, as an adventure.

But it is a very long adventure, and so much better have we become at facing facts than we were brought up to be that we are almost able to say to ourselves now that it looks as if we should never have very much money. While we are still Americans of our own generation enough to think that our very old age may see us with a stable of hunters and a collection of Waterford glass, we know that our middle age will not. In fact, all we ask of our middle age now is to be able to send the children to good schools.

So far have we come toward accepting reality that we don’t have to dramatize ourselves as we throw the pea pods into the soup kettle (we used to try to feel ourselves in Brittany). We have packed away our riding boots forever and had our fur coats patched for a sixth winter. We drive the car we got for a wedding present, kept for sentiment originally. We have given up clubs, golf, tennis, anything that involves fees and tips. We have forgotten what it feels like to see a play from its own level, almost to see one at all. Nowadays we see only what looks like being immortal, and that from directly overhead. We remember that once we used to pay a hundred dollars for an evening dress, and wore orchids, and went first class to Europe on ships with hanging gardens. It seems quite mad to us now — and very vulgar.

Because, while it may be the rationalization about which we talked so glibly when it was the thing, when we go out for dinner now in our six-ninetyfive evening dress with our hands smelling faintly of onions, we consider the three footmen and the gardenia’d shoulders of our hostess and think the whole show is distinctly bad taste. ‘Three thousand dollars,’ we murmur to our host, ‘yes, that would make it worth the wine merchant’s while.’ In fact, we want to say, that is an annual income. . . . But our host would smell socialism, brick-throwing — and it is fun to eat what one has n’t cooked oneself. Our host has not had our advantages. The kitchen sink is a place for long deep thought.


Now that we have had time to become what we are, we find that we have developed a new social code, a new set of manners, a new standard of living. To be really happily married now is essential. One can’t maintain appearances by taking long trips and seeing other people constantly. Where we used to discuss at boarding school the ideal of being half wife, half mistress, we find now that the essential factor seems to be friendship. If one has no opportunity to worry about keeping one’s love fresh by having separate rooms, it is extraordinary to find how little love is damaged by the whole family’s having to dress in the one bathroom on winter mornings. And when the plumbing bursts it is rather a relief not to have to wonder if one is being the wife or the mistress as one helps to stem the flow. Husbands and wives have to be companions now. Those who married without the problematical desert island in view are out of luck. Where we used to go to night clubs, orchids on shoulder, we stand side by side now in the kitchen, doing the dishes after a party and discussing whether John has really read Proust.

For we are all intellectuals now — husbands and wives alike. After all, if one has to spend long evenings at home for weeks on end, the time can’t all be passed with backgammon and the wife telling the husband what the gland lecturer said. The husband has to read too, in self-defense. The lecture business and t he book trade must be feeling the results of our new lives. In the old days when we worried about new interests and keeping our minds limber we used to fortify ourselves with a series of lectures on current events or modern literature. Now we have to read our newspapers for ourselves — and the books. In the long still country evenings one is discovered if one tries to talk about a book from reading the reviews.

Besides becoming companions with those we married, so to speak, and intellectuals, we have changed our ideas of society and entertaining. We see only the people we really like, and who like us. We can’t afford to feed the others. No longer do we worry about which gown we wore last, or how to bring out our guests. If we have to get dinner for our guests now, we expect them to sing for it. . . . And living in the country makes one’s mind horribly clear about what is worth hearing. No idle gossip; no inside information on the stock market; no girlhood reminiscences, or golf; no cars — unless it is helpful hints about rejuvenation. And when one has taken care of one’s children all day the last thing one wants is to talk about them in the evening or hear about any others. Conversation is reborn.

As for our amusements — we remember the days when we used to think of exercise as a thing apart, almost as of something one bought by the yard. Wonderful to contemplate as one digs and sows and carries water to the chickens (which muscles am I using now?). We take long country walks to rest ourselves. In fact, walking is a luxury if one has to arrange for someone to stay at home with the children while one disports oneself by walking as far away as possible. Sometime we may get back to games with balls. We tell ourselves that we simply have n’t the time for them now, if we had the money. But we try to teach the children to handle balls. Besides laying a foundation for their social success at college, when all else fails one can always go out and play catch. . . .


Which brings us to what we are going to do for our children. While we did not accept ourselves as the New Poor without a struggle, we minded most for our children — material advantages swept away, none of the fine things we meant to do for them possible now.

They will have to learn their languages from books instead of wintering abroad. They will have to get scholarships even to learn them at all. And we shall have to teach them ourselves if they arc to get scholarships. For, whatever views we once held about infant schools, we obviously cannot now pay to have our toddlers taught to do up buttons and squeeze oranges, nor similarly, later, to learn anything that could be taught at home — reading, writing, arithmetic, history, geography. The American public-school system takes so long to teach so little that it becomes expensive, too, in its way. So while we give the baby her bottle we teach little Donald to read at our knee, and in t he corner Edward draws a map of the walk we took yesterday. As the centre of a scene like this one cannot help remembering how one meant to keep up one’s music, or write critical essays. At least one can be sure now that the fruits of one’s labors are sound.

And when we do pay for our children’s education we intend to have them taught. Too many parents, we reflect with some bitterness, have paid to have their children read aloud to by someone with more charm than knowledge. Insist on Greek and Latin and watch the teachers. The primrose path appeals alike to the teachers and the taught.

Our children cannot go to the schools where the cost of tuition includes, as the authorities all too delicately imply, the social advantages. Their conversation about the other boys at school will never sparkle with names of the great. To the monde portrayed in the advertisements of transatlantic liners they are lost. They will never play polo very well, or be golf prodigies or accomplished fliers. They will not make fine collections of stamps or miniature electric railways in their teens. They will have their origins in ‘poor but honest parents’ in the best fairy-tale tradition, and they may even be in the difficult and regrettable position of children whose parents have had to make sacrifices for them.

But they may find that their parents have not done too badly for them. They will be able to take care of themselves wherever they are. They will be able to build, and to grow things—• plants and animals. They will be able to fish and shoot — not clay pigeons, perhaps, or big game, but the sort of thing one eats afterward in an economical way. And they will be able to amuse themselves. In fact, they will have the tastes which England ascribes to country gentlemen and which this country has as yet considered nonessentials in any walk of life, until the tide left us to make what we might of the beach. . . . Quite possibly in their extreme and hearty old age our children will be exchanging the blossoms of the first garden pea and Greek epigrams.

One thing we can give our children, something which the children of more prosperous parents are often denied in these days by the very press of modern living — exposure to books with time to read them. They will not have to cram names, dates, and titles before an examination to be able to say what influenced whom and who was Uncle Toby.

When they go to college no one will be able to present to them a course called ‘The English Novel.’ They will already have given it to themselves — as well as the courses their parents took called ‘Drama’ and ‘Browning’ and ‘Nineteenth-Century Literature.’ They will know something of history and sociology, and arrive at college with that smattering of the sciences which American education endeavors to leave with the graduates. They will want more education than their parents could give them or they can get for themselves.

Whether they will be able to find it or not is beyond their parents’ power to effect. There will probably still be other parents rich enough to ask no more of colleges than that they be safe places to leave offspring through adolescence, and no more of their children than that they be popular and good at games while the teachers administer culture.

Probably our children will be handicapped in many ways, as their parents feel they themselves have been financially handicapped for life. In some respects, however, we seem to be getting on well enough. The test of the reality of our survival or destruction lies with our children, that coming race of horny-handed intellectuals.