A Party on Franklin Street
I WAS born in the house on Franklin Street. My father bought it when he married my mother and took her there as a bride in 1883 to start the business of marriage. The business thrived for exactly thirty years, nineteen of them in the Franklin Street house. They were years of laughter and no tears, of indulgences and no deprivations. For me they were a protracted playtime, made so by the easiest parents that ever a child had. Of the many sprigs of rosemary that will be interspersed in these pages, theirs will be placed with tenderness and love.
Of the houses in our block on Franklin Street the DaCostas’ was one of the most imposing. Mrs. DaCosta was my father’s sister. She was tall, erect, thin, childless, and had no prejudice against the possession of wealth. Her husband, too, was tall, erect, and thin; not only did he have no prejudice against the possession of wealth, but he believed in it.
When my aunt and uncle spoke of giving a big blowout for their twentyfifth wedding anniversary, my mother said it was an excellent idea. This she said audibly; what she probably said to herself was that the Deluge must be approaching when the DaCostas think of giving even a crumb to a carpet sweeper.
My mother, when describing an abject beggar that might come to our door, always used the same simile: ‘He was as hungry as the DaCostas’ mice.’ It was a simile without the similitude of truth. The DaCostas had no mice. Mice aren’t that dumb.
The DaCostas’ house had a side garden that united with a larger garden at the rear, and in this ample area the DaCostas raised weeds. Once Mrs. DaCosta invited some of us boys into the garden to play a novel game which she had thought up. It was to see who could uproot the most weeds, the winner to receive a prize the following Christmas. Unluckily for the winner, who was myself, Mrs. DaCosta didn’t observe Christmas that year.
As for the DaCostas’ promise of underwriting a grand anniversary shindig, it was my mother’s opinion that it was ‘all talk.’
‘Seeing is believing,’ she said to my father, with the skepticism of a rationalist.
My father was completely indifferent about the whole affair, except for one important provision: if the hoopla did actually come off, he would bring his own liquor.
‘I’m going to go protected,’ he said, with emphatic warning.
‘Against what?’ my mother asked.
‘Against lemonade and root beer,’ he answered.
‘Wouldn’t that be an insult?’ said my mother, questioning the propriety of such an act.
‘Not at all,’ said my father, in mock defense of his brother-in-law. ‘DaCosta isn’t touchy about such things.’
The subject was dropped for the longest while, when, one morning at breakfast, my mother revived it by the remark that the DaCosta anniversary was but a month off.
‘I suppose we’ll have to give them a present,’ she said, ‘especially if they’re going to give us something to eat.’
‘A dollar’ll buy a lot nowadays,’ my father replied.
‘How can you get anything in silver for a dollar?’ my mother asked. It was always her pride that she could do more than anyone else could with a dollar, but the impossible was the impossible and she told my father so.
‘Must it be silver?’ he said.
‘You can’t give tin for a silver anniversary,’ she replied.
‘Who said you can’t?’ he shot back, with the special scowl he always reserved for the DaCostas.
An argument was averted when my mother said she would look over our own stock of discarded household silver to see what would ‘respond’ to a little polishing.
‘You don’t need to polish it,’ my father said. ‘Let’s do the thing handsome and give them the tarnish as well.’
Mrs. DaCosta now began to consult with my mother over the inevitable perplexities: Whom should she invite and whom should she not? Where should the affair be given, in the DaCosta home or in a public hall? Was it necessary to engage a caterer or could the DaCosta kitchen — with the assistance of our girl Mary — handle it? Would cake and ice cream be sufficient, or would she have to furnish real food?
‘The only trouble about having real food,’ said Mrs. DaCosta, manifesting some fear, ‘is that we’ll get people we didn’t invite. Food always brings out a crowd.’
‘You won’t get a corporal’s guard if you only have ice cream and cake,’ my mother warned. ‘When people send you presents they expect to use toothpicks.’
Mrs. DaCosta meditated, moving her lips as if in a struggle with addition and multiplication.
‘And you’ll have to have liquor, too,’ my mother said.
Mrs. DaCosta frowned at the thought.
‘I wouldn’t want any rioting and have the police come in on us,’ she said.
‘You’re not going to invite hoodlums, I hope,’ replied my mother.
‘No,’ admitted Mrs. DaCosta, ‘but you know what liquor does once you start with it.’
My mother, indeed, knew. She knew all its tricks and antics and didos. She knew it as an eyewitness and, what furnishes deeper analysis, as an earwitness. She knew it in that peculiar way a wife knows it, but, happily for all of us, she knew it best as a good companion knows it.
Anyway, my mother got the point of Mrs. DaCosta’s words, illustrated by a pitying nod. She didn’t bother to answer them.
On such visits Mrs. DaCosta would leave with all her perplexities intact, only to bring them up again on her next visit. She could never bring herself to the point of making a decision — though, as my mother kept reminding her, the date of the anniversary was drawing near.
‘We don’t have to give the affair exactly on our anniversary,’ Mrs. DaCosta said one day, refusing to be hurried or jostled. ‘When Fourth of July falls on a Sunday they always celebrate it on a Monday, don’t they?’
It was a fine point, finely raised, and my mother was compelled to yield.
‘If we’re going to give away a lot of good hot food to folks,’ Mrs. DaCosta went on, ‘ they’ll take it when we want to give it.’
‘You talk as if you were opening a soup kitchen,’ my mother frankly told her. ‘You seem to forget that these people are spending money on you, too.’
Mrs. DaCosta’s face tinted brightly at the thought. She said: ‘I hope nobody will be foolish enough to send us expensive presents.’
‘They can’t give you tin for a silver wedding,’ my mother said.
‘No, that’s very true,’ Mrs. DaCosta agreed.
Finally the DaCostas made up their minds, and came in one evening to announce that they had engaged Haydn Hall for the affair and that Fred Heimgärtner, the Hall’s caterer, would handle the banquet from beginning to end.
‘Heimgärtner’s a public poisoner,’ was my father’s immediate comment.
Mrs. DaCosta was taken back. Heimgärtner, she said, had shown her a variety of menus of his banquets, any one of which was fit to set before the President of the United States.
‘Careful, there!’ cautioned my father. ‘That’s treason.’
‘He told us he raises all his own squabs,’ chimed in Mr. DaCosta.
‘He means all his own sparrows,’ my father said. ‘He raises them right out in front of his door.’
This revolted my mother and she asked my father to please shut up. Mr. and Mrs. DaCosta, too, were extremely annoyed.
My mother, to change the subject, asked what Heimgärtner was charging per head.
‘Well,’ explained Mrs. DaCosta slowly and uncertainly, ‘he has a menu for one dollar and a menu for two dollars and a very fine menu for three dollars.'
‘Take the dollar one,’ advised my father. ‘You’ll get nothing and it’ll taste better.’
Not to be brushed aside by interruptions, my mother asked again what Heimgärtner was charging, and Mrs. DaCosta, with her customary direct evasiveness, answered her.
‘We haven’t decided yet which one of the three we’ll take,’ she said.
‘I thought,’ said Mr. DaCosta, ‘he’d invite us to sample each of the three meals on three different days, but he didn’t.’
‘That’s what he should have done,’ said Mrs. DaCosta. ‘Then we’d not be buying a pig in a poke.’
My father introduced a new point of view into the discussion. He asked: ‘How can you decide on what to pay before you’ve formed some idea of the value of each guest’s present — and what that present will likely yield when melted down?’
‘Don’t try to be funny,’ Mrs. DaCosta said.
‘I have another idea,’ said my father. ‘Why not have three different-priced tables and group the guests according to their gifts?’
‘You’d better save your suggestions for mercenary people,’ Mrs. DaCosta coldly replied.
Mr. DaCosta resented my father’s insuavity as much as did his wife, but he was a man who shrank from turbulence of any kind and had once or twice in his lifetime run afoul of my father’s bluster in controversy. He sat quietly, a tolerant smile lighting his face, as becomes a man of peace and meditation.
‘I think you’re going about the whole thing very sensibly,’ said my mother to Mrs. DaCosta, a woman to whom encouragement or disencouragement meant nothing, once her mind was made up to do a thing.
‘I think so, too,’ said Mrs. DaCosta, with the contentment of a deed well done. ‘At least, everybody will go home with a good hot meal in their stomachs.’
Somehow, she could not rid her mind of the belief that what she was organizing was a beneficent undertaking — like Christmas dinners, with turkey and cranberry sauce, for the poor, or outings to the seashore for crippled children. It was a kind of mesmeric operation that she performed on her egoism, enabling her to bask in the trance of a good act. Her husband, too, lost sight of the purely social basis of the function.
‘Everyone,’ he said, with a patronizing air, ‘will be taken care of just as if he was paying for it himself.’
‘Nobody must feel that they’re getting charity,’ added Mrs. DaCosta.
‘Absolutely not,’ agreed Mr. DaCosta.
‘Yes,’ said my father, ‘to give without seeming to give is a great talent. The anonymous benefactor is the true benefactor. And there’s an idea! Why don’t you two make this an anonymous banquet and stay away?’
The idea was silently tabled.
My father continued his raking. ‘One thing’s important,’ he said with very solemn warning. ‘See that the champagne is cold.’
‘There’ll be no intoxicants of any kind,’ replied Mrs. DaCosta with the finality of a police regulation. ‘This isn’t a jamboree.’
‘What if a guest brings his own?’ he asked.
Mrs. DaCosta was unprepared for the question. She and her husband exchanged glances and telepathically conferred for a moment. Then she said: ‘Of course, we can’t very well tell our guests what to do, can we? If some of them want to bring their own liquor, I suppose we’ll just have to close our eyes to it.’
Mr. DaCosta concurred and nodded in satisfaction over the solving of a problem that might easily have led to the broader one of personal rights and freedom of action, ending in something called The People v. DaCosta, with judgment and costs for the plaintiff. It was very fortunate that my father brought it up, though it only decided an academic point.
It was long, long afterwards — fully five months past the date of the DaCosta anniversary — that my mother one day mentioned that she had seen very little of the DaCostas since the evening of their last visit.
‘Do you miss them?’ my father inquired.
My mother didn’t answer. She was having some interior merriment, for a smile broader than it was long lighted up her face.
‘I wonder what ever became of that party they were going to give,’ she said.
‘It must have slipped their minds,’ replied my father.