by GRETCHEN FINLETTER
MY parents fell that our summer holidays were too long. It was disintegrating to lie fallow for four months. In the summer, children could learn — and learn thoroughly —all those things that schools claimed there was no time for. Languages, music and other arts, great literature — there was no limit to how the time could be applied. Even if one could give to it only a couple of hours a day, one could really learn French or get Sir Walter Scott’s whole set under one’s belt if the work was done regularly. Spring after spring my mother and father hopefully planned, and summer after summer my sisters and I successfully thwarted their efforts.
There were various reasons for these dreadful failures. In the first place the summer months were of such uneven length: June and July were normal, but August went by in a week, and September was over before it began. Our summer holiday seemed to us about two months long, with a little extra time at the end.
One or the other of us often had a disagreeable letter from school, suggesting that we work off a condition in Latin, or re-do some algebra against an examination in the autumn. These assignments, though not on the surface so stimulating as something my father had up his sleeve, had the urgency of reality. There was an old wives’ tale that children studied for the love of knowledge. At this time we worked only for marks.
But one important reason for these failures in living the higher life was that my parents became bored with it all. The work demanded a certain persistence on their part, — always met with stubborn resistance by their daughters, — and their efforts never lasted long enough to achieve the desired goal. To announce that at breakfast everyone would speak German ought to be an easy way to make us conversationally fluent. But after a couple of mornings my mother, who did not speak German, found she did not like being inarticulate. She would find something in the papers that interested her and want to discuss it with my father — and who were we to remind them that we were eating in another tongue.
Though my sisters and I did not want to learn anything that was chosen for us, we had of course ambitions. Lying in a hammock with one’s eyes fixed on a floating cloud, it was fun to dream of being beautiful and famous, and the more vaporous or vaulting the dream, the more possible did its fulfillment seem. We understood too much about music to feel that careers lay ahead for us there. We knew the work; we knew how good you had to be. We had professional standards. But to be a great actress or writer was conceivable and probable.
Secretly we attempted creations in various forms. We indulged in that unparalleled joy of “starting things.” On one bedroom door or another a sign would appear: “Keep Out. No One Must Enter on Pain of Death.” We had notebooks with locks and keys. On the first page of Polly’s book was written:
This Means You, Gretchen!
My father decided we should read all of Shakespeare aloud, each taking a part. When he realized how many copies of how many plays this would necessitate, he reduced the plan. We were to start with Julius Caesar, and he ordered five copies.
I think he was a little startled when he looked over the cast, He remembered Caesar as including some good rousing speeches between Antony and Brutus. He had forgotten that there were some thirty-two other characters, besides senators, citizens, guards, and attendants. It seemed almost impossible to divide these all up. My father, however, decided to be Brutus. We tossed for who should read Antony, and second place went to Caesar. The other parts were to be read around in rotation.
To emphasize the seriousness of the reading, my father decided it was to take place indoors. The dogs were banished outside and lay in an unhappy group just beyond the screen door. We sat in an uneasy circle around my father as he announced: “‘Act One. Scene One. Rome. A street.’”
The curtain rose and my father opened as Flavius, in a ringing voice. Alice as Marullus, and I as the Carpenter, jumped in with equal loudness. Polly rotated into the Cobbler and decided to play him as a cracked old man.
“’But what trade art thou? Answer me directly,’” demanded Alice.
“‘A trade, sir, that I hope I may use with a safe conscience; which is, indeed, sir, a mender of bad soles,'” responded Polly.
“‘What trade, thou knave? thou naughty knave, what trade?’” my father shouted.
“’Nay,'” answered Polly, sinking her voice into a senile whisper, “‘I beseech you, sir, be not out with me; yet, if you be out, sir, I can mend you.’”
The rest of us broke out into wild laughter, and there was a sympathetic thumping of tails from the porch.
“You must be serious,” exclaimed my father.
“But it’s supposed to be funny.”
“Not that funny,” said my father, but we continued convulsed with our own interpretations.
Now Shakespeare is often obscure — it would seem at times meaningless. I read: —
To touch Calpurnia; for our elders say,
The barren, touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.’”
“I don’t understand that at all. What’s it about?” I asked.
“It’s perfectly simple,” said my father, and he studied the passage. “Never mind what it means. It’s the spirit we’re after.” He glanced ahead. “Ah, good. Here comes the Soothsayer. I’ll act. him.”
He sprang to the piano and played some minor chords as he announced in a sepulchral voice: “‘Beware the ides of March.”’
My father had invited my mother to listen to the play, but she refused. She never liked being read aloud to. If my father found a poem that pleased him or one of Finley Peter Dunne’s Dooley articles that amused him, he wanted to read it immediately, with dialect, and he did it extremely well. But he needed an audience, and my mother was often the most convenient ear.
“Sit down, Margaret, and listen to this. You’ll enjoy it.”
My mother would sit for about a minute listening, but then a strange restlessness would seize her. First she would straighten a vase of flowers on the mantel, then tweak the window shades to make them even, and finally walk about swatting flies with a newspaper. My father seemed to find this distracting.
“You’re not listening. Sit down.”
“I am listening. It’s very good. Go on.” And my mother would sink to a chair again but start picking burrs out of the dog’s hair.
IT HAS been said that in happy marriages husbands and wives often grow to look like each other and eventually evolve a common character. This has not been the case with my mother and father. Over the years their personalities have met, head on, and I have never seen that either one made the slightest dent on the other’s character. But what astonished their daughters were the storm signals, which we recognized only too easily as indicating some big divergence between them and trouble ahead, but which always caught them unaware.
As children we knew that my mother hated surprises and that my father liked them; that my mother loved picnics and being lost in the woods in the rain and that such things disturbed my father; that he liked certain kinds of European food which my mother would not touch. And yet year after year my father hopefully surprised my mother, my mother tramped my father over mountains with only a sandwich and no path-map, and he continued to urge on her food that she would not eat.
Neither ever gave up in trying to change the other and they were continuously thunderstruck at their differences. But perhaps the deeper truth, which we were too young to understand, lay in the fact that neither one enjoyed anything very much unless the other shared it; and if my father wanted to read something aloud, and in the middle of it my mother decided to mow the lawn, my father still found her his best and favorite audience.
My mother’s efforts with summer work were a little more successful than my father’s because they were not so grandiose. She gave us the choice on Sundays of going to church or having a Bible lesson at home. We learned a psalm, but then we learned anything else that seemed to her important. We memorized among other things the second verse of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and Taft’s cabinet.
My mother had bought a great many towels which had no monograms and we marked them with a cross-stitched “D” during the Sunday mornings. The cross-stitch book had some designs of coats of arms, and during the summer the D’s became surrounded with heraldic standards. Alice, who was the most ambitious, stitched on Turkish towels the emblems of the Houses of Warwick and Hastings and, tracing her designs from an old book, put the rampant lion of Fraunceys over the washrags.
“Who is Secretary of State?” asked my mother.
“Philander C. Knox.”
“Secretary of War?”
“Jacob M. Dickinson.”
“Secretary of the Navy?”
“George von L. Meyer. Pass over the blue thread for azure on the garter of Beaufort.”
“Secretary of Commerce and Labor?”
“Charles Nagel. Now can we go swimming? It’s twelve o’clock.”
“Not yet. Attorney General, Postmaster General, Secretary of the Interior.”
“George W. Wickersham, Frank H. Hitchcock, Richard A. Ballinger.”
We started toward the lake.
“You’ve forgotten the Treasury,” my mother called after us.
“Franklin MacVeagh!” we shouted back. The Bible lesson was over.
Another effort of my mother was to improve the tone of conversation at table. If members of a family see each other constantly at meals, talk is likely to degenerate into personalities often emphasized by swift kicks under the table. We were requested to make no remarks about each other’s physical or spiritual shortcomings. This reduced us to chitchat about our friends and neighbors, and children quite as much as grownups find the odd or eccentric more interesting to analyze than the nobler traits of their fellows.
None of us liked Dr. Colton, the local doctor. He didn’t stay a doctor. He was quite a lady’s man, and he also played a rather feverish game of tennis. We did not approve of seeing him one day in a white coat, advising something disagreeable, and the next day in a turtle-neck sweater, making what we felt was a fool of himself on the court by serving a very easy ball to the ladies and then apologizing as though it had been an ace. He was for us always a good subject of conversation and we vied with each other in pointing out his weaknesses.
“Everyone around the table must say something nice about Dr. Colton,” ordered my mother.
There was a long pause and then Anita remarked: “Dr. Colton had a bath last Tuesday.”
“I forbid you to say that!” cried my mother.
“Dr. Colton did not have a bath last Tuesday,” answered Anita quickly.
My father unfortunately laughed.
My mother, however, did not give up. She was an omnivorous newspaper reader and she planned to have conversation center on some event that had been reported in the press. She also wanted us to get the habit of reading the news, particularly of the political scene, in which she was the most interested.
Sometimes the papers were hard to get hold of, for Minnie read them with equal fervor at night. With two candles lit by her bed, she first turned each page hopefully to see if my father or any member of his family might by some lucky chance be in the news. Then, convinced that there was nothing worth clipping out for her relatives in Sweden, she relaxed into the Harry K. Thaw case and the papers rustled for hours.
Minnie kept most of the Thaw episodes from us, but simpler and bloodier crimes she shared. Sitting on her bed as we picked the tallow from the candles, we discussed with her the strange case of Dr. Crippen. Minnie was absorbed in Dr. Crippen but felt more deeply about his accomplice, Miss Le Neve, whom she thought guiltier.
“What’s a paramour, Minnie?”
A paramour was a woman who always ended in the electric chair. Minnie was ready with the chair for any woman mixed up with crime. She resented it when the female sex did not behave well, and she wanted justice to move fast. When Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve arrived on the ship at Quebec disguised as father and son, Minnie was in a fever of excitement. She would have liked to board the boat with the detectives and accuse the dreadful Ethel personally. Dr. Crippen was wicked, but Ethel Le Neve, Minnie was convinced, had singlehandedly chopped up Mrs. Crippen.
START a topic,” said my mother at lunch.
We knew that unless we moved quickly we should be cut out of the conversation entirely and become listeners, a position in which none of us ever wittingly allowed herself to be placed. We also knew that my mother did not admit crime as a topic, though she knew that we knew that she and my father were also reading about the current murder. One or the other of us floundered about with some odd fragment of information, but it did not produce sparkling talk.
Then one morning manna came down from heaven. A perfect news story broke. It began as adventure. It became a mystery. It was one of the great controversies of the time. Blazoned across the papers were the headlines: “Dr. Frederick Cook Discovers the North Pole.” Five days later a message was flashed from Indian Harbor, Labrador: “Have made good at last,” and Peary declared that he had reached the Pole.
The papers could not arrive early enough. We did not save our views for mealtime. All of us became absorbed in the fantastic story. Was the amiable Dr. Cook a fraud? Three days after his announcement, he arrived in Copenhagen and received a welcome such as the world had never seen. He was in London for a royal audience when he heard the news of Peary.
“There is glory enough for both,” said Cook pleasantly.
This already had a fishy smell. Why was he so ready to share his place as the man of the hour? Had the grim Peary been cheated by him of the just reward of the first acclaim? The detractors of Peary asked why he had left Captain Bartlett, his last white assistant, over a hundred miles from the Pole and taken with him for the final dash, as witness, a Negro. One photograph of Peary and Bartlett shaking hands together at the top of the world would spike any story of a Peary hoax.
The defenders of Peary declared that it was a beautiful, symbolic idea of Peary’s that the white man and the black man should make the greatest discovery of the age together. Backwards and forwards went the arguments. Dr. Cook was voluble with the reporters. Peary proudly scorned to argue and stood on his record.
I elected to defend Dr. Cook against all my family. The reasons for this were neither noble nor very complicated. I identified myself with Dr. Cook. He was misunderstood and I was going through a period of feeling very misunderstood myself. I was not so good a swimmer as my sisters and I could not dive. Day after day I jumped from the springboard, holding my nose, amid hoots of ridicule. Alice had had the proud distinction of injuring herself by a double somersault, height sixteen feet. I envied her wounds. Basely I thought they might be selfinflicted to make her seem important.
Alice came into the dining room and sat down stiffly, the living example of the words that were the most hateful to my ears — “a good sport.” I sat opposite her, my hair still wet from my humiliating leaps into the water.
“I tell you, Alice, Dr, Cook got there first. Your old Peary never even had the idea till he heard about Cook.”
Alice eyed me calmly. “Would you mind passing me the butter. I can’t reach it because of my sprained shoulder.”
She was the gallant Peary. I was the craven Cook.