Courage and Convictions



CERTAIN principles are confused in the mind of a child. Grown-up people are busy; but unless issues are properly explained, great walls of misunderstanding can arise. Children are loyal; and if their parents feel deeply about some cause, they will feel deeply also, though often they haven’t the faintest idea what it is about.

When I was very little, I felt that there was something wrong about being a Democrat. I didn’t know what a Democrat was, where he fitted in, — I wasn’t even sure he was an American, — but I did know he was an outcast. My mother was the daughter of a great Republican leader, James G. Blaine, and I knew that that was something to be very proud of. I had heard my mother and my aunt talk over campaigns and elections where his leadership had been challenged. Even when I was very small I knew the bitter feelings that can arise in political life.

One summer day my cousin Walker and I — we were about five years old — were walking through the woods at Bar Harbor. We were considering adventuring on a new path where with luck we might get lost. As we debated this possibility, we saw coming toward us a young man in white flannels — Amos Pinchot. We told him of our problem. He was sympathetic and pointed out a new path that he would take us on some day, and where he promised us we should be well lost. Then he pulled out of his pocket two buttons and pinned them on our chests.

“Wear these and your mothers will do what you ask,” he told us.


“Anything,” he promised us.

On each button was the face of an eagle-eyed man with hair that curled over his collar. Underneath the face were some letters, but we did not know how to read.

We wore our buttons hopefully in to lunch, eager to see how soon their magic would begin. My aunt was the first to notice them.

“What have you got on?” she asked.

“Mr. Pinchot gave them to us,” I told her proudly.

My aunt started to laugh. “Margaret, look. They’re Bryan buttons!”

My mother did not take it so lightly. “Get rid of them immediately!” she cried. “No one can wear a Bryan button in this house. Destroy them.”

Walker and I bolted upstairs to the bathroom, where we disposed of the buttons. Walker was more informed than I. “He’s a Democrat,” he told me.

I had often heard the Democratic Party spoken of with great disapproval. To me a party meant ice cream and chocolate cake, so I assumed from the gloomy reports that when the Democrats gave their parties they were always failures. I often wondered what went wrong. Did the guests not arrive, or was it like so many parties — not quite so much fun as one had expected? The Republican parties, I gathered, were great successes. Everyone came.

When I grew a little older and did begin faintly to understand that this all referred to a political structure, the first picture was so engraved on my mind that when the parties were referred to, I continued to see a lace cloth and candies and the ever present threat that something was going to spoil the occasion. To this day I cannot rid myself of that first impression. My mother imbued us with so strong a feeling of loyalty to the Republican Party that when I have deviated and voted the Democratic ticket, I have done so with a sense of wrong toward her, and I am still nervous about telling her.

At the last election, I confessed to her that I was going to vote again for President Roosevelt. My mother told me to do what I thought was right. This gesture on her part, which was a big gesture, only increased my old sense of guilt; and as I stood in the polling booth, the same picture rose to my eyes again, of the tables covered with snappers and cakes, and I was sitting at the table where something might go wrong. I wasn’t at my mother s party.


MY MOTHER told us not to talk about Catholics at table. I am not sure that it was as direct as that, but if the word “Catholic” came up in conversation she would say, “Hush,” and look at the pantry door. We frequently had nice Irish maids and my mother must have been afraid that something carelessly said might hurt their feelings. Actually I do not think any of us would conceivably have made an attack on the Church, because, except for a little colorful reading on the Inquisition and some history of the Holy Roman Empire (“Give its boundaries”), we were completely ignorant about Catholicism. But because of the “Hush” and the look at the pantry, I became convinced that there was something very wrong and quite unmentionable about being a Catholic.

If my father suddenly sang “The Pope, He Leads a Happy Life,” I was in a panic. The fact that the current Lizzie or Norah smiled broadly did not matter. My father was doing something dangerous, and the Pope — well, almost like the Holy Ghost — should never, never be mentioned.

Alice told me she had a friend at school who was a “you know what.”

“She goes,” said Alice, letting her voice sink, “to Confessional.”

“What does she confess?” I whispered.

“Her Sins!” said Alice.

I was back in a novel of Sir Walter Scott.

“Point her out to me,” I begged. “I just want to look at her.”

One day I took my courage in my hands and went alone on a weekday to a Catholic church. I was as furtive as any criminal. I had prepared a speech if I was challenged at the door. I was going to say, “Sure, I’m waiting for me aunt, Lizzie Dougherty.”

I felt I could make it right with Lizzie later. My father had taken me to a performance of Manon, so I suppose I expected to see a number of ladies in satin evening dresses, with black veils over their heads, adoringly following an abbé as they sang: —

“Quelle éloquence!
L’admirable orateur!
Quelle abondance!
Le grand prédicateur! . . .
C’est lui, c’est l’abbé Des Grieux,
Voyez comme il baisse les yeux!”

No one spoke to me. I sat down in a pew fearful of making a flagrant mistake which would unmask me. Then I knelt and looked about. A woman lit a candle by an altar and placed it with some other candles. Then she sank to her knees and prayed. A man with two children sat quietly in another pew. A couple were walking up one of the side aisles looking at the religious paintings. A priest followed by two little boys passed in front of the altar, genuflected, and went through a door. I was left alone, to think, to watch. I found I liked it.

This visit weighed on my conscience like going to a matinee on a schoolday and I finally told my mother. She received the news calmly.

“I used to go to the services when I lived at the convent,” she told me.

“When you lived where!é I exclaimed.

“When I was at the Sacré-Coeur at school,” said my mother.

My mother then told me of the winter she had spent at the Sacred Heart Convent in Paris. This turned my world upside down. My mother had lived in a convent. What was more, she made it sound human and not strange at all. Why then was there such a conspiracy of silence when the word “Catholic” was mentioned?


ANOTHER “Hush” was given if anyone spoke of a summer plan, particularly if there was a hint of a trip to Europe involved. Apparently at the mention of a foreign country, a walkout strike might occur on the other side of the pantry door. My mother and father would start talking to each other in rapid French concerning “Londres pour deux semaines,” but I used to wonder if a smart maid didn’t catch on even more quickly than I did as to what was up.

It is hard to keep secrets in a big family. Children are unconscious detectives and have their own methods of getting information. One great help to my sisters and me was the registers that went like an internal communication service through the house. When they were opened they blew out medium or cold air, according to the floor, some coal dust, and human sounds.

My mother’s register was directly below Alice’s and mine and we learned a great deal of what she and my father were up to, particularly when we dried our hair. Before the days of movie stars, hair was not washed every twenty-four hours. It was washed — hard — at rare intervals by Minnie, with ammonia and tar soap. Then we dried it by the register, where a little coal dust was added to it again, and we listened to my parents. January was the best month for getting the news. The house was always freezing and everyone opened every register. The sounds were mingled and it took a certain ingenuity to separate the reports accurately. Alice and I would crouch on the floor with towels over our shoulders and listen.

“Will ye kindly use the knife for the butter and keep your big spoon do re me fa sol why don’t you meet me in Denver for the California tour the children will be all right for a few play B flat for God’s sake Anita you took the cream I saw you Alma Gluck will be soloist and we’ll have a jolly time.”

So my mother was going to join my father on the orchestra tour. This was the big news. We listened to it with mingled feelings. It would mean more freedom for us, but it would also mean, we knew from experience, that the household would temporarily fall to pieces.

When my mother left on these trips, life continued normally for about five days. But Minnie, a suspicious dragon, was waiting, as we all were, for the crack-up. The first warning came when our ring was not answered for a long time and the front door was finally opened by the cook in a pink peek-a-boo blouse. We apologized because she had been put to this trouble, and she answered that she did not know where Jenny was. Jenny appeared late to serve supper, and her head was covered with curls.

That night the “cousins” arrived. The cousins were all young men of about twenty-three, handsome and assured, and were waiting in the areaway. The next night they were inside the kitchen and giving a dance. The house shook from the pounding of feet; wild shrieks, laughter, and the sound of an accordion came up registers and hallways. Minnie, walking up and down like a Cassandra in an apron, cried out warnings on the Irish, my parents, America, and said she would call the police. But the police were cousins. The next morning we did nothing. At supper whipped cream appeared on the cocoa as a reward for keeping our mouths shut, and for two days everything was calm again. Then there was another party; card games, prizes, a reel, and a late supper.

As the time drew near for my mother’s return, a mysterious change took place. The floors were waxed, my mother’s curtains were washed, and Jenny told us how lonesome and silent the house had seemed without “your dear mother attending to things.” It was as though we had dreamed about the gayeties. And when my mother appeared, tired from a long continental trip, we couldn’t meet her with bad news. We kept to our whipped-cream agreement of saying nothing.

My mother in terms of today was tough on her household, and the word “appeasement” had not yet been invented. Maids either left in a series of quick turnovers or stayed for many years. My mother was not only clear-cut on what she wanted, but she expected the work to be done in what she called “a cheerful spirit.” With what seems to me now incredible courage, she would inform a heavily breathing cook, who had climbed three flights of stairs to hear the good news, that my father had invited sixteen people to a late supper and it must be hot because my father loathed cold food. I would listen, trembling, to the dialogue.

“Sure, Mrs. Damrosch, that stove won’t heat right and it’s my Thursday night off.”

“Norah,” said my mother, “the stove has never had anything done to it for twenty years. I will try to give you another night out if I can arrange it, later in the month. But smile, Norah, take that frown off your face!” And unbelievable as it sounds, Norah produced a watery smile and tottered down again quite cheerfully to her basement kitchen.

The maids all respected my mother for her fairness and knew that she would go to endless trouble if they were sick or in difficulties. But what they admired her for was her courage. My mother had moral courage but she possessed what I think is the rarer trait, great physical bravery.

Many children seem to have very beautiful early impressions of their mother — a berceuse, a figure in white picking roses. A first memory of my mother was seeing her in the dead center of a dogfight trying to separate a bulldog’s jaws from a Scotch terrier’s throat. The sounds were hideous, a high, hysteric yelping, as my mother whirled both dogs around several feet off the ground, occasionally stopping to put her fist into the bulldog’s mouth in an effort to pry it wider open.

Over the years we had many dogs and there were many fights. At one time we kept a hose permanently coiled and ready for an eternal feud that went on between a police dog and a Scottie. As the hair on Kebo, the police dog, began to rise, we started the water trickling through the nozzle, which was turned on to full power only when Locky appeared, walking stiff-legged and muttering to himself.

Once a cacophony of sounds broke out beyond the music room where my father was playing the piano. He stopped abruptly. “Get your mother!” he shouted. “She likes dogfights.”

It took my mother, whose wrist carried the imprint of several teeth, a full week to forgive him.

The dogs loved my mother for this fearlessness, and when one of them was badly hurt, he would limp to her knowing she would pick him up in her arms no matter how much he was bleeding. And when the end drew near for some old friend, my mother would put him away herself, alone in the stable, holding his paw till the last.

My sisters and I went through a period of great tenderheartedness for animals, which reached the last stages of morbidity. Polly decided that she knew how it felt to be a horse. She took the checkrains off all horses that she saw in the village and hid or stole the whips. A drive with Polly was a slow affair. There were frequent stops to give the horse water, to brush the bluebottles off him, to let him eat some grass because he must be hungry; and when a little hill appeared, Polly would force her passenger to get out with her and walk beside the horse so that he wouldn’t get tired.

I was worried about the fate of flies. Instead of killing them, I tried to let them out through the screen door so that they could rejoin their families. I had to shepherd them as a flock through two rooms, and the flies would not stay in a compact group. I destroyed flypaper as soon as it appeared because the death buzz was so agonizing. I tried to argue this out with my mother, winding up with the question: —

“How would you like to be a fly?”

“Gammon!” said my mother.


AT THIS time cars were not common, and country homes could be lonely places at dusk. For many years we had only oil lamps and candles, and it was not possible to snap on lights over doorways or along passages. We lit lamps in the rooms that we were using, and carried candles elsewhere.

One twilight a tramp came through the grounds and wandered up to the back door. Polly and I saw him from an upper window and our hearts welled over for this poor, shabby man. Norah looked at his red eyes and blue chin, got a whiff of his breath, and immediately as a matter of course called for my mother. Norah was younger than my mother and about seventy-five pounds heavier.

When my mother appeared, the tramp began to tell her in a low, whining voice that his feet hurt, that he was out of work, sleeping God knows where —

“Take off your hat when you are speaking to a lady!” commanded my mother.

Startled, the tramp pulled off his cap.

“You can’t get work?” asked my mother.

“It’s food I need to get my strength back, and a bed, and a little money for shoes — ”

“You may split that wood into kindling,” announced my mother, “and when it’s done I’ll give you thirty-five cents.” My mother, for some unknown reason, always made her financial arrangements in odd figures.

The last thing the tramp wanted was work. He wanted a couple of dollars and with no trouble to himself. He then made a big mistake. An ugly light came into his eye and he started to threaten my mother.

“It’s the rich like you in your fine homes that will deny a poor man a crust. I won’t be treated like a dog. I want a dollar and you’d better get it quick!”

My mother’s face turned the color of claret.

“I am going to stand here and count to ten, and if you are not off my property by the last count, I’ll throw you off the place myself!”

The tramp looked at my mother. My mother looked back at him fiercely. It was growing darker. Norah had slunk inside the door, while Polly and I from our window watched with absorbed interest. We didn’t know which we wanted to win.

“One — two — three —” began my mother.

The tramp stood his ground.

“Four — five —” my mother continued at the same pace. “ Six — seven — ”

By eight the tramp wavered and at nine he was shambling down the road muttering to himself.

“Sure, you’re the fighting cock!” exclaimed Norah admiringly.

“That poor, hungry man,” Polly and I cried out. “How could you be so mean and scare him so!”

“Double gammon,” said my mother.

Once a fracas took place which assumed considerable proportions. It was in the city on election day, and our windows were filled with campaign posters. A man who must have started the morning with a good many drinks came weaving down the street, saw the posters in our windows, and decided that this was his polling booth. Just as he was about to enter the house, my mother opened the door prepared to go out.

“What do you want?” asked my mother.

The man did not answer but tried to push past her so that he could cast his vote quickly. My mother jumped in front of him and barred the entrance.

“You can’t come in here like this!” she cried.

“Ish my right,” said the man thickly, “my inalienable right.”

“Get out!” cried my mother.

The man gave a big shove. “Ish my right,” he repeated. “Ish inalienable. I’m coming in.”

My mother tried to throw him back again but he was bigger than she, and she saw that she needed help.

“Children,” she shouted, “there’s a man out here who wants to kill your father!”

I do not know what made her reach this conclusion so rapidly, but she was excited and had apparently convinced herself that this must be his intention.

Two of us ran out and saw my mother and a murderer locked in a struggle in the entranceway. We jumped beside her and tried to push him down the stone steps so that he would fall on his head backwards. The man was now aroused. The spirit of the Constitution flamed up in him, and come hell or high water, he was determined to get in and cast his vote.

“I’m an American shitizen. I’m the only one that’s got the right to go in there.”

“How dare you!” exclaimed my mother.

“You haven’t got the franchishe!” And he gave her a baleful but triumphant look.

This was too much for my mother. Not only was this man an assassin but he was an anti-suffragist.

“You’ll get the electric chair for this,” she told him briefly.

At this moment my father came up the street and saw his wife and two of his daughters battling on the stoop with a stranger whose hat had been knocked off and whose tie was on backwards.

“Stay away, Walter!” screamed my mother. “He wants to kill you!”

My father was infuriated — not against the man, but because my mother assumed that he needed her protection and couldn’t fight for himself. He came rushing up the steps to join in but was still sufficiently cool to tell one of us to run to the election booth at the corner and get a policeman.

It took a good deal of explaining when the policeman came pounding down the block to drag the man away. Weakly my mother sat down on the top step.

“But, Margaret,” protested my father, “why didn’t you listen to his story and find out what he wanted?”

“There wasn’t time. I thought he was going to shoot you.”

“He was going to vote, probably the Republican ticket, and now they’ve taken him off and you’ve lost that vote for your side!”

My mot her looked more stricken than if he’d killed my father.

“He was a Democrat,” we comforted her.

“Then I did right,” said my mother.