The Grandmother

Mary Heaton Vorse

From The Whole Family: A Novel by Twelve Authors (Harper & Brothers Publishers; New York: 1908)
Chapter III.

The position of an older woman in her daughter's house is often difficult. It makes no difference to me that Ada is a mother herself; she might be even a great-grandmother, and yet in my eyes she would still be Ada, my little girl. I feel the need of guiding her and protecting her just as much this minute as when she was a baby in the nursery; only now the task is much more difficult. That is why I say that the position of women placed as I am is often hard, harder than if I lived somewhere else, because although I am with Ada I can no longer protect her from anything — not even from myself, my illnesses and weaknesses. It sometimes seems to me, so eagerly do I follow the lights and shadows of my daughter's life, as if I were living a second existence together with my own. Only as I grow older I am less fitted physically to bear things, even though I take them philosophically.

When Ada and the rest of my children were little, I could guard against the menaces to their happiness; I could keep them out of danger; if their little friends didn't behave, I sent them home. When it was needed, I didn't hesitate to administer a good wholesome spanking to my children. There isn't one of these various things but needs doing now in Ada's house. I can't, however, very well spank Cyrus, nor can I send Elizabeth home. All I can do is to sit still and hold my tongue, though I don't know, I'm sure, what the end of it all is to be.

Life brings new lessons at every turn in the road, and one of the hardest of all is the one we older people have to learn — to sit still while our children hurt themselves, or, what is worse, to sit still while other people hurt our children. It is especially hard for me to bear, when life is made difficult for my Ada, for if ever any one deserved happiness my daughter does. I try to do justice to every one, and I hope I am not unfair when I say that the best of men, and Cyrus is one of them, are sometimes blind and obstinate. Of all my children, Ada gave me the least trouble, and was always the most loving and tender and considerate. Indeed, if Ada has a fault, it is being too considerate. I could, if she only would let me, help her a great deal more around the house; although Ada is a very good housekeeper, I am constantly seeing little things that need doing. I do my best to prevent the awful waste of soap that goes on, and there are a great many little ways Ada could let me save for her if she would. When I suggest this to her she laughs and says, “Wait till we need to save as badly as that, mother,” which doesn't seem to me good reasoning at all. “Waste not, want not,” say I, and when it comes to throwing out perfectly good glass jars, as the girls would do if I didn't see to it they saved them, why, I put my foot down. If Ada doesn't want them herself to put things up in, why, some poor woman will. I don't believe in throwing things away that may come in handy sometime. When I kept house nobody ever went lacking strings or a box of whatever size, to send things away in, or paper in which to do it up, and I can remember in mother's day there was never a time she hadn't pieces put by for a handsome quilt. Machinery has put a stop to many of our old occupations, and the result is a generation of nervous women who haven't a single thing in life to occupy themselves with but their own feelings, while girls like Peggy, who are active and useful, have nothing to do but to go to school and keep on going to school. If one wanted to dig into the remote cause of things, one might find the root of our present trouble in these changed conditions, for Cyrus's sister, Elizabeth, is one of these unoccupied women. Formerly in a family like ours there would have been so much to do that, whether she liked it or not, and whether she had married or not, Elizabeth would have had to be a useful woman — and now the less said the better.

It is hard, I say, to see the causes for unhappiness set in action and yet do nothing, or, if one speaks, to speak to deaf ears. Oh, it is very hard to do this, and this has been the portion of older women always. Our children sometimes won't even let us dry their tears for them, but cry by themselves, as I know Ada has been doing lately — though in the end she came to me, or rather I went to her, for, after all, I am living in the same world with the rest of them. I have not passed over to the other side yet, and while I stay I am not going to be treated as if I were a disembodied spirit. I have eyes of my own, and ears too, and I can see as well as the next man when things go wrong.

I have always known that no good would come of sending Peggy to a coeducational college. I urged Ada to set her foot down, for Ada didn't wish to send Peggy there, naturally enough, but she wouldn't.

“Well,” said I, “I'm not afraid to speak my mind to your husband.” Now I very seldom open my mouth to Cyrus, or to any one else in this house, for it is more than ever the fashion for people to disregard the advice of others, and the older I get the more I find it wise to save my breath to cool my porridge — there come times, however, when I feel it my duty to speak.

“Mark my words, Cyrus,” I said. “You'll be sorry you send Peggy off to a boys' school. Girls at her age are impressionable, and if they aren't under their mothers' roofs, where they can be protected and sheltered, why, then send them to a seminary where they will see as few young men as possible.”

Cyrus only laughed and said:

“Well, mother, you can say ‘I told you so’ if anything bad comes of it.”

“It's all very well to laugh, Cyrus,” I answered, “but I don't believe in putting difficulties into life that aren't there already, and that's what sending young men and young women off to the same college seems to me!

When Peggy came home engaged, after her last year, everybody was surprised.

“I'm sure I don't know what Cyrus expected,” I said to Ada. “You can't go out in the rain without getting wet. Let us pray that this young man will turn out to be all right, though we know so little about him.” For all we knew was what Peggy told us, and you know the kind of things young girls have to tell one about their sweethearts. Peggy didn't even know what church his people went to! I couldn't bear the thought of that dear child setting out on the long journey of marriage in such a fashion. I looked forward with fear to what Ada might have to go through if it didn't turn out all right. For one's daughter's sorrows are one's own; what she suffers one must suffer, too. It is hard for a mother to see a care-free, happy young girl turn into a woman before her eyes. Even if a woman is very happy, marriage brings many responsibilities, and a woman who has known the terror of watching beside a sick child can never be quite the same, I think. We ourselves grew and deepened under such trials, and we wouldn't wish our daughters to be less than ourselves; but, oh, how glad I should be to have Peggy spared some things! How happy I should be to know that she was to have for her lot only the trials we all must have! I do not want to see my Ada having to bear the unhappiness of seeing Peggy unhappy. Even if Peggy puts up a brave face, Ada will know — she will know just as I have known things in my own children's lives; and I shall know, too. This young man has it in his hands to trouble my old age.

No mother and daughter can live together as Ada and I have without what affects one of us affecting the other. When her babies were born I was with her; I helped her bring them up; as I have grown older, though she comes to me less and less, wishing to spare me, I seem to need less telling; for I know myself when anything ails her.

It amazed me to see how Ada took Peggy's engagement, and when young Henry Goward came to visit, I made up my mind that he should not go away again without our finding out a little, at any rate, of what his surroundings had been, and what his own principles were. As we grow older we see more and more that character is the main thing in life, and I would rather have a child of mine marry a young man of sound principles whom she respected than one of undisciplined character and lax ideas whom she loved. When I said things like this to Ada, she replied:

“I'm afraid you're prejudiced against that poor boy because he and Peggy happened to meet at college.”

I answered: “I am not prejudiced at all, Ada, but I feel that all of us, you especially, should keep our eyes and ears open. Wait! is all I say.”

I know my own faults, for I have always believed that one is never too old for character-building, and I know that being prejudiced is not one of them. I realize too keenly that as women advance in years they are very apt to get set in their ways unless they take care, and I am naturally too fair-minded to judge a man before I have seen him. Maria and Alice were prejudiced, if you like. Maria, indeed, had so much to say to Ada that I interfered, though it is contrary to my custom.

“I should think, Maria,” I said, “that however old you are, you would realize that your father and mother are even better able to judge than you as to their children's affairs.” I cannot imagine where Maria gets her dominant disposition. It is very unlike the women of our family.

When he came, however, Mr. Goward's manners and appearance impressed me favorably. Neither Ada nor Cyrus, as far as I could see, tried in the least to draw him out. I sat quiet for a while, but at last for Peggy's sake I felt I would do what I could to find out his views on important things. I was considerably relieved to hear that his mother was a Van Horn, a very good Troy family and distant connection of mother's.

When I asked him what he was, “My people are Episcopalians,” he replied.

“I suppose that means you are something else?” I asked him.

“I'm afraid it means I'm nothing else,” he answered; and while I was glad he was so honest, I couldn't help feeling anxious at having Peggy engaged to a man so unformed in his beliefs. I do not care so much what people believe, for I am not bigoted, as that they should believe something, and that with their whole hearts. There are a great many young men like Henry Goward, to-day, who have no fixed beliefs and no established principles beyond a vague desire to be what they call “decent fellows.” One needs more than that in this world.

However, I found the boy likable, and everything went smoothly for a time, when all at once I felt something had gone wrong — what, I didn't know. Mr. Goward received a telegram and left suddenly. Ada, I could see, was anxious; Peggy, tearful; and, as if this wasn't enough, Mrs. Temple, our new neighbor, who had seemed a sensible body to me, had some sort of a falling-out with Aunt Elizabeth, who pretended that Mrs. Temple was jealous of her! After Mrs. Temple had gone home, Elizabeth Talbert went around pleased as Punch and swore us all to solemn secrecy never to tell any one about “Mrs. Temple's absurd jealousy.”

“You needn't worry about me, Aunt Elizabeth,” I said. “I'm not likely to go around proclaiming that another woman has made a fool of herself.”

Elizabeth Talbert is one of those women who live on a false basis. She is a case of arrested development. She enjoys the same amusements that she did fifteen years ago. She is like a young fruit that has been put up in a preserving fluid and gives the illusion of youth; the preserving fluid in her case is the disappointment she suffered as a girl. I like useful women — women who, whether married or unmarried, bring things to pass in this world, and Elizabeth does not. Still, I can't help feeling sorry for her, poor thing; in the end our own shortcomings and vanities hurt us more than they hurt any one else. I heartily wish she would get married — I have known women older than Elizabeth, and worse-looking, to find husbands — both for her own sake and for Ada's, for her comings and goings complicate life for my daughter. She diffuses around her an atmosphere of criticism — I do not think she ever returns from a visit to the city without wishing that we should have dinner at night, and Alice is beginning to prick up her ears and listen to her. She spends a great deal of time over her dress, and, if she has grown no older, neither have her clothes — not a particle. She dresses in gowns suitable for Peggy, but which Maria, who is years younger than her aunt, would not think of wearing. Elizabeth is the kind of woman who is a changed being at the approach of a man; she is even different when Cyrus or Billy is around; she brightens up and exerts herself to please them; but when she is alone with Ada and me she is frankly bored and looks out of the window in a sad, far-away manner. The presence of men has a most rejuvenating effect on Aunt Elizabeth, although she pretends she has never been interested in any man since her disappointment years ago. When she got back and found Harry Goward here, instead of relapsing into her lack-lustre ways, as she generally does, she kept on her interested air.

I have always thought that houses have their atmosphere, like people, and this house lately has seemed bewitched. After Mr. Goward left, although every one tried to pretend things were as they should be, the situation grew more and more uncomfortable. I felt it, though no one told me a thing. I fancy that most older people have the same experience often that I have had lately. All at once you are aware something is wrong. You can't tell why you feel this; you only know that you are living in the cold shadow of some invisible unhappiness. You see no tears in the eyes of the people you love, but tears have been shed just the same. Why? You don't know, and no one thinks of telling you. It is like seeing life from so far off that you cannot make out what has happened. I have sometimes leaned out of a window and have seen down the street a crowd of gesticulating people, but I was too far off to know whether some one was hurt or whether it was only people gathered around a man selling something. When I see such things my heart beats, for I am always afraid it is an accident, and so with the things I don't know in my own household. I always fancy them worse than they are. There are so many things one can imagine when one doesn't know, and now I fancied everything. Such things, I think, tell on older people more than on younger ones, and at last I went to my room and kept there most of the time, reading William James's Varieties of Religious Experience. It is an excellent work in many ways. I am told it is given in sanitariums for nervous people to read, for the purpose of getting their minds off themselves. I found it useful to get my mind off others, for of late I have gotten to an almost morbid alertness, and I know by the very way Peggy ran up the stairs that something ailed her even before I caught a glimpse of her face, which showed me that she was going straight to her room to cry.

This sort of thing had happened too often, and I made up my mind I would not live in this moral fog another moment. So I went to Ada.

“Ada,” I said, “I am your mother, and I think I have a right to ask you a question. I want to know this: what has that young man been doing?”

“I suppose you mean Harry,” Ada answered. “He hasn't been doing anything. Peggy's a little upset because he isn't a good correspondent. You know how girls feel —”

“Don't tell me, Ada,” said I. “I know better. There's more in it than that. Peggy's a sensible girl. There's something wrong, and I want you to tell me what it is.” Younger people don't realize how bad it can be to be left to worry alone in the dark.

Ada sat down with a discouraged air such as I have seldom seen her with. I went over to her and took her hand in mine.

“Tell mother what's worrying you, dear,” I said, gently.

“Why, it's all so absurd,” Ada answered. “I can't make head or tail of it. Aunt Elizabeth came to me full of mystery soon after she came back, and told me that Harry Goward had become infatuated with her when she was off on one of her visits —”

I couldn't help exclaiming, “Well, of all things!”

“That's not the queerest part,” Ada went on. “She told me as confidently as could be that he is still in love with her.”

“Ada,” said I, “Elizabeth Talbert must be daft! Does she think that all the men in the world are in love with her — at her age? First Mrs. Temple making such a rumpus, and now this —”

“At first I thought just as you do,” Ada said, helplessly. “Of course there can't be anything in it — and yet — I'm sure I don't understand the situation at all. You know Harry left quite unexpectedly — soon after Elizabeth came; he didn't write for a week — and then to her, and Peggy's only had one short note from him —”

I can see through a hole in a millstone as well as any one, and a light dawned on me.

“You can depend upon it, Ada,” I said, “Aunt Elizabeth has been making trouble! I don't know what she's been up to, but she's been up to something! I wondered why she had been having such a contented look lately — and now I know.”

“Oh, mother, I can't believe that!” Ada protested. “I thought Elizabeth was a little vain and silly, and, though everything is so incomprehensible, I don't believe for a moment that Aunt Elizabeth would do anything to hurt Peggy.”

My Ada is a truly good woman — so good that it is almost impossible for her to believe ill of any one, and she was profoundly shocked at what I suggested.

“I don't think in the beginning Elizabeth intended to hurt Peggy,” I answered her, gently, “but when you've lived as long in the world as I have you'll realize to what lengths a woman will go to show the world she's still young. Just look at it for yourself. Everything was going smoothly until Elizabeth came. Now it's not. Elizabeth has told you she's had goings-on with Harry Goward. I don't see, Ada, how you can be so blind as not to be willing to look the truth in the face. If it's not Elizabeth's fault, whose is it? I don't suppose you believe Henry Goward's dying for love of Aunt Elizabeth when he can look at Peggy! Oh, I'd like to hear his side of the story! For you may be sure that there is one!”

“Mother,” said Ada, “if I believed Elizabeth had done anything to mar that child's happiness —” She stopped for fear, I suppose, of what she might be led to say. “We mustn't judge before we know,” she finished. But I knew by the look on her face that, if Aunt Elizabeth has made trouble, Ada will never forgive her.

“What does Cyrus say to all this?” I asked, by way of diversion.

“Oh, I haven't told Cyrus anything about it. I didn't intend to tell any one — about Aunt Elizabeth's part in it. I think Cyrus is a little uneasy himself, but he's been so busy lately —”

“Well,” I said, “I think Cyrus ought to be told! And you're the one to do it. Don't let's judge, to be sure, before we know everything, but I think Cyrus ought to know the mischief his sister is making! Elizabeth simply makes a convenience of this house. It's her basis of departure to pack her trunk from, that's all your home means to her. She's never lifted a finger to be useful beyond rearranging the furniture in a different way from what you'd arranged it. She acts exactly as if she were a young lady boarder. She's nothing whatever to do in this world except make trouble for others. I think Cyrus should know, and then if he prefers his sister's convenience to his wife's happiness, well and good!” It's not often I speak out, but now and then things happen which I can't very well keep silent about. It did me good to ease my mind about Elizabeth Talbert for once.

Ada only said, “Elizabeth and I have always been such good friends, and she's so fond of Peggy.”

Ada doesn't realize that with some women vanity is stronger than loyalty. She kissed me. “It's done me good to talk to you, mother,” she said, “because now it doesn't seem, when I put it outside myself, that there's very much of anything to worry about.”

Ada has always been like that — she seems to get rid of her troubles just by telling them. Now she had passed her riddle on to me, and I could not keep Peggy and her affairs from my mind. I tried to tell myself that it would be better for every one to find out now than later if Henry Goward was not worthy to be Peggy's husband. But, oh, for all their sakes, how I hoped this cloud, whatever it was, would blow over! I have a very good constitution and I know how to take care of it, but when several more days passed without Peggy's hearing from Henry again I gave way, but I tried to keep up on Ada's account. I began to see how much this young man's honor and faithfulness meant to Peggy, and I took long excursions back into the past to remember how I felt at her age. Mail-time was the difficult time for all three of us. Before the postman came Peggy would brighten up; not that she was drooping at any time, only I knew how tensely she waited, because Ada and I waited with her. When the man came, and again no letters, Peggy held up her head bravely as could be, but I could see, all the same, how the light had gone out. The worst of it was, everybody knew about it. It would have been twice as easy for the child if she could have borne it alone, but Elizabeth Talbert watched the mail like a cat, and even manœuvred to try and get the letters before Peggy, while Alice went around with her nose in the air, and I heard Maria saying to Ada:

“What's all this about Harry Goward's not writing?”

To escape it all I took to my room, coming down only for meals. I couldn't eat a thing, and Cyrus noticed it — it is queer how observant men are about some things and how unobservant about others. He didn't tell me what he was going to do, but in the afternoon Dr. Denbigh came to see me. That's the way they do — I'm liable to have the doctor sent in to look me over any time, whether I want him or not. Dr. Denbigh is an excellent friend and a good doctor, but at my time of life I should be lacking in intelligence if I didn't understand my constitution better than any doctor can. They seem to think that there's more virtue in a pill or a powder because a doctor gives it to one than because one's common-sense tells one to take it. That afternoon I didn't need him any more than a squirrel needs a pocket, and I told him so. He laughed, and then grew serious.

“You're not looking as well as you did, Mrs. Evarts,” he said, “and Talbert told me that you had all the preliminary symptoms of one of your attacks and wanted me to ‘nip it in the bud,’ he said.”

“Dr. Denbigh,” said I, “if the matter with me could be cured by the things you know, there are other people in this house who need your attention more than I.” I wanted to add that if Cyrus would always be as far-sighted as he has been about me there wouldn't be anything the matter to-day, but I held my tongue.

“I see you're worried about something,” the doctor said, very kindly. “Mental anxiety pulls you down quicker than anything.”

Then as he sat chatting with me so kind and good — there's something about Dr. Denbigh that makes me think of my own father, although he is young enough to be my son — I told him the whole thing, all except Aunt Elizabeth's share in it. I merely told him that Henry Goward had written to her and not to Peggy.

I felt very much better. He took what I told him seriously, and yet not in the tragic way we did. He has a way of listening that is very comforting.

“It seems absurd, I know, for an old woman like me to get upset just because her grandchild does not get letters from her sweetheart,” I told him. “But you see, doctor, no one suffers alone in a family like ours. An event like this is like a wave that disturbs the whole surface of the water. Every one of us feels anything that happens, each in his separate way. Why, I can't be sick without its causing inconvenience to Billy.” And it is true; people in this world are bound up together in an extraordinary fashion; and I wondered if Henry Goward's mother was unhappy too, and was wondering what it was Peggy had done to her boy, for she, of course, will think whatever happens is Peggy's fault. The engagement of these two young people has been like a stone thrown into a pond, and it takes only a very little pebble to ruffle the water farther than one would believe it possible.

After the doctor left, Ada came to sit with me. We were sewing quietly when I heard voices in the hall. I heard Peggy say, “I want you to tell mother.” Then Billy growled:

“I don't see what you're making such a kick for. I wouldn't have told you if I'd known you'd be so silly.”

And I heard Peggy say again:

“I want you to tell mother.” Her tone was perfectly even, but it sounded like Cyrus when he is angry. They both came in. Peggy was flushed, and her lips were pressed firmly together. She looked older than I have ever seen her.

“What's the matter?” Ada asked them.

“Tell her,” Peggy commanded. Billy didn't know what it all was about.

“Why, I just said I wondered what Aunt Elizabeth was telegraphing Harry Goward about, and now she drags me in here and makes a fuss,” he said, in an aggrieved tone.

“He was over at Whitman playing around the telegraph-office — he had driven over on the express-wagon — and when Aunt Elizabeth drove up he hid because he didn't want her to see him. Then he heard the operator read the address aloud,” Peggy explained, evenly.

“Is this so?” Ada asked.

“Sure,” Billy answered, disgustedly, and made off as fast as he could.

“Now,” said Peggy, “I want to know why Harry wrote to Aunt Elizabeth, and why she telegraphed him — over there where no one could see her!” She stood up very straight. “I think I ought to know,” she said, gently.

“Yes, dear,” Ada answered, “I think you ought.”

I shall be sorry for Elizabeth Talbert if she has been making mischief.