The Grandmother in the Home

This is the first article in September of the School for Housewives 1909 series published on September 5, 1909, and is an article on the grandmother and how families should not take advantage of her.

Transcribed from the Sunday edition of the The Buffalo Sunday Morning News.

The Grandmother in the Home

ONE of the numerous and divers ways by which the Chinese and the Mongolian races in general keep us in mind of the fact that they are our antipodes is the eminence accorded to the grandmother of the household. As a child the Oriental woman is the fag of her brothers; she is sold by her parents in marriage without consulting her inclination. The wife is the overwrought drudge of husband and sons of less value in their eyes than the beasts that perish. But as a mother-in-law she may be said to get her innings. The grandmother rakes in medals and orders by the score. Hers is the most luxurious seat; hers are the choicest tidbits at meals, and her will is law for the whole family. Without ever hearing of the Christian scriptures, the Oriental obeys literally the injunction to “rise up before the hoary head and to honor the face of the old.”

It would be laughable if it were not pitiful to make careful note of the absolute unlikeness of these pagan practices to modern American point of view and behavior with regard to the granddame of the family. One hears and reads constantly the lament from sentimental admirers of the former generation that “we have no more old women.” The dear old grandmother of blessed memory who sat in the corner, enthroned in the armchair, her feet upon a cushioned stool, is, as a species, as extinct as the dodo. Who ever sees a real old lady’s cap atop of the hoary head?

Twenty-odd years ago, when I knew far less than now and thought I knew far more, the editor of a popular magazine asked me to take charge of a department in his monthly and to suggest the trend and title of the same. I brought forward as a novelty which was sure to take, “Armchair and Footstool.” He laughed in my face:

“My dear lady! who would read it? The armchair was banished to the garret long ago, and to footstool split up for kindling wood.”

He was wiser in his generation than I in mine. And, like the resolute optimist I am, I take pleasure in recognizing in the banishment and demolition aforesaid a sign that the period of human usefulness is lengthening in our century. We, upon whose head the years have let fall white feathers in passing (they called them “ashes” 30 years ago!) decline to regard them as tokens of decaying mental and physical powers. We do well to fight away from the infirmities of old age. We do better in denying stoutly that the words are synonyms.

My plea today is for the dignity, the beauty, the usefulness of grandmotherhood. The disposition to set her counsels at naught and to relegate her to the ranks of the supernumeraries has forced her to assert her right to respectful notice. If she tried to deceive acquaintances and society as to her age, what wonder! Respecting her as I do, it hurts me to see her accentuate her lack of middle-age comeliness by dressing in the style of her granddaughter. But I do not despise the motive that makes her do it. I may long to tell her that to fill her wrinkles with powder produces the effect of a flurry of snow upon a fallow field. It outlines the worn furrows that might else not have been noticed. All the same, if her juniors did not make “old” an epithet of contempt, she would not resort to the powder nor make occasions to remark that her family “all grew gray at an absurdly early age.” If you, dear children, did not despise her accumulated years she would not be ashamed of them.

It was Elihu, the youngest of Jobs friendly visitors, who reminded his companions that “Days should speak and a multitude of years should teach wisdom.” But the land of Uz was in the benighted and ancient Orient.

I wish I did not know families in which contempt for wrinkles and gray hairs did not hinder the younger members from imposing burdens upon grandmother that try her impaired powers cruelly. I have in mind more than one, or six, where she is child’s nurse, seamstress and general hack.

All the odds and ends of tasks her juniors shirk as tedious and distasteful are shunted off upon her willing shoulders. She is past the age of party-going and music-loving and dinner-giving and enjoying. She has been told kindly that she “prefers home to junketing, and that no other place is so dear as her own fireside,” until she really believes that she said it at the beginning. Her daughter told me last week that “Mother has the sole charge of baby (aged 10 months) at night. She knows so much better how to manage her than I do that it is the greatest imaginable comfort to me when I am out in the evenings to think she is safe and comfortable.” It leaked out presently that baby is a nervous and a poor sleeper. “But for dear mother,” she added, “I should be a wreck. Mother doesn’t mind losing her sleep.”

I had known the daughter all her life, and I asked her in the temporary absence of the grandmotherly drudge from the room (she had gone to the kitchen to warm baby’s milk)—I ventured, I say, to intimate that physicians forbid old people to sleep with children, believing it to be prejudicial to the health of the latter.

My hostess smiled pity of my narrow views.

“All four of my babies have slept with mother from the time they were weaned. She will not hear of their doing anything else. It would break her heart were the privilege denied her. Isn’t that true, mother?” as the nurse re-entered the room.

Shall I ever forget the sad appeal of the withered face turned to me when the question was explained?

“There is so little an old woman can do for those about her!” she pleaded, in a frightened tone, her thin, veinous hands shaking until the milk in the bottle had little waves on the surface. “I beg my daughters not to make me feel as if I were quite laid on the shelf!”

I was favored not long ago with a glimpse of a letter written by a woman to whom I had unwittingly given offense by something I had printed, or failed to print, in the Exchange. One count of the indictment against me was that I “Actually grovel to grandmothers.” If I did not “grovel” to this martyr, I bowed to her in spirit.

Grandmother may be “wonderful for her age.” Nevertheless, the “age” is upon her, and her vigor must be considered as processes of which you are, as yet, ignorant, so far as your health and staying power are concerned. You have recuperative powers that are not vouchsafed to one who has passed the meridian of life. Grandmother has no invested stocks upon which dividends are declared as a part of her income of vitality. If she gets very tired she draws directly upon her capital. If she could appreciate the truth of this it would be well for her. If you would bear it in mind you might spare her pain and discomfort. When you overexert yourself, temporary inconvenience, maybe a brief illness, may be the penalty of transgressing nature’s law of self-preservation. What is a “break-down” in your case is a “break-up” in hers. She cannot struggle back quite to the point from which she slipped. And every time she slips the return is more difficult.

This physical law may help to explain why old persons are frequently crabbed and irritable. How far the younger people with whom her lot is thrown for the rest of her life are responsible for “cranginess” and for morbidness that sometimes degenerates into confirmed melancholia is a question you, her grandchildren, would act wisely and humanely in considering.

“After all, boys,” struck in a collegian, after listening uneasily to an “experience meeting” that had the short-comings of fathers in the matter of allowances for a topic, “don’t let us lose sight of the fact that they are vertebrate animals and fellow-beings!”

Grandmother has had a hard journey and a long one. If by dint of Christian fortitude and unselfish desire to brighten the lives of those about her, she maintains a tolerable show of cheerfulness and sympathetic interest in the happenings of your lives, give her due credit for it. Don’t “leave her out of the game.” Regard her as a vertebrate animal, not a freak; as your fellow-being, and not a fossil.

Marion Harland

Delicacies of the Tea Table
Family Meals for a Week
The Housemothers’ Exchange
Markets’ and Marketing

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