Vanity Fair, December 1914
THOUGHTS ON HOME LIFE
By P. G. Wodehouse
I. THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE HOME
EVERY now and then a writer in one of the papers will ask “What has become of the Home?” and then other writers reply that the Home has disappeared, and it is not unlikely that some of them will tap a fruity line of sentiment on the subject of the Home. There is nothing that appeals so much to the man who lives in a hotel and spends all his spare time at restaurants, as the Home. He would run a mile to avoid it himself, but he thinks it a splendid thing for the rest of humanity.
Opinions differ as to what it was that slew the Home. Some trace its decease to the improved facilities for travel. Others blame the Tango. There is reason to think that janitors had a good deal to do with it. You cannot have a Home without children, and janitors, for some reason or other, always object to children. As the secret of modern life was to get in solid with the janitor, children naturally became obsolete.
More probably, however, the disappearance of the Home was directly due to the custom of taking family breakfast. This was the real cause of dissolution: the increased facilities for travel merely enabled the sufferers to get away, they having previously been forced to choose between staying on or walking off. It was that fact that made the Home so impregnable in the early days of civilization. It was a little community cut off from the world. The only horse attached to the establishment belonged to Father, and he kept a hawk-like eye on it. You had to trudge along on your own feet if you wished to shake the family: and, even if you did, you were bound to run into some other family, who would adopt you, thus starting all the trouble over again. You were, in a word, all dressed up and no place to go. So you just set your teeth, and endured it. There was no getting away from the family breakfast in those days.
PEOPLE write lightly about family breakfast, just as he jests at scars who never felt a wound. I have just been reading a Book of Etiquette, written by a woman who obviously knows nothing of the horrors of these old-time feasts. In the section devoted to Home Etiquette, she says, “Busy as you may be, it is only a small compliment to your household to sit down to the family breakfast with an air of good-will toward everybody.”
There speaks one who has never staggered into the dining-room with one of those early morning headaches and gazed across the table at the repulsive, semi-human countenances of parents, brothers and sisters. There they sit, the brutes! eating their cereal and grape-fruit, and you must watch them and even exchange remarks with them. To be expected to do this “with an air of good-will towards everybody” is too much. If one gets through the meal without any definitely homicidal thoughts one has done all that can reasonably be asked.
THERE may be those who spring from their beds with a gay song upon their lips and greet the new day with rollicking merriment. To these, if they exist, breakfast is a meal like other meals, and may safely be shared with their species. But to most of us breakfast is not so much a meal as a kind of painful restoration of vitality. It is the crucial moment of the day. We may pull through or we may not. We shall be able to tell more certainly after we have had our three cups of coffee and absorbed the baseball news. Meanwhile, absolute quiet and seclusion is essential. The man who would expect us to exhibit airs of good-will and even engage in conversation would demand sparkling small-talk from a Prussian Uhlan.
The Home has perished because it would not realize this vital truth. It herded us all together at the worst hour of the day. It had no consideration for the weakness of the flesh.
How different is the near-Home, which has superseded it. The morning sun shines brightly in on an empty dining-room. Father has had his cold coffee and under-boiled egg and has gone off to business. John, the eldest son, a little fatigued from dancing the fox-trot till six a.m., is making a wholesome and nourishing repast in bed off a dry cracker and a brandy-and-soda. Mabel, the daughter, who was playing auction bridge last night and got home just before John, has yet to he aroused from her refreshing slumber. Mother is at Reno, waiting for her case to get on the calendar. And over the entire establishment broods a sort of cozy peace. How different from the dark days when Mother sat entrenched behind the urns, while Father burrowed like a rabbit into the recesses of the morning paper, and the chicks kicked each other under the table and made personal remarks in bitter undertones.
THERE were good points, no doubt, about the Home, but it would not keep abreast of modern progress. In earlier days, before modern progress began to zip along, on first speed, children would frequently go through life with one set of parents. In these days of easy divorce things have become too complex for the poor lambs. That kindly, grey-haired man who pays the bills is not really Father. He is the man Mother married after she had divorced Father for incompatibility of temperament and extreme cruelty because he could not learn the rouli-rouli, and struck the toy Pomeranian with a teaspoon. That sweet-faced, gentle woman who is so patient with them, when they declare no-trumps on a spade hand, is not really Mother. She is the woman whom Father—who is not really Father—married when Mother, who had divorced Father—who was really Father—divorced Father who was not really Father.
The home could not survive these things. It expired with a gurgle. It now possesses a purely archaeological interest for us.
II. HOME LIFE IN THE COUNTRY
IF home life has survived at all it is in the country. No one for an instant could believe in the existence of it in the city. Suspecting that there might still be a semblance of it in the rural districts, I recently announced my intention of settling in the country for the Fall and Winter. The principal comment of my friends was that I should find it dull. Dull! I am becoming a nervous wreck. My ganglions are vibrating like a tuning-fork.
I was bitten by a dog, run over by a bicycle, and deprived of a bath, all within the space of twenty-four hours.
The charm of the country is that you never know what is going to happen next. In the city everything is orderly and expected. In the city, you know that, if you signal to a car to stop, it will go on: if you ask the waiter for lobster Newburg, he will bring you chicken à la King: if you buy a front orchestra chair, it will be next to the foyer and behind a stout pillar. But in the country you cannot make your calculations ahead. The dog that fawns on you on Monday night is quite likely to pin you by the ankle on Tuesday morning. And so with all the other flora and fauna of the countryside. There is no relying on them.
HAVE you ever realized the charm of going to bed with the sporting chance that you may not be able to wash next day? Only a dweller in the country can understand the thrill of seeing water actually emerging from a tap. It is like the climax of an absorbing drama. One morning, aqua pura in large quantities: next morning just a gurgle and nothing more. The morning tub in the country combines the medicinal properties of Carlsbad with the fiercer gambling excitements of Monte Carlo.
You, who have only to step outside your door to get the latest edition of the last edition of the evening paper, can never know the breathless excitement of walking a mile and a half to the post-office to collect the matutinal sheet. It may be there, or it may not. There are no rules. It entirely depends on the whim of some one in New York. True, he contracted to mail you a paper every day, but he has a rooted idea that you will be just as well pleased if you receive no paper one day and two the next, and he acts on it. Gradually, as the post-office appears in view, the tension becomes almost insupportable. You end by dashing in at the door like an excitable Marathon runner. And, when, fortune being kind, you actually hold the paper in your hand,—then you feel like some watcher of the skies, when a new planet swims into his ken, or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes he stared at the Pacific, and all his men looked at each other with a wild surprise, silent, upon a peak in Darien.
I have asked several of the villagers here and they say they all feel just like that.
THERE is an elasticity about the rule of the road as concerns vehicular traffic in these parts which prevents life from ever becoming dull. To bicycle anywhere except on the foot-path is considered bad form, especially after dark. Lamps are not being worn this Fall, and bells have gone out of fashion. To wander, therefore, outside the confines of one’s own grounds, when dusk has fallen, is to experience all the delights of a charge of Uhlans, and some notable attempts to lower the standing long-jump record have recently been made in the neighborhood.
These footpath-riders have a certain excuse for their actions, in that a band of able and energetic signori, armed with pickaxes, have lately descended upon the place, and are converting the high roads into what—if it were not for the known fact of Italy’s neutrality—one would take for military trenches. But I do not resent their activities, for they provide me with an admirable form of exercise. I know no finer method of getting up an appetite for lunch than to sit on a gate with a pipe and watch a score of Italians breaking up a road. Sometimes, when the foreman has been particularly vigilant, I have staggered home, hardly able to put one foot before the other.
Yes, it is a tense, restless life, this that I have chosen.
Macbeth alone is enough to keep one from stagnating. He is a small smoky-blue kitten who has adopted me, and I call him Macbeth because he murders sleep. Try as I may, I cannot arrange my hours of rest to coincide with his. If I go to bed at nine-thirty, so as to be able to rise with him at six, he selects that night for sitting up till the small hours. If I sit up, he wants to turn in at eight, with the idea of starting the day well at about five in the morning. Just as I have settled down to rest, and am dozing off, from the porch outside comes his well known mew. I rise and admit him. He curls up, to all appearances in for the night. An hour later he is demanding to he let out again with all the passionate energy of a prisoned soul struggling to be free.
SUCH is life in Belleville, Long Island,—a pulsating affair. But I am glad I came. I am growing thin, and there are dark circles under my eyes from the pace at which I am living, but I am glad I came. The hermit’s life teaches resource. One learns that it is possible to consume food without the assistance of relays of dancers performing the latest steps in the vicinity of one’s soup. In the absence of street-cars one re-discovers the lost art of walking. One comes to realize that the day really begins earlier than ten o’clock, and that nine-thirty can be quite a good bed-time. And you appreciate your dinner all the more when the butcher, happy, careless soul, has forgotten to call and you have had to walk three miles, avoiding bicycles all the time, and leaping trenches, and dodging dogs, to procure the wherewithal to keep body and soul together.
The country has developed in me a new attitude toward life. I find myself more disposed to look with kindliness and tolerance upon those whom I knew to be my inferiors—mentally, physically and otherwise. Indeed, I am almost ready to accept the idea of the essential Brotherhood of Man, an idea which, in the city, I regarded as distasteful—not to say vulgar.
Yes, there are worse things than home life in the country.