Survival Till Seventeen

To Give my father credit, when he found he had some children on his hands, he decided to go out and do something about it in the matter of finances. Having carefully analyzed the likes and dislikes of his children (we were ultimately three boys and one girl), partially by listening to their prattle, partially by receiving reports thereon from the neighbors, he made up his mind that we needed luxuries to go with our fantastic imaginations, and he was determined to supply them.

Perhaps one of the reasons why I could never rouse myself to a Communist’s rage against what has been lately called the Capitalistic System, or the Republican Rule, is because it was possible under such a system or rule for a poor boy with energy and ability to rise from a state of poverty to one of practical comfort bordering on wealth.

My father gave up working in a shoe factory and joined the forces of a life insurance company. In no time he was raised from the status of agent to that of assistant manager, and thence to the post of manager and given the running of a large office with five or six stenographers and more than forty men under him. In a single season he produced more business for his company than any other manager in the United States and Canada. He was invited to New York to attend a great banquet, and sat next to the President of the Company.

I always feel very proud of my father on that occasion, sitting next to the President, wearing the light blue tie my mother had given him, instead of the stiff black one of formal dress, and letting the officers of the largest life insurance company in the world know that it isn’t decoration that makes the hero. I learned from other sources that my father impressed all present on that occasion, for he had youth and considerable charm.

My father had great shrewdness in business. Life insurance, at the time when my father was making his company famous, was suspect in many quarters. It seemed to many like a silly investment of money in case you didn’t die quickly and cash in on the investment. I once heard my father say to a man who was abusing the notion of life insurance in general: “What are you talking about? You couldn’t get any life insurance, anyhow!”

“Why not?” said the man.

“Because you have cirrhosis of the liver. No company would take you.”

This worried the man, and he called on my father a few days later to see if my father had meant what he said.

“Well, let us go over to our medical examiner and have him look you over and see,” said my father, and they both went.

The medical examiner found the man’s liver in excellent condition, and this so pleased the man that he let my father write him up for a ten thousand dollar policy. The man insisted that the joke was on my father. He slapped my father on the back and shouted: “You see! You were wrong!” And, of course, my father had to admit that he was.

My father, when addressing his agents in their weekly meeting, told of this incident, and reminded them that it was a good idea at times to give people the impression that they can’t get a thing, so as to make them want it all the more.

At the next meeting of the office force, one of my father’s agents came in with a black eye.

“Where did you get that eye?” my father asked him.

“From putting your business principles into practice,” said the agent; “I told a man who said he didn’t believe in insurance that he couldn’t get any because he was sick. And he said: ‘Oh, I am, am I? ’ ”

When my father’s income reached the stage where it supplied him with a satisfactory bank account, he undertook to supply his children (a) with the best of educations, and that in a Sisters’ school where each of us was exposed for nine years to the lovely radiance and elegant manners of Catholic nuns; (b) with a training in music; I was apprenticed to the violin which twisted my neck and gave me astigmatism; my second brother was assigned to the clarinet, which nearly blew out his ears; my sister took up singing, and sings beautifully to this day; while my youngest brother espoused the piano, and has since forgotten all he learned; (c) with the best of vacations in the summer time.

Being sea urchins, practically born on the beach, my father thought it nice for us to spend our vacations in the country. He secured a boarding house for us, which was almost a hotel, in the New Hampshire hills, not far from the foot of Mt. Kearsage, and equidistant from the shores of Lake Sunapee. Thither we excursioned for at least three weeks each summer so as to see how good it was to be away from the ocean, and so as to appreciate it better on our return.

Our host and hostess were twangy New Hampshire farmers who specialized in home-like courtesy and good food. Their conversation was full of that rustic wisdom and native wit which needs to be savored in actual experience to know how delicious it can be. We enjoyed these vacations, but I remember them particularly by reason of a little girl who stayed one summer at our inn, a little girl whose name I never learned and never shall, but who enchanted me while listening to her half hour of practice on the piano every morning at nine. She began with fifteen minutes of scales, and ended with fifteen minutes of attempted Chopin. Maybe it was Madame Chaminade who was the composer, but I think it was Chopin, in one of the Preludes. I was as faithful in attending these practice sessions as the little girl was. I knew exactly when she was to begin. There was a circular staircase descending from the second floor to the music room. And every morning found me seated on the stairs, listening to her while she played.

There is a moment in Art (and in Life, too, where it approximates the ideal state of Art) which may be variously described as the inchoative moment, the moment of poise or suspense, the moment of the sustained instant. It is the artist’s brave, hopeless attempt to fix the present, by denying it a future, so as to refuse it a past. Lessing speaks in his Laocoön of “the extended stationary object” required for a painting, that supreme moment of magic when all the figures are poised for action. Picasso said to Gertrude Stein after he had painted her portrait, “It doesn’t look like you, Gertrude, but it will!” The peasants in Millet’s Angelus are always on the point of making the Sign of the Cross. Cellini’s Head of Perseus is always about to drip blood. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is forever on the verge of smiling. Were La Gioconda ever once to open her lips and laugh, that, my dears, would be the end of art! . . . What I speak of is also the theme of a poem, Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” where the heifers and the maids with garlands are always going to the fair.

I once read a story about a rich family who had erected on their estate a beautiful sunken garden and filled it with objects of art. There was a stone hound, about to run in the chase. There was a stone archer, about to shoot a bow. There was a stone lady, about to eat a bunch of grapes. The rich family exhibited the garden once — that, in a large week-end party to their friends — and then went off to Europe and left it. In their absence they made no provision for the care of the garden. The fountain dried up. The flowers in the urns decayed. The benches were overgrown with weeds. And the statuaries became covered with cobwebs. These granite beauties, angered at being so disregarded, held a conspiracy one moonlight night. They resolved to undo themselves as objects of art. The lady ate the grapes. The archer shot the bow. The dog ran away. Thus did they avenge themselves on the unappreciative rich family who owned them.

It was such a moment of sustained suspense that existed between me and the little girl who played the piano in the summer boarding-house near Lake Sunapee. Precisely at nine o’clock each morning I would come and sit on the stairs (the seventh step from the top, if I remember) and resting my elbows on my knees and my chin in my hands, would listen for the half hour of her practice. Precisely at nine o’clock she would enter the guests’ parlor, and twirling the piano stool till she could both sit on it and touch her toes to the floor, and suitably arranging herself in other ways, would begin her scales, to be followed by the incipient phrases of the Chopin Prelude. Not for all the kingdoms of the world would she turn her head to look at me. Not for all the kingdoms of the world would I descend one further step on the stairs. She knew that I was listening to her, and I knew that she knew it. And she knew that I knew that she knew. It was a perfect collaboration in a perfect ruse between two strange children, too shy to be playmates, too immature to be lovers, too young to be disillusioned, too old to be deceived.

We both knew that it was part of the requirement for preserving this haunting half hour that we should be inconspicuous to each other for the rest of the day. I never knew where she went when her lesson was over. She never saw me except at mealtimes. I never spoke to her. Neither learned the other’s name. At the end of a fortnight she departed with her parents to mix with the mælstrom of common life and be carried on in its relentless tide. We never met again.

But she has lingered with me always in the manner of a dream and often returns to me as a symbol. Whenever I have been seated in a theatre and the house lights were lowered and the curtain about to rise; whenever I have watched a symphony conductor raise his baton for the first down-beat that will release a great splurge of music; when I have stood on the threshold of the Pitti Palace about to gaze at the wonders, or shaded my eyes to enter the cathedrals of Milan and Cologne, or peered for the first time from the balcony of the Hotel des Invalides, to catch a glimpse of the little casket of Napoleon; at every pent-up moment of my life when I have waited for some artistic surprise to flash before my senses, there has come back to me the vision of a little girl in the hills of New Hampshire about to strike her first chord on the piano during that fortnight of magical summer mornings, at the precise hour of nine, when she was contemplatively mine.

What became of her, I do not know. I doubt not that life has dealt roughly with her, as it does with all precious things. But I like to think that I am unforgotten in her memories as she is in mine, and that amidst the stale platitudes that serve her for comfort in the fatigues and yawns of middle age, one bright picture lingers with her still: that of a boy who was content to admire her for her music, and sat like a sculpture and listened like a painting, at a point on the staircase that was half way down the stairs.