Summer “Boreding”: A Lament
From Putnam’s Monthly
"WHEN sparrows build and the leaves break forth, my old sorrow wakes and cries," and I know that I have once more to go out into this weary, beautiful, expensive world, and find a place wherein to spend the months that nature and New York have made intolerable in town.
I have not yet decided whether the acquisition of an ill-kept room in a modern-convenienceless house, with unfamiliar food, and the unstinted society of a lot of unfamiliar and undesired people, is an adequate exchange for a comfortable New York flat, an Irish servant to wrestle with, and one’s own chops and steaks and gas bill to attend to. To be sure, one has the fresh air and green fields of the country, instead of hot pavements and trolley cars ; but there are also mosquitoes, poison-ivy and boarders to reckon with; and when it’s hot in New York one can take a bath, and when it’s hot in the inexpensive country one can’t, for there the old oaken bucket is all the plumbing, and the well usually runs lowest just when the mercury climbs highest.
If you are a person of liberal means there are gorgeous hotels gaping to receive you ; and when one knows the remuneration accepted at these luxurious establishments, wonder ceases that foreigners think all Americans rich. But, alas ! there are so many of us unknown to history and to foreigners who have to live on modest incomes, the unclassed fifth not rich enough for the haughty foreigner’s notice, nor poor enough for the charitable native’s—suspended between the gilt-edged hotel and the fresh-air fund ; the kind that is told to lead the simple life that is impossible without a suitable income, and whom Mr. Roosevelt advises to increase and multiply, forgetting that the matrimonial multiplication-table is not a monetary system ; for while in human beings one and one makes anything from three to thirteen or more, plain figures will not “prove” if submitted to the same test. This class of people has to live somehow, and its children need fresh air even as the little Fifth and First Avenues ; and for them the ubiquitous boarding-house pervades the land.
Having been convinced against my will I am of the same opinion still, and obstinately set out every spring to hunt for a “cottage of my own” within reach of New York and my income, only to find that all the cottages near New York are financially impossible and that the lovely “homes in the heart of the country,” abandoned farms, etc., are so hopelessly in the heart of the country that they make up in carriage hire what they lack in rent and conveniences. So, abandoning hope as well as the farms, I return again to the inevitable boarding-house, which stands ready to receive all and sundry into its gregarious bosom, bedrooms swept and dusted “for the season,” rocking-chairs in a row on the piazza, and proprietress with the customary request for a prompt decision, so many are the victims eagerly waiting to be enmeshed.
When I have finally engaged board for the summer, I always look at every one I pass in the street with renewed interest. IIow can I tell which of the women may be embracing her husband and spanking her child in my company for weeks ? or which of the men I may meet when in dressinggown and slippers, soap and sponges clasped to our bosoms and hair and eyes still full of sleep, we scramble for the bathroom—if there is one? The brotherhood of man is about to begin for me, and I only wish I could select my own family, and that it were not so large. Even the ties of blood do not always compensate for relationship, and without those ties it is apt to be wearisome. The two matrimonial bears should be let loose in -every boarding-house, which their constant company would often keep from becoming a “boreding”-house indeed.
Believing that there is safety in numbers, I engaged rooms one summer in a house where a large party was always accommodated. Convinced that familiarity breeds contempt when it is accidental and not chosen familiarity, I determined to be pleasant and polite to my fellowprisoners while intimate with none, thus making it possible to spend my time in my own way, and only be a communal slave at meal-time. After a few successful days I thought myself safe, and was on the piazza one day, almost alone, a useful and excuseful book on my lap, feeling delightfully lazy, and busy with the house opposite. I had rebuilt the porch, thrown two dormer windows in the loof, and was busy painting it just the right shade of yellow with .white trim and dark green shutters. A handsome colonial house now stood in the place of an ugly reddhh-hrown one, and all it needed was a honeysuckle climbing over the porch when—a high-pitched voice threw all my work to the winds. “Well, I just must speak to her. Poor little woman, she looks too lonely for anything; she don't seem to know any one, and can't be having a good time.” And thereupon a kind woman, the sort that loves to have a good time every minute of the day, and wants every one else to have it with her, sailed up to me—and spoiled my plans for the summer ! I could not be angry with her misplaced friendliness ; for how can such a person be expected to understand that solitude is a cherished possession, that a good book is ofttimes companionship enough, and that boarding-house banalities are not conversation? She shines according to her lights, and the only pity is that the illuminations are not better assorted.
The ice once broken, I found myself committed to a pretty warm summer. That same afternoon while writing in the deserted parlor I overheard a now familiar voice saying: “I spoke to Mrs.to-day. I was determined to.” “Did you find her pleasant? what age do you suppose she is?” The deaf old lady's room is downstairs and the answer come clear and sharp : “I should take her for a fairly young woman. She hasn't much to say for herself.” “Do you suppose her hair’s all her own?” “Well, I can’t say; I guess not, there’s so much of it ; but her complexion ’s quite good.”
I fled before I learned that that was n’t mine either ; I was going to spend several weeks more with those women, and didn’t want to hear their idea of the truth.
By this time I had become common property and was obliged to manoeuvre to get a moment to myself outside of my bedroom. I learned exactly at what hours to avoid running the gauntlet of the piazza, and when to slink out by the dining-room. Sherlock Holmes might have engaged me for my wariness, or Prince Florizel of Bohemia for my adroitness. I had suddenly become the possessor of so many close friends that I ran the risk of being plunged into a social vortex that would have swallowed up every precious moment. Making a dark mystery of my flittings, I at last found a secluded spot which I shared with the mosquitoes for the rest of the summer. To be sure, I was well bitten, but they only bit me externally, and a vigorous slap would dislodge them dead or wounded. One must not slap one’s fellow-boarders; and the Sixth Commandment is still legally observed in the Eastern States.
Three times a day for seven days a week did we bore each other over the festive board, and never before had I such opportunities for intimacy. Even my husband lunches out six days a week, and my dearest friend doesn’t come to dinner every day. One evening I was trying to read “The Wings of a Dove”—a foolish thing to do in a boarding house, for every one knows it needs time, solitude and much concentration to read one of Mr. James’s later novels. I was getting along beautifully, and was even beginning to understand it, when “a gentle voice was heard to say,”
“Is that a Scotch view?”
Our eyes met on a chromo of a blue lake, backed by purple mountains, a foreground of yellow sand, crimson trees and a peasant reflected in its imitation oil-paint waters. “Yes,” said I, diving from Scotland back to Bayswater where the Dove still hovered on waiting wings. “My grandmother was a Scotchwoman,” pursued the gentle voice (I was getting a little fidgety, but tried to look as if I cared). “She was very proud of being a Scotchwoman ; she was a Campbell” (I might have known they were coming), “and was very proud of it” (there are thousands more of them). “An ancestor of hers fought at Culloden” (they all did—and O for the Wings of a Dove). “My grandmother always said she was so strong because she was a Scotchwoman ; she said they led such healthy lives and eat such wholesome fod when she was a child” (oatmeal, of course!). “We have a picture of my grandmother holding a cat ; the cat was called ‘Scratch.’ I think ‘Scratch’ is such a nice name for a cat. don’t you?” “Yes,” I said, feeling catty and scratchy and none of the Dove left in me,—a stranger's cat, Campbells and grandmother being scant compensation for the breaking up of Henry James’s long, beautifully wonderful, parenthetically complicated sentences.
After one summer of this sort of “boreding,” I determined to try another kind ; so when next the sparrows built, I chose a farm-house where my family were the only boarders. It was owned by a refined woman who knew little of farming and less of housekeeping. She “did her own work” and had a semi-relative to assist her. The semi-relative wasn’t as nice as she was, but had to take her meals with us, and took them while we waited to be waited on. Abstract democracy is a beautiful thing; practical democracy brings discomfort. No sensible person despises a girl for trying to earn her living by waiting on table, but it is a little wearing to have to pay the board bill and do one’s waiting also. This farm, in the absence of other “boreders,” was quite homelike—so homelike, in fact, that the daughter of the house didn’t scruple to do just as she would have done when alone. She had no musical talent, but she practised five hours daily. I made no complaint and left in the odor of sanctity, trailing a good reputation behind me; and my worthy hostess would have been much surprised had I offered to pay her for the lesson in patience and forbearance that was not in the bill, and that she was all unconscious of having supplied.
Another farm I found, where the people were all kindness, and only wanted one family at a time, they said; where mosquitoes are unknown, but poison-ivy does their work. With experienced eye I noted the oldfashioned piano in the wide hall and was pleased to find that no one played it. After a few weeks’ bliss, I saw one day, a bedroom being prepared for occupation. My heart sank ; and fell right down when I heard that two new boarders were to arrive next day. Two ladies came, “boarders—or boreders?” I mused, looking them over and’ through and through. In the morning after breakfast my chair— mine by right of three weeks’ occupation—had been dragged to the other end of the piazza and was now a fancy-work emporium ; while shortly after a noise as of a thousand tin kettles and cats burst on my ear. The old piano, that venerable heirloom ( I forgot to say that the house was 140 years old), had been awaked, and in company with the voice of the young lady who had no voice, was shrieking out coon-songs, rag-time and all the current horrors. Saturday night brought “Popper” and a “Young Feller,” evidently the affianced “feller” of the disturber of the peace. The camel had got his head in the tent ! Sunday morning they appropriated most of the piazza. “Popper’s” cigar and “Mommer’s” perfume pervaded the air, the Young Feller' reclined in the hammock, and the Disturber fed him with candy while balancing herself on the edge. Perhaps I am a disagreeable, crusty, unsociable creature, but I did not join the family party, though I had known some of them for three whole days..
I wonder if the boarding-house is not responsible for much of the nervousness among women. It is sometimes said to be a rest from the cares of housekeeping, but to some natures the ordering of the daily chops and steaks, and the wrestling with a foreign domestic is child’s plav compared with the strain of feeding in company with a lot of strangers three times a day, listening to the clatter of dishes, and being expected to take part in the clatter of tongues while some other woman’s child pours soup or oatmeal into one’s lap, and the greedy and ubiquitous fly seizes the verv food before it can reach one’s lips. Nothing but the duty of taking one’s children to the country makes it endurable and the children, like the little savages that most of them are at heart, revel in the freedom they gain from parents’ anxiety to avoid a family “row” in public. There is chicken for dinner, and Willie Jones remarks, “Jane killed that chicken, and when she cut its head off it hopped round ever so long.”
Various degrees of disapproval and disgust steal over the boarders’ faces, and Willie’s mother adroitly tries to change the conversation, but is defeated by Cissie Brown’s shrill voice:
“Yes, the horrid old hen, she never would lay an egg when she was alive, and when they cut her open there was one inside of her.”
Cissie’s mother tries to smother her with the table napkin, while Nellie takes advantage of the confusion to smuggle several cookies into her pocket, and little Johnnie takes three times as much sugar as he is allowed to have at home.
And the greeting of the husband and father at the end of the week becomes almost a vulgar exhibition when the family embraces are being duplicated and triplicated all over the front yard, until the boarding-house resembles a free-love community with the immorality left out.
After a few weeks of this unsought intimacy one begins to sympathize with the Englishman who let another man go about with his coat-tails on fire because it was none of his business to interfere. Though we would die rather than admit it in England, they do things better over there. Who that has lived in lodgings in England will deny their superiority to the boarding-house? The rooms are rented “with cooking and attendance.” The lodger buys her own food and the landlady cooks and serves it, in her private apartments ; the bedrooms are kept in order by the landlady, and if there is no bathroom, baths are supplied in the bedrooms : and boots are cleaned. In America, on the contrary, ladies who are not rich have to clean their own boots, and the question of baths is politely but firmly ignored. Unless one gets into a house where “hot and cold” is “laid on,” and bathing is no trouble, one is not expected to bathe in America, and hot water is regarded as a luxury. In England, luxurious bathrooms being fewer, one is expected to take a bath no matter how troublesome ; and poor indeed must be the house where hot water is not brought to one’s room twice daily. There is something, after all, in taking civilization slowly; it assimilates better. There are fewer glittering conveniences but infinitely more solid comfort, to which the English love of method, neatness and order contributes greatly. Even in lodgings one is waited on by a neat white-capped and aproned maid, while the foreign-born American domestic, who is not above taking the liberal sum offered for her service, shows her scorn of service in her slovenly garb and general incompetence.
Of course, I do not mean to imply that all lodgings are good and comfortable. and all boarding-houses bad and uncomfortable ; there are good and bad of both, but personally I prefer to enjoy my comforts and discomforts in private. Misery doesn't always love company, and the world’s “Ha, ha,” every time one laughs, becomes a mere monotonous echo, when it isn’t one’s own world.
That boarding-houses might be a great deal worse, I know ; also, that thousands of people would be glad of a chance to spend the summer even in the worst of them. But I have never been able to extract any personal comfort from the contemplation of the misfortunes of others; and so I hope that some day, when we are older and wiser, we shall see the unwisdom of sharing our family lives with so many others for months at a time, and that those of us who are guilty of the crime of genteel poverty will be able to expiate our offence in a less public and unrefined manner, and that wc may be able to lodge instead of being bored throughout the summer.
THE dignity of work.—There is no discredit, but honor, in every right walk of industry, whether it be in tilling the ground, makingtools, weaving fabrics, or selling the products behind a counter. An American president, when asked what was his coat of arms, remembering that he had been a hewer of wood in his youth, replied : “A pair of shirt sleeves.” A French doctor once taunted Flechier, Bishop of Nismes, who had been a tallow chandler in his youth, with the meanness of his origin, to which Flechier replied : “If you had been born in the same condition that I was, you would still have been but a maker of candles. ” Samuel Smiles