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Autobiography Of An Elderly Women:
Shadow Of Age

My Mother's House

Conventions Of Age

Other People's Medicine

Compensations Of Age

Spending Of Time

Land Of Old Age

Grandmothers And Grandchildren

Young People And Old

Unspoken Words

Read More Articles About: Autobiography Of An Elderly Women

Unspoken Words

( Originally Published 1911 )

As soon as a young girl marries and turns into a mother, then there is that in the hearts of all of us older women which speaks to her, for among the most poignant things in our memories is the love that we bore our little children and the mistakes we made in the rearing of them.

There is a great pathos to me in the young mothers who try so earnestly to do what is best ; for, however we bring up our children, we are sure to make irreparable mistakes, and as we old people look back over the long road we have traveled, we see that it has been watered by the needless tears we have shed, and worse still, those we have made our children shed because of our needless severities. Whether we were firm or whether we were lenient, we are sure to regret the course we took ; for there is no mother living who at the end of her life would bring up her children over again in the same way, nor one who does not believe in her heart that she could do better a second time.

We have realized how futile our own theories of " governing children " are, and that there is very little mothers can do for their children besides trying humbly to understand them and to avoid injustices. I don't think it is possible for any mother to do more, but it is possible to do a great deal less. So those of us who have gotten to a place where certain parental firmnesses seem tyranny, and certain sorts of discipline cruelty, would be glad to have their daughters learn this before it is too late.

I remember so vividly a recent struggle Margaret had with Betty that was so like one of those I had with her.

Betty and I were sitting together on the piazza. We were singing. I take solid comfort singing with Betty, for as I grow older I find it very pleasant to have some one in the world who doesn't notice how thin and wavering my notes are, and who likes to listen to my voice, worn as it is. Presently Margaret joined us.

" Mother," Betty asked, " may I go down to Annie's house ? "

"No; I can't let you go today," interrupted Margaret and though she spoke gently, her answer came with such promptness I knew Betty's question was a cue she had been waiting for.

" Why not ? " came Betty's little whine that sad little " Why not ?" that every mother of us knows so well.

" Because you didn't come home when I told you to yesterday."

" But I told Annie I 'd come "

" Well, I tell you you can't," replied my daughter cheerfully.

You know what happened then, don't you ? There were tears and teasing.

Margaret was firm. Betty was persistent. Margaret told Betty to stop crying and Betty cried the harder. I gathered through her sobs that there was to have been lemonade. As Margaret still refused, Betty grew defiant. I opened my mouth to say something, and then decided not to. If all the words, for only one day, which a mother of my generation does n't say to her middle-aged children, were gathered together, they would make instructive reading.

At last Margaret led Betty away, saying gently, " Dear, I only keep you in because I must"; and then she ended with a reproachful, " Oh, why do you make me punish you ? " Which was her way of saying the old " It hurts me more than it does you."

Soon Margaret came back and sat down by me. We could hear Betty sobbing upstairs.

" The worst of it is," said Margaret, " she thinks I'm unjust."

We rocked back and forth, and for a while neither of us spoke. Little wandering airs blew the long trailing vine of the creeper to and fro. We presented to the passers-by the same spectacle of peace that Betty and I had a few moments before. But we two knew how changed things were, for the only sound in the world that we heard was that persistent, angry sobbing upstairs. I knew that Margaret's heart was wrung with it, and I suffered with her, for Margaret is my baby, and very mercifully we cannot suffer for our grandchildren's tears, or any other tears, for that matter, as we do for those of our own children.

Besides, while I was sorry for Betty, and I will tell you privately that my sympathies were with her, though I wouldn't have confessed it to Margaret, I was glad to see the little thing show so much spirit. She was protesting with all her strength against what And so, though I hate to hear a child cry, if it had n't been for Margaret's distressed face, I should have had a certain satisfaction in hearing Betty's indignant roars.

As a baby Betty was too good. Margaret brought her up in the modern, cast-iron, systematic way, and her subdued whimpers of useless protest went to my heart; I used to find myself wishing she would have a good old-fashioned fit of crying, with yells that one could hear across the street. So it was a relief, as Betty grew older, to have her show a normal amount of strong will, although Margaret has been as perplexed as if the nursery clock had up and defied her. I have never dared tell Margaret how I felt about this, for there is nothing that irritates a mother of the present generation more than to have her own mother give her advice concerning the rearing of children, however much experience she may have had. Like most grandmothers of today,

I have wisely held my tongue, though sometimes it has been hard work not to speak.

Margaret was learning that while you may make rules for a baby, there is no set of rules made by man that will apply to a child of six, for Betty continued to sob defiantly. At last Margaret said:

" I have to make her mind, you know."

I nodded.

" She must learn to keep her promises."

"Of course," I assented. Poor girl, I knew she was making apologies to herself for causing Betty unhappiness.

" If I had known she cared so much "

I nodded again. I knew so well what she felt. I also knew what I would do if I were in her place; because one is a mother is no reason why one shouldn't retire gracefully from a false position.

" But now I can't, of course " she concluded firmly.

Again I outwardly agreed, this is one of the arts one acquires with years, but what I wanted to say was:

" Why not? Why can't you give in?"

One of the tenets of the governing of children is that when you have made a mistake, have given a too heavy punishment or imposed a command that is more distasteful than you dreamed it would be, you must persist in the matter to the end. We deal this way with our children, little and big, and unreasonable obstinacy is called " being firm." Why we feel we must act this way, I don't know. I have never known, even when I was most " firm " myself, and I don't believe any one else does.

I'm sure Margaret didn't. We were silent again.

" If one could only know what one ought to do. Oh, it's so hard to know what 's right ! " sighed my poor daughter at last.

In the past half-hour she had gone over the weary path every mother must travel so often. We mete out to our children what seems like justice, but justice turns its back on us and leaves us stranded with a child who is crying its eyes out because it is unjustly treated.

As Margaret said, " It is so hard to know what is right."

So old women who see their little grandchildren playing about them cannot help but think of their own lost babies. Out of the past our little children look at us, and as our eyes meet theirs we falter:

"My child, I did the best I knew."

" Yes, mother." Then, " Mother, do you remember the time you laughed at me, and because I got angry you punished me?"

You say meekly: " was rude that time, and then unjust, dear."

"Mother, do you remember "

But you can't bear to listen. You know how many times you didn't do your best; the times you were gentle because you were too cowardly to fight; the times when you punished without understanding; the times when you imposed too heavy penalties for childish faults for, after all, you were no better mother than you were woman; and so you change your boast of having done your best to:

" My child, I loved you dearly always through your mistakes and through mine."

That is the most that any mother of us can say. As we grow old, we are very apt to return in spirit to the days when our children were our very own, and wonder we didn't treasure them more. We find out, as we get along in years, that we could have been just as good mothers with fewer tears shed.

I cannot bear to think how I made Margaret and Helen sleep on little hard nubbins of curl-papers so they might have fluffy curls the next day, curls were the fashion then, and my children had hair as straight as a string.

I hate to remember how I forced them to eat the things they didn't want to.

I had a long battle with Helen over soft-boiled eggs; she would not eat them. No one was benefited by my persistence, nor could possibly have been, whichever way the battle came out; it was of no importance either way; but I made the whole household uncomfortable with the conflict. I didn't believe, in those days, in " humoring children about their food." Dear me!

How many needless tears I made that child shed, and how unhappy I was over it ! I thought eggs were for Helen's good, and I was bound she should eat them. I am glad to remember that in the end she won, and I can only look back and wonder at myself for my foolish persistence.

I sometimes wake up in the night and think over some of the little unkindnesses I did Margaret, or some coveted pleasure I denied my children because it was too much trouble to let them do as they wanted, and I have the same bitter regret over these things, small though they seemed at the time, that I might have had if I had lost my babies through death instead of losing them only by having them grow up into men and women. Every older woman has a sad little collection of such memories. They are among the few sad things one carries with one to the end of life, for age does not make us forget our injustices towards our little children. We remember them always, and time, instead of softening them, makes them grow worse. Incidents that in youth seemed of little importance look very much like cruelties when we look at them from the Land of Old Age.

So I was glad when Margaret could stand it no longer and went upstairs to Betty. As she went into the room, the child burst into a fresh storm of tears.

Margaret tried tenderly to calm her , but it was freedom or nothing for Betty.

So Margaret said things like : " You know you never get things by crying for them. Betty ! If you speak so to me I shall have to punish you severely ! "

She came downstairs again with a firm line around her mouth. I knew just how she felt. She had gone into battle, and she intended to fight it out to the end, whether it was good for Betty or not. I looked at Margaret and I felt that time had gone backward, and that Margaret was myself and Betty one of my own children, while I myself was some invisible outsider watching the same old conflict repeat itself.

Most older women, as they watch their grown-up children, have this almost uncanny feeling of living over again their own mistakes and blunders. At such times one cannot help an obscure feeling of responsibility, as if somehow it were one's own fault, so much are your daughter's mistakes your very own , at such times I cannot keep from trying to help, even though I know it is unwise, so I had to say at last:

" Don't you think you are making a great deal out of a small matter ?"

It was such a miserable way of wasting a bit of one's childhood and youth.

" Disobedience isn't a small matter," replied Margaret shortly.

" Carelessness is," I suggested.

" She 's a very obstinate child ! "

Margaret asserted. By this time she had lost sight of the fact that it was the sense of injustice that made Betty obstinate.

Then, as I started to say something more :

" Darling," Margaret interrupted with awful patience, " I 've got to fight this out myself. You're only making it harder for me."

I had it on my lips to say : " It would be better for you if you allowed your mother to make a suggestion now and then ! " For no one likes' to be asked to hold one's tongue, however politely, and above all by one's own child. But as I looked at Margaret's careworn young face, and saw her plodding along the iron path she called duty, in this case, as in so many others, a path which led nowhere, my little flash of impatience died.

But my spirit cried out to her though my lips didn't speak:

" Oh, my dear, it 's no matter at all!

Don't, don't feel so about it! "

Then I went away, leaving Margaret making her tragic mountain out of Betty's little molehill of carelessness ; remembering in my young days how warmly I sympathized with a friend of mine whose mother always interfered in the discipline of her little grandson.

Whatever he had done, " How happy he was before you disturbed him ! " she would say, reproachfully.

Now I understand. There are so many sorrows and cares which we must inevitably meet as we journey toward age, and so many perplexing moments in life which we cannot avoid, that we want, oh, so much, that our children might at least be spared and spare themselves the unnecessary worries. It is the useless mistakes and needless suffering each generation under goes that we of the older protest against, and for which we now and then break silence, only to learn again the bitter lesson of our uselessness.

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