Spoon River Revisited

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I have two monuments besides this granite obelisk: One, the house I built on the hill, With its spires, bay windows, and roof of slate; The other, the lake-front in Chicago, Where the railroad keeps a switching yard, With whistling engines and crunching wheels, And smoke and soot thrown over the city, And the crash of cars along the boulevard,— A blot like a hog-pen on the harbor Of a great metropolis, foul as a sty. I helped to give this heritage To generations yet unborn, with my vote In the House of Representatives, And the lure of the thing was to be at rest From the never-ending fright of need, And to give my daughters gentle breeding, And a sense of security in life. But, you see, though I had the mansion house And traveling passes and local distinction, I could hear the whispers, whispers, whispers, Wherever I went, and my daughters grew up With a look as if someone were about to strike them; And they married madly, helter-skelter, Just to get out and have a change. And what was the whole of the business worth? Why, it wasn’t worth a damn!

I was proud of him, but I didn’t love him. I loved Papa Smoot.

Though happily married, Mama Smoot harbored some deep dissatisfactions; but I was the only one who knew this. As sometimes happens between grandparents and grandchildren, the difference in age was no barrier between us. Mama liked to go to Springfield, the state capital, twenty miles away, and as soon as I was allowed to drive her car, I would take her there. She would go to Madame Heimlich, the dressmaker, while I went to Barker’s Art Store, where there were not only paints and brushes but also a big collection of Civil War books. At the time I was fighting the Civil War all over again—and I was on the side of the Rebellion. Mama Smoot and I would both have such a good time that we were late starting back, and I would have to drive at sixty miles an hour—a fearsome speed for a 1922 Buick over the narrow and unbanked concrete road—in order to get us home ahead of Papa, so that he wouldn’t know we had made the trip. On these excursions Mama would tell me that Papa should not have returned to Petersburg from Kansas, where they had gone just after their marriage and where Papa had begun to practice law. If he had stayed in Kansas instead of coming back when his father died, he’d have gone on to become governor. Or he might, if he’d been a little more ambitious, have become senator from Illinois. And he shouldn’t have said No when the Chicago & Alton Railroad asked him, after he had helped them obtain their right-of-way through Illinois, to come to Chicago to head their legal department. It was nice to be the first lady of Petersburg and Menard County, but Mama was jealous of Mrs. Potter Palmer. “Papa failed me,” she said, “and Harold failed me.” (Harold was her only son.) “Now you mustn’t fail me.” It wasn’t enough for her that Papa was the keeper of Petersburg’s conscience, state’s attorney, and the fundamentalist teacher of the men’s Sunday-school class.

Even Papa Smoot betrayed a certain restlessness that seemed to center in me. He would draw me out and argue with me as if it were wicked old Ed Laning, my bad grandfather, the one who hadn’t said No to the railroad, that he was sparring with. I did my best in these verbal contests because I knew that the lawyer in him, and the actor, enjoyed the exercise. Uncle Harold would turn white at my temerity, and Mama Smoot would signal her disapproval, but Papa Smoot wouldn’t let me ofT. Once it was Prohibition—the Eighteenth Amendment had just been adopted. I opposed it and he took the defense. He looked angry, but I knew he was pretending. Finally he said to me, “You mean you’re not your brother’s keeper?” I said of course I wasn’t; my brother was a free man and could look out for himself. As soon as I had said it, I knew I had been outwitted. Papa was infinitely pleased with himself—and with me.

I guess they were all restless and dissatisfied, and that’s why they sought consolation in moral superiority. Mama defeated herself in this, however. She was an incorrigible gossip, and she poured oil on the flames of Papa’s righteous wrath. In the years just before her death she became saintly, and this fault fell away from her; but in her prime she was an awful scourge of sinners. And she always took her discoveries of sin to Papa, and he took them, when he could, to court.