Episode 7. Ups and Downs of Family Life
Oh bliss, I've discovered the wonder of having a grandmother! How could I have lived all these years without a grandmother? Aunt Sally is fine as a surrogate mother, but she does find fault (rightly?) with my socks lying under the bed — always three by three, she says — with my room in disorder, my hair not properly combed, etc., the way, I guess, all mothers feel they have to reprimand their 15-year-old sons. Of course I promise to reform ... in due course.
But Great-Aunt Jane! She thinks I'm PERFECT! She discovers a new perfect side of me every day. Yes, the miffy Jane. She and Uncle Richard are (silently) at daggers drawn, I don't know why; she controls her tongue when dealing with Aunt Sally but looks reprovingly at Sally's housekeeping methods and still more at the little boys' behavior, "never properly disciplined," she mutters. But when it comes to me, she beams. In a moment of honesty, I tell her some of my faults.
— "I procrastinate, you know ..."
— "You what?"
— "Procrastinate. That's a verb that comes from the Latin word cras, meaning tomorrow. Putting things off until tomorrow, that's what I do, and it is bad."
— "Not so bad at your age. And now that you've taught me a word of Latin, I'm happy. To me, a new word is like a piece of chocolate to a child."
Me, flippant: "First good use of Latin I've encountered." And turning serious, "Aunt Jane, I would like you to teach me something I know nothing about: what a large family feels like. How the brothers act among themselves — is squabbling the word one uses for that? And how they behave toward their sisters? I've grown up alone, as you know."
— "I have certainly not!" she exclaims. "Sixteen brothers and sisters ahead of me. Seven of them born to Anne, my father's first wife, who emigrated with him from England. Her sixth and seventh babies died at birth and she died too, poor woman, exhausted. The surviving five were so much older than the rest of us from the second marriage that they felt more like aunts and uncles.
"Among the ten children born to my mother Abiah, a sturdy girl from the island of Nantucket, it was a lively story. Rivalry, teasing, fighting among the boys, you name it. But there were limits: never at the table. At table we were hardly allowed to talk. We were strictly forbidden to comment in any way about the food or bring up any frivolous topic. Mainly, we listened to what our father Josiah had to say, and as he was deeply involved in the affairs of the Church and often consulted by members of the community because of his good sense, it was interesting.
By Anne Child (born Ecton, England; died Boston, 1689)
By Abiah Folger (born Nantucket, August 15, 1667; died Boston, May 8, 1752) Married Josiah Franklin on November 25, 1689.
For more details, see Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Volume I,
"The girls were all kept busy helping Mother or preparing their hope chest in view of marriage some day. No schooling for them beyond reading and writing. Once married, they had a crowd of children and hardly any time for themselves."
It is impossible not to notice the bitterness in Jane's voice, but she goes on:
"With the passing of time, the boys became protective of their sisters. For instance, when sister Elizabeth Douse, the oldest of the first batch, fell into poverty and was about to be put into a rather miserable retirement home, Benjamin stepped in and told his brothers that old people, like old trees, die if they are transplanted. They absolutely had to provide their aging sister with a comfortable little house to live out her days, he said, and they did."
— "That was thoughtful of Grandfather ..."
— "Yes. Having been a pest as a youngster, he turned out to be the one who helped whichever one of us was in need."
— "What do you mean, a pest?"
— "He was a born rebel, just like this little Willy he admires so much. At twelve, he refused to stay in the family business of soap and candles. He would have nothing to do with the other trades proposed to him, be it the cutler's, the carpenter's, or the bricklayer's.
"When it seemed that he had finally found his vocation in the printing business, he made life difficult for our brother James, to whom he was apprenticed. And yet it was James who opened up to him the world of literature, of ideas, of London. When Benjamin ran off to Philadelphia at seventeen, he never sent word back home to tell us he was safe. He used to call me his favorite little sister Jenny — I was eleven when he fled — but did he ever think of my anguish when we were left without news for almost six months? I cried in bed every night.
"And when he did reappear, he was full of himself, wearing new clothes, flaunting his new watch and the silver coins in his pocket. After that, he caused our parents great concern because of the liberties he took with our traditional religion. At some point, they even felt that he was falling into some heresy or other."
How different, this tale of family desolation, from the glorious escape story Grandfather had told me as we walked, hand in hand, along the streets of London! Could it be that every family tale has its reverse?
— "But now, Aunt Jane, you seem very fond of him?"
— "He grew up. He decided to leave all that nonsense behind and to aim at nothing less than 'moral perfection,' — an impossible goal, if you ask me. But I must say that he worked at it very hard. He drew up a list of thirteen virtues and systematically practiced each one for a week, noting his progress or failures in a little book. Eventually, he admitted that he had never conquered the virtues of Order and Humility. He was proud of being humble, you see."
— "Do you remember the other eleven virtues?"
— "I'm not sure. At the head of the list was Temperance (don't eat too much, don't drink too much), followed by Silence (avoid small talk). He also mentioned Industry and Frugality (make good use of your time and don't waste anything). Resolution was in there, too (decide to do something and DO IT!) Cleanliness, of course. Justice and Sincerity. Moderation. How many do we have?
— "That's all I remember. Are you planning to attain perfection, Billy?"
— "Why should I, Aunt Jane, when you consider me perfect already?"
— "Watch out for Humility," she says. We laugh. "There is one more thing I want to say about Benjamin once he turned into a man. No matter how famous he became, he always went out of his way to make the rest of us feel how important we were to him. He figured out a flexible catheter for our brother John who suffered from bladder trouble. He procured a supposedly miraculous cup of special wood for our sister Mary who had breast cancer — it didn't work, but he tried. He sent money for Mother and me to go to church in a comfortable carriage and he also chose a variety of eyeglasses in London for us to try out, to be better able to follow the service. He saw to it that I always had enough flour and firewood in my house. And a few years ago, he set me up in business.
— "You opened a shop?"
— "Yes, a tiny one. Do you know what millinery means?"
— "It has to do with the making of pretty hats. Your grandfather enrolled good Mrs. Stevenson's help, and soon she was sending me from London boxes of ribbons of all colors, artificial flowers, bunches of fake cherries, feathers, and what not for the ladies of Boston. At first, that fancy stuff did not sell very well because Boston ladies thought the colors too bright, but when a brave one among them decided to wear her new hat to church, others soon followed suit. Two of my daughters helped me, we were doing well and having fun, but in my life fun never lasts for long. The colonies proclaimed a decree against the importation of British goods, and we had to close the shop."
Her voice broke at that point and I quickly changed the subject:
— "Aunt Jane, before I run off to afternoon school, tell me what you meant when you said that there is a difference between a mother and a grandmother."
— "There is a big difference. A mother believes she has to be fair and never show her preference for a given child. A grandmother feels free. She allows herself to love uncritically, just because that child is what it is, and no reason given. That's how I love you, Billy, and don't ask me why."
— "No, I won't ask. I'll just enjoy it." And I go off.