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Mr. & Mrs. Buttons
Recently a flowery young "Liberal" male with flowing hair and flowing hands - and a flowing tongue, too - demanded of me that I explain why and when I became a "Conservative". He wanted to know how I got this way.
Frankly, I couldn't remember just how and when, and I went home musing to myself. I searched my memory and soon it all began to click in my mind, episode after episode - all of them very painful one way or another. There are doubtless a hundred psychiatrists around who will find the following recounting of those formative experiences very interesting.
HEART FOR THE POOR
It all began, doctors, when I was a child. A "Liberal" aunt of mine, who had never herself been in need of anything material, had a deep passion for the Poor, from whom she was very careful to keep far, far away. While we still lived in England, where I was born, Auntie would frequently gather together outworn garments which her family had discarded and prepare them for the Women's Guild of our local Anglican Church. She would sit before the fireplace, I recall, and singing some sad Scots or Irish ballad in a very moving soprano, she would carefully snip every single, solitary button off the clothing.
I was very young indeed when this practice of Auntie's suddenly seemed outrageous to me. "Auntie," I demanded, "what will the Poor do for buttons?"
Auntie had very remarkable hazel and glittering eyes, and they usually glittered on me unpleasantly. They did so now. "They can buy them," she snapped. "They're only tuppence a card."
I pondered. If people were so poor that they had to wear other people's cast-offs then they certainly were too poor to buy buttons. I pointed this out to Auntie. She smacked me fiercely for my trouble and then began to shriek.
"A wicked, wicked girl!" screamed Auntie. "She has no Heart for the Poor!"
My uncle, hearing Auntie's shrill cries, stormed out of his studio and demanded to know what was the matter.
Auntie pointed a shaking, furious finger at me. "Your niece," she said, "doesn't want me to give these clothes - these poor old worthless rags - to the Poor!"
I was standing up now, having recovered from Auntie's blow. "If they're rags," I said, reasonably, "why should the Poor want them, anyway? And she's taken off all the buttons."
"Impudence," bellowed Uncle, who like Auntie was a flaming "Liberal" and also very fond of making a great show of loving the Poor (whom he had never met). And he grabbed me and soundly thrashed me on the spot. I am afraid I didn't ardently love those relatives after that, which was sinful, of course. But from that day on buttons had a special significance for me. I noticed that other of my "Liberal" relatives removed buttons from the garments they were preparing for the Poor, though I never discovered them patching these same old garments. One rich relative did answer my cynical question about the button snipping with the brief reply, "It's thrifty, and I suppose, Janet, that's something you'll never be." I made it a point of learning all about thrift - and the lessons were all about me, too - and it never appealed to me thereafter. Thrift is an estimable virtue, I have heard, but somehow when I encounter thrifty "Liberals" - and they are inevitably tight with their own money - I always seem to see those buttons being snipped off the clothing for the Poor. I often think of the old little poem written by some Englishman who ought to be immortalized:
To spread the wealth the communist's willing:
He'll tax your pennies and keep his shilling.
To this day I find myself referring to male and female "Liberals" as "Mr. Buttons" or "Mrs. Buttons," among the less invidious names I employ when I am in form.
Mama was also both a "Liberal" and a button snipper. I remember that her laundress, in England, was really poor. Mama used to smile on her, her somewhat hard black eyes becoming moist. One teatime Mama became wistful over "Our Agnes," and I suggested that she give Agnes her old broadcloth coat, about which she was always complaining when trying to coax Papa into buying her a new one. Mama was aghast at my profligacy. "I can get six shillings for it at the old second-hand shop!" she exclaimed.
"Do you need the six shillings?" I asked.
Mama glared at me. Then she said very ominously, "You'll end in the workhouse, Janet." (Workhouse, in English, means poorhouse, in American - and don't tell me that they are the same language. They're not.)
I went upstairs to Mama's bedroom and counted her winter coats. She had four, including the despised black broadcloth. I ruminated. When "Our Agnes" came the next day to do the cleaning, I said in her presence, "Mama, Agnes doesn't have a good coat. Are you going to give her your old one?"
Mama gave me a very killing look, indeed, but she laughed merrily and said, "Now Janet, you know I have only the one coat, my love." The last word sounded queerly like an imprecation to me, and I am sure that Mama intended it so. She looked at Agnes and sighed, "Odd, isn't it, the peculiar ideas that come into a child's mind?"
Agnes gave me a conspirator's look, and bent her head in the manner becoming a servant and said, "Yes, Madam." But she did rattle the coalskuttle in a satisfactory fashion. Mama gently led me upstairs and applied the hair-brush to where she thought it would do the most good. Even at this early age I was onto my "Liberal" Mama and did not give her the satisfaction of my tears, as she knew I would not. I was so ashamed of her, anyway. Even now I can't forgive her attitude toward poor Agnes, who had only a thin shawl to protect her in the frightful English winters. Yes, my "Liberal" Mama helped in many ways to confirm my "Conservatism."
You will be glad to learn that at least my Grandmother - never Granny - was not a "Liberal." She was a short-red-haired, belligerent, and very gay little Irishwoman who when necessary was tight with a quid (not tobacco, dears) but could be lavish at times and would slip a small girl a sovereign on her birthday with the wise admonishment, "And ye'll not be telling your Dada or Mum, if ye're sensible." I was always sensible on those occasions. Grandmother had a low opinion of her offspring, all four of them, and their wives. If she had a favorite, it was I, who was named after her. I loved her conversation, and she would always listen to me, so one day when I was visiting her in Leeds I told her about those accursed buttons and Mama's coat and "Our Agnes."
"Never trust anyone who Weeps for the Poor," said Grandmother, "unless they're poor, themselves." I've found that a sound rule-of-thumb to this very day. This does not mean I am against the Poor, and never help them. I do. But first I make sure they want to help themselves. And I don't Weep over them.
In the course of my own charity work I have had many occasions to witness the accuracy of Grandmother's advice. And I have noticed that more and more even the richest and most tearful "Liberals" are refusing to give to charity "as a matter of principle." Such Mr. Buttonses now declare that "charity" is degrading to the Poor. They Weep that it should all be done "through government, so the Poor can keep their Self-Respect." Government charity, at the expense of the industrious and the taxpaying, isn't charity at all, to the Mr. Buttonses. "It is only What They Deserve." This is known as acrobatic logic. It is always mixed with tearful shrieks about the "Underprivileged, Disadvantaged, and Culturally Deprived." It is dangerous nonsense, as Grandmother knew.
When I was six, just before we came to America, I had another experience with yet another ghastly "Liberal" relative whose eyes were always moist with "love." This one loved everybody. She admitted it, herself, regularly, and then would look about at others present with a yearning expression, waiting for applause. As they were mostly of her ilk, they gave her that applause, and the ladies would tenderly wipe their own eyes with a scented handkerchief as if moved to their very hard and inflexible hearts. But somehow, at six, and experienced, I doubted this one's sanctity and love for her fellows. Yet, on one occasion, she fooled me badly.
I was visiting this particular Auntie, who had only one good thing going for her: She employed a talented cook, and Mama was a foul cook and so were the hapless creatures who cooked for her. Auntie's cook could make lemon-cheese tarts as no one else could, so I often dropped in to visit on Thursdays, on the way home from Miss Brothers' Emporium of Learning, to sample those tarts. "Liberal" Auntie, for some reason, had taken a dislike to me, considering me Rather Cold, and she suspected the reasons for my visits, but she had the British tradition for hospitality to maintain. So, she let me devour her delicious tarts, in the meanwhile inflicting little "Liberal" homilies on me in order, as she said, "to soften my Childish Heart." I rarely listened; I was too absorbed with dainties and hot tea.
But I had an experience one Thursday afternoon at school, which rankled.
Our physician's son, Tommie, was a pure stinker. His father belonged to the Liberal Party in Manchester, and so always spoke piously and earnestly - though I doubt he ever visited the Poor for free. Tommie had inherited his father's nefarious traits. He was insultingly polite to Miss Brothers, and allowed she was genteel, but wasn't it a pity that she's Poor and had to use her father's house as a private school? The sentiment was excellent, considering that Miss Brothers was not exactly rich, but Tommie's tone of voice crawled under my skin. It was condescending, patronizing.
"You don't feel for Miss Brothers at all," I informed Tommie that fateful afternoon. "Neither does your Papa. Miss Brothers called for him yesterday, for her Mama who's an invalid, upstairs, and when he came down he held out his hand to Miss Brothers and said, `Well, Miss, this will be a pound, please.' And you know a pound is not a lot of money, and a pound is all she gets for each of us a week, which includes our tea." (There were seven of us little monsters, and Miss Brothers' father had fallen on Evil Days, and she had to support both parents.)
Tommie was outraged. He clenched his fist and went for me. We were the same age, but I was inspired with contempt, and contempt is always a handy weapon to have about one. So, I swung hard at Tommie and beat him up soundly - and I tell you, children, there's something about swinging at a "Liberal" that gives me enormous pleasure. At any rate, I also blacked his eye.
That ought to have satisfied me, but I have the cold, lasting anger of the Irish that is in me. So I told Sweet Auntie-with-the-tarts of my collision with Tommie. I expected a little understanding, at least. I should have known better. Good "Liberal" that she was, Auntie was appalled. She lifted her big, meaty hands heavenward and rolled up her eyes and opened her mouth.
"How cruel, cruel, cruel!" she exclaimed. "You don't love your Fellowman, Janet! There is no Love in your Heart!"
"Not for Tommie," I said. I was puzzled. I had thought she would sympathize with the harassed Miss Brothers.
"But you know God wants you to Love Everybody!" said dear "Liberal" Auntie, and a tear appeared in the corner of her false eyes.
"Then He isn't very clever," I said.
Now Auntie was certain that not only was I Cruel and Without Love, but my Soul was lost in the bargain. She began to plead with me. She curled her right hand with tender, loving care at me, her fingers softly bent. Her eyes, very wet at this point, trembled, and so did her mouth. She cocked her head. She smiled beseechingly. She said, "Dear little Child, you know you were wrong, don't you? Of course you do. There is really some Good in that Hard Little Heart, isn't there? Confess, sweetheart. You were wrong to treat poor Tommie that way, weren't you?"
The whole picture of Auntie was very touching, her tears beguiling, her entire attitude full of exquisite pleading. A little feather of cold doubt fluttered on my heart, a little feeling of shame. I didn't want Auntie to Suffer like this - after all, she was generous with the tarts. I was sorry that I had wounded her, though I still hated Tommie. So I told a falsehood. I said, "Yes, I was wrong." I despised myself for the lie. I repeated, so that she would stop that coy weeping, "Yes, I was wrong."
I should have known. Auntie's face immediately changed. Her pale blue eyes became the dead eyes of a codfish, glaucous and terrible. She sprang to her feet and she literally fell upon me, flailing with both hands, punishing me violently. I was less aghast and frightened than I was sickened. My disgust overwhelmed me. I ran from Auntie and her fierce blows, not out of terror, but out of loathing.
I had learned another lesson. There are those in this world whose "love" is not only a wicked lie, but is a cover for unpardonable vindictiveness, a secret desire to cause pain, a sadism. There are those who are not to be trusted for a single moment, for they are innately malignant as well as hypocritical. They are the "whited sepulchre" of whom Our Lord spoke with such anger and scorn. Give in to them for a moment, doubt that they are entirely evil, tolerantly admit they might be right in one thing - and they will fall upon you, believing your defenses are down and you have surrendered yourself as a victim. They love victims.
When I arrived home in a somewhat disheveled condition, my mother, who was being visited by Grandmother that day, asked me what had caused it all. "I thrashed Tommie," I said. I knew better than to tell her why, so I added, "He said a naughty word to me."
Mama didn't believe in fighting. But Grandmother laughed raucously at me and winked. "Always give it to them first," she said. " `Naughty word,' ye said, Janet? It was more than that, wasn't it?"
There was a kind of E.S.P. between Grandmother and myself, and so I winked back.
I never went to see Sweet Auntie after that day. And I never cared for lemon-cheese tarts again for the rest of my life. Years later, when I was a grown woman, she said to me sentimentally, "We used to have such a jolly time in England, didn't we, love?"
I looked at her and we both remembered clearly. "No," I said. "But you taught me something I shall never forget." "Liberal" that she was, she had helped to confirm my "Conservatism."
When we came to America things were not much better among the dawning "Liberals" here - nor among my relatives. I had an uncle who possessed a marvelous and soaring baritone but, alas, all he sang were hymns. There was a particularly juicy one which he favored, the chorus of which I remember when I am nauseated and decide to get the thing over with:
We'll march, march, march and do our good! We'll march, march, for Brotherhood!
Unctuous uncle had a saintly look and bled for humanity - he always said so. One Sunday - and this must have tortured his thrifty Scots soul - he invited my parents and my brother and myself to have dinner with him and his new wife at a middle-class restaurant in a country village near the city where we lived. I was in pretty good spirits, having a secret hoard of five dollars from the purse of my Grandmother, for my birthday, and so I decided that even Unctuous Uncle wasn't going to spoil everything with his hymns, which he sang all the way to the restaurant, his eyes big and noble and moist. The dinner cost nearly five dollars, a lot in those days. Afterward Unkie suggested that we all go out into the street while he, he put it delicately, "would manage the charges." But I went back to the restroom and emerged just in time to see my Uncle's tall and handsome figure gliding furtively along the wall of the restaurant, and then slipping deftly into the street. I looked at the table. The bill still lay there - and what did you expect, anyway? That uncle Unctuous would refrain from robbing a poor waitress? Not dear "Liberal" unkie, the blessed bleeder for his fellows! The girl anxiously came up and looked at the bill and exclaimed with horror, "Your party went off without paying, and now they'll take it from my wages!"
I hesitated. The five dollars I had was my treasure. But the tears of the girl decided me and I said, "My uncle left me to pay the bill, and it's only $4.25, and keep the change." I shall never forget her joy. I joined the family party outside; Unkie was well in the lead down the street, talking earnestly to Papa, the ladies bringing up the rear. I managed to get him alone half an hour later and I frankly held out my palm. "Five dollars," I said. "I paid the dinner bill with my own money, after you sneaked out."
His holy face turned deep red. Then, sweet "Liberal" that he was, he looked about him cautiously, and said, "If you are that big a fool, Janet, you'll get no money from me. The girl can afford to pay it, or the management."
My father came in just then and I told him of the matter. "She lies," said dear Unkie in a bland and affectionate voice. You will not be surprised to learn that I received another thrashing. The thing is that Unkie was quite a rich man. He lies in an unmarked grave now. His wife was thrifty too.
One other episode in my childhood burns like a hellish light in my mind as a reminder of my early confirmation in "Conservatism." I well recall that when we were in America, I was eleven years old, it came to my attention that our pastor was very shabby indeed, and that he looked as if a good meal was something he could not quite remember. He had an equally shabby sister who kept house for him, and who taught us young monsters in Sunday school. Her twenty-eight-year-old body was almost emaciated, and she always had a bad cough.
It is true that our parish was not exactly rolling in wealth, but there were a considerable number who had automobiles and went on expensive holidays every summer and lived in houses with servants. The rest of us lived precariously on salaries or wages or on the proceeds of shops or little businesses, and we were much more generous with the offerings, of course. And, of course, we were Republicans. The rich folks were Democrat to the man.
One Sunday, after school, I discovered I had left my scarf behind, and so returned. I found that our young teacher was quietly but desperately sobbing, and as I loved her dearly I was very upset. I wanted to know why she was crying, and after a little she told me. Her brother, the pastor, needed an operation and he could not afford it. Now, Anglican priests live quite richly in England, where they are supported by the government, and so I supposed that our pastor in America received an excellent salary. I asked the pastor's sister what he received, and she told me. It was exactly one-third of what my father, a very financially insecure artist, made! We hardly rolled in it at home, the four of us, and our Christmas presents from our parents were invariably clothing we needed anyway, instead of more delightful things, but we were millionaires in comparison with our unfortunate pastor. It came to me that he could hardly afford to stay alive and support his sister, not to mention supplying his own fuel and clothing.
I was horrified. But, being still young at eleven, I was optimistic. I thought of the rich people in the parish, or at least the very comfortable ones. So I elected myself a Committee of One to secure the money for our pastor's needed operation - all of two hundred dollars.
That afternoon I started my Christian solicitations, beginning with the biggest house with the biggest and reddest automobile, and with two servants. I was admitted suspiciously into the house, and only after Mabel, a Sunday school friend, assured her mother that though I was hardly dressed in silk and velvet I was not a beggar. I told my story briefly, then waited for an outpouring of twenty-dollar gold pieces, very confidently. If all went well, this could be my one and only stop.
Mrs. Brown stared at me aghast with cold round eyes like new marbles. "You want money? For the pastor's operation? Dear me, do you think we are rich? Two hundred dollars, you say, you horrible little girl! You are probably collecting money for yourself, you sly thing!"
I wanted to hit her very badly. I had been called many things in my eleven years by my loving relatives and my dear school pals, but never a thief or a beggar. Still, rather than kick Mrs. Brown soundly in the shins, as she deserved, I held my temper and assured her that I was collecting only for our pastor's needed operation. Mrs. Brown turned quite red.
"I am sure," she said in a stately voice, "that our pastor never thinks of what he needs! His Thoughts are Only on God, Who is our Salvation and our Healer, and Who will heal our pastor when we pray for him." She nodded and repeated, pleased with herself, "I shall pray for him this very night, I promise you that. After all, we do give to the Missions, all we can afford, and Mr. Brown is very Generous on Sundays."
She gave me not a cent. Nor did I collect a cent among the other rich ``Liberals." I then desperately had recourse to the poorer members of the parish. In ten days I raised one hundred dollars, a fortune. Mama was my banker, and, to my surprise, she seemed touched by the whole venture and gave me a dollar, herself, though Papa was much thriftier and gave me a dime. Then I took the whole one hundred dollars to our pastor, in a little purse my mother gave me. I laid the money on his worn desk and he looked at it. To my bewilderment, he burst into tears and could not say a word, but only covered his face with his hands.
Somehow, he managed the operation, but he died on the operating table. I well remember him, and his saintly face, and his treatment at the hands of his "Liberal" parishioners.
My later wounding encounters with "Liberals" are not so brilliant and strong in my memory as my earlier ones, probably for the reason that familiarity with evil dulls one's reactions to it. They have made me a grim "Conservative," not a nice, tolerant conservative like those of you who assure me earnestly that as "Liberals" are human - a debatable point - they, too, have their good qualities. I have searched for those "good qualities," preferring to believe my fellow man is not entirely a scoundrel and a disgrace before the Eyes of God, but I have not found them. Those I have met have been untouched by Grace or true charity. They will speak sweetly, of course, and tears are always ready to pop into their eyes when they plead the case of the "Unfortunate," whoever they are, but when it comes to opening their own wallets they are like a sealed tomb. They will sing the Song of Humanity, but they would not give a red copper to rescue that Humanity - preferring to tax you to do, publicly and ostentatiously and with corruption, whatever it is they think ought to be done to preserve the indolent and the indecent and the malingerer in the name of "Liberalism." Doubtless you think me extreme. Of course that's the trouble. Every time we get down to talking truth about these scoundrels someone like you declares he knew a good "Liberal" Once.