At used book stores, I rummage through stacks of old magazines, looking to complete my Emilie Loring short story collection. Today’s story comes from Rural Progress magazine a short-lived publication that was founded during the Depression and sent to farm homes in towns smaller than one thousand. Even then, it was distributed to only six states–Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio–so this is a more obscure find than most.
Why on earth did she publish this story here, at this time in her career? She was at the height of her popularity in the mid-1930s. Her books sold briskly, despite the economy. Surely she was able to land a more prestigious, more widely-distributed publication than this.
Unless she didn’t want to?
Published the year before was With Banners, a story that begins with the mutual leave-taking of family members striking out on their own. They are ambitious for themselves and full of good will for each other. In contrast, “Freedom for Two” misses the mutual respect of the Reyburn clan. In its place is a daughter in a self-centered, inconsiderate stage of life, and in place of the amused, tolerant wisdom we expect from older women in Emilie Loring’s novels, this mother is both defensive and irritated. The tone of the story is strident and even a tad harsh in spots. Over a cup of tea, Celia Reyburn and Aunt Serena would surely have advised patience for both mother and daughter.
Nevertheless, as Emilie would say, “It gets there.” See what you think.
Freedom for Two
by Emilie Loring, 1935
“Bye, Mother. Looks like a good party.”
Through misty eyes, with a lump in her throat, Jessica Thornton watched the smart car take the curve to the street on two wheels. She waved in response as her daughter Natalie threw a kiss from the rumble. Laughing voices drifted back. She swallowed hard. In [the lingo] of the young persons who had just left, that was that. Natalie had fared forth to live her own life.
In the living room Jessica appraised her reflection in the mirror. Her naturally colorful lips curved upward, a glint of laughter lighted her dark eyes. The waves of her smartly cut hair had the color and sheen of smoked pearl. She approved aloud.
“Round but not rotund. Not in the sere and yellow set, my dear, if you have a grown-up daughter.”
Her throat contracted. The daughter had gone. She had not tried to hold her. Natalie had argued with some heat that her life was her own. She had agreed with her. She had even wondered what the result would be were she to adopt her daughter’s creed and consider herself first. Natalie was an absorber. It was like battling a submerging tide to combat her selfish thoughtlessness. For a person who fervently believed in the independence of the individual she was singularly addicted to advising. She had urged her mother to break away from the boredom of the country community in which she had lived the ten years since her husband’s death.
“I don’t mean that we should be together, gosh no,” Natalie had explained, “but you would be near. You wouldn’t miss me so much.”
Jessica looked thoughtfully about the room which had been a rendezvous for Natalie’s friends in the year since the girl’s return from college. She had liked them for their honesty and fearlessness, their good sportsmanship. She had hated their lack of manners, their intolerance of the views of their elders. They had sprawled, they had discussed their raw ideas till she had bitten her lips to keep back caustic comments.
Freedom! Freedom was their battlecry. Their idea of liberation seemed to be to acquire habits which forged shackles of steel. They had scoffed at her favorite authors, quite unaware that they were disclosing the lack of a cultured background by their criticisms. Natalie had been so hospitable that it had been months since she herself had entertained. She had missed having men of her own generation at dinner, she had drifted away from their interests, she needed their point of view. What woman didn’t need a man’s viewpoint? The nights Natalie was out it had seemed politic to have no guests. [Susette] was God’s best gift to a homemaker, but she had to be handled with gloves, nice soft plushy gloves.
She emptied ashtrays the young people had filled even in the short time they had waited for Natalie… why didn’t someone invent something by which cigarettes would consume their own smelly stubs? She dropped two books into the wastebasket, removed the grotesque bottles with which her daughter had crowded the shelves at the sunny window. She would fill them with plants for which they had been designed, she decided. Already the room had become restful. She had been a coward not to do this before, but she had so dreaded her daughter’s,
“Be modern, Mother.” “That dates you.” “You are so old-fashioned.”
Old-fashioned. She had been worse than that. She had been a jelly-fish. Jed Sturgis, her neighbor, had told her that. She had replied hotly that a bachelor couldn’t know what it meant to love a child better than oneself. His come-back had been curt.
“Whose fault is it that I am a bachelor, Jess?”
She moved chairs, plumped cushions, restored her favorite poets to the book shelves. She would invite guests for dinner tonight to celebrate. She tactfully consulted Susette as to the menu. She exhumed glass and china which Natalie had scorned as being pre-war. Her friends accepted her invitation with alacrity. To Jed Sturgis she telephoned:
“Come to dinner tonight?” With a wicked imitation of Natalie she added, “My life now belongs to me.”
“Does it? You’re telling me! I’ll come. I’ll be the last to leave. Get that?” His tone sent warm color to her hair.
Dressed for dinner she regarded herself. No lack of modernity in her white lace frock, her figure or her mentality. Up to the minute. It was her attitude toward morals, manners, and literature which excited her daughter’s scorn. A tinge of remorse shadowed her eyes. She ought not to feel this sense of freedom–good heavens, had she picked up the freedom germ because Natalie had left home? But why not? Natalie was happy, she had the job which she wanted, and for which she had had the tenacity to hold out. She was at last “on her own.” She had been impatient of her mother’s questions as to her activities, which had been prompted by neither criticism nor curiosity but by affectionate interest. Perhaps after this separaton there would be more sympathetic understanding between them.
She answered the telephone. Was one of her guests begging off at the last minute? Not Jed! the bottom would drop out of her party if he couldn’t come. The room was lovely in the soft lamplight. The plant window was filled with feathery white chrysanthemums, pots of them, and marigolds, a mass of golden bloom. Long distance! Her heart stopped. What had happened? Natalie’s voice?
“Mother? . . . Now don’t get excited. Nothing the matter except that I . . . I think I’ll come home. It’s so noisy and dirty here.”
“Home!” Jessica couldn’t say more, her voice stuck. She met her own eyes in the mirror, eyes stormy with protest. Natalie was coming home to again tarnish with her youthful scorn her mother’s ideas and ideals. It wasn’t fair! In imagination she saw the dinner table with its pale yellow tapers, its ragged violet asters; she visualized her friends around it.
“Why don’t you answer, Mother? Don’t you want me to come?”
“My dear, of course I want you. I . . . “
“Hold the line, Mother.” Jessica heard her daughter’s words distinctly as she turned away from the telephone. “Mr. Marshall?” . . . “Tell him I will be down at once.”
Natalie’s voice at the transmitter again, a joyous voice.
“Terry Marshall is here to take me to dinner, Mother. I’m crazy about New York, really I am. I went haywire for a minute because there was no message here from him and I wrote him a week ago that I was coming. I’m all right now. I’ll reverse the charge. Got to watch the pennies. Don’t sit by the fire and be stuffy. Get old Jed to take you to a movie. I’ll write. Good-bye!”
Old Jed! Jed Sturgis old? Jed who was so straight and keen. Who had every widow and unmarried woman in the town on his trail! In Natalie’s argot that was the joke of the week.
It was all in the point of view, Jessica thought as she hung up the receiver. The homesick little girl who had wanted to run back to Mother was the Natalie who boasted that sentiment was as extinct as the Dodo, which fact proved that these modern young people, with their endless discussions of complexes, inhibitions, repressions, and frustrations, were not so different at heart from those of her own generation.
She drew a ragged breath of relief. She and the home were here for Natalie when, as, and if she wanted them. Meanwhile. . . she regarded the flower bedecked, taper-lighted table with starry eyes and said in a voice which might have been her daughter’s,
“Looks like a good party.”