When one is too old to learn anything, his day of life is virtually over, so far as usefulness to his kind goes. The ten or twenty years left to him upon earth are a blunder on the part of some one, and we know that the Creator and Father of us all makes no mistakes. In the eloquent (and pessimistic) description of old age from the pen of the royal preacher-poet, we read that the aged shall be afraid of that which is high. The shrinking from new emprises, characteristic of the days when the almond-tree shall blossom and the knees that upbear (or keep) the house, shall tremble, is excusable when physical infirmity has enfeebled nervous forces and digestion. There is no excuse except this for the cessation of mind-growth.
This may sound didactic. It is written with a purpose. Given a sane mind in a sane body, and learning should go on indefinitely. The man or woman of mature years leaves off lessons because he chooses to get out of the habit of study. The prejudice against old cooks - said by one authority to be either drunk or crazy as a class - is founded upon this disinclination to learn novel methods. She who honestly aspires after excellence never thinks that she has reached it. When, in saying, "that is not my way," a cook believes that she has put an end, not only to controversy, but to any suspicion that the world may have moved an inch or two since she learned her trade - she registers herself among the incurables.
The mistress who yields to the earliest manifestations of an inclination to draw the dead line in housewifely progress is weakly indulgent or blindly foolish. In one wealthy family, not a hundred miles from a great city, "a valued old servant" played the tyrant for over a score of years. Little by little, the employers, mindful of her long term of faithful service, admitted her pleas that this or that new-fangled way was opposed to her habits and inclination, until family bills of fare were monotonous to boredom, the style of serving that of a preceding generation. At last Elizabeth died and was buried at the master's expense.
"It's dreadful, I suppose," piped the youngling of the long-suffering band on the way home from the funeral. "But it ought to be some comfort that we won't be obliged to have rice pudding three times a week any more."
Faithful Elizabeth had her epitaph.
Nothing is more solemnly and sadly sure in this rushing age than that he who does not keep up with it will be thrown down and trampled out of sight. It is a trifle, apparently, when a woman tabooes oil in salad dressing because she "has never been used to putting it in," when she thinks mint sauce a "trashy" accompaniment to roast lamb, and "won't hear of hot sauce with cold pudding," or whipped cream as an accompaniment to ice-cold raw tomatoes. When the vegetable dishes must all be set on the table with the meat, "as she has always had them," and lettuce be cut up and dressed in the kitchen at the cook's convenience, instead of being served, crisp and cool, from the deft fingers of some member of the family who is "up in salads."
Each protest is a symptom of decadence which is wilful, not inevitable. She has stopped learning because she has "stopped." In time, mental muscles become stiff, but disuse is the cause of the change.
"I account that day lost in which I have learned no new thing," said an aged sage.
Our housewife may lay the saying to heart. If there be a better way than hers of doing anything - from making pickles to giving a wedding supper - she should be on the alert to possess herself of it. It is not true that it is easier for young people to keep themselves and their houses abreast of the times than it is for their elders. The first step that counts in the downward road is the tendency not to take any step at all. To stand still is to be left.
Many who believe that they cultivate the seeing eye, the hearing ear, and the willing, receptive mind, live and die without learning the great truth that the mighty thing we call Life is made up of minute matters. They see and admire the coral reef that heaves a back a mile long out of the surf, and give never a thought to the coral builders.
A man who thinks much and observes much, once told me that one essential difference between a man's work and a woman's is that he grasps general principles while she gives her attention to details.
A man, according to this authority, is an impressionist painter, handling his brush boldly, dashing in broad effects of light and shadow, while a woman finishes each object carefully, sometimes, after the manner of the Dutch school of painting, showing the very hairs upon the brawny peasant's arm.
(I may be excused for saying, in passing, that, being a woman, I founded upon his general principle the particular moral that one sex supplements the other, and that the Creator meant the work of the world to be done by them in concert.)
He had turned from his desk to talk with me and, while talking, looked ruefully at an inky forefinger.
"I should keep some pumice stone, or acetic acid, or acetate of soda, or ammonia, here to remove ink-stains," he said. "I always spill ink in filling my fountain pen."
A box of matches was in a pigeonhole; a wet sponge, used for stamping and sealing letters, was close to the disfigured hand. I bade him wet the match and rub it upon the stain until it disappeared - the work of a minute. The sulphur in the ever-convenient match acted upon the black spots without blackening the skin, whereas any one of the four detersives he had mentioned would have left a hard, disagreeable sensation upon the cuticle. He was all right as to the principles. The one driblet of practical wisdom was for the moment worth them all.
A bright young woman whom I am glad to know, has written a little book entitled, "First Aid to the Young Housekeeper." It includes scores of things which everybody ought to know, and which everybody else, especially the writer of household manuals, takes it for granted that the housewife does know. It is intelligent attention to this very matter of detail that constitutes the "finish" of work of whatever kind. One of the "Sunday books" of my childhood was a series called "The Week," a story of English cottage life. I can recall many sentences and the whole story in substance. One remark was to this effect: "Mary was a good housekeeper; Nanny an indifferent. Nanny's hearth was free of ashes and cinders, but dusty in the corners. Mary's was not only swept, but pipe-clayed. Mary's kettle was bright and black; Nanny's clean, but brown and dull."
That is, Nanny had mastered general principles; Mary looked to details.
I read last week in a woman's corner of a daily paper a letter from a grateful housewife whose hall carpet had been deluged by the kerosene from a broken lamp. By the advice of a visitor she promptly covered the great spot with dry oatmeal. When this was swept off in the morning not a trace of the oil remained.
"My husband explains this by saying that the oatmeal is at once an alkali and an absorbent," she writes. "I pass the useful knowledge on."
A careless servant knocked a lamp from the table in the bedroom of my summer cottage and the matting got a full quart of the best kerosene. I had the floating oil wiped up with a clean, soft cloth, opened the windows, shut the door, and let no one enter the room for twelve hours. Not a trace of grease remained at the end of that time. The volatile oil had effaced itself. The alkaline absorbent was not needed.
"We are all fond of cauliflower; my husband and sons like young onions in the season," said the mistress of a big house. "We can not have either of these vegetables cooked on account of the odor. It fills the house from cellar to attic."
A housewife who lives in a tiny city flat has both of these dishes whenever she likes. The vegetables are put over the fire in cold water; a little salt is thrown in, and the pot is left uncovered. If these rules be strictly obeyed, the rising odor during cooking will be scarcely perceptible.
A physician, driving with his wife through a lonely country neighborhood, heard screams issuing from the open door of a cottage and went in to see if he could be of use. A child had upset a kettle of boiling water upon its legs and feet and was in agony from the scald.
"Have you linseed oil and lime water in the house?". asked the doctor.
Before the distracted mother could say that there was neither, the doctor's wife said, "Do you burn wood in any room?"
There was a wood-stove in the parlor. There is always lard in the country pantry. In three minutes an ointment of lard and soot from the stovepipe was beaten up and spread upon old linen; in five minutes the scalds were covered with it. The relief was speedy; the cure complete in a day or two.
The wise housewife gleans a great store of precious driblets against the hour and minute of need. Such study of details is like sweeping up gold filings. The separate particles are nominally valueless, compared with the mastery of great principles. When massed and assorted, they go far toward making life easy.
A suggestive German fable is of a trooper who saw a loose horseshoe on the ground as he was going into battle, got down, picked it up and hung it about his neck by a string. In the first charge a bullet struck the horseshoe and glanced aside harmlessly.
"Ha!" said the trooper. "Even a little armor is a good thing, if rightly placed."
The horseshoe was "a detail."