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Lunch with Mrs. Emmett


By Wendy Lesser

LUCKILY I HAVE a friend named Mrs. Emmett, Class of 1907, who insists on keeping informed about what young people are doing these days and invites me over periodically so she can hear a first-hand account. In exchange for consciously deceiving this kind old lady by posing as an authority on my generation. I get to hear all her stories about the past, her opinions about the present, and her worries about the future.

Mrs. Emmett majored in philosophy at Radcliffe and took courses from Professor William James, who happened to be a friend of her father. (The first time I met her, Mrs. Emmett told me the story of William James's visit to her California home at the time of the 1906 San Francsicso earthquake. After the whole family had rushed terrified out of the shaking house in the middle of the night, somebody looked around and said. "But where's Professor James." They went back in to find James, who had never before been in an earthquake, sitting on his bed writing down his sensations.)

I know that she has outlived two husbands, that she has twice moved from New England to California and back again, and that she has helped Radcliffe recruit West Coast applicants and increase scholarship funds, but most of Mr. Emmett's life remains for me a foggy past from which surprising facts occasionally emerge. (At one point, for instance, when we were talking about private airplanes, she said. "I rode in a private airplane once--with Mr. Lindbergh.")

I MET MRS. EMMETT about three years ago at a Palo Alto Radcliffe Club luncheon just before I first came to Radcliffe. She was the oldest person there and I was the youngest and since we were both moving to Cambridge in September she was selling her house and moving out here to be near her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, we arranged to keep in touch. Since then I've gone to her apartment several times a year for lunch or dinner and she's eaten with me a couple of times at Radcliffe. She has introduced me to several of her friends and has met some of mine, whom she invariably asks about whenever I see her.

Not that we see eye to eye on everything I hardly consider myself a radical advocate of Women's Liberation but next to Mrs. Emmett I seem to breathe fire. She also has the kind of aristocratic attitude which is the expected result of her family history, her education, and her place in time, and I suspect that she's vaguely anti-Semitic (she doesn't know I'm Jewish).

Last Saturday I went to lunch at Mrs. Emmett's for the first time this year. She kissed me at the door, admired my sheepskin coat as she took it into her bedroom, and led me into the livingroom of her small apartment overlooking the corner of Concord and Garden Streets. (One of the first things she did after moving in was personally to inspect the statue of the soldier built in the triangle between those two streets--if she was going to be looking at him every day, she wanted to know who he was.) She had made us a lunch consisting of toasted English muffins, lamp chops bought at Sage's (she has never shopped at a supermarket), milk (she offered me coffee, but she limits herself to two cups a day, one at breakfast, and one in the afternoon, because she's afraid that otherwise she would never stop drinking it), apple pie ("Unfortunately without the cheese," she said, quoting the rhyme: "Apple pie without the cheese/Is like a kiss without the squeeze") and a green salad with a dressing that she made herself, "with an egg-beater" (Mrs. Emmett doesn't like modern gadgetry, and when she first moved into the apartment she ignored the built-in garbage disposal and dishwasher. After a while she realized that they might deteriorate from back to use, so now she puts them occasionally, just to keep the landlord happy.)

Mrs. Emmett seemed more worried this time than I'd ever seen her before. We talked about the disintegration of the family, which she sees as one of the worst changes since her time. "I went to a meeting of Radcliffe graduates who wanted to go back to work or school," she said, "and they were demanding child-care centers where they could stick their children all day--children six years old and under. Why, I think that's dreadful." When I argued that maybe day-care centers wouldn't be necessary if husbands would take half of the responsibility for raising the children, she answered, "But a father doesn't love his children in the same way a mother does, even though he may love them as much. You'll notice that after you've had a child or two yourself--the mother is the patient one, while the father always wants his child to go out and be better than every other child. It's a different kind of love."

SHE THINKS IT'S ridiculous for women to want to work in all of the same professions as men. "Why, I would never hire a woman lawyer or a woman doctor," she said. Another time she told me that if she'd been a man she would certainly have become a lawyer. There have been lawyers in every generation of her family since at least her grandfather's time, and Mrs. Emmett firmly believes that aptitude for a profession is largely inherited. "When my son was six years old," she said, "he came down to the breakfast table one morning and announced, 'I'm going to be a lawyer.'" Mrs. Emmett admires people who decide early what they want to do and stick to their decisions, and I think one of the reasons she likes me is that I've wanted to be a city planner ever since she's known me. When I asked her why it was all right for a woman to be a city planner but not a lawyer or a doctor, she said, "Oh, but city planning is different--it has much more to do with living," and she gave a little explanatory laugh.

She associates the deterioration in appearance of college students with a general decay of manners and morality among the young people she sees on the streets and hears about from other adults. When she came to dinner at Radcliffe once last year, she objected to the public displays of affection which she now refers to as "three couples making violent love in the dining room." She was also horrified at the idea of mixed sexes swimming nude together in the Adams House pool. "Why, that's the lowest kind of animalism," she said, "and after all, even every animal has its clothes. Those sexy, disgusting, horrible young people are destroying everything of value--they're ruining the family--they don't know what they're doing..."

Mrs. Emmett takes her politics very seriously. "When I heard that women had been given the vote," she once told me. "I sat down and cried, because I thought of all the work that was ahead of me." She reads The Christian Science Monitor and the Sunday Times, and fumes about Mr. Nixon's latest imbecilities ("Well, what do you think about our current President?" she rejoined, after I had said that maybe things weren't going downhill as feel as she seemed to think). She is an adamant pacifist ("I've lived through five wars," she says, "and not one of them has done any good for more than a few months, as far as I can see"), and she believes that the United Nations, if strengthened, could be a way of achieving world peace if only national leaders would respect it. (When Nixon was first elected President she wrote him a long letter full of embarrassing quotations from his anti-U.N. remarks, expressing the hope that he would reform.)

BEFORE I LEFT her apartment on Saturday, Mrs. Emmett read me an article from the Sunday Times written by Loren Eiseley. ("He's one of the only modern writers I like," she said. "The others are so full of examining their feelings and describing their inner thoughts--I don't think such introspection gets you anywhere.") In the article, Eiseley discussed the glacial epoch in relation to man's fear of nature, described our current world situation as the depths of winter, and deplored the "heedless ones" who want "liberation without responsibility" (here Mrs. Emmett looked over the clipping at me, nodding, and winked). She finished reading the article in her strong, clear voice and got up to see me to the door. "I'm glad you could come," she said, kissing me goodbye. "I really like to hear what you have to say about things." I told her that I liked hearing her opinions, too, and I wanted to add, "I wish I could talk to you when I'm as old as you are now," but of course I didn't. I was sorry that I had reminded myself of how comparatively short our friendship will be.

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