There is a further problem over and beyond all those heretofore set forth,—the problem, which might be described under the term, the complication of relatives, the problem, shall we call it, of help or hindrance from family members, who, asked or unasked and usually unasked, undertake to act as vice-parents prior to the resignation or decease of parents. The relationship is not ordinarily one of reciprocity, for, however great be the help or hurt that can be done to a child by an intervening kinsman or kinswoman, the relation of the child to him or her does not as a rule root very deep in the life of the younger person.
One thing parents may ask, though usually they do not: one thing children ought to ask, though usually they would not; namely, that when relatives touch the life of parent and child,—as they not infrequently do,—they shall exert their influence on behalf of understanding between parent and child. I have seen much done to wreck the home by those who forget that the parental-filial relation is a sanctuary not lightly to be trespassed upon even by those who physically dwell in close proximity thereto.
One of the commonest forms of pernicious intervention is the attempt to mitigate parental severity, to soften parental asperity, on the part of nice, soft, respectable kinsmen and kinswomen, who regard a child under twenty years or even under twenty-five in some cases as a little lap-dog to be caressed and fondled, but in no wise to be dealt with as a human to whom much may be given and from whom more must be asked. Parents' standards may seem, and even be, exigent, but the attempt to modify their rigor may not be made by those lacking in fundamental reverence for a child, and in conscious hope for its wise, noble, self-reliant maturity.
The kind uncle and the indulgent aunt have no right under heaven to wreak their unreasoning tenderness upon niece or nephew in such fashion as to make any and every standard seem cruelly exigent to the child. Parents are not uniformly, though oft approximately, infallible, and family members have the right and duty to take counsel with, which always means to give counsel, to parents but not in the presence of children. I have seen children moved to distrust of parental mandate and judgment even when these were wise and just by reason of the malsuggestion oozing forth from relatives, the zeal of whose intervention is normally in inverse proportion to the measure of their wisdom. Childish rebellion against parental guidance, however enlightened, oft dates from the time of some avuncular remonstrance against or antique impatience with parents "who do not understand the dear child." But there is another and a better way, and kinsfolk can frequently find it within the range of their power to supplement parental teaching in ways that shall be profitable alike to child and parent.
The nearest, the most constant impact upon the child is that of the mother, and less often of the father. The mountain summit to which greatness ascends in the sight of multitudes is often nothing more than some height, reached in loneliness and out of the sight of the world by a brave, mother-soul, wrestling through unseen and unaided struggle for that, which shall later be disclosed to the world as the immortal achievement of a child and so acclaimed by the plaudits of the world. One remembers, for example, that the mother of William Lloyd Garrison wrote of her colored nurse during her illness: "A slave in the sight of man, but a freeborn soul in the sight of God." Thus is she revealed as the mother of the Abolition struggle.
Professor Brumbaugh,who ceased for a time to be a good teacher in order to be an indifferent Governor of his Commonwealth, tells the story of Pestalozzi taken by his grandfather to the homes of the poor, the child saying: "When I am a man, I mean to take the side of the poor." "He lived like a beggar that he might teach beggars to live like men." Truly one must find the mother behind or rather before the man. The mother of Emerson is thus described by his son "To a woman of her stamp, provision for her sons meant far more than mere food, raiment and shelter. Their souls first, their minds next, their bodies last; this was the order in which their claims presented themselves to the brave mother's mind. Lastly in those days the body had to look after itself very much; more reverently they put it, the Lord will provide." After his first week of Harvard life, Mrs. Emerson wrote to her sonWhat most excites my solicitude is your moral improvement and your progress in virtue. Let your whole life reflect honor on the name you bear." Curious from the viewpoint of modern practice that nothing was said about the weekly or fortnightly hamper of goodies or the cushions shortly to follow,—to say nothing of the ceaselessly entreated remittance!
The influence of a father upon his son comes to light as one reads Dr. Emerson's life of his father: "In view of the son's shrinking from all attempts to wall in the living truth with forms, his father's early wish and hope, while still in Harvard, of moving to Washington and there founding a church without written expression of faith or covenant, is worthy of note." One comes to see that a man is what he is because of the love he bears his mother, as one reads of Commodore Perkins that on the eve of the Battle of Mobile Bay he wrote to her: "I know that I shall not disgrace myself no matter how hot the fighting may be, for I shall think of you all the time." Thomas Wentworth Higginson tells that his own strongest impulse in the direction of anti-slavery reform came from his mother. Being once driven from place to place by an intelligent negro driver, my mother said to him that she thought him very well situated after all; on which he turned and looked at her, simply saying: "Ah, Missus, free breath is good." Respecting his arrest later in connection with John Brown and Harper's Ferry, Higginson writes "Fortunately it did not disturb my courageous mother, who wrote: 'I assure you it does not trouble me, though I dare say that some of my friends are commiserating me for having a son riotously and routously engaged.'"
Again and again, we look back and find that the great deed or noble utterance of some historic figure is merely the echo of an earlier word or deed of a forbear. We have seen it in the influences that shaped or in any event steered Garrison, Mazzini, Pestalozzi. Former President Tucker of Dartmouth College declares that the memorable speech of the Defender of the Constitution is to be explained not by his own greatness. His father had made it before him.... This speech was in his blood. The fact is that the great address of the Defender of the Constitution was made by his father fifty years earlier when Colonel Webster moved New Hampshire to enter the Union." The grandfather of Theodore Parker was the minister of Concord at the time of the Concord fight and on the Sunday previous he had preached on the text: "Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God."
That a kinsman or kinswoman may equal, even surpass, a parent in influence wide and deep upon a child might be variously illustrated. No more familiar illustration obtains than that of Mary Moody, aunt of Emerson, of whom his son writes: "She gave high counsel. It was the privilege of certain boys to have this immeasurably high standard indicated in their childhood, a blessing which nothing else in education could supply. Lift up your aims, always do what you are afraid to do, scorn trifles,—such were the maxims she gave her nephews and which they made their own.... Be generous and great and you will confer benefits on society, not receive them, through life. Emerson himself said of his aunt her power over the mind of her young friends was almost despotic, describing her influence upon himself as great as that of Greece or Rome.
It may in truth often be a sister who brings strength and heartening to a man. Ernest Renan writes to his sister Henriette "But that ideal does not exist in our workaday world, I fear. Life is a struggle, Life is hard and painful, yet let us not lose courage. If the road be steep, we have within us a great strength; we shall surmount our stumbling-block. It is enough if we possess our conscience in rectitude, if our aim be noble, our will firm and constant. Let happen what may, on that foundation we can build up our lives." Again he wrote to her: "My lonely, tired heart finds infinite sweetness in resting upon yours. I sometimes think that I could be quite happy in a simple, common life, which I should ennoble from within. Then I think of you and look higher." The tender inquisitress was not satisfied, declares the biographer of Renan,
until all was pure, exact, discreet and true. She said to her brother: Be thou perfect. Most of all she sought to cultivate in him the habit of veracity, a habit the seminary had not inculcated it appears. So great was the influence of Henriette that for years afterward not only did her brother act as she would bid him act, but, far rarer triumph of her love, he thought as she would have bid him think, in all seriousness, in all tenderness, with a remote and noble elevation, checking as they rose those impulses toward irony, frivolity, scepticism, which she had not loved.