Whatever happened to Mr. Roebuck?

The need for economy having been decided upon -- and for household economies this seems to be the year -- one is confronted by the baleful question of where the ax will fall. A family conference is to be recommended and will undoubtedly provide salutary advice. The case is well known of the father who, on being asked how decisions within his family were arrived at, declared that his wife made all the minor ones such as which school or which dentist the children should go to, while he made the really significant ones such as what to do, for instance, about Poland. Under this dispensation the father may flee questions of the budget, leaving to his wife and children determinations which even Mr. Stockman might quail before.

I recall during years of the Great Depression the consternation created among us children when my mother ruled that soft drinks (this was before their excess sugar was considered harmful) were an unjustified extravagance. She also ruled that the allowance for meals would be a dollar for each person per day. The dollar must have had a remarkable purchasing power, for it never seemed to me that we suffered in the least from this limit, nor were there complaints from the servants, who were under the same strict regimen. My grandfather, who lived with us much of the year, suggested as his own form of economy that family purchases be confined to the Sears, Roebuck catalog.

We children found that to be no deprivation at all. Leafing through the enormous catalog was a source of joy, and the arrival of a package, no matter how utilitarian its contents, provoked a scene of family celebration. So devoted did my grandfather become to these merchandisers, and so frequent were his orders, that he received on his eightieth birthday a visit from Messrs. Sears and Roebuck themselves, along with an assortment of gifts out of their compendious supply. At least we children supposed the visit to have occurred, though we were puzzled by the fact that our two uncles, my grandfather's sons, were mysteriously absent during the encounter. They came in a little later with many excuses for being late at the party.

(Whatever happened, by the way, to Mr. Roebuck? Mr. Sears is presumably still with us, but his doughty partner has vanished from the ken of a younger generation.)

At dinner the other evening I found myself sitting next to Emily Kimbrough, the noted author and humorist, who told me about her grandfather and his one peculiar economy. On one occasion when she was leaving for a trip abroad he gave her what seemed a princely sum which she was to spend for her own pleasure, exactly as she pleased. There was one stricture, however, he could not refrain from making. ''My dear,'' he said, ''I do deplore your habit of indulging in special delivery stamps.''

Miss Kimbrough once wrote an essay on ''pet economies'': for many years after its publication she received letters from strangers telling at length about their own idiosyncrasies in this regard, or those of their spouses or parents. Lest I encourage a similar stream, I hasten to assert that there is something to be said on the other side of this question. How many times, when one looks back on one's life, one regrets the economies one has made -- the object not purchased, the journey not taken -- and how often one has occasion to congratulate oneself upon past extravagances! I suppose that no really worthwhile experience and no notable acquisition seemed at the time anything less than a dangerous departure from prudence, to say nothing of frugality. Yet how miraculously we survived what seemed impending disaster and went forward with something like a blessing on the deed.

A young friend of mine, furnishing his first apartment, has fallen under the spell of a certain painting and is determined to buy it. He has many needs of a more practical nature; his immediate future (like the immediate future of almost all of us) is obscure. Should I, when my advice was asked, have urged him to desist? I could not do it. The painting seems to me first-rate; the artist, herself young, will benefit from the sale, as will my friend from the purchase. In such happy, positive exchanges the zest of life may be found. Let economies be for humdrum days, but when sunlight brings out our courage and hope rises over doubt, then some blazing, irrational extravagance may just fit the spirit's need.

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