My mother turned eighty nine a little over a month ago, and it is not going well. Age has hit her in most of the ways it can; diminished in all capacities, the already considerable psychological issues of her younger life exacerbated to cartoonish proportion. I suppose there are people who manage to get older without a parade of indignities accompanying the process but she didn’t make that list. Trying to deal with this in a way that will provide the best care possible has been made unnecessarily difficult due to an unpleasant family dynamic. We don’t need any further exploration of all that except to say that my unusual pattern of rumination on the events as they’ve unfolded has reasons, old and deep , that validate the less than sentimental nature of my perspective. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Despite the somewhat icy tone of the preceding paragraph there is one imprint on my life that my mother made which has been uniformly positive. At the earliest stages of my education she encouraged my reading, and did so with a forward thinking that was not an otherwise large part of her relationship with me. The oldest memory I have of her talking to me about it dates back to a summer during my grade school years. Having completed my vacation list of books I asked her if it was okay to read some comics. More than forty five years later I can still hear her tell me, “as long as you’re reading.” Not soaring oratory but perfect in its own way, and of deep and lasting impact. Over the ensuing decades I have had ample cause to reflect on the way being an avid reader has played a role in my life. Reading has opened a world to me I could never have visited otherwise. When I had not a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of, I could still travel any where. Rainy days and interminable bus rides have been made easier. Most important, the discipline of spending hours at a time following someone else’s thoughts has (I hope) left me more ordered in my own thinking. That simple but solid foundation in a fundamental skill has echoed through out my life both in and out of the academic setting. Whatever else may have been lacking in her parenting those five words spoken to me at a young age have never stopped being a gift. Reading came quickly to me, and I enjoyed it commensurately but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have turned into a chore. I’m grateful to have that day to think about as her story winds down; I only wish there had been more like it.
My mother’s role in this piece of my life was basic and direct. My father’s part was, much like him, an unusual combination of depth, and enduring, if passive influence. Gone more than five years now he was a source of interest, frustration and disappointment to me. It is hard to imagine that I did not return the worst of it to him ten-fold. Our relationship was badly strained at the time he had the stroke which would inexorably lead to his passing, nine months later. In my late forties when he fell ill, I had spent years trying to reconcile the dramatic differential in what he was as a person and a parent. With him no longer here I’ve resigned myself to the idea that it will never happen. That’s today. When I was in grade school there wasn’t a whole lot of Zen in my modus vivendi. I just wanted my dad to like me. He’d introduced me to baseball and that helped. It was great to have a catch with him, and occasionally see him at my little league games. As time passed his work week lengthened with a resulting drop in time and a predictable diminishing of his energy. That part of it faded, although we still did manage to watch a game together on occasion. We found a more permanent connection in a shared love of the printed word. My parent’s house had something of an accidental library in the basement/playroom. The shelves that lined the walls were covered in books, the vast majority of which were from my father’s undergrad days as a voracious reader. Sometime not long after my mother’s above mentioned encouragement I ran out of old comic books. Fully addicted to the activity I went in search of a new source of material. Which is how I found Willie and Joe.
Willie and Joe were the creations of Bill Mauldin, a cartoonist serving with the army during World War II. Weary, dirty and prone to congenial wiseassery, the two soldiers were representative of the men who served at the front. Mauldin’s depiction of the day to day grind of the infantry was remarkably popular with the enlisted men; the officers ranks were less pleased with his work, although Dwight Eisenhower protected him from the wrath of an enraged George Patton and insisted that the cartoon continue to run in Stars and Stripes, a military newspaper. In the end Eisenhower’s perspective (and five stars) won the day with Mauldin receiving a Pulitzer at age twenty three, the awards youngest winner ever. When he returned home at the end of the war he published a book, entitled Up Front, which collected his cartoons as well as his written reflections on his time in the service. It was that compilation that I found myself thumbing through one night, desperate enough for something to read that I was willing to try one of my fathers “old” books. Also, there were an abundance of cartoons which was as close as I could get to a comic book at the time. His description of the experience of the average rifleman in the infantry was decidedly less glamorous than what I had been expecting, as per my vast knowledge of warfare, secondary to repeated viewings of The Great Escape on the 4:30 movie. Doing the best I can from memory, Mauldin thought the most efficient way to emulate the soldiers life was to carry around a shotgun and an overloaded briefcase, cover yourself in cold mud and have a friend fire off a few shots over your head every fifteen minutes. Decidedly lacking in “cool”, I figured the guy just had it wrong and went to check it with my father. Although he couldn’t have reasonably anticipated my interest in the book, he didn’t make a big deal of it. Certainly there was no mention of the idea that the book might be over my head in some way. He told me who Mauldin was and verified his credentials. I went back to reading. Over the next few hours I asked him more than a few questions; he was patient, informative and, most important to me, fully engaged. It was not always the case to feel like I had his undivided attention which I suppose is a big part of why this small incident ended up having such large footprints.
Reading was no longer just a pleasant activity. It was a way I could be a little more interesting to my dad, and a little more like him. Regardless of the missteps that plagued his life, my father was a very intelligent man. The depth, and particularly breadth, of his knowledge were a source of amazement to me as a child. As I grew, the awe that I had experienced in childhood turned into a healthy envy. I wanted people to see me in the way that I saw him. That bond has lasted longer than he did. Even now I can vividly recall him stretched out on his bed, head propped on pillows, struggling to make it through one more page in the book lying on his chest. Reading was always fun. After that day it was something a bit more than that. It became a way to see myself in a different light. For a kid who was already aware of the many ways in which I might be found lacking, knowing that I could handle a piece of work more typically suited to someone a lot older than me helped balance some of the embarrassment of my social ineptitude. This has been so large a part of me for so long that I can no longer honestly say whether my eclectic tastes in the printed word are indicative of a broad spectrum of interests, or their cause. Fortunately I’m old enough to no longer care. It is sufficient for me to find as many things as fascinating as I do, and to be able to enjoy the simple pleasure of reading about them.
When I get into bed tonight, as I do more often than not, I will prop up my head, turn on the lamp, and open up a book. As is usually the case I will most likely doze off, waking only long enough to mark my place, turn off the light and flatten myself for a more substantial night’s rest. Perhaps tonight, as I too struggle for just one more page, I will think of how it all started, and in remembering Willie and Joe find some room for gratitude and all that it might bring. Good night dad.
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