For two people so different, life is an uncertain truce
He charged a little purposefully, though, his look heated. 'I've been talking to your son,' he said, and set his glass against his chin. 'My God, how do you stand it?'
My stomach clenched around its undigested canapes. Shame, defensiveness, and rage (I am responsible for my son; I am not responsible for my son; who are you to insult my son?) so filled my throat that I could not immediately speak. The free-speech champion offered me the kind of face, sympathy and shock compounded, that one offers to the victim of mortal news.
'I manage,' I managed presently, and turned on my heel.
I have never run into Jeff again, but I credit him with the defining moment, when choice is made at depth: the Mother Moment.
Let's be clear. I live in knee-jerk land, impulses pacifist to liberal, religion somewhere between atheist and ecumenical, inclined to quibble and hairsplit with my friends, who, however, are all Democrats and Labour, who believe that sexual orientation is nobody's business, that intolerance is the world's scourge, that corporate power is a global danger, that war is always cruel and almost always pointless, that guns kill people.
My son Tim, who describes himself as a fiscal conservative but social liberal, shares these attitudes of tolerance toward sex, race, and religion. His politics, however, emanate from a spirit of gravity rather than irony. Now 33, he is a member of the Young Republicans, the National Rifle Association, and the United States Army Reserve, with which he spends as much time as he can wangle, most recently in Bosnia, Germany, and the Republic of Central Africa.
I love this young man deeply, and deeply admire about three-quarters of his qualities. For the rest -- well, Jungian philosopher James Hillman has somewhere acknowledged those parts of every life that you can't fix, escape, or reconcile yourself to. How you manage those parts he doesn't say. What Tim and I do is let slide, laugh, mark a boundary with the smallest gesture, back off, embrace, or shrug. Certainly we deny. Often we are rueful. I don't think there is ever any doubt about the 'we.'
Most parents must sooner or later, more or less explicitly, face this paradox: If I had an identikit to construct a child, is this the child I'd make? No, no way. Would I trade this child for that one? No, no way.
This week in Florida I receive in the mail a flyer from Teddy Kennedy that asks me to put my money where my mouth is, assuming my mouth is saying, 'Yes! I will stand up and be counted to help end the gun violence that plagues our country.' I am considering a contribution when Tim drops by. He is headed to the gun show, thinking he will maybe indulge himself with a Ruger because it's a good price, has a lovely piece of cherry on the handle and fine scoring, and he's never had a cowboy-type gun. He's curious how it handles, heavy as it is. Later he comes back to show it off. He fingers the wood grain and the metalwork, displays the bluing on the trigger mechanism -- exactly as I would show off the weave of a Galway tweed, the draping quality of crepe cut on the bias. He offers it on the palms of both hands, and I weigh it on mine, gingerly. It's neat, I admit. Grinning at my caution, he takes it back.
I have a black-and-white snapshot of Tim and his little brother, both towheaded and long-lashed, squatting in an orchard full of daffodils. I also own a color photograph, taken in the African savanna, of Tim, grown, kneeling over the carcass of a wild boar. Now, looking at the toddler in the daffodils, I can see the clear lineaments of the hunter's face. But squatting beside him years ago, I had no premonition of which planes, tilts, colors of that cherub head would survive. Looking back, I can see clearly in his passion for little plastic planes, tank kits, bags of khaki-colored soldiers, and history books about famous battles that his direction was early set. But I was a first-time parent. I thought all boys played soldier.
Alex liked little planes, too, but he went into other fantasies, to Dungeons and Dragons and from thence to pacifism and the Society for Creative Anachronism. In him, I have witnessed the astonishing but quite usual transformation from radical-punk-anarchist to responsible, loving husband and father. Tim's journey has been otherwise: As a child he was modest, intense, fiercely honorable, and had few but deep friendships. He lit with enthusiasm for his most demanding teachers, praising their strictness. He was from the beginning a worrier after his own integrity, which he pursued with solemn doggedness, eyes popping. In puberty, Tim developed no interest in sports but kept a keen eye on world news. He read voraciously, mostly adventure novels, admired John Wayne's acting and politics, and more than once quoted 'My country, right or wrong.' At 18 he came home in tears because he could not go to defend England's honor in the Falklands. About that time I realized that both my boys, who had spent their early years in shoulder-length blond shag, had shaved their heads -- Alex for a Mohawk and Tim for ROTC. Both wore combat boots, one for busking around the Eros statue in London, the other for jumping out of airplanes at Fort Benning. At that point I decided Tim was rebelling against his '60s parents, who had him out in the stroller at sit-ins or confined to his playpen while we addressed envelopes for Mothers Against the Bomb. Alex, instead of rebelling against Mom (what's the point? -- if she'll let you be a soldier, she'll let you be anything), rebelled against his big brother, hero worship, and Top-Siders, all things button-down and flag-waving.
In his late teens, Tim enjoyed goading my liberal friends with army swagger. He had a bumper sticker that said 'This vehicle is protected by Smith and Wesson,' and T-shirts with skulls and crossed rifles. Embarrassed, angry, and ashamed, I found nothing effective to say. I was grateful for the friend who told him, 'You know, it isn't that we're shocked. All of us are familiar with the attitudes you have; we've considered and rejected them.' Tim swallowed and said, 'I didn't think of it that way.'
Since then he has thought of it in several hundred ways, and so have I. I'm aware of my own contradictions in his presence: a feminist often charmed by machismo, a pacifist with a temper, an ironist moved by his rhetoric. Tim can set my teeth on edge by speaking in the metaphors of battle, then disarm me with a self-mocking reference to 'evolving guidance' (behavior of an officer who doesn't know what he's doing). His rhetoric can be Hemingwayesque, his humor heavy-handed; he can be quick to bristle and on occasion hidden far back in himself.
These faults unfold his virtues: You could trust him with a secret on which your life depended; neither will he betray you in trivial ways. He would, literally, lay down his life for a cause or a friend. He is, of American types, pre-Vietnam.
Tim doesn't expect a weapon for his birthday, and I don't defend Jimmy Carter in his presence. But sometimes we stumble into uneasy territory. We have learned to acknowledge that, mother and child, we not only don't share a worldview; we cannot respect each other's. Our task is to love in the absence of that respect.
It's a tall order. We agree that we do pretty well. Stating the impasse seems, paradoxically, to confirm our respect. Tim has this observation: 'It's a good thing it's you who's the liberal, Mom. If I were the parent, I wouldn't want to let you be you the way you've let me be me.'
Two things are at work here: Motherhood is thicker than politics, and a politics of certainty -- the snap judgment, closed mind, blanket dismissal -- cannot be what I mean by liberal. Tom Stoppard speaks in Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon of the 'liberal cerebrum and conservative viscera.' When I encountered that phrase I felt guiltily gratified. To love deeply where you deeply disagree creates a double vision that impinges daily in unexpected ways.
The mail and the gun show were on Saturday. Sunday afternoon Tim is back to show me a double-cowhide holster he has cut, tooled, and stitched freehand. 'It's a pretty fair copy of John Wayne's favorite; he called it his Rio Bravo.'
'It's handsome,' I say. I don't say that it's also delicate, with bursts of flowerets burned around the curve of the holster front and the loop that holds it to the leg. Tim shows me deep cuts in his index fingers from pulling the beeswaxed linen thread through hand-punched holes. All those years while I taught my boys to iron and sew I thought I was turning out little feminists. At Fort Benning Tim was laughing-proud to be the only one in his barracks who could put military patches on his uniform with a sewing machine. It never occurred to me that these skills would be put to use on cartridge belts and camouflage. But why not? How many swashbuckling-hero Halloween costumes did I sew?
He has another gun to show me. I forget the name of this one, a semiautomatic from which, he carefully shows me, he has removed the clip. He has spent several hundred hours filing every edge inside and out so that all the parts fit with silken smoothness and the barrel shines blackly. This is the hammer and the seer, the housing, the clip well. This is the site he's got an idea how to improve. This is the handle he has crosshatched with hair's-width grooves to perfect the grip. Just so do I worry my lines across the page one at a time, take apart and refit the housing of sentences, polish and shine. This is love of craft he's talking. This is a weapon that could kill a person I am holding in my hand. The conflict between conviction and maternal love stirs again, stressfully.
Adapted from New Letters (Vol. 64, No. 2). Subscriptions: $17/yr. (4 issues) from the University of Missouri, 5101 Rockhill Rd., Kansas City, MO 64110. This essay will appear in Between Mother and Son: Reflections by Women Writers, edited by Patricia Stevens, to be published in the spring of 1999 by Scribner's.