My Son, the Militarist

I had been to parties here before — a slightly stuffy, pleasantly
scruffy London flat with worn leather on the chairs, Kurdish rugs
on the floor, and etchings of worthy ruins on the walls. It looked
like a grown-up version of Cambridge ‘digs,’ and most of us looked
like middle-aged versions of the Cambridge undergraduates we had
mostly been — now pundits and publishers, writers and actors, what
the British call the ‘chattering classes.’ Both my sons were with
me on this trip, 16-year-old Alex out with his guitar and the punks
of Piccadilly Circus, 19-year-old Tim somewhere in the adjoining
room in Harris tweed. I recognized the man crossing toward me,
glass in hand, as somebody I vaguely knew — first name Jeff (or
Geoff), last name lost. I remembered he was witty, articulate, an
impassioned campaigner for free speech; my kind of person. So I was
glad to see him headed toward me.

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

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

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

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

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,

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
, edited by Patricia Stevens, to be published in the
spring of 1999 by Scribner’s.

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