Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Beloved Old Goat


"They that enter into the world are too often treated with unreasonable rigour by those that were once as ignorant and heady as themselves; and distinction is not always made between the faults which require speedy and violent eradication, and those that will gradually drop away in the progression of life. Vicious solicitations of appetite, if not checked, will grow more importunate; and mean arts of profit or ambition will gather strength in the mind, if they are not early suppressed. But mistaken notions of superiority, desires of useless show, pride of little accomplishments, and all the train of vanity, will be brushed away by the wing of Time."

-- Samuel 4Johnson: Idler #25 (October 7, 1758)

She was kind to me, to us, even when she probably shouldn't have been, certainly when kindness was more than we deserved. She was the mother of my friend and as such just one more I might have meant to charm. I was good with mothers when I was young, fathers not so much, my own or others'.  Mothers liked me, always did. Most of them loved me sooner or later. Some of them I came to love back, but not all. One or two never liked me much despite my best efforts. Disappointing but understandable really as I was having sex with their sons. They must have suspected this even if they didn't know. I was obviously an influence at the very least, and not always for good. Her daughter was my best friend, never a lover, so that is why it probably mattered more. She was kind to me, the mother of my best friend then, to all of us, and so I have loved her ever since.

Forgive me for not using their names. It was only a day ago, at 2:12 in the morning that my friend's mother died. And yes, she died of what you'd assume given the times, and you're right to think that she needn't have if people weren't so selfish and stupid but we are. We do not listen and some of us think we know better when we don't and so people keep dying. It's horrible and infuriating and the woman who's died would not have disagreed I think but she isn't here to say so and it isn't my place to speak for her even now she's dead. It isn't my place to announce her death either.

Please forgive me then for writing in this awkward way-- without names -- about my friend's mother. Those who knew her will recognize her in this, I hope, but I speak here only for myself.

 When I was young I believed that the mothers of my friends liked me because I wanted them to, and more, because I needed them. It wasn't that I didn't or don't have a mother of my own, and a good one too, in whom I am lucky. Wasn't why. From a very early age I preferred the company of women, saw more of them and admired them more than men. Men were fascinating, but more as a matter of reverence or study. Men confused me. Still do, often as not, and I've been one and lived with another now for a very long time. Women were more interesting, had better conversation, better manners, and paid me more attention. I liked that. Women did more of the things in which I was interested and they ran most of the things in which I came to be involved; whether it was church or theater or politics, education, books, gossip, art -- it was women who could help me. It was women I could make laugh without malice. All the women I knew when I was a child, the women who weren't related to me, and who weren't my teachers, were either the friends of my parents or grandparents or the mothers and grandmothers of my friends. Children are selfish creatures and are meant to be I should think. I certainly was. If I needed something as a child, I learned quickly if not from birth that it was better to ask a woman, they may even have taught us that now I think of it. Lost? Ask a policeman -- or a lady -- for help. So I did, and they do, still.

Mothers liked me because I was helpful just as I'd been taught to be and polite. I was clean and well spoken and my people, if not well off, were nice. This may matter more in a small town where everyone pretends to know everyone else, or at least everyone else's business. It may still. I was not altogether unsupervised or wild. Working mothers like my own didn't much like it when we ate up all their food before they got home, but other than that they didn't mind us much so long as we weren't too noisy and later they hoped we weren't getting drunk or too high. When I met really middle class people in their very nice homes with very nice furniture on which one did not sit and with more forks than were needed on their very nice dining tables, I did not embarrass myself too much or presume too much on their civility. I didn't goggle when the mothers of my new middle class friends drank cocktails at lunch or when middle class fathers got drunk over dinner and flirted with the girlfriends of their sons. I admit I found them all quite fascinating, like characters in a book, which my middle class friends found mystifying I'm sure. (They, I remember were generally astonished at how much my mother tried to feed them at a sitting, that my father gave me money without being asked when we went out, and that no one in my family seemed very interested in where my friends intended to go to college or what my friends intended to do for a living when they grew up.)

My best friend's mother was different from all of these other women, or so at least she seemed to me at the time. She was a single mother, a divorcee at a time when that word was still exotic in the place where I grew up. She was a beautiful woman, always in some ways younger than her years, with stylishly short hair and simple make-up, a trim figure and tasteful business clothes. She supported herself and her only child without help from her ex-husband who I never met and wouldn't want to and her home was modest but modern and chic. All of the women I admired were smart and most of them were kind but she was tested in ways that most of them weren't, and not just by her daughter's strange little friends, and she seemed to me even when we'd made her most angry, entirely admirable. I don't know that we ever made a joke at her expense, any of us ever. Imagine that.

It would be years before any of us ever called her by her first name or anything other than "_____'s Mom" even to her face which quickly became something of a permanent endearment even after her daughter's friends were all grown. (The last time I had a meal with her I had to make myself use her Christian name, even then, all these years later.) Her daughter would occasionally and jokingly address her as, "old goat," as in, "hey, you old goat, we're home," but the joke was only funny because it was so obviously ridiculous. The very last person to be described as such, even when she did in fact grow old. She always laughed at this -- I think -- and we certainly did. She was frankly too glamorous to me, and too sophisticated in my eyes to take anything we said to shock her entirely seriously. (Perhaps she should have, as some of the things we told on ourselves were true.) When we were grown and kept only in imperfect touch, my friend and I used "The Old Goat" as a kind of shorthand for asking or telling after this woman we both loved.

I did love her, and always will. She was genuinely funny, in her own sometimes acerbic way and more often than not in her willingness to play along in almost any silly thing we played at; childish noises, mock fights, outlandish stories told on each other. Constant companions in high school and into college and even now on the very rare occasions when we communicate, my friend and I are still very silly with each other. Grimmest tragedy, which we've both known, she more than I, failures and disappointments, romances gone awry, deaths, addictions, loss, we've never not been able to talk about these things eventually and we still always come back at some point to the awkward goofs we were as adolescents. We find it strangely reassuring. My friend has always been a bit butch, even when she did her hair properly or wouldn't go to school. I've always been rather... theatrical. We always made each other laugh. Her mother must have found us quite alarming. We gave her cause. Still, at least in retrospect she was always willing to laugh along with us, despite our appalling behavior separately and together and with our weird need to be boorish with each other and joy in embarrassing ourselves, in public and private. We behave like fools, my friend and I, because each recognized in the other something of the same foolishness and to make it all if not better, then bearable; anecdote as antidote. Let's tell that terrible story again! At least "_____'s Mom" will laugh. It's always worked for us, if not always for her, poor woman.

 I sought tolerance and found it from more than I'd been led to expect. Got a little older and I sometimes succeeded in bullying or shaming into silence some of the people I could not convince or charm. But my friend's mother was different in so many ways from most of the women I then knew, and in this most particularly. When she loved someone, as I believe she loved me, it was unconditional and considered and sincere. I was not unloved otherwise, but I at least had the sense to recognize what love looked like as it was given to me and I hope I was grateful.

Of all the women I've ever wanted to make laugh, none was a better audience than "_____'s Mom" from the day I first met her to this. She was a smoker back in the day when that could still be elegant and between the two of us, however bad we'd been or however late I'd shamelessly waited to be driven home, etc., the common goal was to make that woman laugh until she couldn't breath. She would laugh until she cried and swatted us away. She would laugh until she told me I had to leave -- and when would I see her again? She laughed at herself and her own bad choices and she laughed even when I know we broke her heart. Later I suspect she laughed less. A second marriage. Jobs at which she was better than she needed to be. Widowhood. Loneliness. Illness and frailty, disappointment and pride, worry and wandering, and yet she laughed when I saw her, even when we cried for cause and not from laughing. 

I've always thought that phrase, "indomitable spirit" absurd, and not just because it is usually deployed by persons looking to benefit by standing next to rather than in the shoes of the person thus described. It's a verbal decoration, like pinning a medal over a wound and then moving on down the ward. "Aren't you brave. Where next?" Besides, it simply isn't true. There is no spirit which mayn't flag, no one who might not be beaten if by nothing less than time and death. I know nothing of eternity, but something now of this life, if less than I ever thought would be possible at my present age. What I know now is that spirits can be broken and can mend. That is our salvation and our hope. I have seen it. My friend and her beloved mother are among those who have shown me the possibility of this even in their darkest days, together and separately they have come back from places I would be too terrified to even visit. I do not say that either was "indomitable." Buffeted and bruised, certainly, dominated, even broken, but always they've come back and together we have somehow always still laughed.

My best friend's mother was kind to me when I was unhelpful and lied, when I was took advantage of her generosity and abused her hospitality, when the whole unhappy gang of her only daughter's only queer misbegotten friends broke her lamps and spoiled her rugs, disappointed her and failed to protect her child. She was kind to me when I had no right to further kindness, when I was really no friend to her daughter just as when I was. I learned very early that I might ask of her anything in her power to help me and that is a rare thing to know of someone else's mother. She was kind to me because she was kind. She liked me because I liked her. She loved me, present and absent, when I deserved it and when I didn't not because of who I was then or might be now but because, like her, I loved my friend. She was an admirable person, a good mother, a good friend. 

I cannot even offer my condolences in person. I do not know if or how there might be a funeral. I cannot send flowers even with a card addressed, "In Memory of The Beloved Old Goat," in the hopes of making my friend laugh.

Her death shocks and horrifies me and as a nation we should be ashamed to let such people, and so many people die. I am so furious just now, and so sad. 

I trust she would understand and forgive me even for going on and on about myself, even now. I like to think that if she were here, my friend and I might make her laugh. I'm glad the person she loved best in the world was with her. I sent my love. I send it here again, to that silly, extraordinary woman I count my friend still, and to her surviving family likewise always kind to me, and to the memory of "_____'s Mom," my friend likewise, and me so much the better for it. I'll remember. I've learned. Thank you for the lesson among so many.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Gnawed and Mumbled

There should be a rule about how they load a church van. There isn't, but there should be. In my time I crawled into and out of many a one and it never went well. Generally the people with the greatest flexibility and the smallest bladders tend to rush to the back and as the load increases, stack and fold themselves into the available space as best they can in order to accommodate the slower adults to follow. Heat and hilarity ensues, though genuine discomfort soon follows. Now, this seems only polite but it proves impractical as soon as it comes to unloading since upon arrival wherever, the oldest and slowest, being the last loaded in, are then called to be the first out, with usually only the driver to help see them safely to the ground. All that pent up energy buzzing and bawling behind, and nowhere to go until the substantial person of Mrs. Whomever can be un-wedged from a bucket seat and lowered less than gracefully down, while the bum knee of Mr. Bucket needs straightened gently before he can be dislodged from space between the driver's seat and gearbox. And all the while, like a loaded cannon, kids trying to rush the exit.

"Can't you wait a minute? Wait, I say, damn you. Oh, not you Mrs. Whatsit, my apologies."

This is a mere van, mind, nothing so grand as a bus. Mightn't be from an actual church, or it might be, but borrowed. Might be a delivery van of some sort or a panel truck, come to that, commandeered into temporary service for the occasion, but nothing so roomy or regulated as a bus. (I sat many times on an ice-cream freezer, or on the open bed of a pick-up truck in the winter wind, and more than once sat in the open stairwell of a moving vehicle.) Like the conveyance, the contents varied according to the occasion, but generally there were one or two functioning adults; organizers and acting chaperones, a driver not altogether happy and probably scared out of his or her wits, and then entirely too many cub scouts, or members young and old of the Grange, or 4H, or some other country fraternal organization, stacked less like cord wood than a load of noisy, wet gravel, every icy road and or sharp turn eliciting a loud and unhelpful, "Whoaaaa!" Unruly bunch, cheerful but not helpful, all smelling of damp wool and farm boots, rarely uncorked scent bottles and fresh baking, and not a drop of drink anywhere to take the edge off the enterprise.

I speak, just here, of country carolers, not the kind in a proper chorus, not so much as rehearsed, circa somewhere between say 1968 and 1976, my best remembered childhood. These would not be singers necessarily, mind, and not so much organized as randomly gathered. That would be the point.

I'm put in mind of this when I finally considered hauling out my Christmas music, and then didn't. Two big moving-boxes of the stuff just sitting in our garage, gathering dust the year 'round until normally some day soon after Thanksgiving when I drag the lot of it upstairs, spread jewel-boxes over the floor, and fire up our now much neglected stereo system.  But this year? I certainly had the time. Lord knows I love the stuff; the season, the bells, the carols, the songs, the choirs, the kitsch, the lot. But then I found even as late as this week, Christmas all but just around the corner, I could not quite rise to the occasion. Wasn't in me. Where the happy, off-key caroler of Western Pennsylvania childhood?

"The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge's keyhole to regale him with a Christmas Carol: but at the first sound of

God bless you, merry gentlemen!

May nothing you dismay!

Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost." 

Stave One, Marley's Ghost, roughly a dozen pages in, that. Oh dear, am I Scrooge now?

Short of the thirteen surviving minutes of Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost, the first extant film adaptation from 1913, every version stage and screen of the immortal Dickens' story that I've ever seen -- and I swear I've seen them all --has unsurprisingly featured carolers at whom the old wheezer might sneer. Yet another of the Dickensian reinventions of Christmas; that tight quartet in the full Victorian, harmonizing heartily on the cobbles. Easiest thing in the world to establish period, place, time, antagonists, and an appropriately festive atmosphere. Often as not, right under the credits or first across the stage: enter caroling.

I know it's not to everyone's taste. There are those who can't abide so much as the tinkling of jingle bells, fellow retail workers ruined in their seasonal joy by the too oft' repeated loop of saccharine inanities, persons of refined opinion who shiver not in anticipation but disdain at the first hint of Tchaikovsky's nutcracker. I sympathize with but have never shared their pain. It isn't all Luciano Pavarotti's Gesu Bambino and cathedral choir soloists calling oh, O for the Wings of a Dove. Hell, it's not necessarily even Miss Brenda Lee. 

As someone who has amassed a considerable collection of Christmas recordings, I feel fully qualified to say that not all all of it is anywhere near good, and that some of it is frankly dreadful. Further, I will admit to taking a perverse pleasure in not a few records the value of which is largely in their un-self-conscious awfulness. (Not the dreaded novelty numbers I mean so much as the full-throated sopranos mit orchestra yet, assailing a simple tune as if it were an aria from Norma, and or the various attempts by well meaning or greedy producers to bring a bit of contemporary pizzazz to old chestnuts with misjudged arrangements borrowed from 80s exercise videos to gangsta rap. Shivers. Good shivers, you understand, but in a bad way.)

But I think what I most want just now and cannot have, is something like the sound of the caroling I remember being carried from nursing home to shut-ins and on to isolated farms in those steaming vans of my youth. 

Don't misunderstand me when I tell you it was not good. We sang as I remember from mimeographed pages, often impossible to read in dim porch-light, or limply wet and runny in a snow storm. We sang, if you can call it that, crowded in the front of community rooms and fidgeting in drafty halls, to audiences often smaller than the crowd from the van. Our put-upon listeners were expected, not unreasonably I think, to appreciate our enthusiasm and the effort made, rather than the resulting noise.

There were always good natural singers among us, adults and children, but even their best could not always rise above. I remember there were always ladies -- seldom but occasionally gentlemen -- who would try, bless their memories, to get or keep us on pitch and in tune, and some brave soul would even try to keep time for us, when there wasn't an upright piano to follow. It all in the end usually came to almost nothing very nice, but at least we were cute, as I remember us then, and it was over soon enough.

I do remember one such performance in particular, not because of anything we did, but for a moment after. Might have been at The Odd Fellows Home, or somewhere like. Sad, sometimes frightening places for the smallest children, nursing homes. Not then so sad as they seem now, for reasons we were then blessed to never have anticipated, but sad nonetheless. Unhappy, mostly as I remember them, with crepe paper bells and sad strings of saggy tinsel, the inmates often decked in small tokens of better memories: Christmas broaches and garlands draped like scarves, perhaps a Santa hat on some stray staffer.

The moment I mean to recall came after we had finished our "program" and had gone at our minders' insistence out among the occupants to offer season's greetings individually before we fell to on the cookie tables and watery punch. It wasn't me who heard her first, nor do I know who or what may have prompted her. But somewhere in that painfully bright recreation and assembly room, one ancient lady decided to sing. Seemingly unbidden by anyone or anything but memory, without accompaniment or the slightest encouragement, perhaps not even altogether aware of what she was doing, a very old lady -- sang.

I wish I could tell you that her voice was still thrilling and strong. It wasn't. I wish I could remember what language she sang in, or that someone present could later identify the song. It wasn't English I know, might have been German, Italian, Polish. Somebody would have said that much at least, but I do not remember. All I remember is the quiet. I remember there the sudden hush and that all of us, even the evil-minded teenagers stopped what we were doing, stood still and listened. The carol she sang, if carol it was, couldn't have lasted more than a very few minutes but it had the shape of something beautiful still, something familiar even in its foreign language, something sacred. It rose and fell to nearly a whisper, it broke going up and shook when it had ascended and it was everything but pretty or professionally done. And while it lasted, the little time it did, it was beautiful. It was Christmas, hers as she remembered it if she remembered nothing else, and wherever it came from, however she came to be there, in a small country place, among people who barely spoke the little English we used, it was a gift.

And when she'd done, when what she'd done trailed away to nothing, we did not applaud or shout or make much of her really. As I remember it, some adults made a point of going to wish her well. I saw her then, as some attendant wheeled her back no doubt to her bed. She was no more awake or aware of us than a sleepy baby. I cannot say I remember her face, let alone her name if I ever heard it.

When she'd gone, we went back to our happy buzz, now somewhat subdued and soon after it was back to the van. I believe we were done for the night. Going home people said nice things about what they'd heard. Somebody probably picked a fight when somebody else shifted and crushed a toe or kicked an elbow away. Come the first hard turn, we all shouted, "Whoaaaa!" and were told yet again to shut the hell up, it was hard enough trying to see in such weather, hard enough not to kill us all such roads.

Right this minute, that's the carol I want to hear. I wish I knew what it was. That's the music for this moment and all I can do is tell you to listen to it however it comes to now, in the quiet hereafter, come the stille nacht, heilege nacht, and wish us all happy holidays, better days hereafter, and a very good night.