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Authors: Christopher Buckley

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We thanked dear, sweet old Father Flutie. As we left, one of Chris’s funeral directors, a lady dressed in a pinstripe pantsuit,
handed me my mother in a shopping bag. There was an undeniable symmetry to it: How many shopping bags had I seen Mum toting
during her lifetime? Hundreds, anyway. I got into the car and handed the box to Sineda and Julia, Mum’s maids, saying—trying
to lighten the mood—
“Toma la señora.”
(Here, take the señora.) At this they both burst into tears, these dear, devoted, faithful ladies who had taken such loving
care of her over the years. They caressed and patted the box lovingly, murmuring to her as we drove back to the house.

Pup announced to me after lunch that we must catalog Mum’s books in her bedroom. I was a bit nonplussed. Mum’s library would
not be mistaken for an annex of the Library of Congress, consisting as it did of a pile of (largely unread) mystery novels
and thrillers. I was tired and chafed at this pointless forced labor, but sensing that Pup wanted to keep busy—
industry is the enemy of melancholy
—I went along, duly taking dictation from him on my laptop as he read off the titles. That done, we set down to the more plausible
task of going through her papers.

Mum had lost all interest in deskwork during the six or seven months of her invalidity. We found unpaid Gristede’s bills,
Amex bills; undistributed cash for staff Christmas tips; uncashed checks; unopened letters, including, I saw to my disconcertment,
a number from me. This was not carelessness on her part or any failure of affection, but rather fear, and realizing it made
me wince in self-rebuke.

Mum’s serial misbehavior over the years had driven me, despairing, to write her scolding—occasionally scalding—letters. Now
I saw that she’d stopped opening most letters from me, against the possibility that they might contain another excoriation.
I opened one of them and read:

Dear Mum,

That really was an appalling scene at dinner last night….

I wish, now, that I could take back that letter, even though every word of it had been carefully weighed and justified. But
looking back, I see it wasn’t fair. I’m a professional writer; she was not. So it wasn’t a level playing field, however outrageous
the provocations that had driven me, hot-faced, flushing, furious, to the keyboard. And they never—ever!—did a bit of good,
these pastoral letters of mine. Why, I wondered now, had I never accepted the futility of hurling myself against Fortress
Mum? My only consolation was that I had, finally, stopped sending them after our last battle, the previous June. Just as I
had exhausted myself in religious warfare with Pup, so had I given up lobbing feckless, well-worded catapult balls over Mum’s
parapets. I had even refrained from saying anything to her after the last great provocation.

A year earlier, my daughter, Caitlin (Mum’s only granddaughter, whom she had more or less lovingly ignored for nineteen years),
had gone out to Stamford from New York for the night, bringing with her her best friend, Kate Kennedy. (I know; but there
is simply no way to tell this story without using real names.) Cat and Kate look like Irish twin sisters and have been soul-mates
since kindergarten. Kate is beautiful, vivacious, bright, witty, and
naughty
—a Kennedy through and through, nicknamed “Kick” after her great-aunt. The friendship between these two colleens is perhaps
out of the ordinary given that their paternal grandfathers, Robert F. Kennedy and William F. Buckley Jr., were, shall we say,
on somewhat opposite sides of the old political spectrum. At any rate, here were two enchanting young ladies at a grandparental
country manse of a summer night. An occasion for joy, affection, delighted conversation. One might… sigh… think, anyway. I
was not—praise the gods—in attendance. Mum and I were not speaking at the time, owing to a prior disgrace of hers, a real
beaut even by her standards.

The general mood at the dinner table that night was not leavened by the continued—indeed, persistent— presence of a British
aristocrat lady friend of Mum’s who had arrived for a visit ten days before. Now, nearly a fortnight into her encampment at
Wallack’s Point, she showed no signs of moving on. Pup’s graciousness as a host was legendary, but it had limits. The poor
man was reduced to sullen japery.
So, A_______, you must be getting jolly homesick for Merry Olde England by now, surely, eh? Ho ho ho….
But Lady A______ showed no sign of homesickness for Old Blighty. Indeed, she had fastened on to our house with the tenacity
of a monomaniacal abalone. Now, on day ten of Pup Held Hostage, his own mood had congealed from sullenness to simmering resentment.
Meanwhile, Mum’s protracted, vinous afternoons of gin rummy with Her Ladyship had her, by dinnertime, in what might be called
the spring-loaded position. In such moods, Mum was capable of wheeling on, say, Neil Armstrong to inform him that he knew
nothing—
nothing whatsoever
—about astrophysics or lunar landing. No one in the history of hostessing has ever set a better dinner table than my Mum,
but on such evenings, I would rather have supped with al-Qaeda in a guano-strewn cave.

At some point, Mum turned to—
on
, might be the more appropriate preposition—young Kate, informing her that she (Mum) had been an alternate juror in the murder
trial of Kate’s father’s first cousin Michael Skakel. Skakel, nephew of Ethel Kennedy, Kate’s grandmother, had (as you are
no doubt well aware) been the defendant in a sensational murder trial in Stamford several years before, for the death of fifteen-year-old
Martha Moxley back in 1975. Having presented this astonishing (and utterly untrue) credential, Mum then proceeded to launch
into a protracted lecture on the villainy of Kate’s near relative.

Leave aside the issue of Mr. Skakel’s culpability, for which he is, at any rate, currently serving out a twenty-years-to-life
sentence. Over the years, I had heard Mum utter whoppers that would make Pinocchio look button-nosed, but this one really
took the prize, in several categories, the first being Manners. Why—on earth—would one inflict a jeremiad on an innocent nineteen-year-old
girl, one’s own granddaughter’s best friend into the bargain? The mind—as Mum herself used to put it—boggles.

This supper table Sturm und Drang I learned about over the phone, from breathless, reeling Cat and Kate once they had reached
the sanctuary of the pool after dinner, along with a much-needed bottle of wine. All I could say to poor Kate was a stuttery
WASP variation on
Oy vey
, along with a candid expostulation:
I am
sooooo
glad not to have been there.
By the time I put down the phone, my blood had reached Fahrenheit 451, the temperature at which it begins to spurt out your
ears.

The good news was that I wasn’t speaking to Mum at the time, so it seemed pointless to haul out the ink-well, sharpen a quill,
and let fly with another well-crafted verbal bitch slapping. Instead, I breathed into a paper bag for a few hours and then
called Pup.
Well,
I said,
that sounded like a fun dinner. Sorry to miss it.
He feigned ignorance of the Skakel episode; perhaps he had excused himself early and gone upstairs to short-sheet Lady A_______’s
bed. He was, anyway, past caring at this, my five hundredth Howl about Mum’s behavior. He tried to wave it away with a spuriously
subjunctive, “But why would she say something like that if she
wasn’t
a juror at the trial?” (Pup would have made a superb defense attorney) and changed the subject back to what kinds of explosives
work best for dislodging aristocratic British houseguest-limpets. At any rate, it was one letter from me Mum never had to
not open. What, really, would have been the point of writing?

I forgive you.
I was glad now to have had the chance to say that to her at the hospital, holding her hand, tears streaming down my face.
As I type this, I can hear her saying,
Are you
quite
finished? Or shall I go and get my Stradivarius?

I was five or six years old when I first caught Mum in some preposterous untruth, as she called it. It, too, featured British
aristos.

She’d grown up a debutante in a grand house in Vancouver, British Columbia, the kind of house that even has a name: “Shannon.”
Grand, but Vancouver grand, which is to say, provincial. Mum’s mother had been the daughter of the Winnipeg chief of police;
her father, my grandfather, Austin Taylor, was a self-made industrialist (lumber, gold, ranching). His idea of fine art was
an oil painting of a quail being retrieved by an English setter. But gosh, it was a glorious place, Shannon: a Georgian mansion
surrounded by ten acres of English gardens, walled off from the city around it. It turns up as a movie set (
Carnal Knowledge, Best in Show
). Anyway, Mum’s parents were socially prominent in old Vancouver.

So one night, age six or so, sitting with the grownups at the dinner table, I heard Mum announce that “the king and queen
always
stayed with us when they were in Vancouver.” By “king and queen,” she meant the parents of the current queen of England.
My little antennae went
twing!
I’d never heard my grandparents refer to a royal visit, which is a pretty big deal. I looked at Mum and realized—
twang!—
that she was telling an untruth. A
big
untruth. And I remember thinking in that instant how thrilling and grown-up it must be to say something so
completely
untrue, as opposed to the little amateur fibs I was already practiced at—horrid little apprentice sinner that I was—like
the ones about how you’d already said your prayers or washed under the fingernails. Yes, I was
impressed
. This was my introduction to a lifetime of mendacity. I too must learn to say these gorgeous untruths. Imaginary kings and
queens would be
my
houseguests when I was older!

When Mum was in full prevarication, Pup would assume an expression somewhere between a Jack Benny stare and the stoic grimace
of a thirteenth-century saint being burned alive at the stake. He knew very well that King George VI and Queen Elizabeth did
not routinely decamp at Shannon. The funny thing was that he rarely challenged her when she was in the midst of one of her
glorious confections. For that matter, no one did. They wouldn’t have dared. Mum had a regal way about her that did not brook
contradiction. The only time she ever threatened to spank me was when I told her, age seven, in front of others, following
one of her more absurd claims, “Oh, come off it!” Her fluent mendacity, combined with adamantine confidence, made her truly
indomitable. As awful as it often was, thinking back on it now, I’m filled with a sort of perverse pride in her. She was really,
really good at it. She would have made a fantastic spy. She would have made a fantastic
anything
. She was beautiful, theatrical, bright as a diamond, the wittiest woman I have ever known (whatever talent I possess as a
“humorist”—dreadful word— I owe to her). She could have done anything; instead, she devoted herself heart, soul, and body
to being Mrs. William F. Buckley Jr. (A full-time job.)

I learned something about her that I had
not
known before, from the
New York Times
obituary— namely, that I owe my very existence to her inability with… math. The reason she had gone off to Vassar, an American
college three thousand miles away, and where she roomed freshman year with my father’s sister Patricia—was that Canadian colleges
required a level of math proficiency that eluded her. I don’t recall her ever mentioning this fact.

She never finished Vassar. Pup and I heard her give various reasons for this over the years: She had to return to Vancouver
because her mother had broken her back while riding; because her brother Firpo had broken his back riding; because
she
had broken her back riding. One night, after imbibing about two acres’ worth of vineyard grapes, she informed Pup and me—us!—that
she had, in fact, left Vassar “to go back to Vancouver and save my parents’ marriage.” This revelation was as rococo as it
was flabbergasting.

What made it rococo was that she thought to tell it to an audience consisting of 1) her husband, and 2) her son—that is, the
two people on earth who knew her best. One might suppose this would obviate the necessity for recreational prevarication.
Oh well. Afterward, sitting in the basement sauna, Pup mused aloud, “That makes reason number eight I’ve heard for her dropping
out of Vassar.”

Whatever the real reason was—probably nothing much more than ennui with academics—her cap-and-gownless departure from Poughkeepsie
left her, for the rest of her life, with a deep-seated insecurity that manifested itself aggressively, especially after the
supernumerary glass of wine. On those occasions, more than one of my friends—by whom she was generally adored and whose adoration
she returned—might be submitted to cross-examinations on the order of:
So, you’re the world’s expert on feldspar, are you? Well, doubtless, then, you’re aware that 86.5 percent—
how I marveled at the precision of her fabrications—
of the world’s supply of feldspar comes from Baffin Island
.
So what do you have to say to
that,
Mr. Expert?
The friend in question being a Yale mineralogy PhD was, nonetheless, left to splutter incoherently and beat a quick twitchy
retreat in the direction of his borscht.

Pup remarked to me after she died that he had not once, in fifty-seven years, seen her read a nonfiction book. This
did
surprise me. Greatly. She was, after all, a woman who as William F. Buckley’s wife spent a great lot of time in the company
of intellectual bigfeet—John Kenneth Galbraith, Henry Kissinger, Tom Wolfe, James Burnham, Malcolm Muggeridge, Norman Mailer,
Russell Kirk, Enoch Powell, Margaret Thatcher, Norman Podhoretz… you name ’em, she fed ’em. Every one of these people was
enchanted by her razor-sharp wit and natural intelligence. Mailer used to call her “Slugger.” She may not have spent a lot
of time with her nose in biography and history, but she always read the paper thoroughly and kept up with the news on the
telly. I remember one Sunday morning being stunned on picking up the
Sunday Times
magazine and seeing that she’d filled the entire crossword puzzle—a feat normally well beyond my own modest abilities. And
yet, she might proclaim at the table with an exasperated air, “I simply don’t understand why the president just doesn’t pass
the bloody bill
himself
,” leaving it to Pup, slightly embarrassed and sotto voce, to point out to her that passing bills was the province of the
legislative and not the executive branch. In my mind, remembering this moment, I hear her coming back with, “Well, if you
ask me, it’s all
too
ridiculous for words,” which is why everyone adored her.

BOOK: Losing Mum and Pup
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