I’ve been so wrapped up in my father’s death and its aftermath that there are any number of national and international issues I have allowed to go without comment: first and foremost, chemical weapons in Syria and how/if America should respond, but also the death of Irish poet Seamus Heaney. My semester begins today and, with it, some semblance of normalcy, so my blog will begin to reassume its accustomed shape in the days to come. But having left my mother alone in her house on Sunday, I want to write a post that mentions her. In the process, I will also be touching on Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, maybe his greatest novel.
I have written a lot about my father and very little about my mother. That’s in part because this is a literature blog and he was a poet. Let me rectify that deficiency a bit here by noting that she has always been the foundation that made the poetry possible, the person whose steady hand and firm financial management kept the Bates enterprise afloat. If my father could go to Civil Rights meetings, it was because someone else was taking care of my brothers and me. If he could enthrall visitors with his intellectual ramblings over a fine dinner, it was because someone else had prepared and served the meal. If he could read to his children for long periods every night, it was because someone else was washing the dishes while he did so. He was so aware that he depended on her that twice in the months before he died he tore his hospital tubes out, painful though that was, to go looking for her.
In some ways, they had a classic 1950s marriage. Officially, he was the intellectual of the family, even though she had been a high school valedictorian and, while they were fellow students at Carleton College, had written (so my father informed me) some highly original and ahead-of-their-time interpretations of poems they were studying. My mother doesn’t so much read as devour novels, and she has read Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope in their entirety. (For Trollope, this means close to 50 novels.) And yet, she has always labored in my father’s intellectual and creative shadow.
There was one area where she carved out a place for herself, however, and that was the Sewanee Siren, the town bulletin that she founded and edited for 18 years. My father assisted her by, among other things, contributing a poem each week. After she stepped down and the Siren became the Mountain Messenger, the poetry column continued under the name “From Bard to Verse.” Only now the two of them were doing it together.
There have been a number of times this past year when my father has been too ill to contribute to the column, leading my mother to take it over by herself. Here is where the parallel with McMurtry’s novel comes in.
Lonesome Dove features two aging Texas rangers, the intellectual and gregarious Gus and the taciturn and hard-working Call. Gus is always doing crazy things, like (this is what gets him killed) riding recklessly up hills in Indian country rather than carefully scouting the terrain. Call is constantly critical of Gus’s flamboyancy, but when Gus wants to take on a daring enterprise, Call always goes along. Dissatisfied with their sedentary existence in Texas, Gus suggests to Call that they take a cattle drive from Texas to Montana. Call agrees to accompany him.
(In my mother’s case, going along meant stepping out of her wealthy Peoria setting and marrying my father when he was an impoverished graduate student. It meant going to France on a Fulbright with a three-month-old child (me) and, later, supporting him in his various battles for social justice, including helping found a local chapter of the NAACP in the 1950s and launching a desegregation suit against the Franklin County (Tennessee) School System on behalf of their kids. It also meant supporting him–though she wasn’t happy about it–when he organized an erotic film series and when he encouraged his students to make a Bunuel-like erotic film that scandalized many.)
Because Gus wants to ride wild and free (what else is the West for, he asks), he blunders into an Indian war party and ends up with an arrow in the leg. Rather than become an amputee, Gus instead chooses to die of gangrene, using whiskey the way my father was treated with morphine two weeks ago. But before he dies, he demands that Call take his body and bury it in Texas.
Given that they are in Montana, it is an absurd demand, one that seems out of character for him. But what Gus understands about the emotionally repressed and work obsessed Cal is that he needs a heroic quest, a crazy quest, to occupy him. It’s the only form of mourning that Cal is capable of. They are aging rangers at a time when the age of heroes has passed, and Gus’s demand is a way to keep the spirit of that age alive. It’s actually a gift.
“From Bard to Verse” is now my mother’s sole quest. Maybe it’s different from Call’s quest in that my mother may, somewhere along the line, metaphorically drop my father’s body and make the column her own. We talked this past week about whether to drop their joint picture and carry only her own and I don’t know what she will decide. But as far as content goes, I could easily see her turning much more to fiction than my father did, given that she is more familiar with novels than he was. It was her idea two weeks ago to use the rain passage from Winnie the Pooh.
In any event, I see her climbing the three library ladders in the Bates library, ladders that barely allow one to reach the top of the 12-foot bookcases, to find just the right literary passage each week. While I was in Sewanee these past two weeks, innumerable people told me how much they valued the weekly poetry column that my parents author. Now it will be clear that they have my mother to thank for it.