I’ve posted before in this space about the tensions between Catholic faith and glamour that existed in the household of William F. Buckley Jr. and his beloved wife, Pat. Now comes a tantalizing excerpt, through The New York Times Magazine, from Christopher Buckley’s memoir, Losing Mum and Pup.
My friend Rod Dreher wrote a fine reflection on whether Buckley’s piece dishonors his late parents. I do not share Rod’s concerns quite so keenly. A much more painful example of dishonoring one’s parents comes in Frank Schaeffer’s memoir, Crazy for God, published while his mother is still alive, albeit not lucid enough to feel the full brunt of her son’s anger.
But, then, this may only be a matter of writing style. Schaeffer’s default setting is righteous indignation, while Buckley’s is a reluctant unbelief, combined with observational humor that stops just short of viciousness. At his best, he reminds me of the late British novelist John Mortimer. Consider this:
I don’t think I ever once heard Mum utter a religious or spiritual sentiment, a considerable feat considering that she was married for 57 years to one of the most prominent Catholics in the country. But she rigorously observed the proprieties. When Pup taped an episode of “Firing Line” in the Sistine Chapel with Princess Grace, Malcolm Muggeridge, Charlton Heston and David Niven, Mum was included in the post-taping audience with Pope John Paul II. There’s a photo of the occasion: she has on more black lace than a Goya duchess. The total effect is that of Mary Magdalene dressed by Bill Blass.
The most damning incident Buckley describes of his mother is her lashing into Kate Kennedy — a granddaughter of Robert F. Kennedy and best friend to Christopher Buckley’s daughter, Caitlin. There’s no need to pick through the wreckage here, but Pat Buckley could be a tornado when the wrong mood descended on her.
As recounted in this excerpt, WFB’s faults were mostly those of absence — leaving Christopher’s graduation ceremony at Yale because he had grown bored, not flying home from South Africa sooner when Christopher had a childhood brush with death, withholding encouraging words about Christopher’s books.
Buckley’s funniest passage about his parents’ respective stances of faith involves his father’s plans for interment:
Some years before, Pup commissioned a large bronze crucifix from the Connecticut sculptor Jimmy Knowles. It’s a beautiful piece of modern art. He placed it in the middle of the lawn in Stamford, to a distinct grumbling by Mum, who viewed her garden as off-limits to my father’s artistic (and in this case overtly religious) intrusions. Mum’s ashes were now inside the cross, in a heavy brass canister that looked as if it had been designed as a container for enriched plutonium. Pup’s instructions were that he, too, should be cremated and join her in the cross. The idea of Mum, who wasn’t very religious, encased for all eternity inside Pup’s crucifix had afforded her and me a few grim giggles over the years.
“Just sprinkle me in the garden or send me out with the trash,” she told me. “I most certainly do not wish to be inside that object.” But Mum died first, so that was that.
Buckley engages his father in a happy-hour discussion about the realism of using this cross as a permanent burial site, but to no avail:
“I wouldn’t worry about it.” How well I knew this formulation. “I wouldn’t worry about it” was W.F.B.-speak for “The conversation is over.”
Thus I was left with the impression I had committed lèse-majesté by suggesting that a future owner — Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Amish, Zoroastrian — might be anything less than honored to have William F. Buckley Jr.’s last remains in his garden, encased in an enormous bronze symbol of the crucified Christ. Certainly it would present the real estate broker with an interesting covenant clause. Now, um, Mr. and Mrs. Birnbaum, you do understand that Mr. and Mrs. Buckley’s ashes are to remain in the crucifix, in the garden, in, um, perpetuity?
One hazard in this excerpt is that Buckley so often comes across as the long-suffering victim of oafish parents. When he tells his dying mother, “I forgive you,” one waits in vain for him to acknowledge that he would benefit from her forgiveness as well. Still, his story feels more like an affectionate tribute than a cheap effort at settling scores.
Between the lines, it also feels like the record of a man grieving for his lost faith. Early on the piece, Buckley writes: “I’m no longer a believer, but I haven’t quite reached the point of reading aloud from Christopher Hitchens’s ‘God Is Not Great’ at deathbeds of loved ones.” That’s one of the qualities that makes Christopher Buckley an endearing nonbeliever.