For some months now, I have been ruminating on the writer John Podhoretz’s eulogy in Commentary magazine for his sister Rachel Abrams upon her death, from stomach cancer, at age sixty-two. Commentary effectively being the Podhoretz family house organ, and the Podhoretzes effectively being the mythological family of the origin of neoconservatism, the essay would be of interest to anyone interested in cultural and religious sociology—or at least to me.
I, too, come from a family that has also tended to think of itself in somewhat mythological, contrarian terms—This is what Langstons are like—so a meditation from the heart of another large, bustling family is an immediate and natural draw for me.
But lay that all aside. The eulogy wins, and haunts, because it is the passionate remembrance of a sister by her brother. Despite their being part of a prominent East Coast family, its focus is relentlessly on the small acts of family and home that transfigure quotidian existence. Podhoretz dwells lovingly on Rachel as a housewife, a lifetime foul-mouth, an exuberant and dedicated mother, an artist, and finally a writer who let loose with political commentary in her late fifties as online blogs began gathering steam.
“I loved you, Rachel,” he concludes poignantly, in words I could read over and over. “I liked you. And oh, oh, oh, how I admired you.”
So much of that poignancy is derived from direct address to his sister, who is no longer there to receive it. Having just hit forty-five Dante comes to mind: midway-through-the-journey-of-our-life-I found myself within a dark wood for the right way had been lost. Who can know how our days are numbered? The lesson for me is that I should tell of how I love my brother John, even as he lives.
Imagine him, now, if you will, perched on the very lip of sixty. He was born in 1954, the fourth child of six. This was the Mississippi Delta, and aside from the big-family mythology, you couldn’t find a family less like the Podhoretzes: a clan of rather reticent, superficially mild but passive-aggressive Southern Baptists, yearning for culture yet firmly trapped in the mid-century middle class. We were the people of Jell-O congealed salads and Sunday dinner with long-stemmed silver iced tea spoons.
Amid this tableau, my brother was growing up, aware that somehow he was not like other boys. (Though, we realize now, there were many more teenagers like him than had ever been thought.) He spent hours alone in the living room—years before I was even born—drawing floor plans for imaginary houses, and listening to the film soundtrack of West Side Story and Tony Bennett on the record player. Having become bored with Boy Scouts, he signed up for the Baptists’ Royal Ambassadors, thinking they might wear white tie and tails with red sashes and a chest full of snappy medals, only to find out, sadly, that the program focused on Third World Missions.
Early on, he was another species of the family’s contrarianism: West Side Story was replaced on by David Bowie and Bob Dylan, and later on, by Frank Zappa and Sun Ra, and even later Talking Heads and Patti Smith. (Everything I know about music, pop culture—anything really—my brother taught me.) In high school, he and his friend Teresa Nicholas (now a writer) signed up to work on the gubernatorial campaign of landmark black candidate Charles Evers (brother of Medgar), and while my family was ostensibly on the side of “progress,” for Daddy that move was a bit too far. Never mind: Evers ended up writing college recommendations that sent my brother to Yale and Teresa to Swarthmore.
Thus was born the great mythic sweep that has come to characterize my own life as well: the journey out of the South, up East, back again, and beyond: John dropped out of college, went out West. He came back to Mississippi barely a hundred pounds, and annoyed us all by his refusal to go inside a McDonald’s: “The food is plastic there,” he said, thirty-five years ahead of the rest of us.
And yet as dramatic as the arc of his own story is, his life is a testimony to, in Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s words, the Sacrament of the Present Moment. At the dawn of the 1980s, when he was a Yale graduate working an unlikely and unglamorous job at a school pictures processing plant in Jackson Mississippi, my brother would go out to lunch at Jack’s on Woodrow Wilson Boulevard with a black co-worker, a single-mother named Willie—in an era when interracial friendships were rare. My mother griped at him, and he said he didn’t care.
Here’s a portrait, perfectly limned to the time: Among the employees at the school pictures developing plant were a group of Vietnamese refugees, smuggled out of South Vietnam through Thailand, and resettled by the Southern Baptist Convention (a story that needs to be told) in Jackson. John came to know this group of unrelated, displaced young men, joked around with them at work, and at last, in thanks, they invited him to a dinner party at their threadbare apartment. He remembers arriving at a residence that contained almost no furniture, and being served an elaborate Vietnamese meal that they had labored over—so modest, he recalled to me, but so welcoming and generous.
Another person, I think, would not have ventured so blithely into the cultural unknown. Would not have been the finest listener I have ever known. The one, in fact—as I say to all my atheist friends—who fully demonstrated the Incarnation even while he knew it not. And who, unexpectedly as ever, decided in his fifties to return to Jesus, and became a Roman Catholic.
I was never a non-believer, just a prodigal son, he said to me today.
Looking at him, telling his stories to my children and embracing his example, the saying of Abba Joseph seems obvious, evident: “If you would, you could become all flame.”
I love you, brother John. And I honor you.
A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered.”