Pastoral Care for the Post-Nuclear Family

Pastoral Care for the Post-Nuclear Family October 23, 2013

Unlike most bloggers, I don’t live in my parents’ basement. For that reason, last December, I missed out on my mother’s first wedding in 43 years. For almost 29 of those years, she and Bob, her new husband, have been together at one distance or another. Bob’s contribution to my mother’s life, and to my life, has been so positive, and his appearance in them so perfectly timed, that they often look to both of us like the hand of Providence. She swears she does the Times crossword puzzle by the light of his halo.

But my mother would never have met Bob had she and my father not divorced some eight years earlier. According to Catholic cultural standards, she should have veiled herself in black and grown a mustache to rival Nietzsche’s before the ink on the interlocutory judgment dried. With Archbishop Müller re-affirming the Church’s teachings on the Sacrament of Marriage, that’s unlikely to change, not even next October, when the Synod of Bishops meets for its extraordinary session. Certainly the Synod won’t offer new dispensations to people like my mother and Bob, whose mutual commitment was informal, despite its being exclusive.

But Müller did promise something along the lines of “a much more wide-ranging pastoral approach, which seeks to do justice to the different situations.” That sounds to me like a willingness to peek outside the box, so I offer our story as a case study in how fascinating it all can get.

They met as fellow jurors on a police corruption trial. My mother was Juror No. 2; Bob was Juror No. 12, which meant he sat directly behind her in the jury box. “Bob liked the way I swung my bob,” she likes to say. Through hour after hour of wiretapped conversations between mookish detectives, it must have come as a welcome diversion.

At summer camp in Maine, I began noting references in my mother’s letters to someone she called Robert the Juror. As the season wore on and the trial ended, the title was dropped, and the name familiarized, first to “Bob,” then to “Bobby.” A 12-year-old of the world, I sensed something was up.

Of our first meeting I remember only that it took place at our apartment over dinner, and that Bob wore jeans and a white t-shirt. He was an engineer with Bell Labs in Whippany, New Jersey, lived on the West Side, and got around the city by bike. He was 25, an age which looked from my perspective to be about the same as my mother’s 40. Whenever she looked at him, my mother beamed.

For my mother, beaming was not usual. Five years earlier, upon making good our escape from Jersey, she found us an apartment that would have been ideal for a single woman with a cat, but felt like a troop ship berth to a divorced woman with a son. It had one bedroom, which she ceded to me, claiming kitchenette and living room for her sleeping and work space. A reference-book editor by day, she spent her spare time writing young adult novels, an endeavor that having an actual young adult underfoot tended to foil.

Or, rather, to name names, I tended to foil it. I was a handful in those days, high-strung and stubborn. To keep me off the streets, and more importantly, away from the TV, my mother enrolled me in the kinds of after-school classes that are now unavoidable hurdles for any kid who sets his sights higher than his local community college. Unable to stand more than six daily hours of institutional living, I played hooky and found my way back home, where I watched Happy Days reruns and swigged maple syrup straight from the bottle.

My uncouth habits, vexing in private, were scandalous in public. Two years earlier, for the release of her first book, my mother’s publisher threw her a party, to which — no babysitter being available — I effectively squired her. She swears I spent the evening rifling through the bowls of mixed nuts, and, with a grizzly bear’s precision, picking out all the cashews.

“Did anyone notice?” I asked her while fact-checking. “It was remarked upon,” she said.

Many men would have fled me, screaming. Many would have packed me off to work in a blacking factory. Eric, the man who preceded Bob into our family circle, sincerely liked me — to pay him proper tribute, he continued to be a Dutch uncle to me for a couple of years after he and my mother broke up. But he did needle me about my sloppiness, my clumsiness, and my weight — to Eric, I was “the sausage” — in a way I didn’t find funny, and, try as I might, still can’t. He probably meant it as a corrective, but it failed.

Bob seemed not only to like me, but to like me without reservation, as though I were a normal, obedient, presentable kid. Whenever I committed a faux pas of the type that made my mother’s jaw clench — when, for example, I interrupted her review of a Metropolitan exhibit called something like Pointillism and Pessimism: the Mauve Decade Denuded to talk about Wolverine — he simply cocked his head and listened, the smile on his face pledging bottomless patience.

I didn’t know it then, but the Saturday night before Bob landed in the jury pool with my mother, Mikey, one of his friends, had had a different sort of encounter with the criminal justice system. While riding the subway home from some bar with Bob and the rest of their gang, Mikey tore down his jeans and Jockeys and performed a handstand for an old lady — a trick he called the Flying Elephant. In Bob’s circle, Mikey did not, so to speak, stand out. One friend of even longer tenure had become a junkie; another, a street person. Bob himself possessed a natural, if earthy, social grace, but Brooklyn Tech and Cooper Union had accustomed him to moving among the more Martian sliderule types. With this crowd setting the bar, I must have looked like Freddie Bartholomew.

My mother discounts environmental factors. “Bob has the mind of the Buddha,” she says. “He lives in the moment, accepting all experience exactly as it comes.” In fact, with his even, angular features and permanent half-smile, Bob did resemble a Mandalay-style Buddha, and he radiated the same calm. Things that might previously have triggered meltdowns — a burnt pot of pilaf, a stinging rebuke — seemed trivial, even silly, as long as they fell within his penumbra of imperturbability.

Bob was not a cut-up. He did not give advice or paint walls. Even if he’d been so inclined, my mother would never have let him play her sugar daddy. When I flip through memories for pull quotes, I come up blank. “Yeah, that’s cool” is the nearest thing I can find to a catchphrase, but it captures his essence. Simply by operating at an emotional temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit, Bob took the edge off life in the city.

This was no mean feat. Money being tight, my mother and I were stuck fast as our building filled up with what she called “lost souls,” including a retired porn actor; an HIV-positive gay man, driven to hoarding either by the side-effects of his meds or grief over the death of his partner; a man in his 50s who brought home stray teenagers, and whose Irish setter — trained either very badly or very well — liked to thrust its muzzle between the buttocks of the unwary as they checked their mail. One winter, our super left open the furnace door, apparently hoping to blow up the building. Neither of us blamed him.

In one sense, along with peace, Bob brought a sword. My mother and I fought for his attention. She held the advantage on those weekends I spent with my father, who was rebooting following his fourth divorce. But Wednesday nights, the moment Bob crossed our threshold, I latched on like a barnacle, prepared to tolerate no deviation from my conversational agenda. Typically, this consisted of what I liked to think of as Guy Stuff — Ron Swoboda’s famous catch in the ’69 series, the Three Stooges, The Dirty Dozen, and even (though how this fit on the list, I can’t explain) the Little Rascals.

Once, finding herself eclipsed, my mother looked up from her spinach quiche with a moue and said, “I had hoped we’d discuss art and literature.”

I said, “We are.”

In June of 1986, after they’d been dating almost exactly two years, the three of us took a trip to Europe to mark my graduation from eighth grade and admission to Stuyvesant. Normally, such a luxury would have been unimaginable, but the entire European tourist industry, jittery since Reagan’s bombardment of Tripoli two months earlier, had slashed its prices. Besides, my mother and Bob had gotten hold of a Let’s Go! budget travel guide. After Bob, star pupil at l’Alliance Française, guided us through Paris (“Even the French like him,” marveled my mother), we took a train through Switzerland, arrived in Florence, and checked into the Hotel Silla.

About that humid evening I remember several things. I remember the Duomo as it looked silhouetted against the heavy, gray sky. I remember the gleam from the hotel’s marble floors. I remember the relief at finally getting off that train, which had slowed to a mocking crawl just after crossing the border at Domodossola. But mostly I remember walking unannounced into the room my mother and Bob shared and seeing her step out of the bathroom in a towel. In shock — my shock a tribute to the discretion they’d always showed — I bolted.

After dressing, my mother followed me to my room, where she found me sulking. “I thought Bob was a gentleman!” I said, having absorbed the concept the previous Fall from the miniseries based on John Jakes’ North and South.

My mother said, as gently as I’ve ever heard her say anything, “A gentleman, yes. A vegetable, no.”

As nudges into maturity go, it was a hard one. Suddenly, I found myself facing the fact that, in this staggering sense I cringed to imagine, my mother and Bob belonged first to each other, not to me. If Bob had been a different sort of man — less secure in his position, more easily threatened — things could have gotten messy.

But he treated me in those next days with a special deference, as though observing a moment of silence for my loss. I remained grouchy in the face of the Baptistery and Ghiberti’s doors, even through the Uffizi and the Medici tombs. But at some point, very likely in Rome, seeing the tourist girls flocking round the Trevi Fountain, I felt myself letting go. By the time we boarded the Alitalia flight for JFK, I sensed I was ready to begin my teen years for real.

I don’t envy the pastors who will be charged with putting Müller’s words into effect. They will have to open themselves to countless permutations of desire and fear; of regret over past mistakes and the need for new beginnings. They’ll have to compose scripts for dealing with people facing loneliness and tangled finances. They’ll have to account for young’uns and their attachments. “Pastoral” and “care” are proud boasts. Easier to lay down the law and have done with it.

God bless whoever tries. I hope I’m not blaspheming when I say I hope they face their caseloads with the mind of Buddha — by which, of course, I mean a mind like Bob’s.

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