My story doesn't begin with tales of working on The Harvard Crimson or memories of evenings gathered around the dinner table discussing the issues of the day. In the Bresnahan household, we sat around the dinner table all right. Eating was a major pastime. But the issues of our day ran more to the progress of my mother's projects for fixing up the house (a more sophisticated toolbox and she could have built us a new one), under what conditions my father would be allowed to attend the weekly poker game (my mother, whose Irish father died from drink, worried over the amount of beer consumed at these get-togethers), and trying to get Jimmy, my older brother, who was having a hard go of it, to say how school had gone that day. There were four of us back then, my stay-at-home mother, my father, who worked at the nearby military depot, Jimmy, and me. The setting was typical, the paneled station wagon in the driveway of the cookie-cutter postwar house. The chatter at dinner was incessant but rarely about the news. My parents loved John Kennedy (he was Catholic) and didn't love Richard Nixon (he wasn't, and picked on Helen Gahagan Douglas, who was). Politically, that was about it.
Yet my parents propelled me toward journalism as surely as if they'd had the Alsops over for cocktails every night. My brother had suffered serious brain damage at birth, and their struggle to give him a normal life stamped my view of the world. I learned quickly to dislike those who slight the weak or different or unlucky. I learned that when no one is looking, those who think of themselves as the best people can behave like the worst. It wasn't the pale kid with asthma who taunted my brother, it was the tall, good-looking one with the Schwinn three-speed and the Ted Williams bat. From an early age, I kept a list of "People Who Must Be Stopped." Like some tiny, pigtailed Mike Wallace, I tracked down the parents of kids who didn't play fair and squealed on them. I had a moral purpose in becoming an annoying tattletale, but that didn't make me less annoying. It was a wonder I had any playmates at all.
By the time I arrived, the two high school sweethearts, Mary Catherine McCreary and James Francis Xavier Bresnahan, already knew the life they blithely assumed would be theirs was over. Two years earlier, soon after my father returned from the war, they had brought their first child, deprived of oxygen in a difficult delivery at an army hospital, home. There was no testing then for developmental problems. Only gradually did they discover how severe the damage was. Decades later, in the blissful two weeks my parents visited after my daughter was born, my normally taciturn father told me of the morning when I was four and Jimmy was six and he'd been trying for months to get my brother to sound out the letters on the back of the cornflakes box. I'd absorbed every bit of that tutoring, at the same time it bounced off my brother. One morning I sat down and read off how many box tops were needed, how the contest was void where prohibited, and that the employees of Kellogg were not eligible to compete. He told me that that night in bed, he and my mother cried themselves to sleep, half in sorrow, half in relief.
Yet as a small child I sensed little of their grief. Jimmy was talkative and could ask a hundred questions: Where's my Davy Crockett hat? Can I make Jell-O? Did you see the Sauers got a riding mower? When's Grandma coming? Unlike families whose children know what they don't know and are filled with longing for what they cannot have, Jimmy wasn't self-aware enough to complain. That, in its way, was a gift, and it saved us.
My mother wanted our lives to orbit around Jimmy's, which turned her into a manic Martha Stewart and my already sweet-tempered father into a saint. It made me uncommonly devoted at first -- I liked being in the thick of things, my brother's protector, my parents' fallback, my own counsel -- but remote and rebellious later. I was a bookworm by nature, but "sticking my nose in a book" when I could be joining in kneading bread, banging in stakes for the tomato plants, making pottery, or holding up a piece of knotty-pine paneling for my mother to measure was discouraged.
In the morning, my mother would try to teach Jimmy practical things: how to brush his teeth (that was successful), tie a tie (that wasn't), or put a belt through his pant loops (a semisuccess: back loops, no; front loops, yes). Since she was so much more intelligent than the tasks at hand, my mother restlessly gave over her afternoons to organizing the Altar Guild, halfheartedly learning bridge and generally bending the house to her will, including the walls and pipes.
Neither of my parents was born handy with tools, yet my mother was reluctant to hire a carpenter or a plumber, so my father became bad at both. After we moved from a row house in Washington to a Cape Cod in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Harrisburg, my mother nagged my father into laying flagstone for a patio, then screening in the flagstone patio, then putting a door between the kitchen and the porch. One day I came home from school to find that my mother had knocked out the new door and wall entirely and maneuvered the table around the remaining studs onto the porch. What had once been a patio was now, apparently, a dining room. She announced we would be eating there from then on. It was summer, so my father had time to rough in windows and install insulation before the first frost.
We didn't eat on that porch for long. As soon as it was finished, it filled with equipment: a pottery wheel and a kiln for my mother's pots, a sewing machine (and a dress form), gardening tools (we grew tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, and onions), and a stack of oven bricks to make her homemade bread rise properly. Mom did not work alone. "Are you sick?" she would ask, feeling my forehead for a fever if she caught me sitting down. She lined three walls of the basement with shelves filled with enough canned goods to survive six months. She built a long sewing table with slots underneath for bolts of fabric she got wholesale. She bought a deep freezer at a garage sale, so she would no longer be constrained in her baking by what we could consume in a day. Had the nuclear catastrophe we crouched under our desks in preparation for come to pass, the neighbors would have rushed to our house.
It was the perfect childhood if I'd wanted to grow up to be a contractor, an interior decorator, or a survivalist. And I was mostly happy in it, although the only place I could read in peace was the bathtub, where, to trick my mother, I would make occasional swishing sounds in water turned icy cold so I could finish the latest Nancy Drew mystery. My friend Joanne coveted Nancy Drew's roadster. I coveted her calm household.
It felt as though we went out a lot, but we had quite a few restrictions. My father flew for his job, but my mother was phobic about flying -- loudly so -- and made Jimmy phobic, too. (When he saw the Pan Am crash in Lockerbie, Scotland, on CNN he said, "Mom was right.") We never went anywhere my brother couldn't go -- not to a movie, a museum, or a play. We went to the beaches or mountains we could reach by car (or in the RV we briefly owned). My first trip by air was to Paris for a junior year abroad. I was in college before I set foot in a museum.
Most Saturday nights we went to dinner at my dad's parents'. My stern grandfather was a butcher, and back when a steak was a steak, he brought sirloins home. What a feast! We ate well at our house, but the menu ran to stews and pot roasts, not your very own cut of meat. My father's mother, Gertie, had a braid of red hair down her back, smoked butts during Lent when she gave up cigarettes, drank Pabst Blue Ribbon, and let us kids stand on a stool to put nickels in the slot machine at the Rod 'n Reel down the street from our cottage at Chesapeake Beach.
While the rest of us had mashed potatoes and wedges of iceberg with Thousand Island dressing, my grandfather was served boiled potatoes and peas in a separate dish by my doting grandmother. This seemed an exotic form of married love to me, and I wondered if it was that tender gesture to Granddad, not my grandmother's swearing and drinking, that made her such an annoyance to my mother. After we tired of watching the adults play cards, the cousins would head down to the basement to run around like maniacs until we collapsed in a sweaty heap of sleep on the coats piled on the sofa. I slept on the lining side, my brother on the wool.
When I was little, I didn't resist my mother's urgings to "go out and play and take your brother with you." I chose Jimmy for my side ("If you want me, you have to take him"), and I tried to guide the games toward large motor skills that he could manage (hide-and-seek) and away from small ones he couldn't (marbles, pogo sticks). Because Jimmy was never to be left alone, I urged the neighborhood kids to come over to my house. They loved coming. It wasn't just the scrumptious food or the home-churned ice cream that they had never thought of coming from anywhere but the freezer section of the A&P that pulled them in. It was the messy, kid-centered chaos of it.
Although my mother always seemed to be cleaning like a madwoman, our house wasn't orderly, so if you found yourself in the middle of Parcheesi, you could put the board in the corner under the card table with the jigsaw puzzle on top and be sure it would be there when you came back -- as would the jigsaw, for years at a time. Jimmy loved jamming straight-edged pieces into the middle. Once when we at last finished a harbor scene without losing any pieces, my mother shellacked it and hung it above the piano.
My parents took care of everything inside the house. I was left to patrol the perimeter, where I administered rough justice. Twisting the training wheels on Jimmy's bike (he never learned to ride without them) was a minor sport among the bullies. Frustrated, I went to Patrick's house and told his father that his son was the ringleader of the bunch. I was met with a blank stare and the bang of the screen door as he turned to yell for his wife to come downstairs. She never came. So the next time, I threw a rock and bloodied Pat's nose. Years later, my daughter got her hands on my old report cards and was delighted to learn that I got an F in deportment -- with the note from Mother Marita Joseph that I was to leave the summary executions to her.
I still get furious when someone makes fun of Jimmy. Not long ago, a guy in a three-piece suit got in the elevator in my office building with Jimmy and me. Unfamiliar with high-rise etiquette, Jimmy made inappropriate eye contact. When Mr. Lawyer got off, he looked back and said, "Weirdo." I returned to his floor, hunted him down at his law firm, and told his secretary what had happened -- to a blank stare. I tried to bloody his nose in a letter to the senior partner at the firm what had happened. I never heard back.
Because Jimmy demanded constant attention, I grew up partly in a state of benign neglect, which is vastly underrated by today's parents as a child-rearing technique. I didn't lack for affection and approval: the simplest thing I did was a joy to my parents. But I wasn't overmanaged. The only time I remember parental intervention was in seventh grade, when my father helped me bend a plant toward the light so I would have a plausible example of photosynthesis for entry in the science fair.
This was no doubt the most unethical thing he ever did -- this man who never got so much as a parking ticket, who lifted his thumbs off the steering wheel every few miles to check the speedometer to be sure he was abiding by the posted limit -- unless you count résumé inflation. When I was going through papers to organize my brother's life after my father's sudden death, I came across Jimmy's application to work at the naval depot. Under "Previous Job Experience," Dad wrote "Dishwasher at the country club." That much was true. Under "other duties," he added: "Assisted in the bar." That was a stretch. I knew the bartender. He wanted Jimmy nowhere near the maraschino cherries, much less the glassware.
The Church of the Good Shepherd was school, country club, and social center. My father was an usher at Sunday mass, and my mother ironed the linens for the altar; they chaperoned bowling nights and knew all my classmates. Like my dad (a non-college grad who used his GI credits to land a white-collar job as a contract specialist for the navy), most of the fathers in our parish worked in low white- or high blue-collar jobs.
The nuns taught as if each of us might win a Nobel Prize, and if they gave them out for long division or diagramming sentences, I'd have one under my belt by now. Their horizons didn't stretch much beyond the Susquehanna River. While others worried about Sputnik, we took up collections for pagan babies and went to see only those movies acceptable to the Legion of Decency. Our class trip was always to Hershey Park, where, after watching chocolate being made and stuffing ourselves with free samples, we rode the roller coaster. There was no slow track: each of us had a soul to be saved, so each of us had a brain to be honed. I never saw the nuns hit a student. We feared detention, censure, disappointment, but not the ruler. Step out of line and you would be ostracized, not just by Sister Mary William, but by the whole class. We'd all be deprived of crossword puzzles and spelling bees for a week.
But even the nuns' expansive idea of who could be taught wasn't enough to encompass Jimmy. What were my parents to do? Their main point of reference was the Kennedy family, which suggests that all the money and all the experts in the world is not enough. Ashamed of his eldest daughter, Rosemary, who had been deprived of oxygen at birth, Joe Kennedy, without telling his wife, had her lobotomized. She had lived at home before but was shipped off afterward to a school in Wisconsin for "exceptional children." Our small town had no schools for exceptional children, and surely if it meant living there, my brother would not have gone. Instead he started going to a "sheltered workshop" nearby, where the production of lanyards and pot holders outstripped local demand, but which occupied him. He looked around and didn't understand why he was there at first. "I'm not handicapped," he kept saying. But soon he was engaged in the activities. At dinner, he gave a blow-by-blow of his day, which was exactly like every other day, which was why he came to like it. We were thrilled by every word.
The dynamic of our family changed when I went off to Bishop McDevitt High School. Before then, I'd been a child of limited means but endless possibilities. We had everything I could think of -- a shiny Chevrolet, a TV, summer vacations, a big lawn with a volleyball net, and Reader's Digest condensed books. We fit into our neighborhood with houses so similar that you could practically walk into someone else's kitchen and open the refrigerator before realizing it wasn't yours.
Suddenly I entered a new world. McDevitt had a modest tuition, which many of my former schoolmates' parents couldn't pay. Soon I had a group of new friends I didn't want to explain to my parents, and parents I didn't want to explain to them. I became aware of class distinctions. I met the children of doctors and lawyers from Camp Hill I hadn't known before because they went to private school, and a new set of kids who lived on the other side of Harrisburg, which was flourishing with new development. There were builders' and bankers' kids with big houses and their very own cars.
In this world, most everyone knew -- and cared -- what your dad did. By no means was McDevitt as status-conscious as my daughter's sixth grade at National Cathedral School, where kids could discern the difference between an undersecretary and assistant secretary of commerce. But gross distinctions could be drawn. The kids from the aptly named Steelton, where mills were closing, were left behind in the stampede to hang with the kids whose parents were bankers and builders, lawyers and doctors, and who lived in the Father Knows Best neighborhoods. Their dads went off to corner offices with secretaries who brought them coffee and made deals that yielded your own car when you were sixteen and a backyard pool.
I got this sickening feeling my father had a job and not a career. What we had came from scrimping, not from my father landing a new client. It never entered my mind to ask if he liked going off to a desk and requisition forms each morning, just as it never entered his mind to tell me he didn't. When he retired the first minute he could, I thought it was only so he could take care of my mother who was ill by then. But it also must have been to end the drudgery. When he was suddenly so full of energy and good humor, I realized how deadening worrying over parts for aircraft carriers for thirty years must have been. Even if I'd understood as a kid that he'd droned away so I wouldn't have to, I couldn't have explained it to my ninth-grade gym class.
So I kept my mouth shut and concluded that to succeed in this new world, I would have to fail at home. I no longer had enough time to keep Jimmy amused. I stopped having friends over (there was that pool and a centrally located diner to hang out at) and was out as much as I could be, which wasn't nearly enough. My parents were opposed to extracurricular activities because they kept me out too late and also included members of the opposite sex, some of whom had never been altar boys. Not that there was much chance to be boy crazy. At McDevitt, there was a boys' tower and a girls' tower (how medieval is that?), which made me both a protofeminist (without alpha males around all the time, we could be high achievers) and a party girl (we didn't see enough of boys not to go a little batty when we did). I wanted to be a cheerleader, play basketball (I was taller then), and be in the school play. I made the cheerleading squad but couldn't try out for the play because I wasn't allowed to take the city bus home after dark. I sewed the costumes without ever tipping my hat to my mother for teaching me how.
Nothing was more crucial to my teenage happiness than summer afternoons at the country club pool. A whiff of Coppertone and chlorine can transport me back to that Promised Land, where all-important social transactions took place. An ice-cold Coke, "Teen Angel" on the transistor radio, and the boys from the tennis team dropping by our blanket were heaven on earth.
Although I'd been relieved of Jimmy duty by then, on the hottest days my mother would suggest that I take him swimming. This was the mountaintop of my years as a teenage reprobate, so I huffed around as if I'd been asked to give Jimmy my kidney. "How could you ask such a thing?" I said. "Why don't you take him?" Of course, we didn't belong to a pool and he could only go on my guest pass. Long gone was the impulse I had as a kid to say "If you want me on your team, you have to take my brother." I was determined not to miss out on the afternoon's fun or to be excluded from the evening's plans, since arrangements weren't made on the phone but at the snack bar by those present. I begged to go alone and won.
As evidence that we sometimes pay for our youthful indiscretions, I now beg Jimmy to go swimming with me, and lose every time. He's either afraid of drowning, or reminded of those sweltering days he was left behind. He won't as much as stick a toe in the water.
My poor parents didn't know what hit them. They fought back as they saw me become a second-class student and a first-class social butterfly. There were no signs yet that I was headed to Washington. There were no signs yet that I was headed anywhere. I was still a bookworm, and the nuns taught us Catholic writers first (I have an uncommon knowledge of the works of G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc) and others like Theodore Dreiser (they must have thought Sister Carrie took place in a convent). Catcher in the Rye was sweeping the country, but I didn't hear of it until I was a freshman in college. As with Henry Adams, "my education had not yet begun."
Despite my social aspirations, I never became the belle of the ball. I had a lot of friends for someone who was by no stretch cool. I didn't have a car, I didn't even have a license until I was eighteen, and there were strict rules about whose car I could ride in. I was still dressing as if my mother had veto power. When I got cut from basketball (I wasn't as tall as I thought), I sublimated my disappointment by going out with the captain of the boys' team, which made for an odd sight since we were separated by more than a foot in height. Yet my parents approved. Victor had been an altar boy at St. Theresa's.
I spent a lot of time trying to make my parents presentable. Because my mother was such a fanatical homemaker, we had some touches of the gentility I aspired to: linen napkins with hand-sewn handkerchief borders, Nouvelle Cuisine (when it was Old), a garden full of vegetables, fresh bread every day. But I obsessed over her deficiencies: Why didn't we get The New Yorker? (A nun had given me a copy, and I took to reading it in the library.) When could we go skiing? I was grateful the shellacked jigsaw puzzle had migrated to the basement, but why did we have a tacky picture of John Kennedy on the wall? I begged my mother to get highlights in her hair so it wouldn't look as though she'd colored it with shoe polish. (By the time she did, she was a teacher's assistant at my little brother's nursery school and one of the children shrieked, "Mrs. B., Mrs. B., you finally washed your hair!") If she wanted me to wear anything she made, I announced, she would have to give up crocheting, learn how to knit, and remove from her fabric stash all but 100 percent natural fibers.
For the first few years of high school, I had the cockeyed idea that even though my easygoing father didn't say much, he was secretly on my side. The way I saw it, he was piggybacking on me. On a car trip, I would never say I had to use the bathroom, because that would be siding with my mother, who was always agitating to stop. When my mother thought up some new project, I'd come down on the side of not doing it, reasoning that any sane person would prefer watching the ball game on TV to wallpapering. In return, I was certain that when my mother grounded me for one month because I didn't make it home at nine P.M. from a basketball game to stay with Jimmy so my parents could go play bridge, my father was silently thinking that it was cruel and unusual punishment.
The summer I worked at the naval depot with my father, I broached the subject of Mom's crazed approach to life when we were in the car one morning, fully expecting him to agree. But it turned out that "Margaret, listen to your mother" was not code for "I'm on your side but not at liberty to say so."
How could my father love someone who could be so rigid and demanding? Like all marriages, theirs had its mysteries. Though my mother didn't make my father special servings of potatoes and peas like Grandma, he relied on her for a life he couldn't have lived on his own. My father gave my mother an anchor and an easygoing, willing presence, while my mother gave my father wings. He was the saint, but he might have rested on a pedestal without her.
What saved us all from the toxic shock of me was that my mother had a baby when I was a junior in high school. Aside from my adolescent reaction ("What were they thinking?"), I was so enthralled by Edmund that I took a U-turn back to being a homebody. I stood by the crib staring, willing him to wake up so I could give him his bottle.
The baby transformed my mother. With Jimmy to tend to every minute of the day and monitoring my progress to make sure lightning hadn't struck twice, I doubt she had the ease to enjoy me. With this third child, I discovered the woman she must have been when she assembled the white spool crib excitedly expecting her first child -- warm and relaxed and a little bit lazy. She let things go just to play with the baby. Of course, every home improvement that could be made had been made, but she stopped a lot of the optional activities as well. She moved the kiln to the basement, closed the sewing machine and used it as a desk, cooked on demand, not as a hobby, and, in general, mellowed out. I don't recall her ever again yelling, "Margaret, get in here, I mean it, come here right now or I'm going to kill you." She had been given another chance to get it right. She read Dr. Spock about when Edmund should be learning the alphabet. She wasn't worried he never would.
I rediscovered Jimmy, too, who was launched on a fulfilling career. He went to work at the navy depot (thanks to that inflated résumé), where my father found him a set-aside job unloading and breaking down color-coded boxes. He was sometimes taken advantage of and learned words my mother never said in her lifetime, but his boss, Rod Hagy, looked after him closely enough that the twenty years he worked there were better than we could have hoped for when he was weaving placemats. Jimmy won awards, not just the standard kind for never taking a day of sick leave, but also for coming up with ways to move boxes more efficiently. When I hear people (or myself) complain about too many handicapped spaces at Safeway, I want to tell them about Jimmy. The Americans with Disabilities Act is a godsend.
Just because my mother was happier than I'd ever seen her didn't mean she was going to let me be. Although she'd stopped asking, "Was he an altar boy?" she still insisted, "I want you at a Catholic college." The Ivy League, if my parents even knew what it was, was out of the question, but so was Penn State, my choice. It was too far away, too big, and too heathen. My mother loved pointing out that the Newman Club, where Catholics socialized and went to mass, was the tiniest building on campus. When it came time to send off applications, my mother simply neglected to mail the ones she disapproved of. I didn't find this out until I won an essay-writing contest that offered a scholarship to Penn State, which had no record that I'd applied. I hurriedly filled out the forms and went off to Penn State in a huff.
College yielded no hint that I would end up in journalism. Although I majored in English, I was too lazy to join the school paper, and although I didn't like football, I did like football parties. On weekends, I rarely cracked a textbook. I was as self-satisfied as George Bush at Yale, and about as productive, pleased with myself just for being at Penn State rather than at a convent school. Finally able to curl up with a book at any time of day or night without fear of being asked to move furniture, I got by. But Mom had a point about it being too big and too anonymous. I still get mail from my high school nuns; I doubt one professor from Penn State remembers me.
After graduation, the counterculture was roiling around me, but my boundaries were so closely drawn, I didn't have to go very far to rebel. Simply being against the war and joining the March on the Pentagon was enough to alarm my parents. Tear gas! Arrests! Would it go on my record, they wanted to know? I wasn't a trust fund kid. They didn't want me to turn my back on the Establishment before I was even in it.
Much good came out of this period -- an end to the war, skepticism about government, greater tolerance for others. And that's not to mention organic food and dress-down Fridays. My ambivalence was particular to the lower middle class hoping to move into the upper middle class. My friends were questioning the values I'd grown up with, and I wanted to be part of them. But I wasn't ready to reject my parents, who celebrated those values. Indeed, the bourgeoisie looked a lot like the people I grew up with. Our neighbors answered the siren of the volunteer fire department, my father and his friends were in the military, and we had several policemen in the neighborhood. They were hardly pigs to me. My parents weren't hopelessly bourgeois, they were full of hope about becoming so.
I wish I'd tuned in and turned on a little more, and had explained to my friends how my parents had some Sixties values before it was cool. As Dorothy Day Catholics, my parents were part of a parish that took care of one another. We had a phone tree and when bad things happened to anybody, my parents were the first ones there with a casserole, a pan of brownies, and an open wallet. My father didn't know much about house repairs, but thanks to my mother's harassment, he knew more than most and was on call from Father Simpson to fix up the falling-down apartments he found for poor parishioners. It doesn't seem like much in the retelling but the year right after he retired, my father became a surrogate father to a child traumatized by the sudden death of his own father by simply showing up every morning to drive him to school.
The two years after graduation were my own experiment in living. I tried out a few things, including a federal government management program where I spent three months at four different cabinet departments learning how government works (or doesn't).
The best part of that year was living with my grandmother, not Gertie on my father's side but Nellie McCreary on my mother's side. Since my great grandmother O'Connor had died, my grandmother was living alone in Anacostia, a neighborhood in Washington that had once been a beautiful, leafy haven but had slipped so badly that her block on Yuma Street was notorious as the site of the slaughter of two FBI agents who'd been trying to bust a band of drug dealers.
Like most grandmothers, mine went easy on me when compared to my mother. When we came to Washington to visit, which was nearly every weekend when I was a youngster, we stayed with my mother's mother when we went for Saturday night dinner across town to Gertie's. I was told to be quiet when I pleaded with Grandma McCreary to come with us. My parents didn't acknowledge that the two grandmothers were cordial to each other but only came together on the largest occasions. Grandma McCreary explained to me that she got her fill of people who drank, swore, and gambled during the week as a nurse's aide at St. Elizabeth's, the mental hospital in southeast Washington. She could do without craziness on the weekends. She didn't smoke and objected to secondhand smoke before we knew there was such a thing.
At her house, it was lights out by nine P.M. (she was up at six) and martial order: all beds were made by eight A.M., after which we appeared dressed and scrubbed for a full breakfast of eggs, bacon, ham, home fries, and biscuits. Like my mother, she kept us busy: her frame house with a big porch always needed something, as did the big garden with a large stand of trees that dropped an extraordinary number of branches, limbs, and leaves. My favorite part of the weekend was the bonfire. Because she was too impatient to wait for the trash to be picked up, she threw all the debris from the yard and the alley (a minor dumping ground) into a wire basket and set it on fire with such satisfaction I worried she harbored the heart of an arsonist. We smelled like soot all the way back to Pennsylvania.
By the time I moved in, my grandmother had retired from the hospital and was working at the Hotel Washington, a block from the White House. Like my mother, my grandmother was pure energy and efficiency, common sense and spunk. On little more than minimum wage, she'd raised two children in a bungalow that cost ten thousand dollars and was upgraded by elbow grease to House Beautiful status.
At work, she made lifting a heavy mattress to make a hospital corner look like a high calling. She kept an iron on her cleaning cart to touch up any pillowcase that might get creased. She held the indoor speed record for completing her floor. I never smell a freshly laundered sheet without thinking of her, or tucking it in extra tight.
My grandmother started out as a night maid and rose to head of housekeeping, but after a few months, she gave up her management job. She liked the women she worked with and she saw she'd only been chosen to supervise them because she was white. She was no firebrand or organizer or even Democrat, other than having an Irish Catholic's tribal affection for John Kennedy. She saw that her selection was unfair, and she didn't like it.
But she was no bleeding heart liberal, and she didn't want to take a pay cut. She had struck up a chatty relationship with Clare Boothe Luce, a regular guest, who sent postcards to my grandmother that she tucked in the mirror above her dressing table (although she never looked in that mirror, doing no more each morning than brush her thick white hair). After hearing her story, Luce suggested that she offer to split her time: half making up rooms, half managing the linen and supply closet. It worked.
What didn't work was Luce's other suggestion: that maids lobby for a line on hotel bills, similar to the one on restaurant tabs which makes it easy for business travelers to tack on a tip and expense it later. Hotel workers still haven't nailed that one.
Most people would find living with their grandmother a complete non-starter, but I'd always loved her to pieces. When she came to visit us, I'd hide her purse hoping she'd miss the Greyhound home. Aside from running a tight ship, she was quite a bit of fun, nonjudgmental, and best of all, treated me like an adult. She could talk to Luce, she could talk to the teenagers who tossed beer cans in her garden, she could talk to me. It never bothered her when I had my nose in a book, my door closed, or company. She wasn't a cooking monster like my mother, but we always ate well. I still make her version of home fries with cabbage, onions, and leftover ham. Small things were to her small miracles. When twice as many tulips as usual poked through the frozen ground, when wool was two skeins for the price of one, when she completed her settings of blue willow china on layaway one piece at a time, she was thrilled. Those plates she left me are so chipped and warped now I never pass an estate sale without looking for replacements.
What especially endeared her to me was her total love for my mother, coupled with her complete disapproval. Unlike my father, my grandmother took my side in everything: about when I should learn to drive, about my curfew, about my dating. My grandmother had divorced my sodden grandfather years earlier and so had been officially excommunicated, rendering her far less enamored of altar boys and the Church than my mother. Mom held the divorce against my grandmother something fierce, more than Father Joe did. I thought we were going to have a modern day Inquisition when my grandmother went to communion at my cousin's wedding. Father Joe had given his blessing but my mother thought she was a higher authority on canon law. They didn't speak for nearly a year.
Every Thursday when the stores downtown stayed open until nine P.M., I met my grandmother for dinner at Reeves, an old-fashioned bakery with lemon meringue pies in the window. We went to Murphy's and Woodward & Lothrop, where my grandmother would study the latest advances in knitting, crocheting, and embroidery before spending the large sum of ten dollars.
Well into her seventies, she would come visit me and when I came home from the office, I would see that the light fixture on the back porch would be scraped, sanded, and painted with Rust-Oleum, the thicket of weeds behind the garage chopped down, wallpaper stripped -- all done in a housedress with an apron. No matter how much climbing or stretching the job called for, she never wore pants.
After I left, I talked her into accepting my parents' pleas to come to Pennsylvania. I was afraid the police would soon just build bars around her whole block to contain the crime. She refused to live with my mother and bought her own place a few blocks away. She and my father fixed it up. They became the best of friends.
After what I think of as my year with my grandmother as opposed to my year with the Department of Labor, I wanted to do something worthwhile and went off (after a summer in Europe) to teach third grade in the Watts section of Los Angeles. The school system was so troubled I didn't need a teaching certificate and I was free to follow the syllabus of the nuns (phonics and multiplication tables) without being reproached for ignoring modern instructional methods.
One night in L.A. I went to a lecture at USC to hear Ralph Nader and was captivated. He fit my idea of making the world a fairer place, reining in the big guys who enlarged themselves at the expense of the little ones. I went up to him afterward, and he scribbled his phone number on a scrap of paper. I took a year to dial it, but when I did, Nader picked up the phone himself. He offered me $75 a week to work on auto safety. I've never toiled so hard for so little to so much purpose. I so admired Nader that I signed up for the LSATs and enrolled at George Washington University Law School. I would spend thousands on tuition and many hundreds of hours of boredom before I grasped that "Unsafe at Any Speed" wasn't a legal brief, it was a story about a company that cut corners on safety to make a buck. Although Nader had a law degree, he worked as a journalist.
Still, it seemed crazy to waste so much effort -- I'd passed the bar exam -- so I got a job as a lawyer at the Federal Trade Commission during the Carter administration, when Chairman Mike Pertschuk (a friend of Ralph's) was giving the cereal makers, children's TV producers, and carmakers a fit. That job ended when Carter did, and after a few weeks of interviewing at law firms, I knew my brilliant career as a lawyer was going to be short. Representing anyone who walked in the door needing someone to help him comply with (or get around) government regulations would be lucrative but unsatisfying. It was time to start over.
I'd recently started over at home as well. I got married when I was in law school in 1972 to a reporter for UPI, a world-class sailor and an absentminded intellectual. Gene Carlson had taken classes at the Juilliard School of Music, read Japanese haiku, preferred movies with subtitles, and rarely watched television. His family lived in Seattle, where his mother was head of the garden club and his father, Eddie, had chaired the 1962 Seattle World's Fair and conceived the Space Needle with a doodle on the back of a napkin. Eddie had risen from bellhop to chairman of Westin International Hotels and then chairman of United Airlines, after Westin merged with it in 1970. This was back in the day when CEOs put their pants on one leg at a time and didn't pay themselves a king's ransom. Gene had a wonderful younger sister who looked so much like me, we could be siblings.
Even accepting the theory that opposites attract, my friends were surprised by the match. When I try to explain, I keep coming back to the fact that Gene and his family were so...quiet. They didn't mind if I stuck my nose in a book -- that's where Gene's was much of the time. They ate breakfast on the good china with the grapefruit sectioned. The well-polished Steuben bird never moved from its perch on the credenza. The lamps may have been glued to the end tables. Gene talked to his parents about golf and a new jib for the sailboat, and I came to talk about such things as well. In all my years with the Carlsons -- and I stayed unusually close -- I never heard a raised voice, not even when I ran over Gene's mother's foot with a cart carrying a one-hundred-pound block of ice intended for the galley fridge.
I had so much fun with the Carlsons on their sailboat that I agreed to go sailing on my honeymoon. The good news was also the bad news: We were alone, but a 40-foot ketch is not meant to be crewed by two people, one of whom is a committed landlubber. Gene had a destination in mind -- we started in Seattle, and he wanted to get to Princess Louisa inlet, far up the coast of British Columbia. It was a forced sail where we were up at dawn and hauling sails until midnight in a quest to reach a distant harbor. We never got there.
Back on shore, it occasionally occurred to me that in addition to not being meant to sail boats, we weren't meant to be married. But I stopped having any such thoughts once Courtney was born. I was transported to a galaxy of such bliss that I could have been married to Ted Bundy for all it mattered. As time went on, Gene and I were sufficiently respectful of being parents not to split apart, but insufficiently drawn to each other to live together. When Gene got a Neiman Fellowship in 1975, he went off to Harvard and visited on the weekends. When the next year he got a job offer from The Wall Street Journal, he went off to Hong Kong and couldn't visit on the weekends. With deep family discounts on United, he came back often enough to remain a critical part of Courtney's life.
Real estate finally separated us. We sold our big house. Gene leased an apartment in Hong Kong and I bought a colonial in disrepair in Washington. Because the breakup had been so gradual and we had no financial entanglements other than the house, it took less than a half hour answering questions posed by an administrative judge to sever the bonds of matrimony. I walked down the aisle of a D.C. courtroom and out the door, struck that in its dissolution, marriage has no equal and opposite reaction. No drama marked the occasion.
Who better to provide the missing drama than parents? We had to move our parents away from the comfortable fiction that work was keeping us apart and introduce the reality that it was the two of us who were doing it. Divorce produced an onus of sin (mortal and excommunicative like my grandmother) and banishment. When an older cousin told my grandfather she was getting divorced, he lowered the venetian blinds and sat in darkness for the rest of the day, saying he would never see her again. He relented, but the black cloud never lifted. That my parents initially objected to Gene's reserve and Protestantism didn't matter. Marriage was a sacrament. Ours took place at the church in which I was baptized. Once they made their peace with Gene for not being an altar boy and keeping a statue of Buddha in his office, they wouldn't hear any talk of it not working out. Years passed and they never acknowledged I was divorced.
The Carlsons were equally disappointed and silent, since that was their way. But Eddie did write me a letter, describing how devastated he'd been when his own parents divorced, which made this all the more devastating for him. If I was no longer his daughter-in-law officially, he wrote, he would treat me like a daughter. His own daughter, Janie, was sweet enough to share. His devotion never wavered.
After rejecting the life of associate at a downtown law firm, I went to work at the Legal Times, a halfway house for fallen-away attorneys, writing about the legal profession instead of being in it. It paid poorly, and one day Eddie was waiting for me to go to lunch and overheard an intense auto repair conversation about how long a leaky water pump could last and the life expectancy of the radiator. That night he took me to get a new car. He was buying, but with my parents whispering in my ear, I convinced him what I really wanted was a used Honda.
For a couple of years, I saw so much of my father-in-law, you'd think he lived around the corner. The airlines were being deregulated, and Eddie had two or three visits to Washington a month to testify before Congress or appear before the Federal Aviation Administration. I was renovating my first house Mom's way, which meant as many unskilled volunteers and as few pros as possible. When he wanted to see a lot of Courtney and me, Eddie had to don a painter's cap. By day he was a CEO in a Paul Stuart suit, by night he was Joe Six-Pack, eating pizza out of a box, wielding a Red Devil scraper to strip wallpaper, and pulling up hundreds of tiny nails out of the hardwood floor that had been holding down shag carpet. My mother was on to something with her hammer and power drill. All the hours in that falling-down house brought Courtney and me to a closeness with Eddie that lasted until he died in 1990.
After the Legal Times and writing freelance pieces, I got a job at Esquire magazine as its Washington bureau chief, which meant wielding huge power over a bureau of one (me) at my own kitchen table. The high point of that job was when editor Adam Moss lit on the idea of compiling an Esquire Register -- a collection of profiles of up-and-coming men under forty. For the length of that assignment, I was never lonely. After a small item appeared in The Washington Post's gossip column about the project, I even got a note from the father of one potential candidate, who wanted me to know his son was so brilliant, he could say "cow" and "moon" at a very early age.
Spurning the law was bad for my bank account but good for Courtney. Piecework fit nicely with motherhood. In the morning, I could roll out of bed to drive the car pool dressed like a grad student who'd overslept instead of a striving junior associate in a suit and heels. I wrote anywhere, anytime -- on a yellow legal pad, sitting in the bleachers watching soccer, on a laptop in the pediatrician's office, at midnight at home. Editors, unlike senior partners, approve of you being a mile wide and an inch deep and don't feel cheated if you're not at the office until all hours, as long as you produce the requisite 1,500 words. The goal is not to master the minutiae of the Sherman Antitrust Act, but to master the issue at hand for as long as it takes to write about it that week.
I was usually home after school to claim the lost hours before dinner, when I turned the kitchen into a playground, sometimes letting Courtney roller-skate from the counter to the table, carrying plates. She started cooking by making pancakes, then scrambling eggs, then omelets. Before long, with the help of my mother, she learned to make pie dough, which still eludes me. My mother taught her so well that Courtney became the head baker at the Red Door Café at Kenyon College. When Courtney was eighteen, she won the Bloomingdale's cooking contest for baking one of my mother's desserts.
In the mid-1980s, I joined a start-up called the Washington Weekly, which seemed too good to be true, and was. It folded after a year.
Just when I needed a lifeboat, my friend Michael Kinsley needed a managing editor at The New Republic. Having written there over the years, I knew the ropes. While editing, every few weeks I found time to write the back page "Diarist," which caught the attention of Time's political editor, Walter Isaacson. Walter was dismayed to see Time lose good women writers -- among them Maureen Dowd and Michiko Kakutani, who went on to win Pulitzer Prizes at The New York Times. When he became Time's "Nation" editor, he set out to make the magazine sound more like America than like Yale and Harvard circa 1925.
So he flew down to Washington to recruit me. But it was not an easy sell. In the 1980s, Time was still a place where the good jobs of correspondent, writer, and editor were held by men, while the lesser jobs of researchers and librarians were manned by women. Relations between the two were similar to those between pilots and stewardesses or doctors and nurses -- different pay and different status, with one meant to serve the other. They worked in a closed, intimate environment with clear gender lines of demarcation where at least two nights a week everyone was expected to stay late. There was no Hugh Hefner walking around in pajamas, but it felt like party time, with premium liquor and rare roast beef served by white-jacketed waiters. There were more affairs than weddings, and the tales of top editors keeping cars purring at the curbs racking up hundreds of dollars in fares were the source of ribbing, not ridicule. Two top editors married researchers. Jason McManus, editor in chief, married three. One senior editor, between marriages, plastered Playboy centerfolds around the cubicle of one researcher, a prank typical of the frat house atmosphere. It didn't improve the condition of women at the magazine any more than bra burnings did the condition of women generally, but the females on the staff were nonetheless grateful when B. J. Phillips showed up without her blouse at story conference the next morning.
Time still had a peculiar division of labor: reporters from the many bureaus would send "files" to New York at the end of the week to be chopped and diced by hard-drinking, late night writers, who then sent them on to be pureed by hard-drinking, late night editors. I told Walter no.
But then Walter, like a good reporter, tracked me down in Pennsylvania on Thanksgiving. The Bresnahans were encamped at Holy Spirit Hospital, visiting my mother who had just had surgery. We carted turkey and fixings (and a jigsaw puzzle) to the solarium. It wasn't a time to be doing career planning.
Being home did make me think about my relationship with my parents. It hadn't had just one turn, from child to adult, but from good child, to bad child, to semi-good child in college, to adult with a checkered career. The best thing I'd done was make them grandparents. They were glad I'd settled on journalism finally, but they didn't know if The New Republic was a good job or a bad one. My parents dutifully subscribed, but it was as foreign to them as Le Monde Diplomatique. They had no interest in Michel Foucault's deconstruction or parsing the meaning of meaning.
Walter, who would become the centerpiece of my professional life, was more convinced that I was meant to be at Time than I was convinced I wasn't. But what really moved me was how much the idea of their daughter working at a magazine on Ed McMahon's Publisher's Clearing House list pleased my parents. It was mainstream and middlebrow, had currency at the bridge table and in Good Shepherd parish hall. I moved to Time and my parents soon were displaying each issue like a coffee-table book.
But if the idea of Time appealed to them, big-time journalism did not. There came to be a gap between us, not of my making and not as large as the one that existed when I was a teenager pretending to be an orphan, but it was big enough to trouble me. My parents would never say, "You're putting on airs," or "too big for your britches," as they did when I was a kid. But I could tell they didn't feel entirely at ease with a life they didn't feel part of. They'd made a lot of adjustments downward, giving up on "my daughter, the nun," and "my daughter, the teacher." They were ready to settle for "my daughter, the lawyer," until I snatched that away from them. My daughter at Time was something else again.
Washington journalism had come to symbolize that I had left the old neighborhood and wasn't coming back, even though I came back all the time. I couldn't get them to Washington short of threat of a nuclear meltdown -- literally. One of their rare visits took place during the leakage from the reactor at nearby Three Mile Island when they came to stay with me for three weeks -- long enough to turn my household into a replica of theirs, right down to their sulking if I wanted to go out.
I wanted my parents to be proud of me, but not too proud. I preferred they be somewhat blasé, like the parents of my fellow journalists who took it for granted that their offspring would get White House invitations. They were either horrified (how much I paid for my house in Georgetown, and Georgetown itself), or too thrilled ("You had dinner with who?"). Once again I kept secrets. I would hang on the phone with my mother discussing meat loaf recipes, but not say who I was making the meat loaf for. They weren't familiar with the notion that if you hang a lamb chop in the window, they will come. It doesn't even take meat loaf to get Senator John McCain.
When my mother was sicker than ever, it didn't matter who was coming to dinner or what my schedule was. I was home most weekends. I talked to my father several times a day. In a way we got closer, but as for quality time, there was little. Since we spelled each other (there was no household help), when I came, he would catch up on his sleep and errands. We passed in the night.
In the spring of 1991, a neighbor came over to stay with my mother so that Dad could join the group he'd played cards and golf with for thirty years. He hadn't been able to play even once the year before. Just as the first hand was being dealt and the beer was being poured at the 19th hole (he'd overruled my mother on the drinking question), my father said he didn't feel well and a minute later, keeled over. He was playing on a public course, not a country club, and there was no doctor nearby. CPR wasn't enough to keep him from slipping into a coma before the ambulance arrived.
When I got a call from the emergency room doctor at the hospital and he said my father was there, I was sure an overworked, sleep-deprived intern had gotten it wrong. "You mean my mother, don't you? Could you put my father on?" I was there in two hours and didn't leave for seven days. I'd watched too many hospital dramas to leave my father alone unconscious. If his daughter was there, there was a better chance he'd be treated like someone's father. I hired a nurse for my mother and moved in, showering in the doctor's lounge and sleeping on two chairs. My main goal was to make sure they didn't leave him uncovered and exposed or mix up IV bags. The doctors agreed to reduce his morphine to see if they could get any response. That night, thinking he might be able to hear, I talked for hours. By the next morning, the doctor was convinced there was no chance he would regain brain function and said we should say good-bye.
Until then, Jimmy had not visited. He'd stubbornly refused to accept that Dad could walk out of the house with a cooler of beer and his clubs and not come back. Edmund forced Jimmy into the car, and minutes after he came and said good-bye, we removed the respirator. My father died without my ever saying good-bye.
As an adult, Jimmy had become closer to my father than to my mother. They ate breakfast together, packed their lunches, and drove off to the depot every morning for twenty years. They worked together on the weekends as well. With Dad's supervision, Jimmy's fascination with cars became a wash-and-wax business. Obsessively clean, Jimmy would take Q-tips to the vents of the air conditioner. Everlastingly forgetful, he would neglect the ashtray. My father spent a lot of time in the driveway with a checklist.
Jimmy was dry-eyed until little cracks in his fragile world began to appear. Money from his car washing was piling up and Dad wasn't around to sort the money into paper packets with him. Finally I drove him to the bank, which automatically sorted it. I told him I'd hired someone to live with him and drive him to work and he'd have to get lunch at the commissary. He knew life as he'd known it was over. I said, you miss Dad, don't you? His chin quivered. "What do you think, Margaret? He was my buddy."
My mother died of lung cancer a few months later. She'd been in bed for a year on oxygen and steroids, unable to bark orders and rearrange furniture -- and unable to get the kind of comfort from me she'd gotten from my father. I came to visit most weekends for the better part of a year with Courtney, serving as buffer. Every child is a blessing, but I got one that compensated for my deficiencies. Courtney has my mother's energy and resilience, my father's steadiness and sweetness. Fairness demanded that my teenager should inflict on me a dose of my own medicine, but other than a brief period her sophomore year, when she had a friend I didn't like (imagine that!), she manifested none of my adolescent angst. Going with me to Camp Hill was an imposition on the social life of a sixteen-year-old only partly ameliorated by my teaching her to drive at a nearby parking lot late at night. My mother was luckier in her grandchild than in her child. Courtney was willing to go through the jewelry box and listen to a story about each item, to cut my mother's nails, to just sit, while I busied myself around the house so I wouldn't have to.
Every child is sad when a parent dies. I was panicked. I'd gotten Courtney to the point where she spent less time at home than I did and was about to go off to Kenyon College. But now I would have to look after Jimmy, and worry about Edmund, who was only in his early twenties. I had a premonition of what it would be like to be the adult in the family at Edmund's wedding in October. My mother was too sick to go to the rehearsal dinner, which she had planned down to the amount of sweet versus bittersweet chocolate in the dessert. Nor could she go to the wedding, where I tried to be mother and father of the groom. I broke character only a few times, when I couldn't resist slinking off to the kitchen of the Hershey Hotel to catch a glimpse of the Clarence Thomas hearings a few of the wait staff were following. I fulfilled my main purpose: to nod in agreement the hundred times my brother said to me, "Well, at least Dad knew Colleen and I were getting married." And unlike my marriage, Edmund's is perfect.
My mother had her own panic. Pumped up on steroids, her brain beginning to fail from lack of oxygen, she called a lawyer and wrote a codicil to her will, appointing the local bank as executor of her estate and of Jimmy. At the last minute, she either wanted to save me from the responsibility, or she doubted me. The first thing the bank wanted to do was sell the house to assure there would be funds to pay its fee, the very thing my mother most dreaded. It would take three months, and dusting off my law degree, to undo the catastrophe of Jimmy having to move.
In those first awful months, I learned that my parents had left very little money but had bequeathed me a raft of friendships. I felt like Harrison Ford in the movie Witness when at the sound of the bell clanging for help, the Amish farmers from miles around flocked to his side. The neighbors rushed in to take over when I needed it.
By then, my professional life had been transformed from part-time piecework at the kitchen table to more than full-time commitments at Time and on TV. At The New Republic I went as far as Capitol Hill to cover politics. For Time, I flew all over the country to cover campaigns, conventions, and primaries. I was also out and about, working Washington's second shift, the cocktail and dinner party circuit. It was fun, like high school with money. I justified the Holly Golightly routine by telling myself that it's easier to get Colin Powell to return a call if I'd sat next to him at Sally Quinn's dinner table the week before.
After a few years at Time, when I was White House correspondent, I got a call from Bob Novak at CNN to fill an open seat on The Capital Gang. I was not his first choice. He'd invited Maureen Dowd to breakfast at the Army and Navy Club to ask her to join the panel. When she turned him down, he called me, and didn't have to buy me eggs and bacon to get me to say yes. Novak offered to keep this our little secret. But unlike Salieri when Mozart came to town, I feel honored to play second fiddle to Maureen.
In 1993, Jim Gaines, editor of Time, asked me to come to Le Bernardin in New York for a get-acquainted lunch. I was confident enough the meeting would not be ulcer inducing to take full advantage of the culinary opportunity, ordering wine, salmon tartare, risotto, and tiramisu. As I was capturing the last morsel of rice, Gaines asked how I would feel about becoming the first woman columnist at Time magazine. Even if it was a case of affirmative action to break Time out of its old boy shell, I felt just dandy about it. (Later I would occasionally be asked if it hurt my self-esteem to have Time touting me constantly as "Margaret Carlson, the first woman columnist at Time." No, it didn't. It would have hurt my self-esteem not to have gotten a crack at the job.) After five dry runs and much hemming and hawing over what to call it (trivia answer: "Public Eye"), the column kicked off in 1994. What a gift!
My friends didn't change from year to year, but their jobs did. It was Michael Kinsley (my friend before he was my boss at TNR) who first took me to dinner at the big, intimidating mansion of Katharine Graham, the reigning queen of Washington and publisher of The Washington Post. Every few weeks, when Henry Kissinger or Barbara Walters was stuck on the tarmac at LaGuardia, I would get a late call asking if I'd like to fill in. Following the Meg Greenfield rule -- call anytime before the main course -- I always said yes. Eventually, I would go as me. Like the rings on a tree, my evenings with Graham chart my evolution from rookie journalist to old timer. One day Mrs. Graham complained that she'd never been asked to my house. A few months later, I was giving a going-away party for Kinsley, who'd been wooed to be editor of Slate.com by Microsoft's Bill Gates. It seemed the perfect occasion to hide behind. She came, she tossed salad, she scooped ice cream. She became a fixture at my house.
But it took more than dinners for us to become such good friends. My empty nest coincided with the death of her best friend and Washington Post editor, Meg Greenfield. I lived just across the street and loved to cook. She couldn't boil the proverbial pot of water, so whenever the French chef was off, I would take over dinner and a video. Since she didn't drive, we carpooled to many a book party. On Sundays, we would join a larger group of friends who went to an early movie and for Chinese food in the neighborhood.
When Courtney decided to get married in 2000, Kay asked if she would get married in her garden, and that began a wedding my mother would have been proud of. I didn't make Courtney's wedding dress, as my mother (and I) had made mine. She preferred one by Vera Wang, proving there can be progress from one generation to the next.
But Courtney did let me choose her husband, whom I'd met when he worked as press secretary to the mayor of Philadelphia, Ed Rendell. When Rendell took over chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, he called to tell me David was moving to Washington. "Could you introduce him to a few people his age?" he asked. The first of the few people his age I introduced him to was my very own daughter. I had her join us for lunch on the premise that she was interested in politics, too. After that three-hour meal, I backed off (I swear), and they managed to fall in love on their own.
Every silver lining has a cloud, and eighteen months later, I found myself up to my ears in wedding planning and at war with my only child. I was in a bind. I wanted to have the most beautiful wedding in the world (misplaced compensation for not staying married myself), but without becoming a captive of the wedding industry. I was opposed to hiring a wedding planner on the grounds that you don't seek expert advice on matters people have been tending to on their own for hundreds of years. This -- and my sense that the reception would be just a bigger version of the kind of dinner where you turn on the oven an hour ahead of time -- terrified the bridal monster my daughter had become. She pictured overcooked chicken and a seating plan scribbled in the margin of the newspaper.
Like me, she was willing to cut a corner, but unlike me, she wasn't willing to take it on two wheels. I was mystified. How could someone so levelheaded and lighthearted -- in short, someone so much like me -- be poring over a two-foot stack of bridal magazines designed to make every young woman yearn to be Princess for a Day?
With over 150 people due to arrive in Mrs. Graham's garden for the ceremony concentrating my mind, I finally turned into the mother of the bridal monster. I hired a band that agreed not to play so loud that we couldn't talk, a caterer that would let me bake fifty loaves of bread, and a photographer from the Senate press gallery who promised not to take more than five staged shots. With two days to spare, I found a dress. I had cooked Chris and Kathy Matthews's rehearsal dinner twenty years earlier, so they returned the favor. We couldn't work out the Catholic-Jewish divide, so the mayor's wife, federal judge Midge Rendell, performed the ceremony. For the wedding dinner, I finished the seating plan forty-five minutes before people were expected to sit, with my artistic friend Eden Rafshoon, who serves on the Fine Arts Commission, writing out the place cards in her perfect script. With moments to spare, we finished arranging the centerpieces from the twelve buckets of roses Courtney's father and I had picked up at a wholesaler's the night before.
It would make a better story if some disaster occurred, but none did, unless you count the orange roses in Courtney's bouquet, which, since I had extra flowers in Mrs. Graham's basement, I was able to yank out and replace. We had no rain plan, so it didn't rain. We had no air-conditioning, so it wasn't hot. Chris Matthews sang " 'A' You're Adorable, 'B' You're So Beautiful" so off-key, it was adorable. Gene was such a good father of the bride, I decided that a marriage lasting forever should not be the only measure of success. Mrs. Graham said, "We launched the jolliest bride I ever did see."
During the wedding toast, I said, "My work is done." But luckily, it wasn't. A few months later, moments after the happy couple settled on their first house in Philadelphia, where David returned to work for gubernatorial candidate Rendell, Courtney and I picked up sledgehammers and crowbars and demolished the wall between the kitchen and dining room. Within two weeks, with five thousand dollars and the intermittent intervention of skilled labor, we renovated the kitchen complete with Corian counters (from a wholesaler), cabinets rubbed with milk paint, and hardwood floors (hiding under the linoleum). My son-in-law, who didn't know my mother, was surprised to find that marrying a Carlson meant embracing the building trades.
And, of course, my work with Jimmy will never be done. He hadn't adjusted to going to work without my father right away, so he came to Washington for an extended stay. It was wrenching for him, but he took some comfort in the fact that I'd morphed into my mother, becoming the same volatile mix of Betty Crocker and Judge Judy I'd inveighed against, cleaning with a toothbrush, making curtains (I mean window treatments), baking bread, and disciplining my daughter like a drill sergeant.
At first, Jimmy, who'd never once been left alone, went everywhere I went. One morning, he put on his funeral suit and I took him to a small breakfast for reporters with presidential candidate Pat Buchanan at a downtown hotel. The reporter next to Jimmy asked, "Who are you with?"
"My sister," said Jimmy.
"Who's your sister with?" the reporter asked.
"She's with me," Jimmy said quizzically. When the waiter came around with OJ and coffee, he asked for a stack of blueberry pancakes -- and got them.
Jimmy remembered that morning so that when Michael Kinsley resumed doing Crossfire with Buchanan after his presidential run, his most faithful viewer, Jimmy, said to him, "I see you're doing the show with your boss now." Kinsley knew that debating John Sununu, who'd filled in for Buchanan, was a piece of cake compared to wrangling with Buchanan every night. He didn't know how obvious it was until Jimmy pointed it out. He toughened up.
When I gave my yearly brunch after the White House Correspondents Dinner, at which the Time editors down from New York mingle with Washington folks like George Stephanopoulos, Alan Greenspan, and Dee Dee Myers, Jimmy answered the door at eleven A.M. to find Walter Isaacson, an hour early. I was in my nightgown, the first egg yet to be cracked, so I shoved Walter upstairs to my room to use the phone. When he came down, Jimmy said, "Do you know my sister wants to kill you?"
In those first weeks with Jimmy, I came to see how frustrated my mother must have been. Every day she would try to find a friend for Jimmy; every day she would fail. Every day she would teach him how to dial 911 and tie his sneakers, and every day he would forget. How did she retain any cheerfulness in the face of constant failure? It's easier for me, what with speed dial, Velcro, and clip-on ties. But it still behooves me to keep the projects rolling and not stick my nose in a book. Opening the Times at Sunday breakfast is like putting a barbed-wire fence between us. Jimmy knows he is going to get hurt trying to go over it, but he can't help nattering on about people I don't know doing things I don't care about. When I snap at him, he says, "Just making conversation," which is also his reply when he turns around to talk to me in the midst of washing a car and hoses me down.
Eventually, I set Jimmy up according to his wishes, with my parents in mind. He wanted to keep his job at the depot and live in my parents' house, which he has done for eleven years with a succession of caretakers (some of whom should be shot, others canonized). He is indispensable to the neighborhood. You have leaves on your lawn? He's got the leaf blower. Mail to be picked up? He's your man. Your dog needs walking? He's there.
I should have reassured my mother that I would put myself in assisted living before I'd put Jimmy there. I stubbornly didn't, because I thought she should trust me. It took me a long time to realize how right she'd been about so many things: she was right, of course, that if she didn't make Jimmy part of our lives, he might have no life at all, that it was possible to have a household that accommodated Jimmy's limitations and my ambition. Jimmy doesn't take away from my household, he enriches it.
I finally learned that lesson a few days after the disaster at the World Trade Center. Jimmy always comes to Washington for his birthday on September 16, but because of the general chaos after September 11, none of the family could come. So I called on my friends to make the day festive, even though most of them were drained and exhausted from working round the clock. Instead of a decorous "No gifts, please," I shouted "Gifts! Please!"
Jimmy set the menu: pizza made with Mom's bread dough, German chocolate cake, and ice cream. The guests -- a congressman, an anchor, a cabinet secretary, a publisher -- were people he'd met over the years, although he relates to them by their cars, not what they do. "Claire [Shipman], why'd you get rid of your Saab?" he asked, checking out the new SUV before the new baby. My parents might have been flustered to meet Senator Joe Lieberman. Jimmy just wants to know if his car's dirty.
They brought the ideal presents: microwave popcorn, Turtle Wax, chamois, two CDs with a mix of country songs, a sweatshirt, and enough cans of pretzels, potato chips, and peanuts to give Dr. Atkins a heart attack. Given the week everyone had had, crooning "Happy Birthday" felt like singing "America, the Beautiful." I've never thrown a better party.
At breakfast the next morning, my brother pushed a stack of white envelopes at me and said, "Why don't you take a look at these?" He'd been so poised the night before that I had forgotten he didn't know which card went with which gift, except by making conversation with his guests. As I read each one, he nodded, as if the treacly sentiments of Hallmark had been written just for him.
And in a way they were. Jimmy had given my friends an outlet for their best impulses and most generous sentiments after a singularly devastating event. He had reminded all of us that a tightly knit network of family and friends can buoy you up, if ever you should need it. Those cards are now lined up on the dresser in his bedroom in the house where we grew up. In a way I couldn't imagine when I was trying so hard to get away from it, my parents built a house sturdy enough to shelter us forever.
Copyright © 2003 by Margaret Carlson
How George Bush and I Made It to the White House
Anyone Can Grow Up
How George Bush and I Made It to the White House
In the section entitled "Presidential Material," Carlson reflects on what it takes to be president by looking at those who choose to pursue the office (and by extension, those, like her, who choose to cover the pursuit). She looks at the hard facts (offices held, speeches given, money raised) and the soft, sometimes determinative, ones (how the candidates talk and look, how they perform under pressure, who they marry and divorce when no one is looking, and how they get into -- and out of -- scrapes). The best man doesn't always win. That's why those who've lost, and those who almost run but don't, are covered as well. Bush Sr. and son, and Clinton in his scandalous term, are here. Carlson also takes a look at those whom have thought of running, like Donald Trump, those who America wanted to run, like Colin Powell, and those who've run and lost, like John McCain.
Carlson draws from her own life in the "Family Matters" section as well, commenting on subjects relating to children, women, and men -- from abortion to balancing work and family, from feminism to sexual harassment.
Finally, in the last section, we read about what makes us who we are and what makes us do what we do. From breaking down how congressmen make money on the side to what cost Newt Gingrich his job, from days in court trying the Menendez brothers to a memorable three-hour lunch with Katharine Hepburn that didn't turn out the way she imagined, Carlson finds the strength of character, or lack of it, in Americans famous and not.
Carlson gets as many as a hundred letters a week from readers who say, "That's exactly what I was thinking." In the vein of Anna Quindlen, Ellen Goodman, and Bill O'Reilly, here is a wise and witty book from a writer who knows what makes us tick.