Friday, October 8, 2010

Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir

By Christopher Buckley

New York, Twelve, 2009

Week 41     Memoir

An audio book read by the author.

The only child of a famous couple, Christopher Buckley lost both of his parents, Patricia Taylor Buckley and William F. Buckley Jr. within the space of a year. His father, of course, was the famous journalist, novelist, and “lion of the right,” in the words of his son. “Pup” as Christopher called him, was the founder of the conservative movement, the founder and editor of The New Republic and host of Firing Line for 32 years. “Mum” was a leading New York socialite and hostess par excellence. Christopher says his mother “took possession of a room and possession of her husband.”

Buckley recounts the fateful year (2007-2008) with love and humor, and intersperses the difficult narrative of illness, death, and funerals with stories from his childhood and insight into his upbringing, which, needless to say, was not like yours or mine. His relationship with his parents was a bit difficult, but there was a great deal of love within the family, although Christopher suggests that his parents did not speak to each other about a third of the time. He discusses caustic letters and emails that were sent between father and son. And in one of the most touching moments of the book, Christopher strokes his dying mother’s hair and says, “I forgive you Mum. I forgive you.” The reader has the impression that a lot of family business did not make it into this memoir.

Among his better memories are sailing trips he made with his father across the Atlantic and Pacific, as well as a few more ill-fated jaunts. Buckley says that his father, like all great men, wanted things to go his way, and that included taking sailing trips in “perfect storm” weather—just because he had made up his mind to go sailing. Other funny stories concern his mother’s fabrications that caused her son’s eyes to roll on more than one occasion, including the times his mother told guests that the King and Queen of England were frequent visitors to her childhood home of Vancouver, British Columbia. The way in which the author intersperses these stories with the grittier details of death and funerals makes the memoir at once funny and poignant.

He discusses in detail planning both funerals, and the reader warms to his concern about doing things right. His desire is to honor these remarkable people, while at the same time exert his independence. The thing I like about his approach with this book is that he has few illusions about his parents—he is proud to be their son, but he is also an author who knows a good story when he sees one.

Christopher Buckley is a well-known author in his own right (or left since he supported Obama in the last election.) Among his many books are Thank you for Smoking and Supreme Courtship, which I listened to on an audio book. He is a satirist and observer of politics and Washington. I laughed all the way through Supreme Courtship. One of the characters is so very much like Sarah Palin, yet the book was written before Palin arrived on the scene. He says he “learned the English language at the knee of a master.” He attributes his sarcasm to his Mother who could stop any conversation with a few choice words.
For those of us who have elderly parents, there is much to appreciate in this memoir, including the utter helplessness that comes from not being able to make a bad situation better. Buckley devoted much of this last year to his parents, staying in his childhood room in the family home in Stanford CT, getting up at all hours of the night to soothe his bewildered father or rush to the hospital to care for his mother. I kept thinking how lucky he was that there was enough money available to keep his father’s dignity intact, although he gives intimations of his father’s self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.

One of the best parts of the audio book is hearing Buckley read it himself. Because he knows the subjects of his book so well, he can mimic perfectly the caustic sarcasm of his mother’s voice and the imperious superiority of his father’s. His voice warms as he relates his father’s triumphs—finishing a column in a few minutes or a book in two weeks. And when his voice cracks during the last few sentences of the book, my heart broke for “the orphan,” as he called himself. I cried for all of us who loved our parents and whose loss has made us “orphans” as well.

This article in the Washington Post tells a bit more of the story of Buckley’s book, including some of the warts on his family history.

Book review in the New York Times:

Video interview with Christopher Buckley

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