Thursday, February 15, 2007

My mother recently shared with me a peak life experience of hers from a long time ago. Her holding for 25 years of what I call a secret, to which I also attribute intent, gave the communication the weight of revelation when it finally came. Prompting her was the funeral of President Gerald Ford last month.

To give the briefest necessary back-story: in 1960, she was a newly divorced 22-year-old with two small sons. I was not yet four. My brother was five. Having had to turn down a scholarship at 17, (you do the math,) she set about a career, becoming a reporter in that last crop of journey craftsmen, before journalism became strictly a professional career, what has led to its current downfall

Starting, typically, on the women’s pages, she was a looker, who could back it up, and that led her to the city desk, and to relocate several states south, while I was still wee, there to be raised with my brother in splendid isolation, not so much neglected, as spared.

Her state-capital newspaper had alienated the powers that be with a successful corruption investigation, to the point the local police refused to cooperate with reporters, so in her late twenties she was assigned a police beat, which must have created a very interesting dynamic to the flow of information. She went on to cover the state and federal courts, eventually moving to Washington to cover state news. Thankfully, she continued to pay the rent until I was out of high school.

Thereafter, with me in New York, a kind of competition occurred. Her peak experience came at the very beginning, when she was working on the staff of Senator Howard Baker. But that job ended, and she had trouble from there on. I remember she wrote a piece on being jobless that was published on the op-ed page of the Washington Post. It advised prospects not to do weekend things, like make pancakes, during the work week. It was headlined Is There Life After Macaroni and Cheese?” A reference to the 17-cent boxes that I ate, not her.

She lost her house on Capital Hill, then moved back home to get a college education, with a master’s degree at 60, finally. She’s now back in the D.C. suburbs teaching ESL to wicked smart Korean immigrants and everybody seems happy.

But it was with a definite rueful tone she told me about Hubert Horatio Humphrey’s funeral. To set it up I’ll borrow a beautiful paragraph filled with delicious hyperlinks from Wikipedia:

Humphrey ran for Majority Leader after the 1976 election but lost to Robert Byrd of West Virginia. The Senate honored Humphrey by creating the post of Deputy President pro tempore of the Senate for him. On August 16, 1977, Humphrey revealed his terminal cancer to the public. On October 25, 1977, he addressed the Senate, and on November 3, 1977, Humphrey became the first person other than a member or the president to address the House of Representatives in session. President Carter honored him by giving him command of Air Force One for his final trip to Washington on October 23. One of Humphrey's speeches contained the lines "It was once said that the moral test of Government is how that Government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped," which is sometimes described as the "liberals' mantra."

Humphrey lay in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, and after services, a small group retired to the office’s of Minority Leader Baker. The group included my mother and three U.S. Presidents, not in that order, not to mention Kissinger and a Rockefeller or two.

There were no photographers, but Senator Baker, who was an avid amateur, organized an historic group shot. Mother remembers Nixon using an off word-choice, saying Baker always was a “fanatic” about taking pictures. She was given a copy, which is stored away out of state, else I’d share it.

Mother said, “Betty Ford was there, with her coffee and donut. At one point, there was a commotion across the room, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Betty Ford had turned Richard Nixon around, and she was bending over, batting, furiously, at his backside. It turned out, Nixon had backed into a chalk board, and Betty was cleaning off his suit jacket.”

I nearly shouted, “Mother, do you have to have a spanking fetish to see what was going on? She had her chance and she wasn’t going to let it pass her by—after what he had put everybody through? So she gave him the spanking he deserved."

I can’t help but feel that the sorts of honors bestowed on Humphrey—he was awarded posthumously the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor on June 13, 1979 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980, have in our day and age been so grossly misapplied on the undeserving, that I am disabused of the idea of honoring a politician. However, I sure would like to spank a couple for pleasure.

And I see the arc of the last thirty years of my mother's life differently, not as a fall away from greatness, but toward something more real, as yet unrevealed, but looming, looming. What is about to be disclosed may be so catastrophic that it will put an end to the interminably great, the fat Rolodexed.

"Iniquity, committed in this world, produces not fruit immediately, but, like the earth, in due season, and advancing by little and little, it eradicates the man who committed it. ...justice, being destroyed, will destroy; being preserved, will preserve; it must never therefore be violated." Manu 1200 BC

On edit: Feb. 11, 2009

Well, this was a disappointment. Having found said images, how boring to see it's just about men in suits. What a lost opportunity, without the context! Anyway, I do look after my audience. And you do realize the spanker above is Jack Dempsey, don't you? Back when men were men and could spank other men in public!

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