For His Stepmother

No tortoise grows wise by not thinkin’ nuthin’.  Male or female the tortoise who would be wise learns sumthin’ ’bout history, geography, biology and algebra.  Well, I was a nerd in that way — though I still enjoy Art Garfunkel’s “It’s a Wonderful World.”  I dearly enjoyed school, even Mr. Vernon who made us memorize a whole page of key dates in history.  I recall 1453 which marked the fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire and in 1066 the Normans came to England. The Brits blew the Spanish armada out of the water in 1588 and the Big Revolution, the French one,  started in 1789, the year the US Constitution was written.  The date for Hammurabi’s Law slips me. Events and dates have always been handy as guideposts for placing the right event in the right century at least.  A man must keep his historical bearings. Since the Emancipation Proclamation happened in 1863, I know that the Founding Fathers did not fight to free the slaves.  These picky things matter and serve as insurance against foot in mouth disease.

On the other hand, one man’s wisdom can be another’s folly.  Proof of wisdom lies in argument, universality and the test of time.  Just because a man lives four decades, it doesn’t make him wise.  Tortoises that old just look wise, but they sure have seen a lot.

My stepmother saw a lot.  She road in a horse and buggy next to  her father, the judge, and she saw the moon shot.  She was privileged to have steamed abroad on both the Queen Mary and the Elizabeth. And she finally boarded an airplane.  Despite the two generations that separated me from this Victorian personage, she was wise in many ways.  At a crisis in my life, she advised, “Trim your wicks, add to your talents and get going.”

I got her letter in 1968 and resented it.  At that point I felt I had been doing just that, trying to find my way.  There she was speaking to me from the distance of two generations. Her good values were Victorian: earnestness, duty, will,  reputation and the Puritan ethic. I appreciate all of them now.  Later on, I became a student of the Victorian man of letters Matthew Arnold (“Dover Beach” and “Culture and Anarchy”).  She believed people should stay married, regardless of their misery and regardless of their destiny. It’s not nice to fool with destiny, she would have said. She was not a churchgoer except in Florida where she loved the Sunday ritual of breakfast out, New York Times thrown on the backseat and the glistening Sarasota Bay as she drove the causeway — truly a picturesque place to pray and praise.  Why this rock-ribbed Republican loved the NYT, I could never quite understand.  Robert Taft, the GOP, Standard Oil and GM could absolutely do no wrong.

In her estimation I was a dilly-dallier, especially as a professional student.  She didn’t know that I knew and appreciated the sacrifice of her generation, especially my father’s.  They made the human potential movement possible.  They created the world depicted in “The Graduate.”  I totally identified with Benjamin Braddock. As a Pre-Boomer I never had to worry about a material thing.  Vocationally speaking, I was a shopper.  I don’t know why we see twenty-somethings as strange these days — except for the abysmal economy they endure.  The ritual is ancient.  Whether prescribed by elders or self-inflicted by the young, we (or at least many of us) must go through it.  Searchers are a type. If we don’t do it when we’re twenty-something, we’re likely to do it when we’re forty something or maybe at both times — or more.  The red convertible has many guises and sneaks into the driveway unannounced. I’ve got to hand it to the Victorians.  They knew how to control their libido — or did they just express it in imperialism.  See Freud.

But she was right  in a sense.  What if a man’s destiny is to dilly-dally for God only knows what reason.  Perhaps, like Ulysses, some can only see their “career” through a rear view mirror when they return into Penelope’s arms and look back to see where they have been.  Well, Mom, there was a pattern. There were themes. I slayed a beast or two — nothing big, mind you.  I can see them now. I hope you’re somewhere where you can, too.  I’d like that.

Keep on truckin’,

The Tortoise

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