On October 8, 2011, I set aside my usual cares and attended my aunt and uncle’s 60th wedding anniversary celebration in Falls Church, Virginia, near Washington, D.C. It is difficult to imagine a couple enduring six decades together, but they somehow achieved this monumental feat. I stand in awe of them.
When Loren and Polly Mead were married in August 1951, President Truman still occupied the White House and the Korean War was raging on a far-off peninsula. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to die for reputedly engaging in atomic espionage. The quintessential coming-of-age novel, “The Catcher in the Rye,” was published that year. A young Marlon Brando appeared in the film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire although he lost the Best Actor Oscar to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen.
The world is a markedly different place than it was in those days. Loren and Polly are markedly different people. And yet somehow, through it all, they have retained their love and respect for each other. Watching them together after all those years of marriage caused me to stop and reflect on my own life. I can scarcely imagine sustaining anything, much less a relationship with another person, for six decades.
Loren and Polly have always been an integral part of my life. I cannot recall a time when they did not fill my thoughts. I remember as a young child seeing my mother scamper around the house preparing for a visit from the Meads. Once she even paid to have the gutters cleaned and the mildew removed from the exterior siding on our house. As a single parent struggling to make ends meet, my mom did not often engage in frivolity when it came to spending money, but appearances had to be kept up and a façade of decorum was required. Alas, on one occasion, she burned up our front lawn when she tried to roast the weeds in the ditch in front of the house and lost control of the fire. No doubt Polly and Loren were impressed at the sight of a blackened, charred lawn (not to mention the lack of running water because mom burned through the polybutylene pipe that connected our house with the county water system). We could never quite emulate the highfalutin ways of our citified relations.
Despite our frantic behind-the-scenes efforts to gussy up beforehand, it was an exciting, fun-filled day when the Mean clan visited our house in Florence, South Carolina. Rich food, funny stories, and a good time were sure to accompany them. Those were red-letter days, some of the best of my young life.
My mother, Laura, was Polly’s younger sister by more than eight years. Laura suffered a debilitating stroke in December 2003 and died of lung cancer in February 2007. I have written a 500-page manuscript about her tribulations, which I mentioned in a previous posting. I will return to Laura’s story in subsequent blogs. For now, I mention Laura because she always looked up to her older sister, Polly, which meant that I, too, shared that almost-fawning perspective.
Each Christmas holiday for many years as I was growing up, mom and I drove to Washington, D.C. to visit with Loren, Polly, their children, and extended family and friends. It was the highlight of the year for me. I enjoyed interacting with relatives and friends, exchanging presents, and learning about how the world works.
The Meads invariably hosted a dinner party where men donned suits and ties, and women sported elegant dresses. They discussed all manner of political and cultural topics that were alien to me. I was a country boy; just forcing me to wear shoes was no small feat.
At the Mead parties, I learned how to conduct myself: don’t pick your nose; don’t spit and swear, at least not at the same time; stand up straight; fold your napkin in your lap; don’t put your elbows on the table; don’t drink the finger bowl; say “yes, ma’am” and “yes, sir.” Act as though you are interested in the subject matter even when some quasi-drunken bore holds court about his plan to save the U.S. financial system through a series of absurd, impractical measures that would never pass constitutional muster.
Manners, I learned, are a form of polite duplicity. Southerners, especially southern matriarchs, are skilled practitioners of this ancient art.
Our family is populated with matriarchs like dandelions sprouting in an abandoned field. Polly is the matriarch of matriarchs in our family, the undisputed head of the clan.
The southern matriarch is a thing of fierce pride and stubborn determination. Always graceful, charming, and sophisticated on the surface, just below this thin veneer of gentility lurks a crouching tiger, poised to pounce on unsuspecting prey. To an onlooker who catches an occasional glimpse of the face behind the mask, the sight is frightening to behold. The roughest street brawler could not hold his own in a contest of verbal gymnastics and slithering innuendo with a southern matriarch. He has no concept of blood sport until he has encountered a matriarch riled up and set to rehabilitate the family honor. To matriarchs — especially those of the southern variety — nothing trumps honor, a good name, or an appearance of cool insouciance.
Floating above the fray of life’s muck and ennui on a cloud of smiles and pleasantries, the matriarch never loses her composure under pressure, for what is grace if not a virtue exhibited in times of crisis? She will not be brought low by the sordid circumstances of everyday life — overdue bills, disobedient children, capricious bosses, incessant worries about body fat and damaged hair follicles — for those things can be managed or ignored altogether. Self-improvement can cure most ills, and self-deception can handle the overflow. Thus, the southern matriarch dresses for success, orders the maid to iron the good linen napkins, directs the contractors to finish up construction on the outdoor fish pond, and still hosts a tea party for 35 of her closest friends that afternoon.
Oh, those long-ago parties were momentous events. We have always been a family fascinated by language; the Mead gatherings were wonderful occasions for observing older relatives’ ability to use words as swords and shields. My older cousins knew how to thrust and parry. They exchanged puns. They engaged in easy, witty banter. They recounted stories with such vivid imagery that I could close my eyes and see the characters as they engaged in all manner of silliness. Their foibles came alive. Opening my eyes, I watched my older cousins engage in verbal repartee that impressed a shy child to no end. I remember thinking, “I wish I could talk like that. I wish people would hang on my every word when I stood before a crowd.”
The Mead children were older than I, but even accounting for that difference, they seemed special. They carried themselves with such confidence and poise that I found it difficult to imagine we came from the same family. They excelled at academically prestigious prep schools and, later, Ivy League colleges while I struggled to get by in the South Carolina public schools. They seemed to glide through life, floating above the fray. As for me, I was enveloped in the thick, deep muck of the fray. My name was “fray.” I was a portly kid, short of stature, and crushingly, painfully, unbearably shy. I never in my life glided over anything. I either charged through or I was stuck in the thick of it.
Somehow over the years, as I grew up watching Loren, Polly, and their offspring, it dawned on me that although I could never be as effortlessly confident, gracious or polished as they, I could fake it. Success sometimes is about a person’s attitude toward the world. If I succumbed to my natural shyness, I disappeared in a room full of people. I became the non-entity I was sure I was. Rather than wallow in my shyness, though, I could act the opposite. Perhaps the secret is not in acting on one’s feelings, but in developing a persona to mask the shyness.
Ah, ha. As with manners, an outgoing personality could be anchored in masked duplicity. If I could disguise my desire to scratch all parts of my body as I moved through social settings, why not apply the lessons of the matriarch to other areas of my life?
Thus are insights born and their lessons applied to a human life.
I recall attending a Mead party around the time I turned 15 years old. I had been practicing my skills and was ready to announce to one and all that I, too, could engage in witty banner. I might be a shy boy, but I was ready to remake myself as a public persona every bit the equal of my eloquent relatives.
The party commenced and I circulated, seeking an opportunity to strut my stuff.
As I surreptitiously poured my wine onto a houseplant, a woman I had not spoken to in some years approached me and said, “Michael, I have not seen you in forever. Why is it that you seem to get shorter every time I see you?”
To this day, I do not know the purpose of the comment. Was the woman being deliberately spiteful or was the remark innocuous but inelegantly expressed? In any case, whatever the intent, it is dangerous to utter ambiguous comments to an adolescent smartass awaiting a chance to demonstrate his verbal jousting skills.
Noticing the woman had gained weight since our previous encounter, I nodded. “Better shorter than wider,” I said.
Zing! I had done it! I had engaged in verbal swordplay with an opponent and bested the field. The prey had turned and attacked the predator. My nemesis was dazed and slack-jawed, genuinely at a loss for words. I was the Rocky of the witty retort!
What I did not realize, however, was that what passes for wit when articulated by an adult is viewed as unconscionable rudeness when uttered by a pimply-faced teenager. Welcome to the confusing world of “context.”
Standing nearby, my mother overheard my remark. With a physical dexterity I did not know she possessed, she reached around the drunken houseplant, latched onto my earlobe, and twisted. I howled: Ah-ooh — werewolves of London!
My triumph quickly became tragedy as I was forced to apologize to the woman in front of the party guests. So much for my opening salvo in the war of words.
Despite this public humiliation, privately I was pleased to know that I had conquered my excruciating shyness — not by overcoming it, which has never happened, but by ignoring it. Even now, every time I stand before an audience, I am petrified. What if today is the day when the world recognizes what a complete and utter fool I am? How long can I keep up the act before someone peeks around the curtain and discovers, like the Wizard of Oz, the fraud that lies beneath?
Throughout the years, the Meads have taught me that success and longevity require us to set aside our fears and step up to meet the challenges of life. The race is long and requires no small measure of intestinal fortitude, or gumption. This knowledge stiffens my spine in times of crisis. If nothing else, Loren and Polly have showed me the benefits of eschewing my natural cowardice.
It is a lesson I have never quite learned, yet never quite forgotten. To paraphrase James Dickey, it is a lesson that walks inside me like a king.
Gumption has sustained me through many a dark night. I may not possess the Meads’ gumption, but I hold my own.
On so, on their special night, October 8, I watched Polly and Loren’s faces to see if I could discover the secret of their success from mere observation. Unfortunately, whatever magic they possess eludes me. When I gaze at my own face in the mirror, I am reminded of lines from a Bruce Springsteen song: “When I look at myself I don’t see/The man I wanted to be/Somewhere along the line I slipped off track/One step up and two steps back.”
Perhaps one day I will be that man I want to be. Perhaps I will live up to the high standards that Loren and Polly have set. Who knows? Like most people, my life is a work in progress.