The act of grieving our parents is anything but orderly and predictable. It is not something that lays itself out in neat first, second and third acts, like a bad made-for-television movie. And why should it? We have a lifetime of wide-ranging experiences with our parents; there is as much to go on celebrating as there is to cling to in resentment. In 2016–17, I lost both my father and mother. They were hardly cut down in their prime; both were in their mid-nineties. Of the two, I was closer, as time went on, to my father. He was a remarkable example for my brother Barry and me in so many ways. Because he enjoyed excellent health, quite literally until his last day on earth, he was far luckier than my mother, who was forced to move into assisted living in early 2005. She lived for eleven more years, in an increasingly chilling state of dementia, one that was disturbing for everyone around her, and cruelly bewildering for her. My father had what always seemed to me to be an imperturbable sense of well-being, one I draw daily inspiration from as the challenges of my own life have intensified in recent years. Jack Kellow was one of the funniest men I have ever known. His wit and humor were never paraded self-consciously; they sprang forth with natural ease. Although he was very much an authority figure, his sense of fun almost made him seem at times like the third Kellow boy; some of my happiest memories of the past decade are of the evenings that he and Barry and I would spend together, just the three of us, making a big dinner, and laughing our heads off.
My father grew up an only child, completely secure in the love that his parents had for him—happy with his lot as a farm boy in South Tillamook County, Oregon. As our longtime family friend Jean Bailey quite aptly observed at Dad’s memorial service in June 2017, he never aspired to be anything more than what he was. My mother, on the other hand, never seemed quite fully to recognize the strong, witty and accomplished person that she was. As a child, she had suffered grinding poverty, and it had left a permanent, crippling mark on her. She suffered from a steady level of anxiety, and unfortunately, that anxiety announced itself to the rest of us a good deal of the time. The difficulties of her own background also rendered her, in my view, something of an enigma. Much of the time, I felt I couldn’t reach her. This a memory that fills me with a gnawing sadness to this day. As a child, I already lusted to be a writer, specifically the kind of writer who lived in New York. Living as we did in Beaver, Oregon, this must have struck my mother, who had learned early on to give up thinking about her heart’s desire, as the most impossible of dreams. The evergeen gift that Mom gave me was to expose me to the world of
music and literature. She did this in a remarkably sophisticated way, and she took some trouble doing it. For that, I owe her an incalculable debt. I craved, even demanded, a lot of approval, and It was hard for Mom to give approval; it was as if she felt that to do so was to tempt the fates. Dad didn’t exactly hand out the compliments like Hershey’s Kisses, either; the crucial difference in the two of them was that Mom constantly worried that life was going to collapse around the heads of her children, and Dad saw no reason to court trouble. This contrast made them a fascinating, and often baffling, couple. Our good friend and next-door neighbor Betty Nicklaus asked me not long ago, “How on earth did those two people get together?” In childhood, my brother and I asked ourselves that same question constantly. And yet, I never doubted that they loved each other.
Part of the fun of growing up with Jack and Marj Kellow was to experience their steady stream of bickering. It was truly hilarious at times, and there were times when I wanted to see if, somewhere in our house, a curtain or a closet door concealed a live studio audience.
Once, when I was in Oregon on a visit from New York, my parents were squabbling over a local bond issue to raise money to build a new Tillamook County prison. My father was against it; my mother was for it. I had heard them debate the matter, with varying degrees of intensity, during our Saturday afternoon phone calls. By this time, Oregon had adopted mail-in ballots, and when I arrived in Oregon, shortly before the matter was put up to public vote, Dad couldn’t find his ballot. He accused Mom of hiding it. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, with her customary sharpness. “It’s not my fault that you lost it.”
“I know you hid it,” Dad said. And I knew in an instant that he was right.
When I got Mom alone for a minute, I said, “You did hide the ballot, didn’t you?”
Without looking me in the eye, she said, “It’s so typical of you to take his part. He misplaced it, that’s all. If voting against the new jail was so damned important to him, he should have made sure he didn’t lose track of where his ballot was.” “I know you’re lying,” I said—at which point, she couldn’t keep up the masquerade any longer, and burst forth with a ripple of the most magnificently malicious laughter.
“DO you realize what you’ve done is a felony?” I asked.
“Are you going to call the police?” she said.
Not that Dad didn’t give as good as he got. Once, on a lovely summer Saturday, Jean Brunk, an English instructor of mine from Oregon State University had stopped by the house so that I could drive her to a doctor’s appointment in Portland. Jean noticed a story on Richard M. Nixon in the day’s edition of The Oregonian, which was lying on the breakfast table. As I recall, the news hook was Nixon’s recently published memoir.
Jean was a gentle, even timid soul. “Oh, that horrible man,” she said quietly, as she surveyed the article from a distance, as if it were too toxic to pick up.
My father knew an opening when he saw one:
“And your mother voted for him twice,” he said, looking at me. Dad had supported Eugene McCarthy in 1968.
It was true. My mother eventually registered as an Independent voter, and mostly allied herself with the Democratic Party. But in both 1968 and 1972, she had—albeit tepidly—supported Nixon. Even back then, she was conflicted about this choice, and when my father brought it all out in the open again, she immediately rose to the bait.
“Well, Jack, the only reason I voted for him the second time was because I thought he might do something to get us out of that damned war that we had no business being in in the first place!”
My father didn’t look at her. He kept looking at me, as he tapped my arm with his forefinger. “Not once,” he said, smiling malevolently. “Twice.”
“DAMMIT ALL ANYWAY, JACK! I’M SICK AND TIRED OF YOU BRINGING THIS UP! I GUESS YOU’VE NEVER MADE A MISTAKE IN YOUR LIFE, HAVE YOU? HAVE YOU?” Jean, who never raised her voice to her husband Dan, turned pale, and began shooting me it’s-time-to-go looks across the table.
Even if I didn’t fully understand the dynamic of my parents’ relationship, it was their dynamic. And when it was no longer there, I found myself missing it a lot. I was talking with my good friend Justin Moss about this one day, and he asked me if I had ever read the 2009 memoir Losing Mum and Pup, by Christopher Buckley. I hadn’t.
“You should,” said Justin. “It’s a wonderful book.” A week or so later, a copy arrived in the mail from Amazon, courtesy of Justin. I read it on the spot, and savored every chapter so much that I was conscious of pumping the brakes mentally to keep the book from ending. Losing Mum and Pup is one of the finest memoirs I’ve read in a lifetime of addictive memoir-reading.
Christopher Buckley is the only child of the prolific author and conservative pundit William F. Buckley, and socialite, hostess, and champion fund-raiser Patricia Taylor Buckley. (In his eulogy to her, Schuyler Chapin said, “She didn’t enter a room, she took possession of it.”) The senior Buckleys were a fascinating couple with a deep bond of mutual eccentricities. According to her son, Patricia Buckley was a gifted creative liar whose web-spinning served only to endear her even further to her husband. William F. Buckley’s unconventional talents included sailing through violent storms with a jaw-dropping degree of recklessness and piloting private planes with equal recklessness. In one of the book’s most memorable, laugh-out-loud passages, Christopher describes his father navigating his way back to New Haven from Boston by flying one hundred feet above the train tracks! “This somewhat basic mode of navigation begins to fail him,” writes Christopher Buckley, “when it turns pitch black. The situation now seriously deteriorating, he makes out—thank God—the beacon of the New London airport. He manages to set the plane down there. He then hitchhikes back to New Haven and goes straight to the Fence Club bar to steady his nerves and share his exploits. Next day, his flight instructor, upon learning of the episode, goes completely ballistic.” Christopher Buckley reveals an overwhelming sense of loss even as he tries to make sense of his parents’ often baffling connection with one another. Although our backgrounds could not have been more different, reading Losing Mum and Pup made me feel a certain kinship with Christopher Buckley. So, a few months ago, I got in touch with him via his website. He could not have been more cordial during our brief telephone conversation.
“I”m so sorry about your folks,” he began. Right away, I wanted to know if he felt his memoir might have been significantly different had he waited longer to write it. As soon as it was out of my mouth, I realized this is the kind of frustrating question that is very difficult to answer. But Mr. Buckley made an excellent stab at it. “One of the reviewers who reviewed my book was Alexander Waugh, grandson of Evelyn Waugh and son of Oberon Waugh. He wrote a marvelous book himself called Fathers and Sons, about the Waugh family. He reviewed my book pretty favorably in The American Conservative, I think it was. He said something that I think is a little bit like what you’re driving at—with the passage of time, I might write a different book about them. That makes sense to me. It’s been now nine years since my Dad passed away. You go on thinking about them every day, and thoughts ripen and mature. If I were to sit down and write a memoir about them now, I imagine it would have a slightly different tone. I hasten to add, I have no intention of going back to it. Some children of famous parents sort of go on writing memoirs about dear old Mom and Dad. That’s not my plan. It was an accidental book. I never planned to write it until the morning I sat down and started to write it. What I say in there somewhere is I think is the truth—you can throw fancy words around, like ‘catharsis “ and what have you. There is something to that. But I think it was a way of holding onto the moment a little bit longer, spending a little bit more time, as it were, in their company. But that process goes on forever. Our parents will be with us until our last hours. It doesn’t mean that you have to write seven memoirs about them!”
I wanted to know more about growing up in the shadow of two such celebrated and accomplished parents. I had seen the damage done to certain friends of mine who had turned out to be far less gifted and successful than their gifted and successful mothers and fathers. I judged that Christopher Buckley had avoided that trap by becoming such a witty and distinctive author himself. “There are hardships and there are hardships,” he said, “and being the children of famous parents is a pretty minor hardship, especially when you look at all the misery out there. It can be a challenge. I was reading a marvelous biography of Winston Churchill in which the odious son Randolph appears again each time more contemptibly. But I was saddened to see that it did not go well for a number of his other children. Two ended up as suicides. I think one ended up in either Miami or in L.A., arrested for drunk and disorderly. I’m not going to write this book, but it might make an interesting book of the progeny of prominent people. My guess is that the majority of them probably did not have easy lives. Again, this is different from gnashing my teeth and rending my garments and crying, ‘Woe is me!’ But a number of the less generous reviews of my book accused me of exactly that. I think the book itself is a refutation of that charge. It’s not Daddy Dearest. The thing that was going on at the time was that I had apparently betrayed my father and the conservative movement by preferring Barack Obama over Senator McCain and Governor Palin. I became the turd in the conservative punch bowl. I think some people may have been grinding that particular axe and took it out on the book. Looking back on it, Brian, in a way, it’s kind of liberating. It’s a truism, but time really does wound all heals. Meaning: who gives a shit? The older I get, the less I care about all that.”
This is my first Thanksgiving without my father. I could think of no better way to mark that rite of passage than to ignore the Macy’s Parade and to take Losing Mum and Pup off the shelf and re-read all my favorite parts—which is what I just did.