Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Amid A Crowd Of Stars

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

With my mother at Easter
W.B. Yeats’ “When You Are Old” appears in A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry, published in 1952 by Charles Scribner’s Sons. My copy has an inscription on the endpaper: “To Harvey on Christmas 1955 with deepest affection from Louis.” Harvey Taylor was my father, Louis Cook my godfather. Handsome Detroit newspapermen, for years they competed for the affections of my lovely newspaperwoman mother, Jean.

I was 14 months old that Christmas. Louis’s inscription expresses magnanimity in defeat. Still, he had probably guessed that alcoholism would destroy my parents’ marriage. Louis told me years later that he’d driven my father to more than one AA meeting. Six-foot-five in his stocking feet, gentle and strong, winner of the Bronze Star in World War II, Louis was biding his time.

In November, my mother moved to Yorba Linda, leaving behind the Pasadena house she bought half a lifetime ago when she got a job editing the old “View” section of the Los Angeles Times. A few years later, she became associate editor and one of the nation’s top female journalists. Kathy and I have been cleaning out her house, the work of many middle-aged children. There isn’t much left. Needing homes are the wrought-iron coffee table she loved and a long, Ponderosa-style dining room table and chairs she had made for the dinner parties she loved to throw.

All I really care about are the things she wrote. A commencement address she delivered at Mount St. Mary’s College. An article entitled “What Is An Episcopalian?”, which she wrote for the Detroit Free Press in 1961, when our General Convention was called in Motown. Her elegiac features about the 1965 murder of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo. Diary entries, including one on the date of my birth saying I weighed eight pounds, and it hadn’t gone easily. About a year ago, her advancing dementia robbed her of the pleasure of reading these aloud to visitors.

And then there are the letters. Especially Louis’s.

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

My mother wouldn’t marry Louis, which I always wanted her to do, since he was my father for all intents and purposes. She never really explained why, and now, she can’t. Her eyes sometimes glimmer when I mention him or my father. She doesn’t remember her devoted second husband, Richard Lescoe, at all.

The surpassing gift is that she saved about twenty of Louis’s love letters. They’re all written on old-fashioned newspaper copy paper. He never dated them. He wrote one, addressed “Dearest,” during his first visit to New York City, where it appears he was attending the famed Al Smith politicians’ dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria as a member of a Free Press delegation. It must’ve been about 1966, when he and Jean were in their forties.

“I have at last found the milieu for which I was born,” he wrote. “Nowhere in Manhattan can be found a gayer, more suave, more sophisticated man of the world than I. Especially since I stumbled out of a bar taking with me somebody’s Kuppenheimer overcoat. Unfortunately my victim’s gloves don’t fit me but they are Sak’s gray suede and I cut quite a figure dangling them carelessly in my left hand as I saunter down Park Ave.”

My mother loved John F. Kennedy, and at the black tie dinner at the Waldorf, lifelong labor organizer Louis encountered JFK’s nemesis and my future boss. He wrote, “I hesitate to mention this, darling, but Nixon is a fairly engaging character at close range.” Later, my mother managed to convince herself, but not me, that she had voted for Nixon, which made it easier to accept that her son was helping write his books. Her willfulness and my immature frustration made our relationship difficult. The dementia has taken all that away, too. I don’t think she’s ever been happier, nor have we ever been so close. And that is Easter.

And bending down beside the glowing bars
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

This post appeared originally in the Vaya Con Dios, the newsletter of St. John Chrysostom Episcopal Church.