Monday, September 14, 2015

One Gun at a Time

All along the sidewalk on that bright California morning armed men were gathering. They carried pistols and rifles and shotguns. I don’t mind telling you they made me nervous. Some of them looked like they were just stopping to chat with friends on their way to knocking off a convenience store. I imagined I saw Charlie Manson.

There were police on the grassy lawn between the sidewalk and a government building. They were there to keep an eye on the crowd, but they were also there as buyers. The East Palo Alto Police Department was buying guns for a hundred bucks each, no questions asked, and from all over sellers were lining up.

I was there with my sweet little Smith & Wesson twenty gauge. In its case. Trigger lock in place. Barrel oiled from the last loving cleaning I’d given it years ago. I hadn’t shot it for more than a decade, but still I hated to give it up. My oldest son and I had shot doves and skeet with it. Now he wanted to give it to his son, who had become an avid skeet shooter too.

The line was long and slow, and I felt too restless to say in it. In part because all those guns on a city sidewalk made me nervous, and in part because I hated to let the gun go. I hated to disappoint my son and grandson. I figured if I stayed too long, I might change my mind, so I found a policeman who was monitoring the line and told him I had to go and asked him to please turn in the gun. I told him to donate the hundred dollars to the police auxiliary.

That was three years ago. In the last few months my grandson, who is sixteen, and I have been having an animated discussion about gun control. I didn’t know it until now, but he has become an avid gun rights advocate. I sent him the famous studies done at Harvard by David Hemenway and he sent me studies he had that pretty much said the opposite. Apparently there are enough facts to go around to satisfy every point of view.

The Supreme Court has ruled that we have an individual right to be armed. Never mind if your community suffers with horrific gun violence and you and your fellow local citizens say enough is enough, we’re going to do something to get guns off the streets. The Court will not, in my opinion, stick to its current position. Over time, as it has so many times in the past, it will catch up with the cultural norms in the country and permit some kind of local rule on gun control. That may not happen for a while, though. Racial segregation was approved by the Court in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and was the law of the land until it reversed course in Brown v. Board in 1954.

About a third of Americans own guns. Who knows what kinds of guns, or why, but I suspect that many are in the hands of people who use them rarely. It seems funny that our laws so strongly support a right that seems important to so few but harms so many. As I say, ultimately the law will catch up with the culture. America isn’t the Wild West anymore.

Martin Luther King advocated, indeed demanded, non-violent protest against racial discrimination. There were risks to that approach. It got him killed. But it worked. There may be risks to disarming, but I don’t think so. The police protect us. All the studies show that as a practical matter personal weapons are remarkably ineffective for self-defense. You are not more likely to be killed by a gun if you are not armed. Just the opposite, when you take into account accidental death and suicide.

My sensitivity to guns is like an allergy: I was exposed for a long time with no bad reaction, then one day I began breaking out in hives. Maybe its myself I fear, the me of my killing days, the me in others. As much as I love my son, as much as I enjoyed our days in the field together, I couldnt bring myself to send him my gun. There are too many guns, doing too much damage. I can't get rid of them all, but I got rid of one.

Monday, September 7, 2015

216 Avery Street

Meg was at the Decatur (Georgia) Book Festival this weekend. I started looking at Google Maps while we were talking and told her she was only a couple of blocks from 216 Avery Street, the house where my mother grew up. Oh look, I said, there’s Winona Park school. That’s where she went to elementary school. How do you remember that? Meg said. I didn’t. I saw the name on the map and the memory shimmered back into focus. Not just that she went there, but that it was up the hill from her house and when she came home each day, her father, a history professor at Agnes Scott college, just around the next block, was there, usually on his way to play tennis with one of his pals. 

Mom’s father, the historian, lived to be almost one hundred. He wrote a history of our family that is engagingly packed with births and deaths and life passages. I know, for instance, that I am a distant relative of Colonel John Page of Colonial Virginia and of Judge Alfred Foot of New York and his wife, Jane Campbell Foot, for whom my mother’s mother was named. I have silver spoons and whatnot from generations of Foots and Pages and Davidsons.

But I don’t know why my mother, who died almost exactly seven years ago, at age eighty-four, was the way she was. Some things about her don’t need explaining: her kindness, her wisdom, her gentle spirit. But as to others, I just ask myself, man, oh, man, how did she get that way? The trouble is: I didn’t ask her. 

I know so little about what happened when mom got home from those days at Winona Park school. Did her father sit on the porch steps with her and ask about her day before he went off for tennis? Did her mother have a snack waiting for her? I know she played piano beautifully and that when her piano teacher said she was good enough to play in concerts she stopped playing rather than go on stage. Was that the first sign of the anxiety that would plague her all her life? Did her parents know? Did they understand how bad it was, or was it a secret she kept? Did she tell them she was just tired of piano?

Her father moved from Agnes Scott to Vanderbilt University and Mom met my father there. He was charming and mercurial. Maybe bi-polar, I now think. Or perhaps he had narcissistic personality disorder. That’s popular now. All I know is that by the time I was paying attention, he was alternating between acts of extravagant generosity and marathon scoldings. Mom was in the background. Like a frightened villager at the foot of a smoldering, belching volcano. That’s the way I remember her in those days: in the background. Later I came to understand that she was being driven underground to an emotionally subterranean place where she could survive.

And survive she did. My father died at fifty and she lived another thirty-four years without him. Alone. But maybe that was better for her than being with him. Gradually she came back to herself. At the end, she was the mother I remember from my early childhood. Sweet and kind. Still anxious, but not truly afraid.

When you’re a kid, everything is about you. Your parents are something to be dealt with, not understood. When you’re an adult, especially near the end of an aging parent’s life, everything is about them. Day-to-day, that comes down to what you need to do to help them. Which is just another version of everything is about you, I suppose.

I did a lot for Mom near the end of her life. For ten or fifteen years, I was the parent and she was the child. You know how it is with children: you want to understand them, but most of your time is taken up keeping them safe and making sure they eat right. You try to amuse them too. That’s they way it is with aging parents. I kept Mom safe, made sure she had good care when she needed it, and tried to amuse her. I tried hard, but to this day I don’t think I did enough for her. Not a day goes by when I don’t wish I had done more.

And now I’m beginning to realize I have yet another regret. I wish I had tried harder to understand her. Not who she was. I could see that. I could see what needed treating. But why she was that way. Were her parents emotionally aloof to that little girl who went to Winona Park school? Did she never feel good enough for them? I could see my father’s rages, but what did they mean for her? When did they start? Did she, like a battered wife, feel they were her fault?

Some families may tell those stories. The whys, not just the whats. They’re hard, though. Hard to ask. Hard to tell. We fill in the blanks as we need to. In real-time, we do more coping than understanding. But later, after someone is gone, the longing to understand begins. Without the press of everyday events, there is time and space. And there is guilt. Guilt is a great catalyst for the desire to understand. Maybe in the hope that you’ll discover that it wasn’t your fault. That you couldn’t have done more. That nothing you could have done would have made a difference.

I wrote a novel that fictionalizes some of my life. Mom is in there. In the novel I explain her. I fill in the blanks. Now, years after her death, and a year or so after that novel, I have trouble remembering what was true and what I made up. Maybe I didn’t make it up. Maybe it was in there on some subconscious level, waiting for me to reach some place of peace and release that would permit it to show itself. 

I was at dinner with a friend last night who is making arrangements for the last year or so of his mother’s life. He’s a good son. She has been living nearby and he’s been good to her. Now he is considering having her move to be near his sister in another state, where care is much cheaper. He feels conflicted, ambivalent and, already, guilty. He wants what’s best for her, but he can’t help wondering if he doesn’t also long for release from day-to-day responsibility for her. I told him we all go through that. I told him he’s a good man. I told him that whatever he does he’s going to feel guilty about it. When she dies, he’ll wish he’d done more. No matter how much he does, he’ll wish he’d done more.

I’m going to see him this afternoon. We’e going to the driving range to hit some golf balls, something I used to love to do with my father. I’m going to tell him the other thing I’ve realized: when his mom is gone, not only is he going to wish he’d done more for her, he’s going to wish he’d asked her more about herself, about the person who was inside the woman he knew as his mother. 

Maybe there’s still time for him to avoid that second regret. I don’t think so, though. Our parents’ lives are only truly mysteries after it’s too late to ask.