Losing Mum and Pup

This is a memoir of William F. Buckley, Jr. and his wife Patricia Taylor Buckley, written by the Buckley’s only son, Christopher Buckley, an author. Back in the day, I enjoyed watching William F. Buckley host the conservative TV discussion program ‘Firing Line’. That is about all I knew about him, except that he was also involved in founding the conservative ‘National Review’ opinion blurb (which I never read).

If I recall correctly, early Firing Line episodes had a debate format pitting Buckley against the chump of the week. It was never clear to me who won these pedantic matches, my understanding being impaired because Buckley’s working vocabulary was way beyond mine, and mine was pretty good. But I enjoyed the overall civility of the show, which often pitted opposite viewpoints. (A limited selection of Firing Line episodes are available on DVD through Amazon; others are available on DVD directly from Stanford’s Hoover Institution, which maintains the archive.)

Debby knew I admired Buckley (she suggests he and I may share some pedantic tendencies); when she saw this book written by his son, Christopher, she bought it for me. This is my second death book of the summer. The first was an essay on the abstract subject of death. The current book simply deals with the personal observations of loss and conflicting feelings that accompany the deaths of one’s parents at an advanced age.

The story is told as a series of remembrances of his parents, enmeshed with the details of the period leading up to their deaths and the subsequent burden of public ceremonies that accompany the demise of notable people. The remembrances are what made the book special for me. The author makes no pretense at profundity (and with only a single reference to Montaigne, his serious death writer chops are further suspect). But to his credit, it seems an honest enough accounting, unvarnished and heart-felt.

My only quibble with the writing is my sense that younger Buckley is not much in the humor department; sometimes his humorous asides sound a smarmy, schoolboyish note to me. (Where’s a good editor when one needs one?) Yet, when he is not trying to grab a laugh, he tells of his parents’ exploits with such grace and insight that we read with a constant chuckle. Good humor indirectly imbues most of the book.

The Buckleys come from privilege, which makes them somewhat inaccessible, and perhaps consequently of lesser interest and relevance to the rest of us. But in our end games, privilege is usually retracted and we all must deal with events on a largely equally messy footing, hopefully at home with family assistance and whatever hired help can be afforded. On this basis, the story here should have wide recognition and appeal.

The author’s mother died first and the book begins with her death. She appears to have aspired to be exactly what she was, the lady of the house and a social force to be reckoned with. She had no need of a college degree (Vassar dropout), and no need of facts (she only read fiction). Yet, with her gone, her husband (and later her son) was at a loss to plan the ceremonies and celebrations that such notable deaths would entail. The watchword for these times was ‘What would Mum have done?’ And what they pulled off would have made her proud.

An unsuspected facet of Buckley’s persona is revealed, his essential impetuousness and recklessness. His younger sister aptly observed that rules did not apply to him, as might be expected for someone of his character coming from privilege. An account of his solo flying at night across unfamiliar territory with virtually no flight training sets him apart as a free spirit. Similar virtuosity in crossing Long Island Sound in his small sailboat into a gale further engraves this facet of his character. Sailing was one of his great loves, and he covered a large portion of the globe in that mode, the author along for much of the ride.

Perhaps most inveterate rule breakers also suffer from impatience and control issues as did Buckley. Self-diagnosis and self-medication were symptoms, along with TV remote control behavior that would be maddening to anyone else in the room. These behaviors perhaps become more sharply edged at the end, as one fights total loss of control of one’s life. These moments are some of the most poignant and relatable.

Prominently on display in the book is Buckley’s staunch Catholicism. Buckley was that inexplicable mix, a highly rational being of unshakeable religious faith. His son verges on nonbeliever status; as such, his struggle with understanding his father’s faith touches all of us who stand outside the faithful circle and wonder why? It is suggested that Buckley eschewed earthly rules, but was really in need of some rules. So he accepted the ecclesiastical ones of his parents’ Catholicism, these being sufficiently distant to not cramp his style. Yet the author points out that as his father got closer to having to reckon with the ecclesiastical rules, he even tried to get around them, performing lawyerly due diligence looking for loopholes that might allow him to be joined by non-Christian friends in the afterlife, and also searching for a loophole that might let him end his own life before it became intolerable.

As a visual statement of his faith, Buckley bought a large bronze garden decoration in the form of a crucifix, in which he wanted both his and his wife’s ashes to be interred. The struggle to comply somewhat with this wish is one small motif of the book.

In the end, one gets the impression that these noteworthy lives were well-lived. And their luck extended to a son with the maturity, insight, and love to properly tell their stories. They and we are well served by this book.

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