Life is a scavenger hunt run backward as well as forward, a race to comprehend. But with Wasps, the caretakers lock the explanatory sorrows away, then swallow the key. (Cheerful Money)
Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor
The WASP, or White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, has a place in America’s mythology. Not surprisingly. WASPs were, after all, the source of our first big wave of wealth. We like wealth. We may even love wealth. The question is, while we might feel a prurient curiosity about privilege, do we have any real interest in the WASP story?
The species has been simultaneously stereotyped, ridiculed, and envied, for one reason or another. Again, not surprising. Americans do that to all sorts of cultural species. WASPs, however, have not yet had their brief moment in the blazing sun of the 21st century’s popular culture. No Sopranos, no Angela’s Ashes. It’s hard to make entertainment out of a group that doesn’t believe in displays of wealth, accomplishment, or emotion. It’s hard to write about a group that has a horror of talking too much. And if you are of the group, well then, indeed.
So how can we know what WASPs were if no one says much of anything? “Were” is the operative word. The species is dying out. Richard Ford and John Updike have written novels characterized by trailing, wistful manliness. Scorcese’s Age of Innocence makes an entire movie out of failure to speak. Is that all there is?
Tad Friend, a staff writer at the New Yorker, has decided to say something. His memoir, Cheerful Money, chronicles his life, and the story of his WASP family. He writes two stories, intertwined. One, time-honored, about a boy whose parents don’t show him much outright love, who spends his time looking for that love with girls of various sorts, and finds a happy ending, finally, in marrying. You may remember Mr. Friend as Mr. Latte, from a popular New York Times series where his wife, Amanda Hesser, memorialized their courtship.
The second story is the Dickensian history of many people named Tim. And Theodore, or versions of Theodore. Tad is short for Theodore, as is Ted, as is Dorie, Mr. Friend’s father’s name. (By the way, as is common with WASPs, the Tims and Timmies are girls.) Friend says of his family tree,
I could proceed as a Robinson like Grandma Tim’s family (loquacious, madcap, sometimes unhinged); a Pierson like Grandpa John’s family (bristling with brains); a Holton like Grandma Jess’s family (restless, haughty show ponies); or a Friend like Grandpa Ted’s family (moneyed, clubbable, and timid).
Juicy tidbits of privilege and accomplishment abound. Mr. Friend’s family owns Century House on the South Fork of Long Island,
…in the Georgica Association, an enclave of two dozen houses on the western shore of Georgica Pond that faces houses owned by Steven Spielberg, Martha Stewart, and Calvin Klein on the eastern.
Images of gray shingled houses against a vivid, blue, privileged sky. As he puts it,
When you hail from families that have lived for generations in houses with dumbwaiters and coal scuttles, your birthright includes a staggering heritage of bric-a-brac that has no bearing on modern life – the junk DNA that gets handed down along the the useful genes. Wasp tableware is anything that abhors the dishwasher: gold-rimmed chargers, etched-crystal wineglasses, pedestaled fruit plates, egg spoons of translucent horn.
All this because, in the turn of the century, “…the Friends made enough from steel, coal, and banking to become – briefly – smashingly rich; chauffeur rich, yacht rich, $350,000,000-in-today’s-money rich.” Mr. Friend himself attended Harvard, where he was elected to the Harvard Lampoon and the Signet Society.
But our overarching impression of Mr. Friend’s family history is one of painful complexity, language fraught with anxiety and hanging clauses of regret, along with a family tree that makes it quite simply difficult to figure who is who much of the time. Which Timmy are we talking about? Is Jess male or female? And which wife of which husband is leaving whom for whom?
Luckily, Mr. Friend’s personal history is much more direct, and, while less entertaining in the US Weekly manner, both more moving and more universal.
Mr. Friend’s mother, as mothers will, had her own unsatisfied needs, leaving her unable to bring heart and soul to child-rearing. He understands this early on.
Feeling that I had failed to delight her, I turned into a wary, watchful child. I began building the internal Wasp rheostat, the dimmer switch on desires.
Dimming the light of desire leads to a family distance sorrowful for all. Spaniel Sam provides the only comfort. Mr. Friend’s mother says to him, as she approaches the end of her life,
“We have this beautiful lawn here, perfect for two soccer teams of grandchildren,” she said. “And there aren’t any grandchildren. I’d always thought my children would live nearby, just down the road, and would be over all the time. But everyone lives so far away.”
“And why do you think that is?” I said.
She began to cry. I felt sorry, and guilty, and started crying, too. Sam trotted into the room and looked worriedly back and forth. She gathered him up and wept into his fur.
Neither is Dorie Friend, Mr. Friend’s father, a source of direct talk of love. Upon the breakup of one of his son’s serious relationships, Dorie faxes from Jakarta,
I think you are wise to use time as a resource for whatever it offers that you may wish to choose, including (1) repair toward commitment or (2) easing off to affectionate detachment; or (2) enabling (1) but not, obviously, (1) entropic to (2).
So Mr. Friend enters therapy. Happily, as narration of therapy is often as terrible as the narration of one’s dreams, he writes little of the sessions and more on the outcome. He meets Ms. Hesser, falls in love. Now he can speak. Which he does, proposing marriage.
I led Amanda down an empty hallway behind the bar. The passage was damp and chilly, her two least favorite qualities, but she followed calmly, thinking I was positioning us by the kitchen for hot hors d’oeuvres (one of my moves). She looked astonished when I swung her around with my hand on the small of her back, as if to music, and said, “I’ve been thinking…” – which wasn’t true. My thinking cap was off. When she said, “Yes!” the future compacted to her ear, pink with excitement, and her sheltering lock of hair.
Cheerful Money is about the inability to speak, to speak love in particular. Fittingly, it is Mr. Friend’s writing that makes his book worth reading, in the end, invokes our feelings, and leaves us to carry his experience forward when we finally put the book down. He writes, of his grandmother’s funeral. “The thunk of earth and skitter of pebbles beading down the coffin sides, the finality of it.” We might be interested in WASP artifacts, old lace, ivory, silver, but we listen and feel for the universal. For families, and love, and loss.
The true WASP, while in this day and age prepared at least to acknowledge – maybe even voice – deep feelings, never stays long in the land of full-throated sentiment. Irony, tragedy whispered between teeth, requirements of appropriate behavior and speech at all times. Mr. Friend, despite his hunt for love and truth, is, after all, a WASP. He keeps the mushy stuff just this side of poignant, as you would expect in a culture that so values propriety. As he says, “Extraordinary oddities of conduct are tolerated among Wasps so long as you show up for Christmas.” Maybe even the oddity of a confessional memoir.
For most, the story of our background is just that. Background. We lead our real lives with our families. All our loved ones. Freud trumps Marx, day to day. In the end, Mr. Friend’s book engages us and moves us largely because he turns out pretty happy. And writes about both his distress and his happiness in an achingly beautiful style, finding a way, in the last, through the ellipses of WASP-talk. We might wish, from time to time, that Mr. Friend and his family had been able to speak more directly, fewer characters, fewer complexities, fewer clauses. But then, so might he.
*Note. My blog friends may wonder where I went. This is me writing. I wrote Tad Friend and asked to review this book. He was very gracious and agreed. Tomorrow, however, I will tell you my reaction as me, rather than as a book reviewer. I hope that is appropriate. Being a WASP and all. Image by me.