When one reads books as oneself, one might think about, well, oneself.
I mean I think about myself. My apologies. High WASP language. Distance and all that.
Tad Friend’s Cheerful Money details the history of his family, along with the mannerisms and habits of Wasps. He calls us Wasps. I call us High WASPs. It’s the same thing. I read his book pen in hand. Felt strange to mark up a hardback book. But necessary. At 52 I can no longer remember paragraphs word for word.
I was looking for data points. Sharp pinpricks of recognition. Little snippets that denied or confirmed my own experience. It’s remarkable how much similarity I found. Or unsurprising, depending on one’s attitude towards information, patterns and coincidence. In any case, differences turn out to matter most.
Tad’s family made money in steel, coal, banking. Mine in banking for railroads. His ancestors signed the Declaration of Independence, as did mine. A Civil War flag hangs in one of his family houses, we have a sword. His relatives wandered through Asia, one of mine settled in Africa for a period of time. Documenting the Snake Tribes. His father is an academic, the former President of Swarthmore College, mine a professor and administrator at Stanford University. In fact, my father was in Tad’s father’s class at St. Paul’s. Both families have been known to enjoy alcohol. I envy Tad the family estate on Long Island. Our New Jersey equivalent, burnt to the ground in a fatal accident, has long since been turned into a country club and golf course. The Cape Cod summer house sold to some family with sufficient wealth to maintain three storeys of gray shingles through Nor’easter after Nor’easter.
I recognize the language. Of reserve. Things unfelt, unsaid. The subjunctive, “As it were. If I may? Should you care to…” Evoke. Yearn. So much meaning not understood. My brother (who was most likely at Harvard with Tad, now that I think about it) became a psychoanalyst, perhaps in reaction. Hard to get much more talky about feelings than that.
One of the centers of Friend’s book is his mother. She went to school with Sylvia Plath, wrote poetry. Always the center of attention, expected to charm. This concept of the High WASP “grande dame” is entirely outside my experience. My family lacked for grandes dames. We are prone to sturdy, if sturdy can vibrate at a high pitch, that is. For example. My mother (attended Smith with Tad’s mother, as it turns out. Getting silly, isn’t it?) walked door to door for Fair Housing in the 1960’s. Had her only moment approaching a breakdown when, in 1961, she hid in the coat closet for 10 minutes, 3 young children calling “Mommy, Mommy,” outside the door. My Aunt Eve died at 75 when she asked to be taken off life support. She had broken her vertebra, falling from a jumping horse. Did 10 pushups on our living room floor 5 years before. Known for supporting Ethiopian refugees via her husband’s diocese.
For example. The women in my family feel a tidal pull to have and to care for babies. We don’t, as Tad’s mother did, look at our babies and wonder are we ready. We’re ready. We are, if anything, too ready, too devoted, and too in love with our children. Maybe it’s the New England nature-is-just-outside-the-door from my mother’s side, maybe the transplant to California, maybe just the workings of the universe. I can’t know.
My father follows the High WASP archetype more closely. Except. Once, in my direst straits, I called him on the telephone. I told him I was so ashamed. “L.,” he said, “Don’t be ashamed. You have worked very, very hard at any number of things. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Language can save what it threatens to destroy. Even those fond of the ellipse can sometimes speak directly to those they love. Give comfort.
Cheerful Money is still with me. It is many ways a funny book, but the not-so-funny stuck with me longer and harder. The ache and tremble of something just out of reach. A dry-eyed sort of sorrowish feeling, not one that leads to crying. I am far more apt to cry when I write about how much I love my family, how much they have loved me, how much we love each other. We might speak of it with some restraint, but it’s there. I have no doubt.
I wish I knew what made this true.
*Thanks again to Tad Friend for the opportunity to review his book. And get all sentimental about family and stuff like that.