June 25, 2057
THE PARTING GLASS
Saying goodbye with a bang.
BY ARCHER P. PRIESTLY
I confess myself surprised to be writing this feature. When The New Yorker approached me last year and asked me to write a piece on "love," I immediately declined. What, after all, do I know about love? For that matter, what do you? And what, in the name of all that is holy, does The New Yorker know about it?
But four months ago, events transpired in such a way that I now feel as if I have no choice; more than that, I embrace the opportunity to write about something I do not understand, but that overwhelms me with its singularity and power. Plain and simple, I am going to tell you about my family, and in particular about my mothers, and when I am done I will, I am sure, have exhausted everything I could possibly know about love.
Before you get really invested, my mothers are both deceased. Introductions are perhaps in order. For those not in the know, my birth mother was a woman named Miranda Priestly, a formidable woman who, in her lifetime, rose from very humble beginnings to edit Runway magazine, went on to become an executive vice-president of the still-thriving Elias-Clarke, and eventually "retired" to take over the Board of Trustees at the New Metropolitan Museum of Art, a position she occupied with great success until almost precisely four months ago. My second, adoptive mother was Andrea Sachs--yes, that Andrea Sachs, the one who wrote all those essays and books you read in college, and whose example I have ever followed. We often joked that I got 'the writing gene' from her, though in fact we shared no genes at all.
Andrea was "Mom," and Miranda was "Mother," for future reference. Well, of course that wasn't always true--five-year-old boys don't often address the materfamilias as "Mother," and when I was young, she was "Mommy." This stopped when I hit puberty. Always bookish, I decided that the sheer literary formality of "Mother" would serve me well with a woman who never quite seemed to approve of me. She never objected to the change, or even remarked on it. But Andrea was always Mom.
Mother and Mom were a full twenty-five years apart in age, and their romance began while Mother was still separating from her third husband, my biological father. She was pregnant with me and soon discovered my father wanted nothing to do with her--nor, at the time, with me. It was an unhappy period for her, to say the least, until she fell unexpectedly and violently in love with Mom: her junior assistant at Runway. Are the connotations not already unsavory? Certainly, when the story blew open a few months after my birth, all of New York was quick to press a fluttering, scandalized hand to its breast. Outrageous, everyone said. Ridiculous. Laughable. It'll never last.
It lasted, and the furor died down. It is strange to think that people tend to find stories of contentment the least worth hearing: strange to think that Paradiso is the least interesting part of the Commedia, strange to think that happy families are all alike and therefore not particularly worthy subjects for weighty novels. But the truth is, my parents were always very happy, at least, as far as any of us could tell. Of course there are things my sisters and I will never know: things that took place behind closed doors, over the phone, a hundred other instances that will remain between the two of them forever now. Like most parents, they tried to shield their children from unhappiness when possible. But I truly believe that shielding was rarely necessary.
By any rational standard, maybe it shouldn't have worked. But it did, and their quiet, understated, decades-long pleasure in each other fascinates me, if nobody else. And this is my feature article. So there.
By their own account, my parents went from zero to married in no time flat. They certainly acted like an old married couple: ever since I can remember, they were absentmindedly finishing each others' sentences, juggling family and professional life with varying degrees of success, going out to dinner without us a couple of times a month, and celebrating anniversaries. But for all this, they were never legally wed. Following California's example, New York state legalized gay marriage in 2009, but my parents never seemed particularly interested. This was understandable in Mother's case, since she'd already suffered through three weddings, each in decreasing degrees of hoopla. As I understand it, her first marriage began with an extravagant bash, her second one with decidedly less fanfare, and her third--her last--with a quiet ceremony only for friends and family, as if she had already predicted the union's eventual demise and was keeping her head down, waiting for the blow. Small wonder, then, that she wholeheartedly embraced the idea of living in sin.
As for Mom, I still don't know how she felt about it. As I said, she was much younger than Mother, had never been married, and enjoyed a good party as much as anybody else. I never learned whether she ever wanted the ceremony, the dress, the bouquet. But, whatever she didn't get, she got the ring.
I well remember the ring, as do my sisters. It was their junior year of high school, and they were studying together in our living room for their final exams, while I, seven years old, was busy getting bored with cursive handwriting on the couch. Mother was working at a table in the corner. Everybody was remarkably peaceful. I seem to remember--and Caroline and Cassidy confirm it--that it was shortly before dinnertime on a Sunday.
The front door opened and shut, and we heard footsteps stomping towards the living room with a little more force than usual. "Miranda?" Mom's voice called, sounding extremely irritated.
Mother looked up from her work with a frown. "In here," she replied. The footsteps started stomping again, and then Mom stormed into the room, carrying a bag from Cartier. Mother's eyes went wide with interest at once, but we all soon realized that a romantic presentation wasn't in the cards: Mom just pulled a box out of the bag, dropped the bag on the floor, opened the box, and tugged out a plain ring in white gold.
This she thrust into Mother's face, saying flatly, "Put it on." Mother sat back and her eyes narrowed again. "Put it on!" Mom repeated, her voice going almost squeaky with agitation. "I heard some other stupid guy tried to corner you at a party, and how are people supposed to know if we don't--" She waved her own left hand in the air, and we saw she was wearing a ring as well. "Look, I've got one too." Mother opened her mouth. "Don't you want people to back off?" Mom asked cunningly.
And of course there was only one right answer to that, so Mother sniffed and said, if I recall correctly, "You know I like a narrower band."
Mom hopped up and down, looking absurdly like a rabbit, and yelped, "Do I have to shove it on your finger myself or what?" Then she stopped hopping and looked embarrassed. "Oh." Mother rolled her eyes, extended her hand, and permitted Mom to slip the too-wide ring onto her left ring finger.
"There," Mom said triumphantly, kissed Mother's cheek, and flounced back out of the room after stopping to pick up the Cartier bag from the floor. Mother, smiling a little, returned to her work. And that, as they say, was that. She never tried to exchange the band.
In those days we were what people called "a non-traditional family," but Mother adamantly insisted that my childhood have the complete traditional package, as it were. She was particularly anxious that I have a male role model or two, and to this end, hired a series of "mannies," which is just what it sounds like: male nannies, who were all the rage at the time. I can't say I blame her. It was a good idea, and I bonded very well with two of my three mannies: Brad, who left when I was six to go to graduate school, and then Mason, who stayed with me until I was thirteen--which was, ironically enough, the start of the period when I could have used a male role model the most. (In between Brad and Mason was Mark, who came with excellent credentials and worked for all of two days before attempting to ask my sister Caroline out on a date. Mother did not drive him out of the house with a literal cat-o-nine tails, but the end result was the same.) I liked Brad and Mason, and I remember them both fondly; Mason and I kept up a friendly email correspondence until I went to college.
I can't say Mom was as thrilled by the idea of mannies as Mother was. Mom was determined to be a second parent to me in the way that my "real" father wasn't. She had a controlling interest in my development from the moment of my birth--before it, really. To that end, she religiously attended every pee-wee baseball game I reluctantly played, enrolled me in a Tae Kwon Do class where I sprained my ankle on the second day, and tried to make me join the Boy Scouts before I finally convinced her, after much shameless begging, that I was quite happy sitting at home and reading a book (the paper rations were still a good ten years off). In short, between them, Mother and Mom overcompensated for their ovaries by attempting to make me into a figure so robustly masculine that by the age of eighteen I would presumably be sweating pure testosterone.
It hasn't worked yet. I still cringe at the sight of a baseball mitt, and my ankle twinges whenever I walk by a martial arts studio. But, on my good days, I can appreciate the effort.
But if Mom had leapt into my life with unbounded enthusiasm, Mother was never truly easy around me. There was always a certain coldness, a certain distance that never seemed to manifest itself with my sisters and that I never understood. Then, when I was fourteen years old, I believed I'd figured out why: I had finally seen a photograph of my birth father, Stephen Tomlinson, and immediately discerned that I was the spitting image of him. I even had his smile. I was stunned and hurt that Mother should blame me for this, and I said as much; she gave me a cold little smile of her own, and informed me that I had obviously inherited his whiny temperament too.
Mom was present for that discussion, and it's the only time I can remember that Mother ever apologized to me for anything.
I know that nobody wants to hear about my adolescent angst, but remember, this is a love story, and that love story began with the inglorious circumstances of my birth. Since my biological parents were still technically married when I was born, I was not declared illegitimate, even if sometimes Mother seemed to think I was a little bastard in every sense of the term. Mom legally adopted me when I was two. This did not prevent people from saying to me, when I was growing up, what a pity it was that I had been born into a broken home. Of course, that wasn't true. Even though Mother and I didn't always get along--more in this in a moment--I remember having a happy childhood, on the whole.
That wouldn't have been possible without Mom. Mom, who arrived at Mother's hour of need: this was Caroline's phrasing, by the way, not mine. She inherited Mother's flair for dramatics, and (also like Mother) adored Mom without reservation. As far as Caroline was concerned, Mom had come along just in time to "save" the family. Cassidy's reaction was always more measured, but she, too, liked Mom very much--moreover, she recognized that Mom had brought some much-needed stability back into our home. As Cassidy told it, before Mother took up with her young assistant she had been isolated, miserable, withdrawn, and there was even some question of whether Caroline and Cassidy would go to live with their father. As for me, well, who knew what would have become of me?
But then Mom arrived on the scene. She liked to say Mother had "lassoed" her, and Mother never denied the charge; nevertheless, in spite of her youth and relative inexperience, Mom took to family life as if she'd been born for it, looking after Mother, the twins, and me with devotion that was both tender and relentlessly practical. She never even seemed to question that this was her destiny, much less resist it, and she often seemed bewildered by people who thought she should have done at least one or the other. But like Mother, when Mom made up her mind to do something, she did it. And so my family settled into place.
That said, as I hit puberty, I naturally became curious about my birth father. Mother had always been at pains to let me know that he would never be a part of my life, but that she and Mom loved me "quite enough" and so it didn't matter. Any of my readers who knew Mother personally will not be remotely surprised by her pronouncement, but it was never enough for me, and by the time I was sixteen, I couldn't get the memory of my father's photograph out of my head. I was, at the time, deeply into spy movies, and so I undertook my own investigations as sneakily as I could. Turns out, Dad still headed a financial firm in Brooklyn, and one day I gathered all my courage and went to see him after school.
He recognized me instantly. I don't know what I'd expected, but I certainly hadn't expected the tears, nor the bear-hug. "I've tried for years," he said. "I've regretted it so much. You don't know how much." 'It,' I discovered, meant the papers he'd signed before I was even born, relinquishing all his rights to me. "I saw a photo of you in the paper when you were--oh, I don't know, three or four," he said. "Playing with your sisters and your mother's--uh--" Like so many other people, he still didn't know what to call Mom. "--friend. And Jesus, you don't know what that was like. Lennie and I, we called my lawyers right away."
'Lennie' was his third wife, for whom he'd abandoned Mother and who, like Mom, was decades younger than her spouse. Apparently this strategy had worked for both my birth parents. Dad took me out to a last-minute dinner at some Thai place down the street (I left a shaky message for Mom telling her that I was going to a friend's house), and explained that ever since that fateful newspaper photo, he'd tried to get access to me and that Mother had blocked him left, right, and center. She'd triumphantly argued that he'd never even paid child support, for goodness' sake, and besides, that contract was written in stone. She held a position of incredible wealth and power, and several high-profile lawyers were always at her beck and call. She might as well have put an iron fence around me.
Dad was quick to explain his original behavior-- "She just sprung it on me like that, you know? And I really, honest to God thought it was on purpose, and I just wanted out" --in a way that made it clear why Mother found him 'whiny.' But his remorse and regret were real. Even at sixteen, I could see that. And I was so angry, angrier than I could ever remember being, that Mother had denied me what could have been a rich and rewarding relationship for so many years. And Mom! Mom, who was always so much more understanding, more sympathetic--how could Mom have been in on this? What about all those 'male role models' they were worried I wouldn't have? I felt pierced through with betrayal, and I did not learn until later that Mom had tried, unsuccessfully, to get Mother to relent for years.
My father gave me his address, his phone number, his email, everything, and told me to be in touch whenever I liked, no, as soon as possible. It turned out to be very soon indeed. I ran straight home, powered by rage, and burst through the front door ready to explode. I remember that Cassidy was home for a visit, and she and my mothers were all chatting in the living room; their welcoming faces quickly became shocked and worried when they saw me. I did not hesitate to lay on the invective, the accusations, the utter vitriol (which is something I did, in fact, inherit from Mother). Mom and Cassidy stared at me, aghast at what I had done and what I was saying. Mother did not reply at all. Her face went hard and cool, and without a word, she stood up and left the room. I remember all-too-clearly what happened next, and it still makes me burn with shame.
"Archer, honey," Mom said, "I know you're angry. Just sit down, and calm down--I'll go get your mother, and we can all talk about this, okay?"
The words fell right out of my mouth, almost without my volition: "Shut up! Why should I listen to you? You're not my dad! You're not my real mom! You're not my real anything!"
Cassidy gasped, Mom went pale, and the moment I'd finished speaking, I regretted it. I knew it wasn't true, and less than a second had passed before I was ready to throw my arms around Mom and beg her forgiveness. But I didn't get the chance.
I should mention here that Mother was slow to anger. This always surprises people, but it's true. Oh, she was more easily irritated than anyone else I've ever known, more impatient, more sharp-tongued and exacting. But true anger means letting your feelings master you, means losing control, which was always anathema to her. Thus, it came as a surprise to me that, before I could take one step towards Mom, Mother literally came running back into the room--it's the only time I can remember seeing her run--and grabbed my elbow with the strongest grip I've ever felt, even to this day. Her face was bone white, and her lips were curled back in a genuine snarl. She even bared her teeth.
Without a word she hauled me out of the living room, dragged me down the hallway and the foyer, flung open the door, and threw me outside. I remember that dizzy second of swaying back and forth, afraid I was going to fall down the stairs. Then I caught the railing, turned around to see her, and wondered if she might push me down the stairs herself. It's the only time in my life that I thought one of my parents was about to strike me. But she didn't hit me. She didn't speak. She just looked at me as if she hated me, and then slammed the door in my face and locked it.
And that was the first night I ever spent in my biological father's house.
Oh, it didn't last, of course. Mother didn't actually hate me, and Mom was quick to forgive. I was their child, after all, and I think they both knew I was sixteen and stupid. Mother required a fair bit more groveling than Mom, but after a few days (when I stayed with Dad), it blew over.
Strangely enough, however, my relationship with Mother improved a great deal after that, as if some invisible barrier between us had finally been knocked down. She softened, just a little, and after a while, I did too. I was even allowed to re-establish relations with Dad, who was never really a father to me, but who became a good friend. He passed away eight years ago, and I still miss him. To the best of my knowledge, he and Mother never exchanged a single word after their divorce, but they both attended my high school, college, and graduate school commencements without coming to blows. So that's something.
Lest you think I have digressed too much, my main point is that I only ever saw Mother lose her temper once, and that was when I offered an insult to Mom. To disrespect Mom was to invite punishment, and Mother rarely punished. Her sole exception was for Mom, because she always remained utterly smitten, a realization I came to fairly late in life.
It wasn't obvious. Mother and Mom were never demonstrative. They did not cuddle. I rarely even saw them embrace, although there were plenty of 'hello' and 'goodbye' pecks on the cheek. Sometimes they sat together on the couch while we all watched a movie, and only once did I catch them holding hands. The ring episode was most unusual. Yet they seemed perfectly comfortable with all this, although my sisters and I were often surprised by the lack of visible affection and even found it cause for concern. When I went to a friend's house and saw his parents cooing over each other, and 'accidentally' bumping into each other in the kitchen, and giggling over their glasses of wine, I went home and felt genuinely worried about Mother and Mom, who had their laptops set up together in the upstairs den and were diligently working as if this was 'quality time.'
But within a few years, my friend's parents were no longer cooing, and a couple of years after that they divorced under bitter circumstances (I understand she'd started cooing at somebody else). In the meantime, my own parents kept sitting together on the couch, going out to dinner twice a month, and being perfectly happy about it.
This was what I had to learn, though it took me years: that to love extravagantly doesn't require cooing or giggling or, for that matter, ceremonious gifts of jewelry. A few years ago, I asked Mom what made their relationship so strong. She replied, almost absentmindedly, "Well, love, you know. And trust and patience and things like that. I mean, you just have to keep working at it, I guess." (When I asked Mother, she said, "Separate bathrooms.")
They could never put into words what made them work so well. They weren't interested in trying, either. So you and I will just have to struggle along like always, and try to figure it out by ourselves.
We all grew up. I was both lucky and unlucky enough to become a career writer who always had to live up to Mom's reputation. Well, I've done my best, and that's the end of that discussion. I married and divorced, and I can't say I regret having no children--though I do regret not being able to follow my parents' recipes for happiness, especially the part about the bathrooms. Caroline and Cassidy have both reproduced: Caroline and her husband did so in what the unenlightened still call "the usual way," while Cassidy and her wife went the other route. (As an aside, when Cassidy came out one Christmas, Mother blurted, "You, Cassidy? But I thought…", and looked over at Caroline before she could stop herself. It led to one of our more memorable family scenes.) I adore all my sisters' offspring, and I say with no regret that I spoiled the kids shamelessly during their childhood, playing the doting uncle while Mother and Mom outdid themselves in the indulgent-grandmothers department.
As we grew up, my parents grew old. Mom chose to age 'naturally.' Mother chose 'anything but,' perhaps because she was always aware that her spouse-in-all-but-name was over two decades younger than herself. Oh, she did it subtly. She never had what anybody would call a real facelift: just a strategic nip under her chin so that no fold of skin would ever show, just the subtlest tweaks around her eyes. And of course an arsenal of facial treatments--lasers, chemical peels, dermbrasions, and God only knows what else--were available to her, to say nothing of spa retreats and cosmetics and everything else she felt like laying her hands on. She exercised and watched her diet carefully. Her clothing always flattered her figure, and she never lost her magnificent bearing. In short, at eighty, she looked like a really good sixty-five, and at ninety-five, she was still going swimming four times a week and running the Met Board of Trustees with an iron fist.
Meanwhile, at age sixty-five, Mom actually looked sixty-five. So as they aged, Mother and Mom looked closer together in age than ever before. This positively delighted Mother, who could now go out to dinner with Mom without being asked what 'she and her daughter' would like to eat. As for Mom, she always appeared to handle it with good humor, and took getting older in stride--except, of course, for the heart attack she suffered when she was sixty-nine and which nearly killed Mother into the bargain. Just as I only saw Mother angry once, I only saw her cry once, and am heartily glad I never saw it afterward. She was furious that Mom had done something so stupid, terrified by how narrowly tragedy had been averted, and supremely annoyed by what she perceived as substandard hospital care. To that end, she practically lived at the hospital so she could keep a constant eye on Mom, and I understand the nurses there still do not dare say her name aloud.
This might make it sound odd that Mother was determined to outlive Mom, but as the years passed, we could all see it was true. When she turned ninety-six, and mom was seventy, and they'd celebrated forty-five years together, Mother looked ready to run a marathon and could still beat the pants off all of us at logic games. Meanwhile, Mom--whose literary career had spanned most of those decades, who had been awarded her second Pulitzer two years before, and who had just resigned from her position as Senior Lecturer in Columbia University's journalism school--was just beginning to show signs of memory loss. She tried to conceal it. Mother would never admit it was happening. And so Caroline, Cassidy, and I discussed it amongst ourselves and tried to prepare for the worst.
The worst, as we might define "worst"--institutionalization, helplessness, complete lack of recognition--never happened. Drugs for Alzheimer's have made considerable strides in the last fifty years, for one thing. But most of all, love saved Mom. Yes, love, and in a literal way that none of us would have ever expected.
Those of you who know the way this story ends--which is to say, everybody in New York City--will perhaps find my article's sub-header tasteless. I assure you that I chose it with love and more than a soupçon of mischief, just as Mom would have wished. Mother, mind you, would have wrung my neck.
Growing up, you never like to imagine your parents having sex. At least, my sisters and I didn't. I don't presume to speak for you. And as I said, Mother and Mom's relationship, if full of understated affection, largely seemed devoid of passion. Looking back as an adult, of course, the signs were there: the nights when a nanny or a manny would take us all out to dinner or a movie, leaving my parents at home by themselves; the way that we always knew they 'were not to be disturbed' on Saturday and Sunday mornings; and a couple of occasions, just a couple, when one of us surprised them sitting at opposite ends of the couch, perfectly proper except they were a little flushed and the occasional button was open. (And once I caught them kissing. But I was only five, had just returned from the pediatrician, and simply assumed that Mom was doing a very unorthodox inspection of Mother's tonsils. They caught me watching, and suffice to say it never happened again.) Regardless, when you're a kid, you shudder, think "Eww," and try very hard to push it out of your mind.
Honestly, you never grow out of it, either. My sisters and I learned this the hard way when we looked at the coroner's report four months ago. I am almost forty-nine years old to the day. They are both sixty-one. And, sitting at that table, we discovered together that you are never too old to be so embarrassed by your parents that you long to sink through the floor and disappear.
My mothers were never exactly low-profile, and remained objects of public interest even into their old age. Therefore, it was a given that within days, if not hours, New York City would learn that my parents--aged seventy-four and one hundred, respectively--had died in bed together. And by that I mean in bed together. It was the end of February, when we all knew they celebrated some sort of anniversary, though we never knew exactly what it was and they weren't telling. All we knew was that the coroner confirmed that Mom had suffered--well, probably not 'suffered,' he added tactlessly--a second heart attack, and Mother had suffered her first. Unfortunately he could not conclusively say which one of them had 'gone out first,' since the timing was so close. Within minutes probably, seconds, possibly. My sisters and I instantly concluded, and still maintain, that Mom died first, and that Mother was so shocked that Mom had dared to do such a thing she immediately followed to upbraid her for it. They were discovered by the housekeeper the next morning who, though ostensibly grief-stricken, felt obliged to point out to all of us that they both looked pretty happy.
We grieved, naturally. We wept. We went through their effects, and discovered a small closet on the top floor that held objects that were of obvious, if bewildering significance to them: a couple of shot glasses (!), a vintage gold lace evening dress, a pair of tall brown leather boots, and more. We mourned their loss. But before we did any of these things, we squirmed, and wondered why they couldn't have done something more dignified, like getting eaten by sharks. They'd both liked scuba-diving.
But you know what? "If you gotta go…", as they say. And, all told, they had a hell of a good time. Mother had married three men who appeared eminently suitable for the life she wished to lead, and with them she managed fourteen years of marriage combined. Then she shacked up with her young assistant and held out for fifty. Mom returned the compliment and, as far as I can tell, never looked farther than the irascible older woman she shared a bed with and bossed around like nobody's business when it suited her. Oh, I wish I could tell you stories about that. I wish I could tell you every story I've heard, seen, and remembered about my mothers, because it seems a criminal waste that not everybody in the world will know how extraordinary was their ordinary happiness. I feel as though this essay has failed because, at the end of writing it, I feel more awed, overwhelmed, and downright baffled by love than before. So what, after all this, can I possibly know about it? I wish we could ask my mothers, all of us, right here and now.
I at least take comfort in knowing that they have, in their way, inspired the New York populace at large. As my sisters and I were leaving the offices of the family lawyer, post-coroner and still in shock, we ran into a man on the street peering into a newsfeed terminal. And there, right there, over his shoulder, was a headline about my mothers' ecstatic demise. I can't remember exactly what it said, which is probably for the best.
He noticed us looking, and turned to face us. We didn't know him, of course, and he had no idea who we were; and so we three stood there, watching him and holding our breaths, waiting in agony for the first verdict of a stranger. The man looked at us, and then back at the newsfeed; then he shook his head in obvious wonderment. "Didja see that?" he asked. We nodded wordlessly: oh yes, we'd seen it, all right.
He tugged thoughtfully at his ear, and then let loose a whistle. "Well, damn," he said, "you gotta give a hand to them two old broads--don't ya?"
I am here to tell you, without reservation: Yes. Yes, you gotta. ♦