Ward and June and Wes and Sue

In some ways my childhood homelife
was not unlike the sit-com Cleavers’ –
we lived in a house in the USA with a yard, slept in beds, and ate  
          homecooked meals.
 
On the other hand, my mother didn’t wear pearls 
as she dumped overflowing ashtrays 
into a pedal-operated plastic receptacle, 
 
my father watching TV, cursing LBJ, baring his tobacco-stained teeth, 
much less restrained in the den than Ward in tie and cardigan,
turning the pages of the afternoon newspaper, which happily 
          we had in those days.
 
In fact, Ward and June never watched TV or talked politics.
He never held his boys down, arms pinned, to tickle them
as they laughed hysterically in anguished howls on the floor.
 
There were apparently no black people where the Cleavers lived,
no juke joints on the edge of town, no bootleg whiskey,
no Wilson Pickett records, no Muddy Waters, no mojo magic.
 
                               ***
 
Mr. Cleaver played golf; my father flew airplanes, 
performed snap rolls and loops and hammerhead stalls.
On rare occasions I accompanied him in the cockpit.
 
More often, though, I was down below, neck straining, 
calmly watching his daring acrobatics,
like the son of a trapeze artist who knows the act by heart.
 
It was an expensive hobby, but one well-suited to
an adrenaline junkie, paradoxically
terrified by the thought of undertow dragging him out to sea to drown.
 
Like the Cleavers, my parents never divorced,
Died, in fact, in the very same bed a decade apart,
Next to a window overlooking our overgrown lawn.
 
No tombstones bear the Cleavers’ names;
alive and well in reruns, they relive their lives
in thirty-minute arcs resolved with smiles.

Farewell, Porter-Gaud Class of 2020

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photo of Class of 2020’s Day of Caring lifted fro Porter-Gaud’s website

I’m distressed that Porter-Gaud’s sterling class of 2020 cannot celebrate publicly the important rite of high school graduation. Last night, they should have donned their flowered dresses and seersucker suits to celebrate baccalaureate at the Church of the Holy Communion on Ashley Avenue. Beforehand, I would have ducked into a nearby bar, Fuel, and consumed two IPAs, then jauntily rounded the corner on foot to greet the progression of faculty members and seniors waiting in front of the church. Everyone would be smiling, the parents proud, the siblings impatient, looking forward to it being over.

Once inside, I would gaze up at the Jesus-of-Color who looks over the congregation from the stained glass behind the altar, listen to the lovely choral music, watch the senior choir members leave the altar and disappear backstage[1] to shed their robes. Then they would reemerge and take their seats with the rest of the graduating class, a transition fraught with emotion. Finally, I would strain my ears to try to catch the homily but undoubtedly fail, my hearing having been destroyed by the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and heredity. The final “amen” would be intoned, the seniors would march out nodding and smiling to the congregation as they headed for the freedom of the late afternoon sunlight, fading, the last few hours of their childhoods fading.

church

Church of the Holy Communion

I feel a special connection to this class. They were with me during my late wife’s illness and death. I especially remember teaching a short story to two sections of them as 9th graders on Skype from Houston where Judy was getting consultations, a melancholy prelude to the last weeks of their education.  I also taught three sections of them as sophomores the next year when Judy died.

Porter-Gaud undeservedly has the reputation with some in the community of being  a haven for “a bunch of spoiled rich kids,” but it’s a terrible misrepresentation. Just ask the leaders of Charleston’s charitable organizations. They’ll set you straight. When I returned to school the Wednesday after Judy’s death, all three of the whiteboards in my classroom had been covered with their hand-written condolences and sweetly drawn hearts and musical notes.

board

Love manifest.

What a remarkable group of young people, talented in so many different ways. I would love to hear the graduation speeches, discover who has won the academic awards, and watch each receive that hard-earned diploma, but, of course, it’s impossible. Pandemics are indifferent to sentimentality.

A few years ago, our Head of School asked me if I knew of a suitable poem that he might read at graduation, and I suggested this one:

To a Daughter Leaving Home

When I taught you

at eight to ride

a bicycle, loping along

beside you

as you wobbled away

on two round wheels,

my own mouth rounding

in surprise when you pulled

ahead down the curved

path of the park,

I kept waiting

for the thud

of your crash as I

sprinted to catch up,

while you grew

smaller, more breakable

with distance,

pumping, pumping

for your life, screaming

with laughter,

the hair flapping

behind you like a

handkerchief waving

goodbye.

—Linda Pastan

 

I know they’ll be fine. They’ll certainly get over this disappointment – even make wry jokes about it  – but I did want to honor them in some small way and to let them know that I wish I could say goodbye in person and that they will not be forgotten.


[1] Bad role model that I am, I’m too lazy to look up the correct ecclesiastical term. PS. Update, a friend of mine who is a priest has enlightened me: “In ecclesiastical terms, they left the sanctuary via the sacristy and chapel and re-entered the nave to be seated with their classmates. ” Hat tip to Brian McGreevy.

Hank, Cormac, and Daddy

from left to right, Cormac McCarthy, Hank Williams, Sr., Wesley Moore, Jr.

“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”

Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses


I want some old school raspy voiced chain-smoking musician from Alabama or Mississippi to write me a song called “Crushed Out Cigarette in Hank Williams’ Ashtray.”

Hank was high-strung, jittery, an ADD-riddled Cormac McCarthy. The glass ain’t half full with them two, and their assessment of the glass ain’t even as positive as half empty. The glass is half-empty and carcinogenic. [1]

I remember being a kid at The North-52 Drive-in with my parents and seeing the trailer for Your Cheating Heart, a biopic of Hank’s life starring George Hamilton with Hank Jr. providing the soundtrack vocals.[2] In the olden days, I’d have to describe the trailer for you based on my short-circuiting memory, but now you can see for yourself.

 

 

At the drive-in some of these scenes hit home a little too familiarly. In other words, I could relate. Like Hank, my daddy could be sweet and generous, but, like Hank, he had a fuse so short static electricity could set him off, especially if he’d been drinking, Nor was my daddy what you would call a feminist.

Like Hank, Daddy felt the urge to create. He rendered in shoe polish on our dining room wall a credible copy of the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner’s The Lesesne Gates, 14 Greene Street. Late in life, he sculpted gnomes, which weren’t nearly as good as the mural. Not only was he creative in the visual arts, he was also scientifically inventive. He received a patent for a sonar-operated weir for sewer treatment plants, but rather than selling the patent, he tried to manufacture the product himself and went broke.

I wish I had a photo of the wall, but I don’t think we ever owned a camera. The wall’s been painted over three or four times. I do have half of a gnome, though, which I keep hidden in the closet of my classroom. Because they were never baked, they eventually fell apart.

Hank’s works, however, survive and will as long as humans are around to strum guitars. His pain lives on in a meaningful way. Listen to Lucinda pass it along to us.

 

 

I raise my glass to dissonance, to sweet songs of sorrow, to Hank and Cormac and Daddy.

Wesley Edward Moore, Jr.


[1] To my ear “ain’t” is a lovely word with that mournful diphthong.

[2] Actually Hamilton looks more like Townes Van Zandt than he does Hank.