The last time I saw Priscilla Buckley was this January, from a choir loft of the small Catholic church in Sharon, Connecticut, a few blocks from Great Elm, the old homestead. I was there for the funeral of Ann Buckley, her sister-in-law and wife of brother James, the revered senator and judge.
Such was the crowd that I could not pay my respects in person, and, the next day, e-mailed Priscilla about what went on in the choir loft. We had a nice ensuing exchange, as we always did. Of course, she was worried for her brother over the loss of his beloved wife, which prompted an idea: I asked what she thought about coming, with Jim, on NR’s November cruise, if only for a welcome distraction. She called and wrote: We’d be delighted to attend. Great: We now had plans for this November.
But God obviously had others. So this cheerful and graceful lady, who meant so much to National Review the institution, to all who walked through its doors or took its paycheck, to the conservative movement and the cause of freedom, she is now back home, in the place for which our restless earthly hearts yearn, her 90 years lived happily and with extreme consequence, played out in many ways: as the confidante to thousands, the sibling to many, the aunt to hundreds, the impish mirth-maker within the fortress/asylum at 150 East 35th Street, and, through her beams and giggles, the talented managing editor who for over 25 years made NR’s literary style distinct and powerful.
And as a friend.
For whatever reason, in recent years, we became closer, and communicated somewhat regularly, although too often about bad news, me being the bearer of: Dorothy dying, Joe dying, et al. She must have dreaded seeing something from me arrive at her in box.
In the past few years, she came, with cousins or her beautiful sister Carol, on NR’s European riverboat cruises. The last one, in 2011 on the Seine, showed her, finally, beginning to wind down. The year before, in Portugal, at an old mansion tour, she tripped and fell on some uneven brickwork, but her athleticism won out (she was a tremendous golfer): Priscilla did a perfect roll and was up in a jiffy. Unharmed and laughing. Not bad for 89. Twelve months later, in France, mere walking got to her, and, practical as salt, she agreed to let herself be pushed short distances in a wheelchair. I had the honors of pushing, and I can tell you, it was indeed an honor, because to spend any time with Priscilla, even in quiet, was a joy.
In hindsight, the creeping fatigue she showed on that trip, the puffing for breath, was a sign of what was finally revealed these past few days: that her kidneys had stopped functioning because her heart, although big and loving, was wearing out.
How could this be? It was only this October that a worshipful crew had gathered in Sharon to celebrate Priscilla’s 90th birthday. What a beautiful day it was — laughter and so many gracious remarks from nieces and nephews and friends, everyone touting “I ♥ PITTS” coffee mugs and grabbing special M&Ms with her picture on the candies. With the laughs came a few tears too, caused by heartfelt reflections, especially those from brother Jim, who recounted how he and his big sister had, as kids, been devotees of the Thornton Burgess “bedtime” stories, and had considered each other “fierce friends,” like Sammy Jay and Peter Rabbit. They still signed off their communications to each other with the shorthand “FF,” a sign of their very real and evident affection.
And it was very real, and about more than words. The old family spread in Sharon still had some Buckleys about — last year my pal and former NR colleague Geoffrey Morris, founder of Litchfield Magazine, published this delightful article on how Great Elm had been saved (the picture below, of Priscilla at home, is from that piece)
But a few years back it was a place of sorrow. Priscilla lived in the old house, as did her sister and sidekick, Jane. She lost a tough battle to cancer. Could anyone blame Priscilla for being . . . worried? With her close sister and housemate gone, would a loneliness of sorts overtake her remaining years?
A month or so later, I was having lunch with Priscilla and Ed Capano in Manhattan and asked her how she was coping with the loss of Jane. She started crying because she was deeply moved by her brother’s love: She said Jim had assured her that she would not be alone, that she would be with him and Ann every night. And they were. This was no weakness by Priscilla. She was simply sharing that even among siblings, love can be so deep, so tender, so real. So fierce.
It was a singular pleasure, in my tenure at National Review, to do something which made Priscilla clearly happy. A few years back she called and said she wanted to have a book published, a small work about her travels hither and yon on barges and balloons — she loved to travel, and the more intimate the means, the better. I took it, correctly, to mean that: Priscilla wanted NR to publish it. Did she think, because we sponsor cruises, that we were All Things Travel? The answer is unimportant because I knew that, regardless of how much sense a little travel book meant for the fortnightly journal of politics, it was impossible to say no to this wonderful woman. I told her, immediately, yes, and thought: What could be better than making Priscilla happy?
And she was happy. Oh my, when the book was finally printed, History Writ Small: Exploring Its Nooks and Crannies by Barge, Boat, and Balloon, looked (thanks to Luba Myts) and was a sweet book, and Priscilla was joyful about it. It is worth sharing one of its sweeter passages — this one about ballooning through the French countryside:
Michel calls to the crowd that has gathered. “Alors! We need your help!” And soon, a dozen or more people are pulling on the ropes. And they bring us to a halt three feet from the barbed wire fence that marks the end of the field. The four Atkinsons get out at Michel’s order, but Jane and I remain aboard as ballast. A blast from the burner, and we lift a bit, away from the dangerous fence. Another two blasts, and we are safe. The balloon pulls the basket over — a layover, they call it — and Jane and I, flat on our backs for a moment, find slithering out on the whole easier than climbing out, if less dignified. Michel kisses the ladies on both cheeks, comme ci, right cheek, comme ça, left cheek, and shakes Jack’s and young Greg’s hands. We’ve covered an estimated 25 kilometers in just over two hours – Santé! everyone.
And so the flights go, each different. We might have Buddy playing games — brushing through the treetops, putting down on the still waters of a lake or pond — or Michel swooping low over a village and calling out to a family having its summer dinner in the garden: “Bon appétit!” or, “La belle brune!” in salute to the handsome mother of the family. Children in pyjamas, waving from attic windows: “Where are you going?” they call, and Jane calls back, “Wherever the wind takes us.” “Come back,” they plead, but come back we cannot. The wind says no.
Come back, Priscilla. But she cannot, now or ever, to sadness all around. Ask anyone who crossed the threshold of NR, and they will tell you, with metaphysical certainty, that if Priscilla was there, wherever “there” was — in the office, at a dinner, a lunch, on a cruise — you were . . . safe. You would think, feel, know: “Everything must be all right, because Priscilla is here.”
Which surely are the words spoken earlier on Sunday by our Creator, when he brought her home.
Priscilla Buckley meant and means so much to so many. Whatever National Review has accomplished these past 57 years, none of it would have been without this talented and delightful lady, and endless supply of happiness, inspiration, love, and friendship. Rest in peace, Pitts. For the memories and everything else, thank you.