EDITOR’S NOTE: This appeared in the April 19, 1985, issue of National Review.
She bore ten children, nine of whom have written for this journal, or worked for it, or both, and that earns her, I think, this half-acre of space normally devoted to those whose contributions are in the public mode. Hers were not. If ever she wrote a letter to a newspaper, we don’t remember it, and if she wrote to a congressman or senator, it was probably to say that she wished him well, and would pray for him as she did regularly for her country. If she had lived one day more, she’d have reached her ninetieth birthday. Perhaps somewhere else one woman has walked through so many years charming so many people by her and diffidence and humor and faith. I wish I might have known her.
ASB was born in New Orleans, her ancestors having come there from Switzerland some time before the Civil War. She attended Sophie Newcomb College but left after her second year in order to become a nurse, her intention being to go spiritedly to the front, Over there, Over there. But when the young aspiring nurses were given a test to ascertain whether they could cope with the sight of blood and mayhem, she fainted, and was disqualified. A year later she married a prominent 36-year-old Texas-born attorney who lived and practiced in Mexico City, with which she had had ties because her aunt lived there.
She never lived again in New Orleans, her husband taking her, after his exile from Mexico (for backing an unsuccessful revolution that sought to restore religious liberty), to Europe, where his business led him. They had bought a house in Sharon, Connecticut, and in due course returned there. The great house where she brought us up still stands, condominiums now. But the call of the South was strong, and in the mid-Thirties they restored an ante-bellum house in Camden, South Carolina. There she was wonderfully content, making others happy by her vivacity, her delicate beauty, her habit of seeing the best in everyone, the humorous spark in her eye. She never lost a Southern innocence in which her sister even more conspicuously shared. One of her daughters was delighted on overhearing an exchange between her and her freshly widowed sister who had for fifty years been married to a New Orleans doctor and was this morning, seated on the porch, completing a medical questionnaire, checking this query, exxing the other. She turned to Mother and asked, “Darling, as girls did we have gonorrhea?”
Her cosmopolitanism was unmistakably Made-in-America. She spoke fluent French and Spanish with undiluted inaccuracy. My father, who loved her more even than he loved to tease her, and whose knowledge of Spanish was faultless, once remarked that in forty years she had never once placed a masculine article in front of a masculine noun, or a feminine article in front of a feminine noun, except on one occasion when she accidentally stumbled on the correct sequence, whereupon she stopped–unheard of in her case, so fluently did she aggress against the language–and corrected herself by changing the article: the result being that she spoke, in Spanish, of the latest encyclical of Pius XII, the Potato of Rome (“Pio XII, la Papa de Roma”). She would smile, and laugh compassionately, as though the joke had been at someone else’s expense, and perhaps play a little with her pearls, just above the piece of lace she always wore in the V of the soft dresses that covered her diminutive frame.
Rhere were rules she lived by, chief among them those she understood God to have specified, though she outdid Him in her accent on good cheer. And although Father was the unchallenged source of authority at home, she was unchallengeably in charge of arrangements in a house crowded with ten children and as many tutors, servants, and assistants. In the very late Thirties her children ranged in age from one of 21, and an in-built sense of the appropriate parietal arrangements governed the hour at which each of us should be back from wherever we were–away at the movies, or at a dance, or hearing Frank Sinatra sing in Pawling. The convention was inflexible. On returning, each of us would push, on one of the house’s intercoms, the button that said, “ASB.” The conversation, whether at ten when she was still awake, or at two when she had been two hours asleep, was always the same: “It’s me, Mother.” “Good night, darling.” If–as hardly ever happened–it became truly late, and her mind had not recorded the repatriation of all ten of us, she would rise, and walk to the room of the missing child. If there, she would return to sleep, and remonstrate the next day on the forgotten telephone call. If not there, she would wait up, and demand an explanation.
Her anxiety to do the will of God was more than ritual. I wrote to her once early in 1963. Much of our youth had been spent in South Carolina, and the cultural coordinates of our household were Southern. But the times required that we look Southern conventions like Jim Crow hard in the face, and so I asked her how she could reconcile Christian fraternity with the separation of the races, a convention as natural in the South for a hundred years after the Civil War as women’s suffrage became natural after their emancipation, and she wrote, “My darling Bill: This is not an answer to your letter, for I cannot answer it too quickly. It came this morning, and, of course, I went as soon as possible to the Blessed Sacrament in our quiet, beautiful little church here. And, dear Bill, I prayed so hard for humility and for wisdom and for guidance from the Holy Spirit. I know He will help me to answer your questions as He thinks they should be answered. I must pray longer before I do this.”
A few years earlier she had raised her glass on my father’s 75th birthday, to say: “Darling, here’s to 15 more years together, and then we’ll both go.” But my father died three years later. Her grief was profound, and she emerged from it through the solvent of prayer, her belief in submission to a divine order, and her irrepressible delight in her family, and friends. A few years later her daughter Maureen died at age 31, and she struggled to fight her desolation, though not with complete success. Her oldes daughter, Aloise, died three years later. And then, three months ago, her son John.
She was by then in a comfortable retirement home, totally absent-minded; she knew us all, but was vague about when last she had seen us, or where, and was given to making references, every now and then, to her husband, “Will,” and the trip they planned next week to Paris, or Mexico.
But she sensed what had happened, and instructed her nurse (she was endearingly under the impression that she owned the establishment in which she had a suite) to drive her to the cemetery, and there, unknown to us until later that afternoon, she saw from her car, at the edge of an assembly of cars, her oldest son lowered into the earth. He had been visiting her every day, often taking her to a local restaurant for lunch, and her grief was, by her standards, convulsive; but she did not break her record–she never broke it–which was never, ever to complain, because, she explained, she could never repay of God the favors he had done her, no matter what tribulations she might need to suffer.
Ten years ago, my wife and I arrived in Sharon from New York much later than we had expected, and Mother had given up waiting for us, so we went directly up to the guest room. There was a little slip of blue paper on the bed lamp, another on the door to the bathroom, a third on the mirror. They were: love notes, on her 3 X 5 notepaper, inscribed “Mrs. William F. Buckley.” Little valentines of welcome, as though we had circled the globe. There was no sensation to match the timbre of her pleasure on hearing from you when you called her on the telephone, or the vibration of her embrace when she laid eyes on you. Some things truly are unique.
Five days before she died–one week having gone by without her having said
anything, though she clutched the hands of her children and grandchildren as they came to visit, came to say good-bye–the nurse brought her from the bathroom to the armchair and–inflexible rule–put on her lipstick, and the touch of rouge, and the pearls. Suddenly, and for the first time since the terminal descent began a fortnight earlier, she reached out for her mirror. With effort she raised it in front of her face, and then said, a teasing smile on her face as she turned to the nurse, “Isn’t it amazing that anyone so old can be so beautiful?” The answer, clearly, was, Yes, it was amazing that anyone could be so beautiful.