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Review: In 'Losing Mum and Pup,' Christopher Buckley recalls the lives of his parents

The "Pup" of Losing Mum and Pup was William F. Buckley Jr., the conservative icon, friend of presidents and author of 50 books. "Mum" was Patricia Taylor Buckley, the fashionable New York socialite and fundraiser whose pals included Henry Kissinger, Truman Capote, David Niven and Princess Grace.

Both in their 80s, ill and suffering, they died within a year of each other. During that time their only child, satirist and novelist Christopher Buckley, struggled to make their final months comfortable.

It wasn't easy, as the long-suffering son writes in this touching and amusing memoir. He paints vivid portraits of his parents, portraying them as loving (some of the time) but difficult to live with and formidably opinionated.

Pat Buckley had grown up "a debutante in a grand house in Vancouver, British Columbia . . . She was beautiful, theatrical, bright as a diamond, the wittiest woman I have ever known. She could have done anything; instead, she devoted herself heart, soul and body to being Mrs. William F. Buckley. (A full-time job.)"

William Buckley, one of 10 children of a prominent family in Sharon, Conn., was an essayist, editor, critic, novelist, television host, sportsman and bon vivant. "Cristo," as the author's parents called him, writes of spending much of his life trying to measure up to a father who could dash off a 750-word column in five minutes and complete a novel in six weeks of part-time writing days.

The couple married in 1950 and spent the rest of their lives together, often not speaking. But they adored each other, and when Patricia died in April 2007, William was bereft. He was also in terrible health (emphysema, diabetes, sleep apnea), and "his daily input of pills would be enough to give Hunter Thompson pause," writes his son, who was so concerned that he spent weeks at a time with his father in the family home in Stamford, Conn.

"Pup's self-medicating was, I venture, a chemical extension of the control he exerted over every other aspect of his life," writes Christopher, whose efforts to reason with his father were mostly futile. And until that last year, "Pup never plunged into bad moods or became grouchy if things didn't go his way, perhaps for the reason that they always went his way."

Father and son had fought frequently, often over religion. The father was a devout Catholic, the son an agnostic. About half the 7,000 e-mails and letters they exchanged over the years were contentious, and because William was the legendary host of Firing Line and one of the great debaters of the 20th century, Christopher writes that he often felt "like a chipmunk pitted against a rhino."

But there were many happy times. One chapter in Losing Mum and Pup details the author's adventures at sea with his father, including one summer in 1975 when they sailed across the Atlantic, traveling 4,400 miles. They had so much fun they crossed the Pacific 10 years later, sailing from Honolulu to New Guinea.

After William Buckley died on Feb. 27, 2008, he was cremated, as his wife had been 10 months earlier. His memorial service was at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York and open to the public, with 2,200 people in attendance. President George Bush called with regrets.

Patricia Buckley's memorial service, by invitation only, was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The other President Bush, for whom Christopher had written speeches when he was vice president, called when she died. Some 400 people attended her service, many of them socialites; Henry Kissinger spoke at both services.

There's much more in Losing Mum and Pup, including tales of Mum's "serial misbehavior" and frequent prevarication, and little-known details of Pup's political involvement, such as the hush-hush phone calls he got from Watergate figure Howard Hunt that could have led to Richard Nixon's impeachment.

He wrote the memoir as a celebration "of two extraordinary people," says Christopher Buckley, who's married with two children of his own in Washington, D.C. And there's no malice in his wonderful stories. Though his life with his parents wasn't always easy, it was a privileged life, he acknowledges, and all three were devoted to each other.

"I hope this book, for all its complexities, is a testament to that devotion," he concludes.

Elizabeth Bennett is a freelance writer in Houston.

Losing Mum and Pup

By Christopher Buckley

Twelve, 251 pages, $24.99

An excerpt | Losing Mum and Pup

Pup and I had engaged in our own Hundred Years' War over the matter of faith. Our Sturmiest und Drangiest times were over religion. Pup had the most delicious, reliable, wicked, vibrant sense of humor of anyone I knew, yet his inner Savonarola was released at the merest hint of (to use his term) impiety. Finally exhausted, I adopted — whether hypocritically or cowardly or wisely — a Potemkin stance of being back in the fold. My agnosticism, once defiant, had gone underground. I no longer had the desire to nail my theses to his church door. By now I knew we didn't have much time left, and I didn't want to spend it locking theological horns, making him heartsick with my intransigence.

A few days later, after Mum's private funeral Mass, Pup and I busied ourselves one afternoon by going through her papers. She lost all interest in deskwork during the six or seven months of her invalidity. We found unpaid grocery bills, credit-card bills, undistributed cash for staff Christmas tips; uncashed checks; unopened letters, including, I saw to my disconcertment, a number from me. This was neither carelessness nor any failure of affection on her part, but rather fear, and realizing it made me wince in self-rebuke.

Mum's serial misbehavior over the years had driven me, despairing, to write her scolding — occasionally scalding — letters. Now I saw that she had simply stopped opening all letters from me, against the possibility that they might contain another excoriation. I opened one of them and read:

Dear Mum, That really was an appalling scene at dinner last night. . . .

I wished that I could take back that letter, even though every word of it had been carefully weighed and justified. On reflection, it wasn't fair of me. I'm a professional writer; she was not. It wasn't a level playing field, however outrageous the provocations that had driven me, hot-faced, flushing and furious, to the keyboard. And they never — ever — did one bit of good, these pastoral letters of mine. Why, I wondered now, had I never accepted the futility of hurling myself against Fortress Mum?

Review: In 'Losing Mum and Pup,' Christopher Buckley recalls the lives of his parents 05/08/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 8, 2009 2:21pm]

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