Growing Up
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April 1, 1987. Pompano. Reliving my mother’s death, a year ago today, I am haunted by the ruminative, from-somewhere-beyond look in her eyes the afternoon before she emerged from deep sleep and studied my face. I left her in order to drive Alexander to Kennedy Airport for his flight to Copenhagen, but on returning to New Paltz found that her fever had vaulted and that her pulse was wildly irregular; still, she knew me, which may not have been the case in the afternoon. Cranking up the hospital bed, I lifted her to the commode next to it, then removed her damp nightgown and replaced it with my pajama top. A few minutes after I had hoisted her emaciated body back to bed, the death rattle began. When suddenly she stopped breathing, I waited alone with her in the dark for several minutes before calling my sleeping sisters.

A littler more than a year before, she had been given a choice between certain death in three or four months or having a kidney removed and possibly living longer, a high-risk operation because of her age and damaged heart that she faced with incredible pluck. The night before the surgery she walked around the corridor of her hospital floor with me and each of my sisters, in turn, telling us about God’s will and how we must be brave.

At four o’clock the next afternoon, near breaking point after six hours in a waiting room in Kingston’s Benedictine Hospital, I was paged to the telephone — me, and not one of my sisters, I thought, because bad news is broken to the man of the family. The surgeon said: “Your mother…came through the operation; you can see her in about twenty minutes.” Turning to my sisters and niece, all that I could choke out was: “Our great mother….” A few months later I accompanied her to Florida by train and in August drove her to Boston and Maine. But in October, pneumonia struck and after that the coughing from her bedroom never stopped for long.

My first clear memories are of her reading to me in my crib. After dinner — I picture my highchair and the mess I used to make in it — Pearl, my nurse, would help me into my one-piece flannels with the button-down rear, listen to my prayers, tuck me in with my toy terrier, and turn on my bed lamp. Then my mother would come and in her lulling, musical voice, recite verses, tell me stories (King Arthur, Robin Hood), read to me (The Little Engine That Could, Sharp Eyes The Silver Fox, Washington’s Young Aides), and sing songs. Her singing allured me to music forever — sweet voice of a mother’s love in a child’s ears. My mother.

I am certain that I never had any subconscious wish to go back to the womb, from which I broke out prematurely, but I consciously long for those readings — when I was a little older, she read to me in the window seat between staircases — and for her goodnight kiss. On going-out nights, this was powdered and perfumed (“Evenings in Paris”); parents in that remote age went ballroom dancing on Saturday nights — I see her in a red evening gown with bare shoulders — and to parties in New York on New Year’s Eve. The distant hoots of Hudson River boats and U and D trains (Ulster and Delaware, the “Useless and Dilapidated,” as my father called it) insinuated themselves into my sleep.

I remember you pushing me in my swing in our chestnut tree, pulling me on my sled, playing croquet with me on the side lawn, teaching me tennis on our new clay court, gardening in the flower beds and trimming the vines in the rose arbor, picking berries with me in the woods and fields by Ringtop and Kaufman’s Pond. I remember our Easter egg hunts and following the trail of your cryptic notes: “Near the side window in the attic,” “Inside the door of the food cellar,” “On the upper shelf of the dumb waiter in the butler’s pantry.” I remember the “mite boxes” that during Lent we had to fill for the poor from our weekly allowance money. And I remember your medicine-taking games, marching us from room to room singing “the cod liver oil brigade,” and at the end of the parade bribing us with chocolate to swallow large spoonfuls of the revoltingly fishy fluid.

And decorating the Christmas tree. This was fixed in a standard in the library during Advent, when we attached lights, tinsel and icicles, and the heavy heirloom, 18th-century gold and silver balls that had to be delicately unwrapped and handled. On Christmas Eve I was sent early to bed to be able to stay awake and sing a solo in the midnight service, which I loved for its music: the Bach chorale preludes, Mozart’s “Alleluia,” a Tchaikovsky anthem, and, during Communion, unison medieval plainsongs in squared meters. One Christmas morning I descended the stairs to find a Lionel electric train, blue engine, passenger cars, cattle cars and cabooses racing over tracks that tunnels through mountains and crossed bridges to stations where my father controlled the signals and switches. Another year I received a chemistry set, with near conflagrant consequences.

And the birthday parties for me, with paper hats for my friends, and pink-icing cake and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, and pictures in a magic lantern. For my seventeenth, she gave me a big Breitkopf score of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth autographed by Serge Koussevitzky (how was that managed?). But by then I was away at school, desperately homesick.

How I loved the clothes you made for me, especially the black satin suit with white cuffs and collar that I wore on Sundays with black patent leather shoes. But also the scarves and coats and knitted woolen hats, the crepe-de-chine boat-shaped admiral’s hat, and the lavender chenille bedspread and window valances that matched the lilacs outside my window. In your old age, you always dressed up for me because I noticed and complimented you on your clothes (and told you that your white hair was as beautiful as it was honest).

You changed after your father’s sudden, premature, heart-attack death (1930), which was kept from me at first because I was too young to know. The mysterious explanation about going to Heaven disturbed me, partly because you had said the year before that our canary, Tweetie, had gone there and I did not think the same place appropriate for human beings. Moreover, I loved my grandfather, who showed me a Civil War rifle and a uniform of the 120th Regiment that someone in his family had worn. The Civil War was real to me as a child, especially the stories about my father’s maternal grandfather, Thomas Gibbs, who had survived the disease and misery of Andersonville Prison in Georgia. Phyllis, my elder by two years, told me that our mother’s absences and crying spells were caused by her father’s “death.” You did not play the piano, or sing, or laugh anymore, and one day during our second summer at Willowbrook, when you went for a walk by yourself and did not return for three hours, she feared that you might have drowned yourself. If I think of Willowbrook now, that day comes to mind before all others. I was happier next summer when we moved to Lake Katrine.

Most memories are of you alone, not together with my father. As children, and until we went away to school, we took sides: I with my father, Phyllis with you. We grew up believing that he was the “brains” of the family, partly because he could do math in his head, was quick-thinking, witty, caustic, had always been at the head of his classes and was valedictorian in his schools.[1] He was wiry and fast-moving in body (quarterback on his Syracuse University team), as well as in mind. A born debater, in his last years he often seemed to use his good command of English to contradict me. But he placed a higher value on “learning” and the arts than anyone in his world, seeking out and introducing me to the most interesting among the German-Jewish refugees who, in the 1930s, settled in the Woodstock and Catskill Mountain area. I remember him taking me to see an elderly musician near Saugerties who quickly disparaged my adolescent discovery of Sibelius by comparing the opening of Finlandia with the opening of the Coriolanus Overture: “Beethoven keeps going.”

My anticlerical, church-avoiding father made fun of your religion, but, inconsistently, confiscated the copy of Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian that I read at ten. He chided you for failing to appreciate his sarcasm, to see the joke, and it is true that you did not. Later we understood that the conflict between his wishful thinking and your “plain-truth” reality was deep, and that his scathing tongue and devastating comments offended you. But he was also a generous, kind-hearted man who gave secretly to people in need. You deflated his ego and punctured his pride; all pride was false, you said, distinguishing it from amour-propre. And while you may have been overemotional, he was afraid of emotion, or emotionally immature. In old age, affection flowed from you, but he suppressed it in himself.

You were the strict, the implacable; my father the lenient, soft-touch parent. You did not punish me the day when you trailed me to school and caught me removing my galoshes and hiding them behind a tree (only sissies wore them); and the time after my recovery from the measles when you found that I had not taken my pills, but stored them in the keyhole of my bedroom door. But when I came home from school one day with a coarse acquisition to my vocabulary, you literally washed my mouth out with soap, and when you found me with an older boy trading puffs on a cigarette that he had filched, you forced me to inhale one of my father’s cigars until I was sick.

Etiquette was supremely important to you. Any infraction provoked fearful glowers in public and, at home, the forfeiture of dessert — not the tapioca pudding that I disliked anyway (“fish eyes in glue”), but my favorite Brown Betty with hard sauce. Table manners were inculcated already in the bib and rattle stage. Holding my hand with the baby spoon as I gurgled my alphabet soup, you would say: “We sail the boat from the harbor toward the opposite shore, lift it to our lips and unload it from the side.”

You were strong-willed, resolute, powerfully determined, independent, unwilling to be helped, and highly structured: everything from spring and autumn house cleaning to Monday washday had its inalterable time. And place: we shelled nuts by the blue-tile dining room fireplace, worked on our stamp albums by the red-tile hall fireplace, played word games by the white-tile library fireplace. (Most of our childhood games were educational; lessons in disguise.) You were compulsive, too: a compulsive worker, compulsive finisher of whatever you started, compulsive, perhaps, even in your charities — I remember the “sunshine baskets” that you used to fill up and take to hospitals, and the “club” that you founded for the old and infirm called, speaking of euphemisms, “The Golden Age.”

These fading older pictures are pushed away by sad later ones that intensify the regret for past happiness — or, as Eliot says, “what seems happiness when it is past.” Most days toward the end you remained in your bedroom, but each time that I drove up from New York you made your way down the hall and called feebly from the top of the stairs, “Coming down,” whereupon I helped you descend slowly from step to step.

When I kissed your forehead in the last days and you did not respond, I said, “Mother, you taught us that we should not receive without giving,” after which I would feel a gentle peck on my cheek, or the tips of your fingers touching my face. “I am not getting any better,” you would say, not despairingly, but to help prepare me. “Bob so terribly wants me to get better,” you told Phyllis, who opposed my acceptance of the tragic sense — Unamuno’s “Man who dies and does not want to die” — with arguments about psychological and mental “preparation,” as if death could be domesticated.

I never knew what you really thought about my relationship with the Stravinskys, apart from your disappointment that, so you imagined, I gave up a career as a conductor to stay with him. The pain I must live with now is that I did not come home for your birthdays and for holidays, but spent most of them with the Stravinskys. In all my thirty-four years with them, your letters, with their incidental sermons on right and wrong, and on no compromises. You encouraged me, telling me that the Stravinskys needed me, that he was my destiny, that what I did for him was important. You wanted me to give more time to conducting and to write different kinds of books; honey catches more flies than vinegar, you used to say of my review pieces. What I should have written was a memoir for you — about our summer picnics at the Ashokan reservoir, our excursions to Kingston Point, the Dutches County Fair and the Danbury Fair, riding the Rhinecliff Ferry past the lonely lighthouse in the river beyond Rondout, about my love-filled childhood.

You used to say that while carrying me you played the piano from morning to night, and my earliest post-natal awareness of music is of your daily playing and singing. But though music was your gift, your calling was to teach. After your own children had grown up, teaching came first. How I admired you for going back to college to take refresher courses, and how pleased you would be to know that the Ulster County Legislature adjourned in your memory on the day of your funeral, and that a ninety-year-older gentleman, last survivor of your class in Kingston Academy, came all the way from Schenectady to place flowers on your grave.

The most terrible moment came not in Wiltwyck Cemetery (“Thou art the grave where buried love doth live”), but earlier, arriving for the funeral at St. John’s Church and seeing the sign on the lawn: “Arpha Lawson Craft 1897-1986” — like the “1882-1971” over the television screen on the day that Stravinsky died, the open end closed, the life completed and belonging to past time, “past perfect” time. We were closest during my years aged 5 to 12 in the choir here, where I learned so much music. When you were at La Scala in Milan in July 1963, shortly after I had conducted there, and saw a poster with my name, you said that you pictured me in your mind’s eye as a choirboy. From the 50 cents a week I earned in the choir as soprano soloist, I saved five dollars to buy you a Christmas present: a glass ship with sails of translucent shells floating on a blue-mirror sea. Fifty years later, you told my sisters that this was your favorite of all gifts you had ever received. “Je voudrais être enfant, avoir ma mère encore”: Laforgue’s cry is unbearably poignant.

At a Christmas Eve in St. John’s only a few years ago, we stood together and you faintly sang hymns and recited prayers (“I have left undone those things that I ought to have done and done those things I ought not to have done”) from books that you had opened for me, but did not need to look at yourself. In the same place for your funeral, the Hudson Valley String Quartet played Mozart’s Ave Verum and Beethoven’s last Adagio, while I pulled the hairs on the back of my hand in a failing attempt not to cry, and a tenor sang Tennyson’s corny “Crossing the Bar,” requested by you so long ago and anticipated ever since with tears.

[1] He refused to give the requested address for this honor and this requirement fell to his runner-up, Charles de le Verne, who is known today though the marriage of his daughter Anne to the poet Ted Weiss, a close friend of Auden’s. (He confessed to my sister in October 2014 that this family was anti-Semitic, but my father said merely that he was really stuck-up.)


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