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Sons and Mothers

Coping with punk, the draft and leaving home.
By Jo Brans |

Congratulate me, please. In the past six months my son Winton has turned 18, graduated from high school and gone off to the college of his choice. And if you think the fact that hundreds of Dallas kids do that every year makes it any less an accomplishment for them or for him, you’re dead wrong. During three years time, I’ve learned to brush my teeth with my fingers crossed, to look for the laundry in the back of the Volkswagen and the dirty dishes under the bed, to listen for the telephone in my sleep.

Yet somehow Winton filled out the forms, packed the bags, Caught the plane. Tall and manly, he even turned to us just before he boarded, exchanged hugs and handshakes all around and said shyly but seriously, “Thank you all for sending me.” It was a moment to savor, if there had been time. But they’d sounded the last call for boarding the moment we arrived at the gate. So he flew off, breathless, and we drove home in a reflective cloud.

Even now it could go either way, I realized in the car. As we left D/FW heading east, my husband turned to me and said, or I thought he said, “Well, you’ve botched him.”

“Botched!” I said, appalled that he was voicing my worst fears. “Botched- “

“No, honey,” he said patiently. “Not botched-launched. You’ve launched him, I said.”

We both laughed, but my laugh was rueful. In his Freudian slip of my ear, I recognized an eternal verity: It’s probably harder to be the mother of an identity crisis than to be one yourself. I’ve always felt sorrier for Jocasta than for Oedipus. At least he was the hero.

On the other hand, I didn’t feel at all like going home and hanging myself with my own girdle, as poor Jocasta did. Instead, I went into Winton’s room and looked around at the bass guitar and amp, the bench press and weights, the Bible and the encyclopedia, the posters of Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten, the stacks of Tennis World and the surreptitious Penthouse, the Sesame Street puppets, the “WINTON” street sign, the bookcase crammed with the Warren Commission Report on the Kennedy assassination, with The Fires of Faith and 13 Days to Glory, with Letting Go and In Cold Blood, with Women in Love and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.

In his desk drawer I found a Clash button; a miniature bottle, opened, of tequila from Oaxaca, complete with worm; five voter registration cards; a birthday card signed by Betty Stove, Francoise Durr and Rosie Casals; a girl’s scarf; The Preppy Handbook; a sentimental beer can; and a form from Connecticut College, where he’d headed, due no later than July 15.

On his bulletin board, at my request, he’d posted his vital statistics: Social Security number, new address, pants size 33/33, shirt 15 1/2/33, shoes 9 1/2D, warm-ups and sweaters large. Somehow over the past year my boy had become a man, had learned to negotiate the welter of his world, had grown to adult proportions. Not for the first time, I wondered how and when it had happened.

In other societies I might not have to wonder; to become a man one had to be tested or fulfill a concrete rite. According to Erik Erikson, in the primitive past “the adolescent was forced to sacrifice some of his blood, some of his teeth, or a part of his genitals” in a ritual that celebrated the advent of manhood. Joseph Campbell records rites of passage practiced by an Australian tribe that require the boy-initiate to live only on the freshly drawn blood of the older men for as long as a month in order to become a man. In England and much of the continent, compulsory military service separates the men from the boys; and in the Communist world, party membership presumably is a goal for growing up.

We do things differently in this country. As Winton himself wrote in his school paper:

I’m trying but I can’t escape it: I’m turning 18. Department of Public Safety says 1 need a new license. Selective Service thinks I’m ready to be blown to bits in El Salvador. State legislature says I can see Debby Does Dallas at the Triple X downtown. I can even have sex with other consenting adults. And besides all this, 1 can vote. With all these new privileges and responsibilities the one thing I need is what they say I can’t have: I NEED A DRINK!. ..

I’d just as soon stay 17 forever.

For a while there I thought he might. For 15 months or so-well past his 18th birthday – he managed to stay 17. One day in his history notebook he drew a self-portrait entitled “Portrait of the Artist as a Duck”; these new “privileges and responsibilities” apparently slid off his back like water off a duck’s back.

I hounded him to get a driver’s license that didn’t read “provisional,” with a picture that didn’t make him look as if the “provisional” applied to his intellect. I hounded him to register to vote-how do you think those five registration cards got there? Yes, one at a time. I even, God help me, at a certain point began to hound him to register for the draft.

God’s help was needed then because of my own wildly fluctuating feelings about the draft. Certainly I knew that military service is compulsory across the globe, an accepted if not welcome interlude in millions of young lives. In America, however, we have almost always used our draftees for war, and I oppose war, am willing to “fight war, not wars,” as a British slogan reads.

But it is illegal not to register, punishable by prison and fine, and if I couldn’t see my son a soldier, neither could I see him a jailbird.

To complicate the issue further in my fuzzy brain, Winton came home from school one afternoon, threw his books down on the kitchen table and announced, “Mom, I’ve decided: If they call me up, I’m going to go.” His eyes glowed with resolution and fine feeling.

I knew I was supposed to respond in kind, to play the stalwart Roman matron, “Of course, my son. Come back with your shield or on it.”

But my scenario wasn’t his. Instead, I found myself silently recalling the schoolboys who’d fought in the Confederacy, who’d just dropped their books and gone; my own uncle, out of Normal School and into World War I at 16; my 18-year-old high school boyfriend who’d enlisted and sent me silk pajamas from Korea. I thought of Puck.

Puck is Winton’s cat, given to him in merest kittenhood by Wink’s girlfriend, Ann, and now grown to feline adolescence. Because we live near a busy street, Puck has never been outside; his paws are as pink as a baby’s toes. But irrational fires flame his ignorant machismo, and he sits on the back of the couch in the living room window and yowls manifestoes at the neighborhood toms.

I wanted to say with the Union mother in The Red Badge of Courage whose son tells her he’s enlisted, “Henry, don’t be a fool.” Instead I smiled (I hoped admiringly) and was silent.

But I needn’t have worried; Winton didn’t intend to enlist, and even registration simply became one of the countless chores I nagged him to do. Recently I found a note I’d left him one morning when he’d slept late:

Wink – on your way to school, go to the post office on Swiss and register for draft. Don’t forget (we’ve got Canada, remember).

ILY, Mom

My husband has an almost-aunt, the fiancée of his Dutch uncle killed by the Nazis, living in Canada. I’d decided, in the twists of my immoral heart, that he could register to satisfy the law and flee to Canada to satisfy me, if the need arose. Whether he concurred, I don’t know.

I finally heard him one Saturday morning in May – he’d turned 18 in March – on the phone to Ann, “I can’t go swimming right now. My mother says I have to write my grandmother, clean up my room and go register for the draft.

“I’ll tell you what. Let me call Chris. He and I can go register together, and then we’ll all go out for lunch at Herrera’s. Okay? Okay, bye.”

At the time, he was wearing a T-shirt with what looked like a dead baby chicken on the front, tennis shorts with three safety pins across the fly and a pair of holey tennis shoes with the strings untied. “At the age of 17,” a John Updike short story begins, “I was poorly dressed and funny-looking and went around thinking of myself in the third person.” That’s an uncannily accurate description of Winton most of last year.

I now want to announce to his teachers, the parents of his friends and the world at-large that the poorly dressed part, at least, was not my fault.

First of all, the boy simply wouldn’t tie his shoes. I’d make him tie them as he went out the door, and he’d untie them on the way to school. Once, when he was 8, he’d written a poem:



It’s warm out today.

I think I’ll wear my bare feet.

He seemed to have decided to wear them his entire 17th year.

I don’t know exactly what those flapping tongues of freedom meant to Win-ton, though I can guess, but they became a metaphor of sorts for his algebra teacher and tennis coach, Mr. Kittleman. Mr. Kit-tleman sent home a frustrated report one six weeks, “I very seldom caught Winton with his shoes tied. He managed to resist most of my efforts to help. Nevertheless, his achievement test results indicate mastery of many details.”

Winton calculated being poorly dressed and funny-looking. He worked at it. A naturally handsome boy, if I do say so, he pushed aside the Varsity Shop shirts and cords in his closet to make room for striped-awning pants and fatigues bought at the Army Surplus store, bright orange and green shirts from Goodwill and T-shirts rated X.

He cut his own hair, or his friend Gavin Fite cut it for him. The two of them would retire to Wink’s bathroom with scissors and a can of hairspray and emerge an hour later with funny-looking peaks and spikes and gaps in their hair. Gavin had a crew cut with long lovelocks cascading down his neck. I don’t know what to call what Winton had. They had decided they were punks.

A year later, Winton wrote a description of his punk era:

For a little I tried to be as typical a high school student as possible. Then I discovered punk rock and its many joys. I learned to love leather and short hair, hot beer and slam-dancing. I was obsessed with chains and with sticking my head into huge amplifiers when bands played. 1 loved being gross, nihilistic, indifferent and different. Somehow I had gone from the private school, middle-class kid to a poor, rebellious outcast from the wrong side of the tracks. I loved the tragic idea of being “young, loud, and snotty.”



During this time, the late James Dean became his model for behavior. He had watched old James Dean movies such as Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden so many times that he was on occasion eerily like James Dean, especially when I asked him to take out the garbage. Finally, my husband suggested that he read East of Eden, and he did – about five times.

Don’t think I took all this punk stuff lying down. One afternoon, a little more annoyed than usual with his projection of himself as a sensitive but tougher teen-ager abandoned by his mother, I wrote him a long and somewhat ponderous letter:



Dear Winton,

Let’s think again about this parent/ child business. 1 have realized recently that I have never really spelled out exactly what I expect of you, and maybe that’s why we get in trouble, fight, feel let-down, each of us with the other. So, here it is.

Educate yourself. This is your mainjob, just as mine is teaching. You have lotsof wonderful help from your school andyour teachers, from Willem, your dad andme. But basically it’s your job. You will beyour own piece of work, whatever youbecome.

Contribute to our life at home. I wantit to be better. You can help by doing yourchores without static, promptly and cheerfully, on your own.

Also, why not soft-pedal incendiary issues? Concede a point now and then – shorter showers, neater car. That would help.

Then, be friendly. Offer conversation. Offer to help with dinner. I’ll listen better. I like you.

3) Treat all the people in your life withcourtesy and respect. Control the outburst, the angry reaction, the rude joke. People are more easily hurt than any of us realize. I think if you try this for a few days, you’ll be amazed at the change in climate.

4) Organize your life. Be punctual. Getup in time to get to school with thingsdone. Tell me your plans; adhere to yourcurfew. Get your books, clothes, homework assignments together. When youseem to be more disciplined, more organized, you’ll be trusted more, treated like aman instead of a child.

5) Above all, try to empathize. We allcare for each other. We want to make eachother happy, and reasons for everythingshouldn’t have to be spelled out by anyof us.

Anyway, these are things I expect of you. Somehow I think just having these things written down so you can read them will be a boost to your morale and to your achievement.

I love you. I like you. I am proud of your fine mind, your wit, your good heart, your ability to make friends, your original nature. You have everything on your side, including your

Mom.

To this well-meaning but embarrassing epistle, hardly an appropriate message from the mother of a punk, I received a one-word reply, a sheet of paper bearing the enormous and carefully stenciled letters:

TRUCE

I adore bravura gestures and bravado style, however, and on the whole Winton’s punk phase amused me a great deal, especially since, as far as I could tell, there was no real harm in it. For the most part, he was ironic about it himself. For example, in his school paper’s humor section, he indulged himself with a little whimsy about Puck:

My New Wave Cat

I sit at my desk and look at my cat, fascinated about how much he has changed. Sure. 1 still love him but he is so different from the cuddly little kitten Ann bought me last year. Let’s face it…. My cat freaked out.

When I first got Puck things were great; we went everywhere together… Then one day, tragedy struck. I came home from school, exhausted from a hard day of failing tests. I felt better about having a man-to-cat talk with Puck. But when I opened the door to my room my life as a pet owner shattered.

Puck had shaved off all his hair and had a huge safety pin stuck through his ear. He was pogoing madly with a little tabby with purple fur. Puck was screaming along with the music as he batted her head viciously with his paws.

After a few more bits about Puck’s experimentation with drugs -“he would just stick his head in his litter box and inhale deeply”-Winton concludes optimistically:

Someday my cat will be normal again, but please be careful. Your cat could turn New Wave any day. My Puck did.



Many times I wanted that day of normalcy to come. I felt more than a little disgruntled when Winton took money he’d earned as a busboy and bought an electric bass guitar and a high-priced amp so he could start his own punk rock group-the height of absurdity in someone without the least claim to musical talent.

“The fact that you have a terrible voice doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to be as bad as Johnny Rotten,” I told him with what I thought was a sly punk wit, “so don’t get your hopes up.”

“Oh, Ma, you just don’t understand,” he retorted. “Anyway, he’s Johnny Lyd-don Limited now.”

I was even more upset one night at the dinner table. Irritated with his portrayal of a Liverpool roughneck with boiling class-anger, I said sharply, “Cut it out, Wink. You can’t be punk forever, you know.” He put down his fork, looked at me seriously and said, “Yes, I can. Whatever else I do, I’m going to be a punk all my life.” Then he quietly left the table.

That one gave me some bad nights.

An encouraging note even then, however, was his tennis. He wore Day-Glo shirts and camouflage to the movies or bowling alley with Ann, but for Christmas he wanted a Fila warm-up that cost so much that the whole family chipped in. He practiced hard; he wanted to be the best.

The shoes with the untied strings had to be Adidas, and he bought himself a graphite racquet. Except for John McEnroe, punks don’t play tennis, I told myself as I swallowed and paid for the lessons. A report from Mr. Kittleman late in Winton’s senior year, when Wink became captain of the tennis team and “most valuable player,” confirmed this: “Winton ’tied his shoe strings’ and really saved the team this year.”

An updated little note that I once found on my pillow emerges from my memory drawer: “!!!Please wake me up at 6:00. Must have practice, bacon, eggs! etc.! I love you very much. I’M GOING TO WIN. Good Night.”

If Winton was always a devoted tennis player, I’ve been an awful tennis mother. Sure, I can work to pay for his lessons and make bacon and eggs before the match. But nothing can really make me interested in that little ball flying back and forth across a net. I’ve never understood the game. For years I’d go to Wink’s matches and try to figure out whether he’d won or lost a set by the way he acted. On the days he acted like John McEnroe or Jimmy Conners I could tell.

But as Winton got older, cooler and more controlled, as he quit snarling at the officials, throwing his racquets around and muttering to himself, I didn’t get any smarter. Often 1 no longer knew what to say to him after a match, had no idea which of the gentlemanly tennis players in front of me was the victor. Finally 1 quit going. I suppose I will feel guilty forever that on his 18th birthday he asked me to come watch him play tennis and I didn’t, though his father went. I just couldn’t stand my own phoniness any more.

I think at a certain point, more or less consciously, I decided I couldn’t possibly comprehend all the sides of my complex son or share all of his enthusiasms, but that it didn’t matter. More important, I decided that 1 mustn’t let my inability to comprehend limit his ability to experience.

In his essay Youth: Fidelity and Diversion, Erik Erikson says that the multiple interests and various roles of young people give evidence to the intensity of “the search for something and somebody to be true to.” Erikson uses Hamlet: Young Hamlet shifts from prince to play-actor, from intellectual to lover, faithful to an ideal in his mind for which he lacks a physical form.

How could I as a mother, like somepompous and absurd Polonius, demandof Winton “To thine own self be true”when he didn’t yet know which self hewas? Or might be? Erikson is right. Ayoung person should not yet know whathe is, but he should have a large sense ofall he might be. Aristotle calls this diversity the proper mode of youth.

Take Holden Caulfield. It’s no accident that 32 years after the original publication of Catcher in the Rye, young people still love the book: They see themselves in its rebellious and confused hero. Disgusted with the “phoniness” of the adult world, like my phoniness as a tennis mother, 16-year-old Holden tries on role after role, from “tapdancing governor’s son” to Rudolf Schmidt, his school’s janitor.

When Wink was packing his books to ship to Connecticut, I picked up his grease-stained, water-swollen, dog-eared and battered copy of Catcher and said, “Aren’t you taking this?”

“I don’t need to,” he said. “I know it by heart.”

But of all the roles Winton played last year, the most exciting one for his family was that of writer. We are all scribblers in our clan. We believe, as Joan Didion once wrote, that “the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language,” as we believe that by writing things down one discovers, keeps, remembers the changing, but-to use her phrase -“the implacable ’I’.”

If Winton was “poorly dressed and funny-looking,” he also, like the Updike character, “went around thinking about himself in the third person,” a kind of self-consciousness, self-awareness, that is essential for the writer. He wrote these thoughts down, told lies about himself in order to learn the truth of himself and from the beginning, his seriousness and talent were evident. An indifferent student for the most part, nevertheless he had, we saw, the eye and the ear of a natural writer. Whether he ever publishes a book is another matter, and less important just now than that he’s found a way to know his own mind. As Flannery O’Connor remarked, “How can I know what I think until I see what I’ve said?”

His first feature for the paper, early in his senior year, recapitulated-amateurishly but honestly-an hypnotic trance on which he’d spent busboy bucks in order to relive past lives. He had, he told the skeptical reader, gone back under hypnosis into two previous existences: a long and happy life as a writer, and a short, abortive one as a mentally deranged war veteran. His conclusion was masterful, a proud mother thought:

That’s the story. And if you have doubts, that’s okay; 1 have them myself.

The two lives seem to present opposite extremes. The first life would be, in my opinion, the ideal productive and imaginative life. The second represents the lowest, most worthless life.

As I look back on the experience of reliving them, it seems as though I were trying to discover, through my subconscious, what some unknown things were like.

But why should I be so rational, logical, and skeptical? After all, as Hamlet said

There is more in heaven and earth,Horatio,

Than is dreamt of in your philosophy.

It is that “more” that the writer discovers and that Winton set himself to find. All of his experiences became, as they are for writers, “material.” Unhappy with new disciplinary measures at his beloved school, he wrote:

Formerly friendly teachers now patrol the campus, armed with staunch officiali-ty and detention cards, ready to execute well-meaning students for the most menial infractions. A once-intimate school has now attained an aura of impersonality and sleek professionalism. Microphoned monotoned mornings, empty floors, and puke silver water towers dull the former splash of color in a gray world.

Worried about getting into a good college because of his checkered academic background – he was in the fifth quintile, in ugly prep-school jargon – he converted his worries into humorous prose:

College representatives make me sick, literally. Before every college meeting I usually feel faint and weak, and my hands sweat. I’m a horrible actor, and the idea of selling myself is far from agreeable. For those villainous and envied few with high grades and scores the process is hard; for me it is nearly impossible. Making my high school career look good is like trying to make a pimple look like a beauty mark.

And when he found the college he wanted to attend, he composed an admission essay that would, and did, move the heart of the sternest committee: He made it.

Finally, he wrote a piece of genuine autobiography, “Friends East of Eden,” which won a citywide contest for best column. On his evaluation form one of the judges wrote: “I loved these boys, and through them, you. You combine imagination with clarity and objectivity, which should be of great benefit to you as a writer all your life.”

We were so proud-but let his stepfather tell you.

May 15, 1982

Dear Winton,

I want you to know that I am prouder of you for winning the Best Columnist Award than for just about anything you’ve ever done. I reread the winning column, and it certainly deserved all the praise the judges gave it. You write with intelligence, and a genuine writer’s voice. That last quality no one learns: You got it or you ain’t, and you got it.

If there was anything I would have wanted you to succeed in it was writing. But it seems to me you have succeeded not only in writing but in everything else you’ve done in the last few years. First, you’ve gotten into the college you wanted to go to. Then you became number one on the tennis team. (Do you realize the last time I ever played tennis was when you beat me? It was at those courts next to the Unitarian Church on Preston. I mean why bother when a 12-year-old mops the court with you?) Not least a part of your success is the fact that you have dozens of friends – people who care a lot about you and will one day boast that they “knew you back then.”

Finally, 1 think that you have turned into a really excellent person. I want you to know that I admire you and love you, and that 1 couldn’t be prouder of you if you were my own son. Which, in a way, I feel you really are.

You’re going to do just great!

Love,

Willem



All that last month of high school, whatever Winton did I imagined I saw in it the mark of the writer. He has, like many modern children, a crowded parental structure, complete with two stepparents, and we all go everywhere when we can. When Winton handled the subtleties of introducing all four of us to all of his friends at the prom with composure and what his father called “a pride on our complexity,” I told myself he’d make a fine novelist. When he beat one of his early tennis teachers after years of trying and launched into a sweaty rhapsody his father told me about, I thought he might be a lyric poet.

At graduation, after 1 looked up smiling at his white dinner jacket and white teeth, 1 looked down at the program and frowned. There, in the middle of his name, he’d caused to have printed a completely unnecessary and totally fictitious “Christopher.” It hyphenated his middle name and caused his to be the only name that took up two lines of the list. Even then, I saw a literary omen. “A pen name,” I thought. “Of course! Why not?”

So we took him to the airport to fly to Connecticut for his freshman year, all five of us proud and nervous, confident and scared. Knowing he’d be too far away to come home until Christmas, we tried to prepare him for the world, to tell him all we’d forgotten to say for 18 years.

“Be sure your teachers know your name,” his stepmother said. “Make a good first impression.”

“Round off your checks to the next highest dollar when you write them down,” said his stepfather, “and you’ll save some money you won’t know you have.”

“Never mix beer and bourbon,” said his father, sneaking him the Time article on herpes. “And call home after 11.”

“Don’t wash your white and colored clothes together,” I said, and whispered, “Call home a lot.”

He did. The first week away, he called home seven times:

1) To tell us he was there and miserable;

2) To ask me to send a blanket, hispillows and “a lot of towels”;

3) To ask if he could call Ann and charge it to our phone;

4) To ask me to mail all his punk postersand the quilt his grandmother made;

5) To tell us he was doing well in tennistryouts, but his courses were “the usualfreshman stuff;

6) To ask if I had Ann’s phone numberat Wheaton;

7) To ask me to mail his desk lamp, pencil sharpener and bulletin board.

“Just go buy them,” I started to say impatiently. Then 1 realized: Slowly but stubbornly this son of mine was trying to convert that Eastern dorm room into his old room at home. He was homesick. “Okay, sweetie,” I said. “I’ll get them in the mail right away.”

The next day I called the post office. “How large a box can I mail fourth class to Connecticut?” I asked.

“Eighty-four inches,” the nice lady at the other end said.

“How do I measure it?”

“Well,” she answered. “Imagine that you’re a box. Now measure from your toes to your head, and then around-“

But she had lost me. I was imagining that I was a box, and then I was imagining mailing myself to Connecticut, a state where I’d never been.

So I decided to go up for Parents’ Weekend.

Wink’s college is in New London, a small town on the Atlantic. “From La Guardia,” the man at American Airlines said, “you fly Pilgrim.” Pilgrim? Pilgrim it was, a tiny toy of a plane in an isolated corner of the airport. The pilot, about the age of the freshman I was on my way to see, handled our luggage, took our tickets and welcomed us aboard. Then he revved up the engines-engine.

As we flew northeast across Long Island Sound, I swear our wings flapped. I looked around at my fellow passengers, all morosely gazing down at the bright water below us, and counted: 13. But the weekend was worth the trip, from the oddly shy reunion Thursday night over hamburgers at Mr. Gee’s, the campus hangout, to our final big seafood orgy at noon on Sunday just before I left.

Friday I turned into a student again, a pleasant reversal for someone who’s been on the other side of the desk for 12 years. In Mr. Bleeth’s literature class, 30 jeans-clad students and I pondered the “terrible mystery” of Chaucer’s Pardoner, a clergyman who blasphemed about his flock, “Let their souls go pick blackberries-I don’t care.” Disapprovingly, we all underlined the words, even the girl whose sweatshirt read, “To Live Is to Dance. To Dance Is to Live.”

In Winton’s philosophy class, we were also intent on the soul. “Tending the soul is the cultivation of intelligence and moral character,” Professor Tehennepe told us. “That is what Socrates means by the good life. ’Vulgar virtue’ is doing what everyone else does, but ’true virtue’ means working out your own actions and the reasons for them.” Diligently we wrote it down and vowed to eschew vulgarity henceforth.

Next came Mr. Gordon’s class, in which we examined George Herbert’s poem, The Flower. This metaphysical plant, we decided, resides in three worlds:

Heaven



Earth



Hell



-just like, guess what, the human soul. “The soul is born in hell, in original sin, according to Herbert,” Mr. Gordon said. “Hell is in a way its mother-a shocking thought. Would you normally describe going to hell as a visit to see your mother?”

“Yeah,” one girl muttered, and the whole class laughed. Wink and I eyed each other and grinned.

Trudging back up the woody path under the soft sun of early fall, we decided that after all this uplift we deserved some blackberry picking. After tennis practice we’d loaf and invite our souls to come along if they liked. So the rest of the weekend we wandered the streets of little New England towns and gawked.

In Stonington we meditated upon the house of the poet James Merrill. “How could somebody who inherited most of Merrill Lynch become a poet?” Winton asked, as we pigged out at Noah’s Café.

“All kinds of strange animals in the ark,” I said. “Maybe it takes Merrill Lynch money to support a habit like poetry.”

At a craft shop in Mystic, I passed over highly glazed pottery and expertly woven rugs, and fell for a sculpture of three crude wooden pigs-two white and one pink. “It’s ’barn art,’” the proprietor told me. “This old man carved them from 200-year-old wood. See, here’s his signature.” As I signed over a traveler’s check, Winton studied me.

“I know why you like those,” he said. “You like things to be sort of unfinished.”

“Sure,” I said, “unfinished and piggish, like you-a pure American product.”

But we had our best conversation Saturday night at Ocean Pizza. The afternoon before I’d sat in the grass on Wink’s yellow warm-up jacket, my little Parents’ Weekend skirt neatly tucked around my knees. While he hit some balls with his teammate Carl, I’d read the rough draft of this piece and nervously wondered what he’d think. When he came off the court, I handed it to him. “What’s this?” he said. “Oh, Lord, Ma.”

Now the time had come to talk about it. “Tell me,” 1 said, as the round Italian mama brought in our combination special. He waited till she left.

Then, “You got some things wrong,” he said. “I haven’t given up punk. I’d always want what it means to me-choosing my own way to be. If it’ll make you feel better, just call it ’true virtue.’ You thought that was okay.”

“Oh,” I said. “Your point. What else?”

“Oh, nothing,” he said. “I mean, I like the piece, and I really even like your writing about me-I mean, I’m flattered, you know?”

“But something is worrying you? What is it?”

“You just make me sound so typical” he blurted. “I mean, when I read it, I can see I’m disgustingly typical, and yet-“

He is right, of course. We talked for a bit about the chief frustration of writing: the difficulty of capturing, in one-dimensional words, the three-dimensional particulars of the world, what Balzac termed “the party of the opposition called life.” And because I’ve been teaching Joan Di-dion and I always talk about what I’m teaching, I quote Joan Didion to him, that as soon as you put two sentences together on a piece of paper you’ve already started lying, that writing is nothing more than trying to tell the truth and failing. Rounding first, I bring in Socrates and the unex-amined life and Montaigne’s essai. “An essay is a trial,” I insist. Then, sliding into second, I hit on Rousseau and “Je sens mon coeur et je connais les hommes.”

“So you see,” I conclude breathlessly, “we’re all typical. Being human means being typical. On the highest throne in the world, Montaigne says, you still have to sit on your own botton.”

Winton listens to me with, 1 believe, amusement and affection. “You talk good, Ma,” he drawls. “But what I’m thinking is that you’re waiting for me to say something that will give you the last line of your story. And I’m not going to say another word.”