Silk Parachute Essay

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The New Yorker, May 12, 1997 P. 108

SHOUTS & MURMURS about the author's memories of his mother, who is ninety-nine. ...When your mother is ninety-nine years old, you have so many memories of her that they tend to overlap, intermingle, and blur. ...It has been alleged that when I was in college she heard that I had stayed up all night playing poker and she wrote me a letter that used the word "shame" forty-two times. I do not recall this. ...The assertion is absolutely false that when I came home from high school with an A-minus she demanded an explanation for the minus. It has been alleged that she spoiled me with protectionism, because I was the youngest child ...It is reported that the following dialogue and ensuing action occurred on January 22, 1941: "Eat your sandwich." ..."I'll eat the sandwich on the way back to school." ...Allegedly, I went up the street with the sandwich in my hand and buried it in a snowbank ...My mother ...was watching. She came out in the bitter cold, wearing only a light dress, ran to the snowbank, dug out the sandwich ...and rammed [it] down my throat, snow and all. I do not recall any detail of the story. ...There was the case of the missing Cracker Jack at Lindel's corner store. Flimsy evidence pointed to Mrs. McPhee's smallest child. It has been averred that she laid the guilt on with the following words: "'Like mother like son' is a saying so true, the world will judge largely of mother by you." ...and also recited it on other occasions too numerous to count. ...We have now covered everything even faintly unsavory that has been reported about this person in ninety-nine years, and even those items are a collection of rumors, half-truths, prevarications, false allegations, inaccuracies, innuendoes, and canards. This is the mother who -- when Alfred Knopf wrote her twenty-two-year-old son a letter saying, "The readers' reports in the case of your manuscript would not be very helpful, and I think might discourage you completely" -- said, "Don't listen to Alfred Knopf. Who does Alfred Knopf think he is, anyway? Someone should go in there and k-nock his block off." ...I also recall her taking me, on or about March 8th, my birthday, to the theatre in New York every year, beginning in childhood. I remember those journeys as if they were today. I remember "A Connecticut Yankee." Wednesday, March 8, 1944. Evidently, my father had written for the tickets, because she and I sat in the last row of the second balcony. Mother knew what to do about that. She gave me for my birthday an elegant spyglass ...I sat there watching the play through my telescope, drawing as many guffaws from the surrounding audience as the comedy on stage. On one of those theater days -- when I was eleven or twelve -- I asked her if we could start for the city early and go out to LaGuardia Field to see the comings and goings of airplanes. ...My mother figured out how to take the subway to a stop in Jackson Heights and a bus from there -- a feat I am unable to duplicate to this day. At LaGuardia, she accompanied me to the observation deck and stood there in the icy wind for at least an hour, maybe two, while I, spellbound, watched the DC-3s coming in ...we went downstairs into the terminal, where she bought me what appeared to be a black rubber ball but on closer inspection was a pair of hollow hemispheres hinged on one side and folded together. They contained a silk parachute. ...If you threw it high into the air, the string unwound and the parachute blossomed. If you sent it up with a tennis racquet, you could put it into the clouds. Not until the development of the ten-megabyte hard disk would the world ever know such a fabulous toy. Folded just so, the parachute never failed. Always, it floated back to you -- silkily, beautifully ...Even if you abused it, whacked it really hard -- gracefully, lightly, it floated back to you.

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