The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
...it becomes the throned monarch better than his crown;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
Friday, December 01, 2006
My father was a prolific picture taker...a recorder of all family events. When he died his albums passed into the care of my oldest sister..who has lovingly cataloged them,...and she, in turn, passed our share along to my family. She gave them into the keeping of my son...the new custodian of family history for our branch of the family. And at my son's home this Thanksgiving, I encountered the albums once again. There they all were before my eyes..the people and places of a lifetime not so long ago. I could not have imagined I'd forgotten any of it..but indeed I had! There was my husband with..a mustache! There was a omnipresent neighbor whose name I could not recall. And there, in the middle of it all, was the girl in a ponytail that I used to be. Studying the pictures, I realized I'd forgotten a lot about her. But the old photos brought it back.
The Girl in the Ponytail lived once upon a time...when her beloved parents and godparents were still alive. Family get-togethers were festive but easy going events. The Girl in the Ponytail's children still lived at home and her husband was still just the young Engineer. She seems not so interested in fashion...the same taffeta skirt appears Christmas after Christmas...but what did it matter? The Girl in the Ponytail always had a child on her lap. A closet full of suits and cocktail dresses awaited her, but she had no idea then, as she posed without a care, with homemade apple butter spattered on the front of her blouse. She is always hugging someone. Her arms never seem to be empty.
The Girl with the Ponytail always seemed to have a houseful of people around her. Casseroles and cakes served in 9 x 13 pans are on countertops and tables, some of her guests are seated on the floor. They all seem to be laughing. Kim Seybert placemats and matching embroidered napkins were coming in the future, but the Girl in the Ponytail didn't know then...that entertaining could be a blood sport. One day, she would tell the other women in her "Supper Club" they needed a motto: "We're just eating, we're not competing." But The Girl in the Ponytail's friends in those days didn't need to be told. At one party, there seems to be three broccoli and cheese casseroles. This does not appear to be a capitol offense.
The Girl in the Ponytail wanted to be "helpful" to her husbands career, but she had a knack for not getting it right. A photo shows her, smiling, before a large party...where she later fainted (after drinking just one mug of some authentic German brew) just as they were being introduced. The Girl in the Ponytail came to...mortified...in the men's restroom where she had been summarily deposited. On another occasion, she got her fake hair piece entangled in the shrubbery (don't ask) while saying goodbye to the bosses' wife. At a Williamsburg dinner, she thought the salt cellar was a sugar bowl and drank two cups of highly salted tea and prayed no one noticed.
The Girl in the Ponytail always seemed to have people dancing in her kitchen. Her parents...laughing and twirling...neighbors, waving their arms in the air. Her children, giggling and wiggling. All the family birthday cakes were homemade. The Girl in the Ponytail loved to make and decorate them herself...train cakes and Raggedy Ann cakes, Wizard of Oz concoctions. She planned family birthday parties and cub scout meetings. She was a cookie-making Room Mother with a 4H group on the side. The time would come, when she would plan large community events in a small city far away. When her children would come home from college to find her too busy to bake, running to this meeting or that. When her Hospice volunteering daughter would tell her that her volunteer choices were "not real." But the Girl in the Ponytail knew none of this lay ahead. In the albums, she is happy...and happily oblivious.
I suppose it's part of human nature that, as we age, we change, we grow, and we leave a part of ourselves behind. And the years bring a forgetting, a false impression that the person you are today...is the person you were in the past. Long ago, a sea of change came suddenly in the life of The Girl with the Ponytail. In a seemingly short period of time, her parents died, her children left home, a promotion caused a move to a city several states away. What seemed like a gain to many...felt like a loss to her. She changed her hairstyle and made herself busy. She became the bosses' wife. Sometimes she forgot she had ever been anyone else. She forgot The Girl in the Ponytail...opening her eyes, surrounded by strangers, mortified..on the men's room floor.
I think Dick Brodhead, and Houston Baker and the whole Gang of 88 need to get out their old albums too. Wouldn't you love to see them? Wouldn't you love to see the young Dick in his college days...Some photos of the young Houston partying with his adolescent friends? Hear stories of their teenage days, their "salad days"...before they were the esteemed college professor, the renowned University President? Were they untouched by the so-called "Age of Aquarius"...characterised as a time on many campuses of..."sex, drugs and rock and roll?" Did they sail through unscathed, uninvolved...in or by any of it? There are folks out there who remember The Girl in the Ponytail coming-to on the mens room floor. I wonder what recollections there may be out there of young Dick, or Houston, or any of the rest? Or were they born the pontificating righteous souls they like to project now? Have they sailed through all these years of life so different from the rest of us mortals? (If so, in my opinion, that makes them even scarier!)
"Whatever they did was bad enough," said President Brodhead last Spring. Well, maybe Young Dick never attended a stripper party. But was there no memory of ANYTHING that might stir compassion..that might cause Dick the Duke President to think...long ago, but for the grace of God...Young Dick might just have made a serious, potentially tragic misstep? And because, back then, it COULD have been Young Dick and WASN'T...that he might owe this situation empathy and restraint? How many careers have been wrecked by a moments indiscretion? How many lives have been destroyed by a bad choice any one of us could have made? One wrong phrase, one last glass of wine, one momentary lapse. In all the long years of his life, can Brodhead not imagine...for a moment, doing something stupid like...attending that party? Can he not see Young Dick sitting there, beer can in hand, trying to be one of the boys...then, getting up...leaving, calling a cab. Only to find days later, that somehow he's been sucked into a malevolent maelstrom of events. Beyond all control. Beyond all reasoned belief. Of tragic and terrible proportions.
And later, can he not imagine unlucky Young Dick calling his Mother to say, "Mom, be strong. Mom, she picked me."
I'm sure that Brodhead, the Shakespeare scholar, knows well this quote.
But, last Spring, Brodhead the "Throned Monarch," the Duke President, seemingly had little mercy or empathy or personal memory of any regret. The man of letters had little of note to say. His touted eloquence evaporated. His words were parsed and forced and noticeably flat. He could not seemingly relate in any way to these young men, indicted without evidence, condemned without conviction, smeared with a broad brush by their teachers, the local newspapers ,and an ambitious prosecutor lagging in a political race. He would not stand forcefully for their rights or even meet with their parents. His defenders say,...well, he wasn't the Drum Major in the Duke Lacrosse Persecution. Faint praise, but even so, he was marching in lock-step behind the cacophonous 88...and whatever horn he occasionally tooted...was too tinny and tentative to be heard above the din.
Pity Brodhead didn't take out HIS old albums, re-acquaint himself with Young Dick and his own frail humanity...before he turned his back on these boys and closed his door to their families. He might have been able to summon up some empathy and resolve. He might have been able to look their parents in the eye and deliver his "messages" himself. He might have been able to be the kind of man we could all look to now with admiration and confidence and respect. The kind of man we expect the President of Duke University to be.
He might have even made a difference.