Uneasily I write this column: In the fear-heavy shtetls , where superstition was as common as the common cold, folks refrained from pronouncing aloud the beauty, skill and fineness of their children. It was thought that such boasting would bring on the Evil Eye and that calamity would follow as night to day. These superstitions cast their shadows generations into the modern world, where I am right now daring fate with my IBM ThinkPad.
I also know some women who tell you all the wondrous accomplishments of their offspring and omit from their conversation the anxieties, the less-than-perfect reports, the blemishes on records, the common wounds of parenting that wear away the heart muscle and turn brain cells to milk curd. This puffing up makes other women sorry, wince, turn green at the gills and is one of our petty social sins that must lie somewhere in the footnotes of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not bruit about the accomplishments of thy children.” Nevertheless, I can’t contain myself. Last week I attended the Harvard Law School graduation of one of my daughters.
The sheriff of Cambridge called the meeting to order. We were sitting in the hot sun and had been waiting for an hour and a half as the graduates filed into the yard-so many black robes, bag pipes and English hymns; mothers in African dresses with reds and greens and silver stripes; a Japanese woman in the row ahead of ours with a flowered robe and a belt with a flap of folding fabric at the spine that prevented her from leaning back in her chair; a few rows forward another mom and dad, she with spiky purple hair and he in a black T-shirt with a biker tattoo on his arm; preppie dads in bow ties; and mothers like me, smiling shyly at one another, holding our cameras on our laps. In our section (Section 8!), we were all parents of any-minute-to-be lawyers. There was the usual speech in Latin. There were the expected Anglican hymns. There was the presentation of the graduates of one school after another by the deans. There was a proper way this thing was done and the very properness, the force of tradition, the might of the buildings around us, the power of the words and the huge numbers of souls gathered there moved me like a storm over the ocean. I admit, behind my sunglasses, there were tears in my eyes. When the dean said that he was presenting the lawyers for their degrees in “the favoring presence” of the gathering, I assented. I was the very essence of a favoring presence.
When their turn came to cheer themselves the divinity school graduates raised little halos, the business school graduates raised hundred-dollar bills, the law school students waved silver plastic sharks by their tails. My heart beat so fast I searched the corners of the crowd for a waiting ambulance. Sighting none, I ordered my offending organ to slow down. A graduate of the School of Public Health gave a speech. She was from Nigeria. She had survived a war. Her father had told her always to defend the defenseless, and she had dedicated her life to doing just that. I was moved by her words. Actually I was moved by just about everything, so tender was my state. I was restored to my normal critical stance when a graduate male talked about giving up the Harvard handshake for embracing friends and learning to hug one another. Ah, what have we feminists wrought? The graduate address is no longer about conquering the world or changing it but about human touching-E.S.T. victorious, pop visions floating like sugar plums in the hallways of the academy. Ugh. At least this particular young man is unlikely to drop the H-bomb on civilian populations.
Then we had lunch at tables in the law school yard in front of the library. I took picture after picture of my graduate with her flowers, with her father, with her friends. The dean of Harvard Law School, Robert Clark, spoke of “the wise restraints that make us free.” Whoever said that lawyers were not poets? There was some talk of Justice, of democracy depending on the rule of law, and I believe that. I know that lawyers are not heroes in our culture. Still, I am a believer. We attempt the rule of reason, creating a society that can protect its citizens in all their dealings (even their wheelings and dealings). Reason-as it dances, as it swings, as it turns inside out-is as beautiful a phenomenon as rainbows and snowfalls and birds in flight. Reason is power, and I am delighted my child has it in her grasp, and I am delighted that the education she received has shaped that power into a useful tool. What exactly she does with it is her own business. I am the admirer, the home country from which this explorer set out. I am content. I am proud to have known this Harvard Law School graduate when she was just a newborn with a tuft of black hair on her small, not yet bone-hard head.
Added to my pleasure was the constant spinning, throughout the ceremony, of my father in his grave. He was a lawyer who had said only ugly women wanted to be lawyers. He had said that we didn’t have the mind for it, that it was unnatural. The gold tassel on my daughter’s cap waved like a thumb in his eye. Spin on, Daddy, the deed is done. I know this is not nice of me. I should let bygones be bygones and be more gracious in this vicarious victory. But if I were that nice I would have to let go of all the grudges, the malicious thoughts they give rise to, forget the pinpricks of a lifetime-and what then? I would be a lump of sugar to feed to the horses. I would be a pancake on the table of life. Pass the syrup.
I told my daughter that she had made me happy. She said, “No, I didn’t. I just mitigated your sense of tragedy.” Oh. Now this is true enough. I am one of those who habitually anticipate the worst, who live with other sorrows that should be pushed aside but can’t always. I am one of those who are more blue than rosy. I am of the immediate post-Holocaust, A-bomb-in-my-sky generation. I do not believe in the goodness of man or the salvation of the soul. Somewhere in my head Albert Camus is always crashing into a tree and someone with a machete is ever lurking in my garden. My daughter has observed me fairly. I cannot say that fairness is what one wants in one’s daughter’s observations, but there it is. And the truth is, her graduation mitigates-oh how much it mitigates, how very mitigated I feel.
Oh, Evil Eye, blink just this once.