Jeff Nunokawa on Mothers

In Note Book, Princeton Professor Jeff Nunokawa writes frequently (and beautifully) about his mother, from her approach to moles to her aversion to fiction. It’s a perfect day for these choice excerpts from Note Book. Happy Mother’s Day!

1340. The Afterlife of Moles

My mother just hated them—moles, I mean—and if you were a child of hers, your earliest premonition of Ahab had to be the sight of her, out in the backyard, smoking, frowning, and plotting to destroy her own version of the White Whale. It was trench warfare: the moles would dig up the yard, pissing my mother off, big time, and my mother would stick garden hoses into the underground passages through which they, the moles, would go about their business, and whose upward and visible signs were the mounds of dirt that would drive her, my mother, to a state of more than domestic Fury. And then, having set out the means of flushing out her enemy, she would sit back, shovel in hand, watching and waiting, waiting and watching. She got one once. My brother, four or five at the time, overheard her describe her gruesome triumph to a neighbor.

“Mommy, do Moles go to Heaven?”

“I hope not!” she replied with confusing candor. “Why did you say that to him?” I asked.

“I had to tell the truth!” she answered.

And she does. Always—have to tell what she regards as the truth, no matter what.
Note: What’s there to add to the Truth?


1388. “The Unteachable Monkey,” “The Fables of
Panchatantra,” “Indian Humor”

The Wisdom of China and India, ed. Lin Yutang (1942)

Inspecting my mother’s primary bookshelf, one last time, before my second sleep and flight home, I realize with a mild start that I perform this ritual whenever I am about to leave her. And that’s right: these books, a small community library, are the bibliographic correlative and component of her moral competence. Of course I open these books almost never. Most are very old and unpleasant in appearance, and by the looks of them, to my impatient eye at least, not at all “my bag”—Pearl Buck novels; heroic accounts of Andrew Jackson, depicting “Old Hickory” as a paradigm populist; atavistic exposés of power elites, et cetera. In a rare impulse, I take one of these books down from the place where it has rested unnoticed for decades—Professor Lin Yutang’s tome, cited above. A smooth and surprising volume, filled with all manner of familiar and unfamiliar satire and solemnity.

Reading along, I come across the story whose title forms the title of this note. The story is amusing and enlightening enough—all about a monkey whose resistance to helpful instruction becomes sufficiently violent to murder the emissary of enlightenment. I am struck more, though, by the wilderness of teachable monkeys the title of this anecdote obliquely surveys.

I hope I am one of the teachable ones. My mother, I suppose, thinks that I am, but mothers often give their children the benefit of the doubt.

Note: In fairness to her, she is hardly uncritical on the subject of Andrew Jackson.


3027. “What the hell can you learn from Las Vegas?”

The Author’s Mother: A Play in Eleven Lines
The Author’s Mother: What do you want for your birthday? Jeff: I’m glad you asked. Two books by
Bob Venturi, preferably early editions …
The Author’s Mother: You’ll get whatever edition is cheapest. …
Jeff: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.
The Author’s Mother: Hold on, I have to write this down … “Complexity and what?”
Jeff: Contradiction!
The Author’s Mother: Complexity and Continuation in Architecture would have been a better title.
Jeff: Yes, but that would have been a different book, now wouldn’t it?
The Author’s Mother: Yeah. A better book! Jeff: Also, Learning from Las Vegas.
The Author’s Mother: What the hell can you learn from Las Vegas?!

Note: You see my problem.


3302. Tradition and the Individual Eavesdropper

Kafka eavesdropped on tradition. … The main reason why this eavesdropping demands such effort is that only the most indistinct sounds reach the listener.

(W. Benjamin to G. Scholem, June 12, 1938)

—which doesn’t mean that you can’t transmit a little, the Tradition you only half hear, pass it on in bits and pieces—the defense of the truth, and of those who would extend it, even by evading it; the opposition to war and the devotion to peace; the styles of elegance and expertise in art and science; the beauty of the plain and simple (and the cryptic and the complicated); the methods for coping with the unbearable, and caring for that which makes it less so; the ways of loving what is, and laboring to bring about what should be.

My mom likes to tell the story about how once, when she and my dad were first married (this must have been sometime during the second Eisenhower administration), they were out somewhere in the woods with some other newlyweds, staying in some kind of log cabin (somewhere in eastern Washington State, I suppose—I can’t recall the details) without electricity or running water. One morning, my dad came back from the well with an empty bucket. (“Your father didn’t know anything about priming the pump!” my mother reports with gleeful and affectionate condescension.) Well, as little as he knew, I know less, and my ears glaze over whenever my mother seeks to explain with methodical clarity the practice and principle of this hydraulic feat for drawing water where all seems dry. I have never delved to consider the literal ground of what is best known as a popularizing metaphor for a central element of Keynesian economics, and certainly have no interest in disturbing the perfect record of my ignorance. But I like to think about how much my mother likes to tell me all about it.

Note: “(a sort of theology passed on by whispers dealing with matters discredited and obsolete)”
(Benjamin to Scholem).


4004. “a love stronger than any impulse that could have marred it”

She never repented that she had given up position and fortune to marry Will Ladislaw. … They were bound to each other by a love stronger than any impulse which could have marred it.

(George Eliot, Middlemarch)

My mother likes to remind me regularly of her aversion to fiction and, in particular, the kind of “fancy” fiction I have spent a good portion of my life studying and teaching. I was thus surprised this morning, in my semi-annual survey of her strange library—manuals for Hikers, Self-Helpers, and Chinese Communists; a celebratory biography of Andrew Jack- son; memoirs of Native American Warriors and dictionaries of Ancient Hawaiian Chants; histories of the Middle East and the Wild West; old (very old) field guides to flora and fauna, near and far; textbooks on Organic Chemistry and the like— to discover, nearly hidden in the thickets of this old curiosity shop, one of “my” books—a novel I am not alone in regarding as one of the greatest stories ever told. More surprising, still: the volume is, throughout, underlined and annotated by what could only be her hand.

I was less surprised to discover that amongst the passages she has marked for note are the lines that begin this report. Decades after their divorce, my parents remain bound together by an unfaded, though now hardly mentioned, belief that risking anything short of everything to marry each other (they are of different races; that was a different time) would have been a cowardice they would have both repented till the day they died. I like to think that my mother took some satisfaction when she came across a bare statement of the fact of the faith that determined the direction of her life—“a feeling that,

Note: in gaining the man she loved, she would gain something for the whole world” (E. M. Forster, A Room with a View).


4047. “Several people on the trip told me that I was an
inspiration, which made me feel good” (The Author’s
Mother)

And now you will no longer wonder that the recollection of this incident on the Acropolis should have troubled me so often since I myself have grown old and stand in need of forbearance and can travel no more.

(Freud, “A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis”)

Many years ago, in the middle of the hardest defeat of my life, my mother came to visit me in New York. My apartment there is small; I, especially in my compromised state, smaller still, and my powers to accommodate her sizable stock of certitudes and self-doubts—their aggregate volume sufficient to fill any proscenium worth its salt—powers of forbearance that hardly amount to the armor of Hercules even in the best of times, reduced to the tattered thinness of a single fig leaf. She couldn’t have come at a worse time, I thought—until I realized that she couldn’t have come at a better one.

Seeing that I was in no shape to chaperone her, she struck out on her own. (She is, after all, according to her own Ancient History, of “pioneer stock.”) One morning, she left before I was awake and called me later from the viewing platform at the top of what was then the City’s tallest building, while I was still in bed. From this height, she felt called upon to tell me something about herself that she instructed me not to repeat, and I will not disobey her. What I can tell you is that what she conveyed to me when I was troubled, and in need of forbearance, was a memory of falling down and getting up again that dissipated the disturbance that left me thinking I could travel no more.

And now I no longer wonder that my sorrow at the thought of the day that she will pass beyond me is matched by the strength with which she has prepared me to meet it.

Note: “The two days in Athens were great but tiring. I actually made all of the excursions (one exception: a Venetian castle in Crete, but went everywhere else). Some people did not climb up the Acropolis, but I did. Why come to Greece and not go up? Was worth it. I was glad that I had both walking sticks. It really made it possible. Several people on the trip told me that I was an inspiration, which made me feel good. I will tell you all more about the trip later, and show you the pictures when I get them done” (extracted from my mother’s report on her most recent travels; her destination this time was the Mediterranean rather than Manhattan).