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The Shipwreck Rose: Before and After

Wed, 08/26/2020 - 18:42

Graduation was held at the Hayground School in Bridgehampton on Saturday evening, and the parents kind of fell apart. The birds were wheeling in a sky turning pink and a rock band of adolescent boys performed “Today [the Greatest Day I’ve Ever Known]” by the Smashing Pumpkins in breaking voices, as the tears rolled down the grown-ups’ cheeks, pooling under our sweaty facemasks.

It was the first time we’d been together since March. There was a palpable pang of communal realization, more bitter than sweet, at just how gaping the before-and-after-Covid gulf will be in the story of our lives.

Many of the Hayground kids who have been our constant companions for five years are scattering to the four winds — two families moving to California, making plans to meet up on the beach at Encinitas, other students headed to Bridgehampton School, Pierson in Sag Harbor, or the East Hampton Middle School. One boy is taking a pre-high-school gap year to sail with his dad. Rumor has it that half the Haygrounders who will feed the chickens and harvest the carrots in the upcoming academic year will be new enrollments, escapees from the city. Goodbye to all that.

My own kids are going through some things. They are both off to new schools in a few weeks. My daughter turned 13 in lockdown. “If you only knew me before the pandemic,” she says, “you don’t know me at all.” Imagine all the storms of adolescence . . . alone in your room, with only your brand-new, 13th-birthday-present iPhone for company. My daughter has been trying out various personas, all of them “indie” — which is to say, as alternative and counterculture as you can muster when your adolescence is unfolding alone in your room with TikTok. Within the space of 10 days she has asked me to buy for her the following startling sartorial personality statements: a pink cowboy hat, a Hello Kitty bracelet, gothic black platform boots with buckles all the way up to the knees, an argyle sweater vest, and a white dickie to go under the argyle sweater vest. I don’t know.

Everyone in this household has been undergoing mysterious, subliminal pandemic transformations, mostly for the better. My children have become much more helpful human beings, pitching in to help me do all the stupid chores I cannot do myself while simultaneously educating and feeding them, working, volunteering on the ambulance, and whirling six china plates on sticks above my head.

I myself am rather surprised to realize that I’m undergoing a before-and-after, too. My transformation is this: I’ve somehow managed to belatedly realize that I’m much more frequently wrong — incorrect! mistaken! — than I previously understood myself to be. This certainly has something to do with so much edifying family togetherness (offspring are, of course, terrific at pointing out their mom’s failings). But it also has something to do with having watched “The Two Popes” on Netflix. The point of this movie, “The Two Popes,” is to illustrate how Pope Francis has done some horrible, terrible things in his life — ethical crimes in the 1970s substantial enough to get him canceled by a moral authority such as my 10-year-old son — but, not in spite of these grievous failings but indeed because of his own comprehension of their gravity, his character has been forged in a furnace of wrongness to become a powerful force for good in the world.

Everyone knows no one is perfect, but most of us walk around in the expectation that others’ inevitable flaws will be slight, amusing, possibly charming. This is why we are continually surprised and angered to discover our husbands, mothers, and best friends have been secretly harboring awful personality flaws (in contrast with our own near perfection). I cannot believe it took a pandemic to realize this rudimentary truth: Like the future Pope Francis in his Hollywood incarnation — played by Jonathan Pryce, soigné in his black cassock and scarlet cincture sash — we are all hugely, grossly, deeply, profoundly flawed. Me, too! Maybe I should have been sent to Sunday school.

My own most egregious personal failing is that I am one of those people who believe they are almost always right. To convey exactly how strongly this obnoxious trait has defined me, until being confined with my children these last six months taught me otherwise, let me give you a few random examples from a lifetime of overconfidence in my own discernment.

One: In 1990, I forced my college boyfriend, Todd, to wear a white dinner jacket to the Barnard College formal dance, when everyone else’s boyfriend was in a black tuxedo. He was miserable, had the flu, and stood out like an albino penguin. But I had read vintage etiquette manuals, and everyone else hadn’t, and I was right about the traditional dress code and they were wrong!

Two: Until exactly yesterday, I always scoffed at ignoramuses who pronounce the word “mores” as more-ays; it was only yesterday afternoon that someone said “more-ays” on NPR and I looked it up. Surprise! It’s been two syllables since the 16th century. 

Three: When we traveled to England aboard the Queen Mary II in January, I mistook the chalk cliffs of the Isle of Wight for the white cliffs of Dover. I blush to recall that I even rhapsodized about the white cliffs of Dover, audibly, in the crowded and hushed confines of the Chart Room, over chocolate pralines and Twinings tea.

(I think what I’m feeling as I indulge in this public unbosoming is something of the relief of the confessional.)

Four: In May, I loudly barked out the one word, “mask!” at a grinning woman in expensive athleisure-wear who brushed past me on James Lane. This power-walker with her AirPods was probably wrong to have left the mask home and gone around heavy breathing on strangers, but who am I, the mask-morality police? Literally calling out others’ mistakes is a mistake, not to mention just sort of repellent, unless you happen to be Head Nun at a convent school.

I feel better now.

I’m not entirely reformed, of course. Even after the pandemic, I will still be operating under the conviction that I’m smarter than everyone else. Frequently incorrect, yes, but I still think I’m smarter than you. Hey, nobody’s perfect. 


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