I completed my requirements for my master’s degree by taking a seminar in metaphor, which would have been somewhat leaden if not for of its bubbly instructor. My efforts in class included discussions of the Great Chain of Being and the metaphorical implications of proverbs, the latter including a nod to the original Mickey Mouse Club’s Jimmy Dodd, who regularly performed a brief musical salute to the subject. Serious stuff, mind you.
I wish I could say I owe any talent I now have as a writer to Mrs. Seery, my second-grade teacher who hugged me before the entire class after I delivered my written re-cap of the class’s visit to the Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, bakery. Or to Mr. Chaffee, my English “master” at the boarding school. A Yale graduate; navigator for a World War II bombing squadron in Europe; Vietnam War opponent; erudite; eloquent; witty; a natty dresser―I was in awe of the man, although he rarely gave me anything better than a “C”. On the other hand, “No boy could have written this,” he said of a short story―a tale of love and death that aspired to Hemingway―I submitted to the school’s literary magazine, of which he was an advisor. But I did write it, and I later proved to his satisfaction that he was mistaken. I held no grudge, for with those few words he had in a way conferred upon me not only literary license, but manhood.
But I cannot honestly extend the line all the way back to Thomas Chaffee and beyond: too much alcohol, marijuana, and intellectual laziness existed between him and my matriculation at UNM. No, it was the university that was responsible for whatever succeeded in my master’s thesis. I’m grateful to every one of my professors at UNM. That said, my readings of Proust, Lessing, Camus, Garcia Márquez, Lawrence, Woolf, Hunter S. Thompson, Sandra Cisneros, Simone Weil, Barbara Tuchman; my limp analyses of Dickens, Graham Greene, and George Lakoff; my discussion of the iconic San Francisco de Asis church in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, which, as a non-Catholic, I should never have attempted―all take a back seat to my master’s thesis, the only achievement of which I’m truly proud as a graduate student.
Throughout my time at UNM, forever the solitary reader and writer, I had given virtually no thought to attending the university’s graduation ceremony. Linda, however, had given it plenty. She practically insisted that I don gown and mortarboard cum insouciant tassel. No surprise. She was, after all, proud of me. And she did support us throughout my education. So I agreed.
And then it occurred to me to invite my father to attend the ceremony, to finally proudly witness his son graduating from an institution of higher learning. My father rarely got angry, so I never forgot the time, over the Christmas holiday at my sister’s house in darkest New Hampshire, when my father―and mother―trained their guns on me and fired. It began with my sulking refusal to join my family in a game of Scrabble. The next thing I knew, Mom and Dad trotted out a litany of bitter disappointments with me that they had accumulated over the years, including the fact that, although I graduated from Hobart, I never participated in the college’s graduation ceremony.
So, although my mother was no longer around―she had been gone a decade―I thought my father would leap at the chance to journey from New Hampshire to witness me receiving a diploma at the UNM football stadium on a June morning. To my surprise, however, he chose instead to do what he’d been doing for years in June following his retirement: go fishing for a week in the backwoods of Maine with several of his former business associates. Was my father getting back at me? Absolutely not. My father was never small. Yet I never questioned him about his decision, and he never offered to explain.
It was a typically sparkling early-summer morning in New Mexico when I graduated. At 44, I was undoubtedly one of the oldest students to be honored. A decade earlier I would not have imagined such a moment. Still, it was strange being decked out in a gown and cap. I don’t doubt I looked dignified, even “scholarly,” but at times throughout the ceremony I felt like a woodchuck draped in a lace mantilla.