by Russell Baker
What we have here is a page turner from the past that happens to be one of my all-time favorite memoirs. I say this with apologies to my grandfather Preston Baile Roop who set out to tell his life story by dictating it to my grandmother, who lovingly wrote his memories long-hand with a #2 pencil in a yellow legal pad.
Grandy’s life story took him from his trapping days as a young man in Maryland through a hardscrabble life, one that would (along with his loving wife Muddie) raise nine children, off-spring he supported (sending all six girls through college) by laboring as a farmer, a huckster, a butcher, a moving man, and finally in the end as a real estate agent.
Grandy’s life was memoir worthy. It was filled with tragedy (the oldest son, a Marine leading his men across a river into machine gun fire, killed heroically in the Pacific, another living day-to-day hospitalized for his teen years with life threatening osteomyelitis, the third a teen-aged alcoholic). There was, through the years’ drama, sickness, depression, laughter and more love and generosity than one can imagine—enough of a life to fill up 50 legal pads.
But sadly I recall the day the project ended. It crashed abruptly at a Roop Sunday dinner (my grandmother had barely filled up one tablet at the time) when a guest, an old crone named Miss Emma brought Grandy’s project to closure.
Grandy, passing her a second helping of fried chicken, said: “Emma, I’ve decided to write my memoir!”
Miss Emma: “And. . .WHO WOULD READ IT?”
That memory, having seen Grandy’s reaction makes me sad. But the years passed and I now recall my exact thought as I read GROWING UP. Thank God Miss Emma Eckerd wasn’t at Russell Baker’s dinner table when he hatched the idea for his incredible PULITZER PRIZE winning biography.
Now, as to Grandy’s biography—he of course was no Russell Baker but then when it comes to layering tragedy with laughter, who the hell is?
In this book’s pages we find Baker, well. . . GROWING UP—-a nagging mother dominates this life story but Baker survives an unlikely (presumed unliked) childhood, manages to pilot though the teen years to the day when, as an adult, with the right woman in his life, he GROWS UP to become a most gifted journalist, essayist, and biographer. For over a decade he would come into our home as the host of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater while in the meantime crafting Observer a tremendously popular column that graced the pages of The New York Times.
And all this from a child whose mother, an ex-school teacher who had a very rough go of it as a single parent (alcoholic husband dying when Baker was a boy) was “always there for him,” calling him “a bump on a log,” reinforcing any doubts he may have had about his own life and ambitions.
So quite a story! The characters, who surround Baker’s growth chart, including his ever present mother, aren’t candidates for the Simon Legree award—they’re just folks trying get by, fighting life and The Great Depression. In their struggle to survive they give us pause and cause for laughter—pity with an occasional splash of contempt.
With husband gone and homes coming and going, the story takes us from his pre-teen years in rural Virginia, to his youth growing up in that Great Depression, to teen years in Baltimore moving from place to place living with his mother, two sisters, and a stepfather who Baker resented as the new man of the house. During their nomadic home hopping there were aunts and uncles aplenty.
At the age of eight he fails as a magazine salesman only to have his younger sister hit the streets and turned the Saturday Evening Post sales into a world-beater of a business. “No gumption, Russell!” affirms his “proud” mother.
As Baker moves us through his growth years we’re treated to life in the ‘30s and ‘40s, a day when families played table games, drank steaming hot cups of Joe while debating the merits of the voices of Perry Como and Rudy Valle. And all the while his stepdad (a good man who worked for the railroad), a drink in one hand and a $2 bet down on a nag with his bookie, kept an ear to the old Philco radio and prayed for the hapless Washington Senators.
Baker, blessed with funny uncles tells the story of Charlie, who quit his first job as a New York newspaper reporter after constantly being mistaken (he was a dead look-a-like) for a well-known local hood. So non-plused was Charlie that he would never work again.
Then there was Uncle Harold, who swore that he recalled his own birth, reinforcing his tale over drinks by repeating verbatim the doctor’s words on his natal day, ”It’s a boy!”.
Russell, ever the “bump on the log” takes up writing because he thinks it’s easy and of course for HIM it was. There’s a scholarship to Johns Hopkins but also a war. He quits college, becomes a Navy pilot and then, as he completes his training, WWII ends.
He eventually finishes college and goes to work for The Baltimore Sun. He’s introduced to Mimi, a girl who is “of the times”. His mother disapproves (surprise) but to no avail. Mimi becomes Mrs. Russell Baker. And as the stories that surround the relationship of a mother and son unfold, they take us to a unique but fitting ending. Lucy Baker was confined to a nursing home where (recalling the world according to Lucy), “. . . her mind whirled in dizzying leaps through time,” says Baker. Eventually, following a fall she grows senile and is unable to tell Russell her story. This triggers his memories and in the end we all, in a sense, grow up together.
As his story comes to a close, just before Lucy’s death Baker tells us how he really felt about his mother, a woman who would never (quite) accept Baker’s wife. On their way to the nursing home for what would be a final visit, Russell says to his wife, “You never did understand my mother, did you?”
“I understood that she was a mean old lady,” Mimi replied. And Baker counters with, “That’s not right. She was like a warrior mother fighting to protect her children in a world run by sons-a-bitches.”
“And I was one of the sons-a-bitches,” Mimi said. And on it went with Baker reminding Mimi that that wasn’t necessarily so. “Don’t you remember how good she was about our marriage?”
She had been good about it too, Baker says, “When I told her I was going to marry Mimi (again, a woman his mother was dead set against) she blinked and said, “I always thought you would. When’s it going to be?”
And then Lucy followed up on her defeat (Baker makes it clear defeat was something she’d made a life of facing) by kicking in cash for the wedding and sending the young couple off in style with a ceremony and reception that belied her feelings.
Now, what makes this roller coaster of a life’s ride so damned warm and endearing? Well, it’s the keen eye and ear of the writer. More than just a gift for spinning his life stories Baker manages to tie them neatly in a bow to his mother, a woman whom we may not Grow to love but certainly Grow to understand.
*For a copy of Growing Up ask your librarian, order through your independent bookseller or try Amazon.com where you can buy the 1984 memoir for less cash than Russell Baker made as a magazine salesman. Simply click on the book’s cover.