My parents were the kind of polite conservatives who would have been appalled by this year’s Republican presidential campaign. They belonged to that stuffy but understated class of Eastern WASPs who were gently mocked by the late satirist William Hamilton in the New Yorker. His cartoons depicted a world of Wodehousian clubbiness, cocktail parties and golden retrievers in station wagons. One of my favorite scenes, found in his collection “Anti-Social Register,” shows a middle-aged woman at a party, looking horrified at something a man is explaining. “I simply can’t believe that nice communities release effluents,” she protests.
I grew up in Hamilton’s world, on a winding road in Connecticut near a country store and a rambling clapboard house that was the home of Sen. Prescott Bush. All the adults I knew were old-school WASP Republicans like the Bushes. I had a great-uncle who was an admiral and a godmother who was an Astor. They were gracious to everyone, self-reliant and discreet, and secure in their pedigree. There was no need to raise one’s voice or belittle those less fortunate. If one’s forebears had built empires in such grubbier pursuits as fur-trapping or rum-shipping, the taint had been washed away by generations of Ivy League respectability, good taste and noblesse oblige.
Priscilla and Cheston Constable seemed to fit the stereotype perfectly. My father, a communications executive at IBM, took the train to Manhattan every morning and mowed the lawn on weekends. My mother, a former fashion designer, volunteered at the library, arranged flowers and hosted lively dinner parties. Her philosophy of life was, “If you can’t find something nice to say about someone, don’t say anything.” I never once heard them argue.
My childhood was a cocoon of tennis and piano lessons, but once I reached my teens, disturbing news began filtering in from the world beyond. An alumna of my elementary school gave an impassioned speech about her summer registering black voters in the South. At boarding school, a current-events teacher introduced me to McCarthyism and apartheid, and I watched the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. Filled with righteous indignation, I memorized Bob Dylan songs about poverty and injustice and vowed to become a crusading journalist. Above my study carrel, I taped the famous journalistic directive to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
The most convenient target I could afflict was my parents, who seemed more worried about their daughter turning into a hippie than about a world full of rampant wrongs. I wrote them earnest letters railing against capitalism, country clubs and colonial exploitation. I accused them of being snobs and racists and scoffed at their preoccupation with appearance. If they were hurt or offended, they never let it show, in part because I kept getting A’s and dutifully stood through numerous fittings for my debutante dress.
I hardly saw my parents during my four years at Brown, a tumultuous time that included the bombing of Cambodia and the resignation of Richard Nixon. Soon after graduation I was gone, immersed in big-city newspaper work. I spent a decade writing about alcoholics and juvenile delinquents and slumlords. Eventually my reporting took me even farther afield, to impoverished or war-torn countries such as Haiti and Chile, India and Afghanistan. It was an adventuresome and stimulating career, but it was also a kind of private atonement for having grown up amid such privilege. I rarely told anyone where I was from.
Over time, my relations with my parents settled into a long-distance detente that was affectionate but formal. We sent each other thank-you notes and avoided talking about politics. Yet even though I had run as far from Connecticut as I could, every time I called from another war zone or refugee camp, they always asked eagerly, “When might we see you again?” The guest room was always waiting, with a few ancient stuffed animals on the pillow.
Still, it was only after witnessing the desperation and cruelty of life in much of the world that I began to reexamine my prejudices against the cloister I had fled. In some countries, I saw how powerful forces could keep people trapped in poverty for life; in others, how neighbors could slaughter each other in spasms of hate. I met child brides and torture victims, religious fanatics and armed rebels. I explored societies shattered by civil war, upended by revolution, and strangled by taboo and tradition.
Visiting home between assignments, I found myself noticing and appreciating things I had always taken for granted — the tamed greenery and smooth streets, the absence of fear and abundance of choice, the code of good manners and civilized discussion. I also began to learn things about my parents I had never known and to realize that I had judged them unfairly. I had confused their social discomfort with condescension and their conservatism with callousness.
I owe these belated epiphanies to an old friend and fellow Connecticut preppie, Elizabeth Neuffer, who’d also become a war reporter. A few months before she died in an accident in Iraq, we met for dinner, and she told me that her deepest regret was losing her father while she was overseas. “Whatever you do,” she said, “make sure to spend time with your parents before it’s too late.”
I took her advice to heart. As their health declined and their horizons shrank, I stopped traveling as much and started coming home more often. I accompanied them to cocktail parties and listened to stories from their old friends. Well into their 80s, Priscilla and Cheston were a handsome and active couple, and they still cared about things I did not, such as keeping up their club memberships and their listing in the New York Social Register. My father, a dapper dresser with a walking stick, was famous for his sardonic quips and vodka martinis. No one knew how much his arthritis pained him, because he always refused a chair. My mother, who had been a designer of ladies’ gowns for Henri Bendel in the 1940s, hosted dinners wearing her own elegant costumes and held guests spellbound with her tales of the postwar Manhattan social whirl.
But now, for the first time, I saw something deeper and sadder beneath their practiced cheer. Long before their success, they both suffered growing up during the Great Depression and “the war,” as they always called it. My mother’s family lost their savings in the crash; her parents divorced, and she was forced to leave an elite private school to become a dressmaker. My father went straight from college into the Army with a captain’s commission and spent his service jumping out of planes as a paratrooper instructor — a repeated feat of courage I rarely heard him mention. He loved to make things with his hands and dreamed of becoming an architect, but after the war he was steered into the more secure world of corporate America, which paid for nice houses and good schools but gradually crushed his spirit.
Eventually, I saw how loss and sacrifice had shaped both my parents, creating lifelong habits of thrift, loyalty, perseverance and empathy for those who suffered, despite an unconscious unease with other races and classes that I’d always found hard to forgive. Rummaging through their apartment in a Connecticut retirement complex, after my mother moved into a nursing facility, I found evidence of their character in every corner. The cabinets contained wrench sets and garden shears my dad had kept in working order for half a century, and on the kitchen wall was a calendar he made each month out of cardboard shirt backs. He could easily afford the latest gadgets, but he was a true conservative who couldn’t bear to waste anything of value.
In my mother’s antique desk, I found a folder labeled “important correspondence.” Inside it, along with invitations to long-ago society balls and notes on monogrammed stationery, were half a dozen letters on lined school paper, written in a careful but shaky hand. They were from an old black man named Mr. Jenkins who had once helped her with the laundry. He was a lonely soul who drank too much and wound up in a VA hospital; the letters thanked her for being kind and treating him with dignity. At the end of his life, my mother was this man’s only friend, and his gratitude meant as much to her as an engraved plaque.
On long evenings together in the apartment, my father and I sipped whiskey sours, watched the news and discussed politics for the first time in years. He had always taken classic Republican positions against excess welfare and foreign aid, but now he confided that he was appalled at the tea party, especially its harsh stances on abortion and guns, and disillusioned by the radicalization of the GOP. I was fairly sure he had not gone so far as to vote for Barack Obama, but it occurred to me that our cerebral and courtly African American president, struggling against the tide of an angry, visceral age, had more in common with this elderly WASP gentleman than did many white Republican leaders of the moment.
In March 2013, Dad passed away at 96; my mother followed him at 97. I was relieved that they had not lived to see their party’s new standard-bearer hurling vulgar taunts and whipping up xenophobic crowds, or to witness the rout of the rational, civilized conservative norms that had defined their lives and guided public policy for a century.
Recently, when I learned that William Hamilton had died in a car crash, I thought it was a sad but fitting coda for the demise of WASP influence. The sheltered subjects of his cartoons had become a sidelined aristocracy. But at least in my family, their influence lived on: After years of joking that we cancelled out each other’s votes, I realized that the values that mattered the most to me, especially a fundamental respect for the dignity of all people, were those I had learned from them.