Wednesday, January 24, 2018
This is a photograph of two of my close blood relations. The man is my younger brother, Richard Neville Fleming, born December 2, 1941. The woman is his niece, our eldest granddaughter, Sophia Elizabeth Fleming-Benite, born June 19, 1993. They are standing outside a perimeter fence of the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico on January 22nd. Our latest ludicrous government shutdown lasted only three days, but one of them happened to be January 22nd, so that the monument itself was closed.
Like most family photographs this one will be of interest only to a small circle of people who actually know the subjects of the photograph and the circumstances in which it was taken. But—as is also doubtless true of thousands of other such photographs--it might, were it able to be given voice, prove to be an eloquent testimony to currents of social change in post-War America so powerful as to merit the adjective “revolutionary.”
Rick, as he is known in the family, was born to two parents with high-school educations and chronic financial challenges, children of the Great Depression. He spent the War years, while his father fought in the South Pacific, with his maternal grandmother in Denver. After that he lived intermittently on a farm in Arkansas and in numerous places in the West and Southwest to which his parents took him in their peripatetic, rather quixotic, and (it must be said) futile search for prosperity. The permanent results of traumatic birth injury conspired with an unsettled life, and he never finished his public schooling. He has lived for many years in Las Cruces, N.M., the last place our parents landed. Before his retirement he worked on the maintenance crews of New Mexico State University.
Sophia was born in California, half a century after Rick. Both her parents were Ph. D. college professors. At the age of five she moved to New York. She grew up on Washington Square and attended excellent schools. She spent her four high-school years in Paris at a demanding and prestigious academy, at which she excelled in her academic work, became fluent in French, and generally exploited the resources of a great world capital. She returned to America to attend Johns Hopkins, to which she was a successful “early action” applicant. There she took her degree, with distinction, in the Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences. Though the job market for new graduates was not robust three years ago, she immediately secured a dream job with one of the glitzy, fast-moving social media outfits. Her first assignment was in New York, but she was soon transferred to the mother ship on the West Coast.
This is not a tale of two cities, but an abbreviated account of two members of a single American family. There is more to “diversity” than is sometimes acknowledged by our cultural arbiters. It’s more diverse. Sophia is at heart a New Yorker, and at length concluded that she had sufficiently imbibed of the lotus slurpies of Venice Beach. She has resigned from the world of nineteen-year-old entrepreneurs and is returning to New York to take up a challenging executive position in a very different though equally innovative enterprise: one that deals with solid real property rather than evanescent pixils. She has always wanted to do a leisurely continental road trip, and here’s her chance. She had a yard sale, crammed her remaining lares and penates into a big car, and took off some days ago in a vaguely easterly direction, with the second stop being Uncle Rick in Las Cruces. What a lovely young woman!
Realizing that a long drive could be a lonely drive, Sophia has lined up several other visits with friends along the way—a way that includes Marfa, TX, Austin, Dallas, Little Rock, Memphis, Nashville, and Washington. Those are only the stops I know about. Her plan to avoid solitude likewise exploits the madcap nature of her family. Her young sister Cora will fly out to Dallas (or is it Austin?) to hang out for a day or two in Austin (or is it Dallas?) And her grandfather, who has clearly lost his mind, will next Monday fly out at the crack of dawn to Little Rock, where in theory he will get into Sophia’s passenger seat to be driven north to his old stomping grounds in Baxter County and an overnight with a cousin. We then hustle across to Memphis (Graceland being a must), and the following day on to Murfreesboro in Middle Tennessee, the site of a significant Civil War battle and—of more immediate relevance—the home of our friends the Dixons, whose daughter Katie vastly enriched the social cachet of the Flemings by marrying our son Richard. There Sophia and I shall part, and I shall return from Nashville to Newark on Thursday while she speeds ever eastward through the Cumberland Gap and into some state or another that borders on the Atlantic. In telling you all this I am under no illusion that it is comprehensible, let alone engaging, but I hope to explain in advance why there will be no timely post next Wednesday. I mean, what the hell? If you can’t let your hair down a bit in your eighties, when will it ever happen?