I Read Too Much. So Did My Mom.
You know how it goes: You're coping with today's endless flow of unhappy headlines and head-twisting news, and sometimes you just have to laugh to keep your bearings. I thank my mother for gifting me a sanity saving sense of comedy. What follows is a favorite memory of how we deployed it in our relationship. I'd taken an assignment to report on Indonesia for National Geographic magazine at a time when the country was going through a troubled patch. My mom thought it was a bad idea.
My late mother was as cool as they come in a crisis. I was nine or ten, playing army with my pals in a big wooded lot down the street from our house when, creeping through the sticker bushes to spy on the enemy camp, I accidentally squashed a hornet’s nest underfoot. In no time the avenging insects had carpeted my head, neck, and arms with dozens of stinging welts. Having read somewhere about bee-sting victims dropping dead from anaphylactic shock, and betraying the incipient storyteller’s weakness for drama, I furiously peddled my bicycle home to say good-bye to my mother.
But my mother, the tall, strawberry-blonde grocer’s daughter who had lived through economic depression and war wasn’t buying it. “You’re not going to die,” she said, with just enough mockery in her voice to make me believe her. She then bundled me into the car for a trip up to Hillman City to see Dr. Leary, just in case. The laconic, silver-haired physician concurred with my mom’s diagnosis, adding with a flinty smile, “You read too much!”
“You read too much,” captured the irony of the age and became an inside joke between my mom and me.
My mother found Dr. Leary’s punch line hilarious for the way, I suppose, it poked fun at the obsession among her generation of Depression-era moms and dads that their kids ride the escalator of education to success and higher social status. On the other hand, no good mother wanted to see her son or daughter turn into a clueless egghead. And so, “You read too much,” capturing the irony of the age, became an inside joke she would remind me of all the years I was growing up.
It took me forty years, but I eventually turned the tables. In 1999, National Geographic's Bob Poole green-lighted my proposal for a story entitled “Indonesia: Living Dangerously” ….
My mother had been reading about the mess in Indonesia and was on the phone to me in New York. “I think you should tell them you’re not going,” she said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me, Mister,” she said, her tough-guy tone faltering just a bit at age seventy-nine. “Indonesia is too dangerous. I don’t think you should go.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll give the editors of National Geographic a call and tell them my mommy doesn’t want me to take the job.”
My mother burst out laughing. “Well, now that you put it that way, it does sound pretty silly,” she confessed. You had to hand it to the old gal. She had a good sense of humor and, in any event, she was arguing a lost cause. Nonetheless, our conversation contained a small revelation. After all those years, I finally sensed the anxiety she must have felt but had kept so well hidden on the afternoon of the angry hornets.
To cheer her up, I said, “You read too much!” And we had a good laugh. But mothers sense things that kids, however old, don’t, and mine wasn’t wrong to worry about Indonesia ....
This story is adapted from my 2014 book, Into the Field: A Foreign Correspondent's Notebook.