With age, more men hopefully accept the fact that women are the more important half of the human race. Women stabilize us and keep the social system going despite the follies we men impose in pursuing short-sighted objectives. But it behooves us to express more appreciation that this is so, particularly because the focus on technological innovation of recent centuries makes all our lives increasingly tenuous. Indeed, so bent on control have men been that we may, in this 21st century, have spelled our own doom, at least as a civilization, if not quite a species.
The British child-psychiatrist, D.W. Winnicott, was convincing in showing that, for all of us, survival depends on having a “good enough mother.” But some of us are fortunate in having had a mother who was much more than merely competent in holding us to her bosom during those crucial first three years. Mine was such a mother. Whatever I accomplished in a long life seems to me a consequence of her having nurtured the self in me for over twenty years. As I recall, the nearest she ever came to reproach was to ask, “Roland, do you really want to do that?”
Born Angelina (Morin) Desjardins in Sorel, P.Q., the first of eight children, she gave up secondary schooling in order to help her mother cope with yet another child. Marrying at 27, to a Belgian musician who had come to head the musical programs of a small Catholic college, she too had eight children, all of them in Fall River, Mass., where my father juggled being church organist and piano teacher (at $1 a lesson at first).
Economically marginal existence in one of the last of the stingy cotton mill towns of southern New England. Sheltered in an ethnic enclave, she never learned English! But her five sons survived World War II, three of them managed college, and everyone led productive lives.
My good wife of fifty years (1947-1998), Muriel Crowley of Brooklyn, N.Y., was of English (Yorkshire) parentage. A graduate of Brooklyn College, she was on the swim team there, and as cadet nurse she earned a master’s degree at the Yale School of Nursing. We met at a summer conservation workshop in East Greenwhich, Rhode Island, where I was naturalist while at Brown University, and she was camp nurse. It was she who decided that I might make a good husband, and gently talked me into abandoning some thirty years of bachelorhood.
Calm, frugal, and practical, she helped me manage the tenuous development of a post-war career as Audubon Society naturalist and executive. Not interested in sex, she was nevertheless always receptive, and immediately won my complete allegiance. We had three rewarding children. She befriended nearly a dozen attractive women I brought home. That way, the women did the hugging and kissing, but I enjoyed them socially. The star of that entourage was on the Board of the National Audubon Society while I was headquarters biologist. Knowing how economically marginal Audubon salaries were, she loaned us a cottage on the northwest shore of Mount Desert Island, Maine, for twenty-five consecutive summers. A godsend to the whole family. She and my daughter Connie became good friends.
Muriel died at 78 in 1998, after a long bout with Parkinson’s syndrome. She had been school nurse, community activist (Norwalk), and a national leader in breeding, training, and showing Gordon Setters and black & tan English Cockers, which she called miniature Gordons. Despite the rather asocial focus on birds, nature conservation, and philosophical ideas I imposed during our fifty years together, she said “My only real disappointment with you is that you never learned to love dogs as much as I do.” I was 85.
For three years I coasted on that half-century’s good relations, but then rather suddenly felt isolated and irritated by my aloneness. Our doctor had said, “You’re in very good health, but remember that you will continue to need someone to hug.” Unfortunately, age makes us much less attractive, so my doctor’s prescription was only a desideratum.
In 2001, however, I spent a month alone at a friend’s new house in Costa Rica, near the Panama border. It was their dry season, and I enjoyed the birds and a nearby botanical garden. There I met a slender expatriate American women of sixty. We soon discovered that we both suffered isolation, and she consented to be my doctor’s prescription. So at 89, she helped me rediscover women. But 2000 miles of intervening geography is a real handicap. Neither of us wanted to change home base. I visited one more year, and helped her visit me once, but after that we limited ourselves to e-mails. She did say, when I thanked her, that my pleasure had been her pleasure squared.
Guided by wishful thinking, I expected soon to find someone to hug nearer home, but instead I had half a dozen friendly refusals. Too old to be a significant other, I nevertheless met and enjoyed a fifty-year old artist who lived nearby. We became fond of each other and I learned that being a helpful “uncle” had its own satisfactions.