Quindlen, Corrigan, and Conservatism

I thought it went something like this:

After it became clear that Prudence Quindlen was on the road to glory with a case of ovarian cancer, the job of cooking the Quindlen’s Thanksgiving dinner fell to her daughter, Anna. Anna Quindlen, an undergrad at Barnard College on a collision course with the very penthouse of American media, didn’t know how to cook chicken (turkey must have been a stretch) when her mother explained it. In fact, she had no idea how to assemble a single element of the late-November feast. But she assembled the feast anyway, crossing every culinary bridge when she came to it, with her mother talking her through the process from the wheelchair where she’d spend her last days. Thanksgiving dinner wasn’t pretty that year — it wasn’t going to be pretty, anyway, with deadly illness in the air — but Thanksgiving dinner was Anna’s, and its soul was her latening mother’s, and that was darn well worth the fact that it hadn’t been thawed.

I’m not sure if any of that is true. Anna Quindlen **said she learned to cook that chicken when she was seventeen, and, yes, that would have been her freshman year at Barnard, but her mother didn’t die until 1972, when she was nineteen. And nowhere does Quindlen mention what day — or even what time of year — this fateful, half-frozen meal occurred. My mind assembled those parts, from her columns and interviews, into a cohesive, punchy tale of a dying mother and a daughter not yet fully alive, the latter inheriting the double portion of an ancestral spirit by the simple act of learning to cook. Brains are like that, sometimes.

“My mother taught me how to cook in the last four months of her life out of a wheelchair in my kitchen,” Quindlen, in fact, did tell NPR’s Kelly Corrigan, 50 Thanksgivings later, “at a time when I firmly believed that cooking was a tool of the patriarchy. In fact, I’m not sure it isn’t a tool of the patriarchy!”

And then came Quindlen’s kicker, such a compact hurricane of commentary and truth that I’m still thinking about it at 12:01 a.m. on a Saturday night in August: “But I don’t care, you know. My kids like to eat what I cook, and that makes all the difference in the world.”

Quindlen’s probably told this story, and stories like it, thousands of times in her 48-year career. She spoke of Thanksgiving turkey in the pages of The New York Times in 1986, and of her mother in the novel One True Thing that morphed into a Meryl Streep masterpiece in ’98. And, of course, she told the tale to Kelly Corrigan, a public-media journalist from Radnor Township who pals with Kamau Bell and Steve Kerr from her digs in the San Francisco Bay. Neither woman was trying to talk anyone into anything, in that moment — not that I could tell, anyway. (Kelly Corrigan had opened the podcast by trying to talk everyone into forgiveness, and forgiveness, to me, is everything.) But I heard Corrigan’s voice on a Thanksgiving podcast, and felt myself being talked into something nonetheless.

For Anna Quindlen, cooking was an act akin to buying a fried chicken sandwich from Chick-Fil-A, or spending your hard-earned fifteen minutes on a jeremiad from Richard Trumka: It wasn’t a vote, nor was it a donation, nor was it — on its face — a statement of anything but hunger or curiosity. But it was something, something to uphold an institution of political consequence. Every drip of the baster, and every yank on the oven door, sent the younger Quindlen further down a road well-worn by billions of women before her. The road, coincidentally, was about as oppressive as roads come, complete with a system more commonly condoned than any breaded chicken checkout line. (Patriarchy, of all things!) But cooking was a way for Anna Quindlen to connect with her mom, to maintain the bonds that threaten to disappear with death, and that was more important in the moment than any war with any system. College Quindlen was willing to conserve a tool of the patriarchy, because she was conserving a tool of her family.

When I think of conservatism, I don’t usually think of two women talking about their Thanksgiving misgivings on a public radio production. I think of my own childhood, of the ghoulish, charismatic preachers and personalities who we followed into a fear of the gays, of the so-called creeping tide of secularism that was supposed to scare us to the right side of the ballot, and the way those fears fell like ankle weights when I considered who else sat in their crosshairs. (You can see my picture; I hope I don’t have to spell it out.) Conservatism makes me think of my own failings — the holes in my vision that made me hurt others and the cruelty that let me cast them as the will of God. Conservatism, in a word, makes me think of the ugly things it was when the word was one that I claimed for myself; conservatism’s things have gotten uglier still in the years since I stopped being such a thing, and the chances have risen that it will always make me think of ugly things.

But there’s Anna Quindlen, talking about cooking her way into the patriarchy; there’s Kelly Corrigan, laughing along like the person at the head of the corporate table in a Hallmark Christmas rom-com. They look at Quindlen’s college self, so determined to haul the revolution into her daily life as if she’d tied it to her roof at the Conshohocken IKEA, and they find all the humor of a mixed up toddler, learning about the world’s bumps and lumps with a mix of pain and glorious wonder. Then they steal a guilty glance at Quindlen’s grieving self, clinging to every inch of her mom’s memory like a pinecone at the edge of summertime. One of those kids would have gone to her grave as the most faithful of soldiers in the culture war; the other inherited a tiny slice of her mom’s heart and mind, and can live forever on her kids’ taste buds, if nowhere else. Even on NPR, in San Francisco, somewhere between interviews with Asma Uddin and George Saunders, Kelly Corrigan can look at both Annas Quindlen and smile at the latter version — and, perhaps, if we’re honest, we can, too. Turns out fighting the patriarchy in your cul-de-sac just isn’t good enough when every moment with your mom might matter.

That’s not conservatism — at least, it’s not any kind of conservatism that Fox News or National Review would accept. But it is an admission, hidden in a whisper so low you might miss it in Kelly Corrigan’s laugh: The status quo has got to go, but do we have to lose… this? And that? Wait — that, too? Are we sure that has to go?…

Once you start looking for those Kevin Hart-sized admissions, you’ll find them everywhere: In the feminist author Amia Srinivasan’s sense that sex might — just might — be safer, if the attitude around it was less cavalier; in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s contention that every culture commits its own atrocities, including the ones that have had atrocities done to them; even in Al Gore’s assertion that climate change is like something from the biblical book of Revelation. All that to say nothing of the actual, self-described conservatives who haven’t consistently voted for their brethren since its worst parts fused in a single person (John Kasich, David Brooks, A.B. Stoddard, Glenn Loury, Andrew Sullivan, Ross Douthat, et cetera), or the other denizens of NPR and its ilk who dared question what society’s forward march might have ditched at its last couple campgrounds.

As a point-blank answer to a question I was asked, once upon a time: No, I don’t consider myself a conservative. I’ve seen myself, or people I care about, on the butt end of one system too many to think that those systems would be fine in the absence of change; that sentence could probably, imaginably be spoken by Corrigan and Quindlen, too. (And the people who populate the circles in which they run.) But conservatism itself, at its best, can be the movie version of Jeanette in The Glass Castle — not just hung up on the demerits of a less-than-perfect present, but awestruck at some of what we’re going to have leave behind when we move forward. Its mythmaking and simple morals — like my personal legend of Quindlen’s chicken dinner — might be out of place in a functional, informed democracy. But the things it urges us to value and consider don’t have to be.

Sometimes moving forward hurts. Maybe your circle of acquaintances clears out like a septic tank in its sixth year of operation, and your schedule follows on its heels, and the tower that contains all you knew about the world crumbles into oblivion, brick by brick. But the beauty of growing is that you can always build a new tower, and weave a new circle, and fill your life again — as long as you draw breath.

I think that’s what’s so radically out-of-place in the world of Kelly Corrigan: She speaks of tacit agreements with her husband to cap the times they say “college” around their kids; of the Radnor letterman jacket her father wore to coach, and how she, a coach in her own right, feels herself become him when she drapes it across her own shoulders; and of her mother’s devout Catholic faith, a devotion Kelly doesn’t emulate but admires fiercely nonetheless. None of these things reek of intolerance or bigotry, a skepticism of modern ideals or a wary eye to modern institutions. So, we — well, I — would stop on a dime before we marked them with even the slightest whiff of conservative consciousness.

If half of the American political union offers only a fear and loathing of outsiders, and the other half brings only a forward march, without its rearview mirrors, then Corrigan’s joyful dose of wist, appetizing as it may be, is off the list of things that can move the national needle. What a shame for us to fall to such a failure of imagination — and what a bright, pretty thought that we might not have to.

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Jadon George

Jadon George

Full-time student, sometime scribe. (Photo credit: David Anderson)