HARVARD DIARY
A Testing from God

May 1988By Robert Coles



For many years my mother and father went to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Friday afternoons. They loved doing so, and over time managed to establish some firm and satisfying hab­its for themselves. My dad would leave their down­town apartment, located on the waterfront, and walk briskly along some nearby streets, often stop­ping to look at ships, engage in conversations with parents and children similarly drawn to an interesting harbor scene. He was a great observer and walk­er. He was born in Yorkshire, England, where walk­ing can be a sport, and had been a champion walk­er as a youth. I have fond memories of trying to keep up with him as a child — the fast pace of movement, and the shrewd social and cultural ob­servations as he took in everything, it seemed, and tried to make sense of what he saw in pointed lan­guage a touch exotic in sound because of his slight English accent. Even in his middle 80s (he died two years ago at 86) he walked long and hard until a last, brief illness took him. On Fridays, “symphony day” for him and my mother forever, it seemed, he’d be out walking early, about 8 o’clock, and eventually would make his way to one of several restaurants he and my mother had frequented over the decades before their joint walk to Symphony Hall. The entire city of Boston seemed safely his for exploration, and he grew to know and love that city.

My mother was far less interested in walking. Even on a delightfully warm but dry and bracing spring day she was content to “put in a mile,” to use a phrase my father often summoned, rather than his six or eight. She loved finding a park bench; she loved feeding pigeons out of a bag of peanuts, and remembering her sons cracking peanuts when they, with her, rode the well-known swan boats in Bos­ton’s Public Garden, or when they sat and watched the Red Sox — oh, the ups and downs of that love in a family’s life! — keep trying to prevail. She had her own shrewd capacity to take stock of people, places, things — but she was quiet about her mind’s activity, and far less interested than her husband in sharing her thoughts with others. A ready, warm smile was her way of greeting the world. A constant willingness to extend herself on behalf of others was her way of indicating that the point of her soft-spoken, even reticent manner was not stoic aloofness or self-contained hauteur, but a certain skepticism about mere words, their flashiness, the boasting they occasionally do.

She was a generous person; she trusted people; she was ever prepared to help strangers who need­ed help — pick up a toy a child of strangers had dropped, serve people in soup kitchens, teach (as a volunteer) boys and girls going to woefully inade­quate schools. “Your mother is a truly modest lady,” the doorman to the building where they liv­ed once told me, and I always thought the compli­ment was not only earned (and spoken with heart­felt appreciation) but of a kind she truly deserved — from someone who had occasion to know well the virtues and vices of innumerable people, and from someone she liked: no fancy airs, for sure, and himself one who silently did things for others all day long. On Fridays, as my father worked his walking way toward a restaurant, my mother would, to use an expression of hers, “have a gab” with that doorman, or with a man who sold flowers on a street corner near the apartment, or with a waitress in a small cafeteria who served her coffee. Unlike my dad, she would usually take a cab to their place of chosen assignation, usually decided upon on the spur of the moment, as the one left for his ambulatory challenge and the other lingered over yet another short story or chapter in a novel.


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