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The value of civility: Me and Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe and I had a long and rather odd friendship, beginning in 1991 when I invited him to be special author guest for Chimera 2, a tiny sercon I ran in Chicago. I hit it off pretty well with his wife Rosemary, and to some extent with his daughters. Maybe that’s why Gene began inviting me and my husband to lunch with him and Rosemary, and we returned the invitations. Soon we were lunching nearly every month. Often it was just him and me, driving to meet at some restaurant in the vast suburban no-man’s-land between his place in Barrington and mine near the city.

No-man’s-land describes our meeting space pretty accurately, in fact. Gene came from a place one might say was diametrically opposed to my place of origin: He was a Catholic convert, a war veteran, politically quite conservative, and by upbringing a member of the generation born before WWI, although in years he was younger. I’m an animist pagan, a die-hard feminist and lefty, a protester against war, born just barely too young to participate in the 1960s but spiritually of that generation. He grew up in rural Texas, I in the Chicago suburbs. We grew up destined to be not merely alien to one another but enemies.

Our meetings smacked strongly of those wintry scenes one sees in Cold War spy movies, where a man stands at a gate guarded by soldiers with machine guns, looking down a long, high, narrow concrete bridge fenced and over-arched with barbed wire coils, at a distant figure behind a similar gate. The gates open simultaneously. Each walks between the fences to the middle of the bridge, keeping his hands where everyone can see them. Out on the bridge are two hard folding chairs and a little table. One man takes a bottle of vodka and two glasses out of his coat pocket, the other produces a large sandwich wrapped in waxed paper. They sit, share a meal, talk. An hour or two later they return to their separate ends of that long narrow bridge, back to the bosoms of their armies.

Gene and I were terribly careful during our meals to talk of authory things, and tell stories of our pasts in an anecdotal fashion, avoiding every opportunity to touch upon our points of difference. If he referred to a painful event or relationship in his past, it was delicately, with the formality of a member of that lost generation. If I passed a bitter remark about my own past it was with humor. I deferred to him with all the ceremony of the way, let’s say, someone born in 1928 would defer to someone born in 1904. He treated me like a lady, which I most emphatically am not. Mostly I behaved like a lady with Gene. I was raised that way, after all.

That was the point, I suppose. We did have some things in common, terribly painful things: elderly parents, relationships between parent and child gone horribly wrong, scars that disfigured us, mistakes we would never be able to undo, rigid upbringing, regrets and resentments and wars that had rained their fire upon Catholic and pagan alike. In many ways we came from opposite ends of those old relationships. Each represented to the other both the injuring party and the person we had injured.

We couldn’t fix those fucked-up relationships.

We could try to meet a representative of that other side, make conversation, demonstrate good faith.

We couldn’t speak openly of the war and those shared injuries, but we didn’t have to. I wasn’t there when those things happened to him. He didn’t do those things to me. We were just veterans of the same war, coming from opposite ends of the bridge to talk around the war, past it, rather than about it. We could laugh and build trust and give each other, cautiously, love.

Years passed. The bridge got longer. Petty bureaucrats eventually closed it. We couldn’t talk on the phone the way we could on that bridge; it wasn’t safe.

Nothing changed that love, though. We built it in circumstances where one would say a cockroach couldn’t live, let alone trust and affection between hereditary enemies.

That’s one thing about a cold war. It’s not a monolith. It’s a million little moments between people who meet under chaotic circumstances.

It’s not really them versus us.

It’s you and me, right here, right now, on this bridge.

Those guys with guns may be watching, but this conversation is ours.


2 thoughts on “The value of civility: Me and Gene Wolfe”

  1. Nicely done, Jen. Wolfe was always one of my favorite writers. I loved hearing how you navigated your friendship with him.

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