MOTHER'S IMPORTANT COUSINS

My mother's important cousins were a problem. They lived abroad, so that I never had a chance to get used to them, and, when we did meet, most of them did not approve of a boy who was taught in New York's most progressive school to question authority and express his disagreements.

My reactions to Cousin Bertrand Russell extended back to before I saw him. My mother loved to tell, as a demonstration of how she could outwit her sons, an anecdote from a previous visit of her old friend to New York. The philosopher was expected for dinner when our family nurse fell suddenly ill. Since no one had then heard of babysitters the crisis was severe. I was so small that I could be exiled to bed, but there was no way to prevent my elder brother from coming to the table. He was also modernly educated and Mother feared the worst.

Again and again she would describe to some smiling middle-aged audience how she had told Brother William that Cousin Bertie despised Americans. When Bill had worked himself up into a vociferous Lincoln School indignation, Mother inserted the remark that one of the most usual English charges was that American children talked too much. "How perfectly ridiculous!" William replied. With heroic patriotism, he was silent during dinner. To the grown-up laughter which always greeted this anecdote I decided I did not like Bertrand Russell.

When he reappeared in New York and I did now meet him, I saw no reason to change my opinion. His greatness was beyond my comprehension. I might, of course, have accepted it on faith, but I had been taught to take nothing on faith. I based my judgment on what I saw and heard.

I saw a thin man with no chin and a great deal of hair. His endearing resemblance to a cockatoo lasted only while his mind was in neutral during the boredom of having to shake hands with a medium-sized teenage boy. Then he launched into the brilliant talk for which he was

____________________
An earlier version of this essay appeared in Blackwood's Magazine, 319, No. 1923 ( January 1976), 25-31.

-332-

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