The sweet, sad legacy of Charles Shultz
by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative
The recent death of Charles Shultz, only a few
days before the publication of his last "Peanuts" comic strip,
caused me great sadness. If you can't bear sentimentality, turn the page
It amazed me, when I reflected on Shultz's death, to realize how
central the characters in "Peanuts" had been in my own childhood.
My mother introduced me to the world of Peanuts early in my life, often
calling me Charlie Brown. Certain scenes earned me this distinction.
For example, I recall running down a hill repeatedly in the middle
of July trying to fly a kite. My mother, sitting on the front porch of
our house, applauded wildly, laughing hysterically, shouting, "Way
to go, Charlie Brown!" I don't know what I was thinking, except that
it was this same hill on which I taught myself to ride a bike. I'd jump
on the bike and speed downhill repeatedly. Ultimately, I learned to maintain
balance without the speed. I guess I thought I could keep the kite aloft
in the same way. Of course, parents don't understand that for a child
the sight of a kite rising even for a moment is exhilarating. Competency
is for adults.
My total incompetency at sports - at least, unlike Charlie Brown, I gave
up trying to kick a football - also earned me his name. But I think our
identities became mostly entwined because of our shared existential anxieties,
our sense that we are aliens on a planet populated by tricky people, especially
At the bottom of the hill where I rode my bike was the house of
my aunt and uncle. In front were large mimosa trees. I remember how I
used to like to climb into the trees. I can still feel the pink tendrils
of the flowers on my face and, whenever I see a mimosa tree now, I am
still overcome by a sweet, mournful nostalgia.
I would sit there forever in the tree, often deep in reverie or
licking my wounds because I was an unhappy child most of the time. This
was my secret place, or at least I imagined it such.
One day - I could not have been older than five -- my mother made
me angry. I walked into my bedroom, put a shirt in a pillowcase, grabbed
my teddybear and headed out the door. Mama eyed me suspiciously but didn't
stop me. When I'd reached the street, she shouted from the front porch:
"Are you running away from home, Charlie Brown?"
I cried back angrily, "Yes! I am going to live with Auntie
My mother shouted back, "I will bake you a chocolate cake
if you don't go."
I looked at her, I looked down the street at those mimosa trees
- arching and twisting in the sun, their flowers looking so otherworldly
- and I said nothing.
"I'm your mother!" mama shouted.
"No," I called back. "That tree is my mother."
And I ran down the hill to my place of comfort. When people make jokes
about tree huggers, I tend to be very quiet, for this tree - like the
animistic world of "Peanuts" - really did comfort me. I stayed
nearly a week at my aunt's home. It was the beginning of a cruel history
in which my mother and I often did battle. She often withheld her affection
if I hurt her feelings. This was the first time I realized I that I would
have to be mothered by something larger than my actual mother. And for
her, she would tell me many years later, it was the first time she realized
what a powerful will I had. Today, I feel a little less bitter about all
of this. In Shultz's strip, the voices of parents always came across as
gibberish and I think Charlie Brown taught me that we must all come to
realize that our parents and their ways are, in the end, incomprehensible.
Among my mother's incomprehensible ways was her intense dislike
of animals. She convinced my brothers and me that we were allergic to
cats, dogs and hamsters. Even goldfish, she assured, us were "eerie."
Once, though, I was allowed to have a beagle. Naturally, he was named
"Snoopy." When my mother bribed my blanket out of my hands for
a box of chocolate - are you noticing a theme here? - and a toy fire engine,
she called me Linus. When I came in from the sandbox or the creek, filthy
and exhausted from trying to dig my way to China, she called me Pigpen.
When I was about 12, I developed a serious case of pneumonia and
was in the hospital for two weeks. Mama piled my hospital bed with books
of Peanuts strips that made me laugh throughout most of my convalescence.
Mama often sat on my bed and read me Robert Benchley's essays, too, and
we would laugh until we were suffocating. Benchley, one of the lights
of the Algonquin Round Table, was a sort of grownup Charlie Brown, a man
always on the outside.
My mother, so dark and depressed but often hilarious, knew that
I needed to learn to laugh in the midst of my misery - even the misery
she caused me. I have her dark nature. It was such a gift, for all the
unhappiness of our lives together, that she also taught me to laugh. And
-good grief! -- what would my life have been like had I not had, as her
tool in this instruction, the mirror of Charles Shultz's world?
I am grateful.
Copyright 2000 by Creative Loafing
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