Good Grief!:
The sweet, sad legacy of Charles Shultz

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing)

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 now.

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 tricky parents.

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 Jo!"

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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