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My son, my soldier, my sorrow

In three essays written over 20 years, a liberal, pacifist mother struggles to understand her conservative son, a proud soldier and member of the NRA.

Published June 13, 2004

[Photos courtesy of Janet Burroway]
Tim, left, plays with brother Alex in Sussex, England, in 1966.
TOP: Tim at age 2, in Sussex, England.
MIDDLE: Tim poses with his quarry on a hunt in Cameroon.
BOTTOM: Tim in Hawaii, serving with the Army circa 1990.

Janet Burroway, a novelist, essayist and playwright at Florida State University, recently submitted an essay about her son, Tim, to Floridian. The piece is powerful on its own, but we felt it was even more affecting when read along with Burroway's earlier writing about her family.

Here, then, are three essays, the first published in Floridian in 1984, the second in a literary journal in 1997. The third was written last month and sent to us a few days ago. - MIKE WILSON, Newsfeatures editor


I have two sons, and where they come from, God only knows. All parents say that, more or less. My sons are so unlike each other that it isn't possible they were produced from the same two sets of chromosomes, which they were, nor that they were raised under the same single-parent effort of Spock and spaghetti, which they were. All parents say that more or less, too, but in my case it's really true. No, it really is.

Tim is 20, Episcopal, Republican and polite. He would like fondu bourguignon for dinner, thank you, and if possible a Harris tweed topcoat for his birthday. At the moment, his head is shaved because he is at Fort Benning learning how to jump out of airplanes with Army ROTC cadets.

Alex is 17, sloppy, barely scraping through British comprehensive school and a radical-left wing-feminist-anarchist. He can live on a loaf of bread and a 4-pound Edam cheese for a week, and he would go without that if it would get him an original Gibson semiacoustic guitar. His head is shaved except for a shield-shaped patch on top, the long forelock of which is bleached and waxed out over his forehead like the visor of an organic baseball cap.

Mind you, even apart from baldness, they would look quite a lot alike if Tim were not wearing the alligator shirt with his yellow Sun Britches and his Top-Siders, while Alex has got one sleeve ripped out of his famous dead bird T-shirt and a single cricket leg guard over his shredded jeans. Seeking similarities, I note that they both like combat boots, but Tim's are intended for combat, wherever the sovereign United States cares to send him, whereas Alex's are for busking around the monument at Piccadilly Circus, where American tourists sometimes slip him a pound note to take his picture as a souvenir of London. (He left Florida last fall.)

Tim, who thinks all Communists deserve slow torture, is personally a peacemaker, easygoing as a housemate and empathetic in a crisis. Alex, who believes in universal brotherhood and boasts that he's a wimp, can stir emotional turmoil and wreak physical havoc in any room big enough to hold two adults and a ghetto blaster.

They are both proud of their Scottish heritage and the grandmother who was "purebred McKenzie," but of the two McKenzie mottos, it's clear Tim espouses the Celtic that translates "All for the King," whereas Alex and I wear the Latin badge "Luceo non uro," meaning "Light, not heat."

You will have figured out that I love these kids. If you have also raised a human offspring to as many as 14 candles, you will also perceive that it's too late for me to do anything. Whatever it is, I've already done it, and I can't for the life of me figure out what it was.

All parents say that, too. The only thing that saves a mother who can't keep the very hair on her children's heads is to have a theory. And this is mine:

What I have got here is a microcosm of the generation. Tim is the son of '60s folks, like most of his conservative peers. We were the ones who had them out in strollers at the sit-ins and parked them in the playpens while we addressed envelopes for Mothers Against the Bomb.

Tim being a peaceable and well-intentioned son, when it came time for his rebellion, he didn't want to cause any trouble in the family, so he just quietly adopted all the values that were dear to John Wayne and anathema to his father and me, and he went off to the privacy of the voting booth to pull the lever for Reagan. That's not only his democratic right, you see, but it leaves me in a beautiful double bind. How can a truly liberal parent dictate what a boy is to believe? You opt for Dr. Spock, and you turn out Mr. Spock. Is anybody out there saying amen? I thought so.

But Alex is the other part of what's happening in the '80s teens. It's no use rebelling against Mom, who is clearly going to sit there and take it - if she'll let you be a soldier, she'll let you be anything! - so big brother gets to represent Big Brother. All those Steves and Kimberlys in their blow-dried hair! All those rosebuds at the bloody prom and those jocks with their polished sports cars! Now there is something a rebellion can sink its teeth into!

And then what do we get out of it, we '60s parents - all that patience, all those withholdings of the rod, all that empathy with the flinger of spinach and solemn discussion of the current tantrum?

I'll tell you.

We get openness. We get communication. No sneaking about, no heart-hammering lies, no fear that the worst of the truth will bring down wrath. Don't get me wrong. I don't mean them. I don't fool myself that I know what's going on in their heads and hearts, in the bars and the back seats. No, no, I mean I get to be honest. I can confess my thoughts. They know the worst I have to offer. I mean, I'm gonna show this to 'em.


This piece, originally titled "Soldier Son," first appeared in 1997 in New Letters, a literary journal at the University of Missouri. It was later reprinted by the Utne Reader.

I had been to parties here before, a slightly stuffy, pleasantly scruffy London flat with worn leather on the chairs, Kurdish rugs on the floor and etchings of worthy ruins on the walls. It looked like a grownup version of Cambridge "digs," and most of us looked like middle-aged versions of the Cambridge undergraduates we had mostly been, now pundits and publishers, writers and actors, what the British call the "chattering classes." Both my sons were with me on this trip, 16-year-old Alex out with his guitar and the punks of Piccadilly Circus, 19-year-old Tim somewhere in the adjoining room in Harris tweed. I recognized the man crossing toward me, glass in hand, as somebody I vaguely knew, first name Jeff (or Geoff), last name lost. I remembered he was witty, articulate, an impassioned campaigner for free speech; my kind of person. So I was glad to see him headed toward me.

He charged a little purposefully, though, his look heated. "I've been talking to your son," he said and set his glass against his chin. "My God, how do you stand it?"

My stomach clenched around its undigested canapes. Shame, defensiveness and rage (I am responsible for my son; I am not responsible for my son; who are you to insult my son?) so filled my throat that I could not speak. The free speech champion offered me the kind of face, sympathy and shock compounded, that one offers to the victim of mortal news.

"I manage," I managed presently and turned on my heel.

I have never run into Jeff again, but I credit him with the defining moment, when choice is made at depth: the Mother Moment.

Let's be clear. I live in knee-jerk land, impulses pacifist to liberal, religion somewhere between atheist and ecumenical, inclined to quibble and hair-split with my friends, who, however, are all Democrats and Labour, who believe that sexual orientation is nobody's business, that intolerance is the world's scourge, that corporate power is a global danger, that war is always cruel and almost always pointless, that guns kill people.

My son Tim, who describes himself as a fiscal conservative but social liberal, shares these attitudes of tolerance toward sex, race and religion. His politics, however, emanate from a spirit of gravity rather than irony. Now 33, he is a member of the Young Republicans, the National Rifle Association and the U.S. Army Reserve, with which he spends as much time as he can wangle, most recently in Bosnia, Germany and the Republic of Central Africa.

I love this young man deeply and deeply admire about three-quarters of his qualities. For the rest - well, Jungian philosopher James Hillman has somewhere acknowledged those parts of every life that you can't fix, escape or reconcile yourself to. How you manage those parts, he doesn't say. What Tim and I do is let slide, laugh, mark a boundary with the smallest gesture, back off, embrace or shrug. Certainly we deny. Often we are rueful. I don't think there is ever any doubt about the "we."

Most parents must sooner or later, more or less explicitly, face this paradox: If I had an Identikit to construct a child, is this the child I'd make? No, no way. Would I trade this child for that one? No, no way.

This week in Florida I receive in the mail a flier from Teddy Kennedy that asks me to put my money where my mouth is, assuming my mouth is saying, "Yes! I will stand up and be counted to help end the gun violence that plagues our country." I am considering a contribution when Tim drops by. He is headed to the gun show, thinking he will maybe indulge himself with a Ruger because it's a good price, has a lovely piece of cherry on the handle and fine scoring, and he's never had a cowboy-type gun. He's curious how it handles, heavy as it is. Later he comes back to show it off. He fingers the wood grain and the metalwork, displays the bluing on the trigger mechanism exactly as I would show off the weave of a Galway tweed, the draping quality of crepe cut on the bias. He offers it on the palms of both hands, and I weigh it on mine, gingerly. It's neat, I admit. Grinning at my caution, he takes it back.

I have a black and white snapshot of Tim and his little brother, both towheaded and long-lashed, squatting in an orchard full of daffodils. I also own a color photograph, taken in the African savanna, of Tim, grown, kneeling over the carcass of a wild boar. Now, looking at the toddler in the daffodils, I can see the clear lineaments of the hunter's face. But squatting beside him years ago, I had no premonition of which planes, tilts, colors of that cherub head would survive. Looking back, I can see clearly in his passion for little plastic planes, tank kits, bags of khaki-colored soldiers and history books about famous battles that his direction was early set. But I was a first-time parent. I thought all boys played soldier.

Alex liked little planes, too, but he went into other fantasies, to Dungeons and Dragons and from thence to pacifism and the Society for Creative Anachronism. In him, I have witnessed the astonishing but quite usual transformation from radical-punk-anarchist to responsible, loving husband and father. Tim's journey has been otherwise: As a child he was modest, intense, fiercely honorable and had few but deep friendships. He lit with enthusiasm for his most demanding teachers, praising their strictness. He was from the beginning a worrier after his integrity, which he pursued with solemn doggedness, eyes popping.

In puberty, Tim developed no interest in sports but kept a keen eye on world news. He read voraciously, mostly adventure novels, admired John Wayne's acting and politics, and more than once quoted "My country, right or wrong." At 18 he came home in tears because he could not go to defend England's honor in the Falklands. I was grateful for the friend who told him, "You know, it isn't that we're shocked. All of us are familiar with the attitudes you have; we've considered and rejected them." Tim swallowed and said, "I didn't think of it that way."

Since then he has thought of it in several hundred ways, and so have I. I'm aware of my contradictions in his presence: a feminist often charmed by machismo, a pacifist with a temper, an ironist moved by rhetoric that can be Hemingwayesque. His humor can be heavy-handed. He can be quick to bristle and on occasion hidden far back in himself.

These faults unfold his virtues: You could trust him with a secret on which your life depended; neither will he betray you in trivial ways. He would, literally, lay down his life for a cause or a friend. He is, of American types, pre-Vietnam.

Tim doesn't expect a weapon for his birthday, and I don't defend Jimmy Carter in his presence. But sometimes we stumble into uneasy territory. We have learned to acknowledge that, mother and child, we not only don't share a world view; we cannot respect each other's. Our task is to love in the absence of that respect.

It's a tall order. We agree that we do pretty well. Stating the impasse seems, paradoxically, to confirm our respect. Tim has this observation: "It's a good thing it's you who's the liberal, Mom. If I were the parent, I wouldn't want to let you be you the way you've let me be me."

Two things are at work here: Motherhood is thicker than politics, and a politics of certainty - the snap judgment, closed mind, blanket dismissal - cannot be what I mean by liberal. To love deeply where you deeply disagree creates a double vision that impinges daily in unexpected ways.

The mail and the gun show were on Saturday. Sunday afternoon Tim is back to show me a double-cowhide holster he has cut, tooled and stitched freehand. "It's a pretty fair copy of John Wayne's favorite; he called it his Rio Bravo."

"It's handsome," I say. I don't say that it's also delicate, with bursts of flowerets burned around the curve of the holster front and the loop that holds it to the leg. Tim shows me deep cuts in his index fingers from pulling the beeswaxed linen thread through hand-punched holes. All those years while I taught my boys to iron and sew, I thought I was turning out little feminists.

He has another gun to show me. I forget the name of this one, a semiautomatic from which, he carefully shows me, he has removed the clip. He has spent several hundred hours filing every edge inside and out so all the parts fit with silken smoothness and the barrel shines blackly. This is the hammer and the seer, the housing, the clip well. This is the site he's got an idea how to improve. This is the handle he has crosshatched with hair's-width grooves to perfect the grip. Just so do I worry my lines across the page one at a time, take apart and refit the housing of sentences, polish and shine. This is love of craft he's talking. This is a weapon that could kill a person that I am holding in my hand. The conflict between conviction and maternal love stirs again, stressfully.


Burroway submitted this essay to the St. Petersburg Times a few days ago.

I have today canceled the subscription of my son Timothy Alan Eysselinck to American Rifleman and removed his name from the National Rifle Association mailing lists, lobbying efforts, fund solicitations and so forth.

Tim has been a lifetime member of the NRA, a registered Republican, an avid hunter of small and big game, a Ranger and a captain in the U.S. Army, and a civilian contractor for humanitarian de-mining. Because he was deployed or employed all over the world, his NRA mail still comes to the house in Tallahassee where he grew up, but as he shot and killed himself on April 23, the messages are no longer received.

I have been looking over the most recent issue of Rifleman trying to grasp why a fiercely honorable boy fell in love with objects manufactured to destroy, and why such boys continue to believe that such objects foster integrity and peace. But my mind is not adequate to the task, and the magazine is not intended to explain to the unconverted.

Tim was a loving and obedient child fascinated with all things military, tactical, strategic, ballistic. He could spend hours repositioning the limbs of a plastic soldier or reproducing the patina of wear on a toy ammo belt. As a teenager, he sought discipline and rigor, to the wonder of my friends. He took a degree in history as a member of the ROTC, then spent four years stationed in the Army in Hawaii, where he described himself as a "warrior without a war." He left to become a security officer for the embassies and multinationals in Cameroon, and as a Reserve officer headquartered in Stuttgart, he was sent to Bosnia, the Republic of Congo, and then to Namibia, where he learned expertise in de-mining. In Windhoek, Namibia's capital, he married on the eve of the millennium, became a stepfather and later a father to a daughter now 31/2.

In August of last year, having completed a two-year humanitarian de-mining project on the Ethiopian-Eritrean border (the family spent that time in Addis Ababa), Tim was offered his choice of a desk job in Washington or a mine-clearing contract in Iraq. His wife agreed to return to Windhoek and honor his desire for a limited tour at the front.

In Baghdad, Tim headed a $7-million project with eight civilian colleagues, a dog team and 90 Iraqis, who, he said, were the best he'd ever worked with - the most dedicated, the most disciplined. They gave him hope for the governmental handover because Sunni, Shiite and Kurd, they worked side by side in mortal danger with mutual trust.

In the Green Zone and in the field, Tim carried two pistols and a machine gun; I'm sorry to report that I paid no attention to what kind or caliber. He spent his days blowing things up - some mines, but more often unexploded ordnance from American cluster bombs - to clear building sites for housing and schools, and in one instance, a soccer field.

In January, my son came to Tallahassee for a day, en route from Namibia back to Baghdad by way of a de-mining conference in Tampa. He was gorgeous in Iraqi guise - tan, bearded and finally with a full head of hair. My husband, Peter, said I fell in love with him all over again. The three of us shared the strangeness of Tim's brother, Alex - that eternal pacifist - now being on the front line as supervisor of the Piccadilly Circus station of the London Underground, not only chasing buskers from the tunnels where he used to busk but, uniformed, drilling his crew in antiterrorist evacuation.

Tim was missing his family and thought his Iraqi team on the verge of self-sufficiency. But he also worried that it would become targets of the insurgents, and he was despondent and enraged at the Bush administration and the Bremer regime - "the corruption, the incompetence, the greed, the lies, the brute stupidity." I confess I was elated to hear this. I did not then know (because he wouldn't worry Mom with too much truth) that one of his men had lost a leg in a de-mining accident, nor that their compound was fired on daily - nor that he had been treated for depression in Ethiopia the year before. Nor did I suspect that his plane would lift out of Baghdad weaving to dodge a missile.

I had, like a good liberal mom, let him choose his views and his life, and now it seemed that firsthand experience was bringing him round to mine. With better hindsight, my brother pointed out, "Tim was someone who thought that with ideals and a gun you could fix things." He had put his life at the service of a government that stood on just such a belief, and his disillusionment cut deep. Back in Iraq, a note in his appointment calendar for Jan. 10 reads "all mistakes anyway everything crazy now I hope I can make it home safe."

In late February, Tim completed his tour and rejoined his family, and he spent a couple of weeks in the jubilation of freedom. But his re-entry to the low-level chaos of family life was hard. He was obsessively irritable in small ways. He became a news junkie. Madrid was attacked, the Spanish pulled out of Iraq, Fallujah fell apart, hostages were taken. If all the contractors left, how could there be reconstruction? Tim's work would have come to nothing but danger for the troops who trusted him. He obsessively e-mailed his men, but they were busy staying alive and answered at a lag, if at all. He solaced himself with hunting on a game farm in Namibia, sending proud pictures of himself with a downed warthog, a springbok, a magnificent kudu.

Then, on April 22, hunting with an unfamiliar rifle in the wrong light, he wounded a gemsbok he could not track. On his return, inconsolable, he told his stepson that he had found a tooth, which meant that he had hit the animal in the face. He had had to leave it, like his men in Iraq, to its fate.

Tim shot himself the next evening in the dining room of his house in the Windhoek hills called Eros. It was a clean kill. The trajectory took the bullet through the right maxilla, upper left cranium, a black and beige Herrera-pattered drape, and out a rectangular window pane. A week later, Alex stood in front of that window on his way to his brother's funeral in full McKenzie kilt regalia, bringing together the Scottish heritage of which Tim had been so proud and his choice of Africa as homeland.

No one will ever know what exploded in Tim's mind. And no one will know how many children for decades to come in Namibia, Angola, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Iraq will retain all four limbs because my kid who loved weapons accidentally stumbled into the profession of getting rid of them.

We do know, however, from the Namibian police, that the last gun he held was a .45-caliber Norinco model 1911 (nicknamed "Government"), serial number 901233. They pried it from his cold, dead hand.

-- Janet Burroway is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Emerita at Florida State University and the author of novels, plays, stories and essays. Her most recent book of essays is Embalming Mom, published in 2002 by the University of Iowa Press. Her play Parts of Speech will be produced in March at Florida State.

To comment on this article, please call Mike Wilson at 727 892-2924 or e-mail

[Last modified June 10, 2004, 13:29:16]

[Photo courtesy of Janet Burroway]
Mom in the kitchen with Tim and Alex, Sussex, 1970.

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