George Booth, the New Yorker cartoonist who created a world of oddballs sharing life’s chaos with a pointy-eared bull terrier that once barked a flower to death, and sometimes with a herd of cats that shredded couches and window shades between sweet naps, died on Tuesday at his home in Brooklyn. He was 96.
so begins the new york times obituary of a man who infused my childhood. no, he didn’t frequent the five-and-dime in our leafy little town. he didn’t populate the pews of our native church. he came in the mail. every week. and in the weeks when he graced the cover, or was tucked inside the confines of william shawn’s new yorker (known as “the holy grail for cartoonists”), you could count on tracking down my mother if you traced the vapors of her out-loud laughing to where you’d find her giddily all but hiding behind the glossy pages of the slick. she would laugh, back then and even now, in a way that made you think there was something almost-naughty about those pages, which of course made us, her troupe of five, scamper to its pages soon as she abandoned it on the stack of mail, where hours later our ad man of a dad (who never met a joke or pun he didn’t relish) would saunter on the scene and chuckle at whatever was the funny.
george booth proved to us that our mother — the very one who trained us to eat our peas and lima beans without complaint, and never tell a lie, to ne’er ignore the dinner bell, and always look both ways –– had a secret compartment full of almost-naughty humor. and if we kept close watch, we too might figure out the shortcut to some eternally redemptive funny bone.
thus, coming upon the news that mr. booth has died this week, and that his wife of 64 years had died a mere six days earlier (such tales of love and lives that end in stunning unison nearly always make me weak at the knees), i felt a thud to the heart that only certain deaths elicit.
there is a minor cast of characters in every childhood — the names that brought applause, the ones whose books most frequently recurred, the ones whose movies brought us the rare chance to blow a bedtime –– who indelibly marked our evolution, and maybe formed the foggy outlines of who we aimed to be when we grew up. or at least what attributes we might try on for size.
if i close my eyes and tick through the litany of those my mother ushered in, the ones held up in near heroic halo, it’s george booth & co., the new yorker cartoony cast; peg bracken, she of the i hate to cook cookbook; it’s doris day and julia child, all of whom made my mother giggle. it must have been the giggle that so allured. it was a merriment i must have longed for, and long for still. laughter belongs to a human register all its own, audible proof of joyful stirring deep inside. w. h. auden once observed: “among those whom i like or admire, i can find no common denominator, but among those whom i love, i can: all of them make me laugh.”
thank you, mr. booth, for bringing laughter, so much muffled laughter, to the house where i grew up.
in other news, i find myself absorbing the miracle of 70-degree november days. took me a long time — too long — to learn to freeze-frame pure joy and deep-down contentment. but now the hours of my days are as if beads threaded on a string, not unlike the rosaries i long ago learned to pray: mysteries joyful, sorrowful, glorious, and luminous. not a bad paradigm for living. learn to live bead by bead, moment to holy saturated moment. allow each orb to shine in all its constitution, be it radiant or shadowed or somewhere in between. and the beauty of these days, when the leaves are blazing paint-pot hues –– aubergine and persimmon, pure gold and harvard crimson –– they tap me on the soft shell of my soul, and whisper: this is holy time. behold it well.
george booth would make me laugh at that. but he’s no longer here. so it’s on us to find the humor hidden in the chaos of the every day.
who comprised the minor cast of characters in your growing up years? who made your mama laugh or cry, who or what did you aspire to be when you grew up and moved away from home?
this is booth’s cartoon in the immediate wake of 9/11, when the new yorker had decided no cartoons for that issue, but george submitted this anyway; the cat covering its face with its paws, the usually animated fiddle-playing miss rittenhouse (a recurring character modeled after booth’s mother), head down, hands clasped in prayer, sadly silenced by it all.