I woke up this morning and as I was making my coffee, realized I was thinking of my mother. It’s been 26 years since she died and although I have anecdotal thoughts about her frequently, it’s been awhile since I thought of her as a whole person. It took me only moments to realize that this was the anniversary of her death. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to be morbid here, it’s been too many years – but she was largely responsible for who am I as a person today.
She was what we would now call ‘petite’. A dyed ‘champagne blonde’ as was the look back then and was an attractive woman. She was always however, semi- invalided due to a nasty bout of rheumatic fever as a child which permanently damaged her heart. I remember my father and I having to make a ‘seat’ with our hands to get her up long flights of stairs. She sat there as she was ignominiously carried but always acted as if she were royalty being carried in a litter. People who stared gave an elegant smile and a small queenly wave.
She had a great sense of humour. I remember both of us laughing till the tears streamed down our faces. We were awful, we laughed about people, and we were more than willing to laugh at ourselves. We talked endlessly about films and books. I know people talk about their parents as their best friends, and mine was. Not without discipline (she could be REALLY scary), but when it came down to it I was like a mini-me. Without the helmet hairdo.
I remember I had a gay male friend who was always trying to shock her. He would often drop in on her for a good yammer, and they were good friends. Once while in New York he brought her back a pair of edible panties (do those still exist?). One occasion that he was visiting, she asked him to go to the corner store to pick them up some Cokes. Off he went and when he rang the buzzer on his return, she greeted him at the door, in the edible panties, black garters and stockings, and a black lace bra. He handed her the cokes and ran.
I think my father ate the panties on his ice cream that night. Banana flavoured if I recall him reporting.
I was adopted as after the birth of my brother. Mama was told her heart could not take the stress of another pregnancy. But she wanted another baby, and a girl at that. So I don’t feel given up – I feel totally chosen. I was lavished with affection and had a childhood anyone would have been happy to have. I was never told I was adopted. This was probably a wise move in my case. I was an anxious child, (perhaps the nascent beginnings of bipolar disorder?) and I think if I had known I had been ‘transferred’ once, I would have been terrified of having to face leaving my mother. It was her face at the door which rushed me home from school, our shopping trips and she even took me to the hairdresser with her (I was a well behaved child) and since her vanity required-it she was there often. I became the salon’s unofficial mascot.
It wasn’t that I didn’t love my father. He was absent a lot. He was a bank manager and worked long, hard hours and I was often just going to bed as he came home. He never expected my mother to have dinner hot on the table waiting for him, but was happy with heating up the leftovers from our dinners. He was and is a quiet, good man. As she was not physically strong, he hired a housekeeper for her (not easy on a banker’s salary with two kids in private schools) and what the housekeeper didn’t do, he did. He adored her.
Then came the ‘gay thing’. I knew from a very early age (5-ish? I do believe they say your sexuality is largely set at that point), that I was different. I had terrible tantrums when shoved into a dress as I would rather wear my brother’s hand me downs. White gloves and patent leather shoes for church and special occasions. "always sit like a lady with your knees together and ankles crossed". I felt humiliated. I wanted to sit like a stevedore with my legs wide open and I didn’t give a damn if my underwear showed. A struggle between the two of us. One of many.
When I was 17, I went into a depression, largely because I had fallen in love with another girl and couldn’t talk to her about it (we talked about everything usually) and I felt I was hiding a secret. Not a terrible one, I never felt guilty about being a lesbian, I did feel guilty not telling her about it, and also feared her reaction. I had good reason to. She knew I was depressed and was intent on getting to the bottom of it. She asked me outright what was going on. “Well, Mom, I have something to tell you”, I quavered. She immediately responded with “You’re pregnant”. “Uhm, NO…I’m gay.” She stared at me for a moment, then announced “Well, your adopted so it’s not my fault.” Now I know many of you reading this will think that cruel. But my response was so minor that it was not. I had my parents for my whole life and the idea of being adopted meant nothing. So what? Then she realized what she said, what I had said, and she began banging her head against the wall and crying. I look at this incident with humour now as one of the best coming out stories I know. She banged her head for some time and then in tears, ‘retired’ to her room for more sobs.
First there was anger, then there was the cold treatment and then after a couple of months it was a non-spoken subject and we went back to being best friends. She never approved of my buddies, but generally kept her mouth shut, limited to such things as ‘my that’s a masculine looking young woman’, or ‘and what does her family do?’ (she was an inveterate snob).
It was her heart that finally gave up on her. After surgery in the 50’s, 60s and 80’s,the last surgery was a failure. The valves leaked. For her time in the hospital, she told me things about her life that I never knew. Funny things, sad things, and sometimes rather shocking things. It was like she had to get it out. But all was not dreary. We always laughed. We used to play ‘spot the poofter’ (this included the women) on the hospital staff. (We had gotten over the gay thing.) I used to wiggle my pinky when one would come in the room and she would always laugh. One day, she lifted her own pinky weakly and twirled it around. She was getting the hang of it.
Then the thing that I would never have expected from my iron willed mother occurred. She went into a deep state of depression and anxiety and ended up on the psych ward. My mother on the Psych ward? It was shocking. The doctors’ said it was the result of too much stress on her body and mind to know she was going to die – soon. She was so anxious she pulled at her sheets constantly, begged people not to leave and said she saw nothing but black ahead. She was right.
One night, after returning home from hospital (on heavy medication) she took a fruit salad, and packed it in a suitcase. She died that night of a stroke. My best friend said she was sitting on a cloud happily eating the fruit salad she had the foresight to pack in case she had to wait in line to get to St. Peter.
So, on this day, I remember my funny mother whether I’m consciously thinking about that date 26 years ago or not. She always pops into my mind and lingers for the day. She used to say ‘when I go, NEVER put me on a pedestal’. I don’t. She was human, not an angel. She tried to do the right thing, but was often misguided and at times a prevaricator (just for the fun of a good story), and stubborn.
Fortunately or unfortunately I believe I developed my sense of humor from her, my love of books, theatre, film, a sense of honor and the ability to struggle through just about any of life’s difficult circumstances.