Saturday, May 30, 2009
Ten Years Ago Today...
My mom told me my very first dirty joke at the age of nine. I was a little slow on the uptake -- it took a decade for me to get it. Not that I would ever have admitted it to her. The joke, if I remember correctly, had something to do with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and her method of cooking his breakfast. ("Sliding up and down the banister!" brayed my mom gleefully.) I've always wondered if she read that joke somewhere or made it up herself. Either way, I laughed right along with her -- I wanted to be as cool and smart and irreverent and funny as she was. But did I have any idea what it meant? Nope. Not a clue.
Bright red chipped toenail polish. Mischievous gray eyes and a cynical smile. A foamy glass of beer. Elegant fingers cradling a lit Parliament cigarette, poised over a misshapen green ceramic ashtray I had made in art class and proudly presented to her one Christmas. (I never saw it thereafter when it wasn't full of lipstick-stained butts.) A nimbus of hazy yellowish smoke around her head.
These are some of the images I retain of my irrepressible mom, who has been gone now for exactly ten years today.
If I had to guess, I'd say that the very last thing on earth she aspired to be was a suburban housewife and mother. (Funny how that whole "self-fulfilling prophecy" thing works.) Having found herself in that position, though, she gamely gave it a shot...with mixed results. She wasn't what you'd call domestically inclined -- she had zero interest in housekeeping, wasn't very good at mending our clothes or tending the garden or ironing. She could charitably be described as an indifferent cook: her Jello molds were crooked, her gravy was lumpy, her pot roast was tough, and her cookies tended to come out burned around the edges...assuming she remembered to turn on the oven in the first place.
It was clear even to me as a child that her heart just wasn't in it, and it was obvious that she thought that any woman who professed to enjoy these things -- like the perky gals enthusiastically hawking housewares in TV commercials -- was either "a lying sack of crap" or had been brainwashed. Forget Donna Reed and Jane Wyatt and (later) Florence Henderson. I'm thinking my mom's television alter-ego was probably the sublimely sexy Carolyn Jones as Morticia Addams, who serenely ran her household from a big rattan peacock chair without ever appearing to do any actual work. (That slinky black dress, perfect manicure, and enveloping mane of hair would have made it difficult in any event.) What a life -- effortlessly beguiling her smitten husband, Morticia never had to concern herself with mundane things like attending PTA meetings or pretending to be interested in somebody's new recipe for chicken salad or keeping up on the latest kitchen appliances.
So, no...my mom wasn't going to win any housewife-of-the-year awards. We were fed and clothed and had what we needed...wasn't that enough? Dust? Clutter? Big deal -- life is short. And she didn't have much use for anyone she saw as phony, elitist, and pretentious, whether they be a public figure or someone from the neighborhood. Case in point: Jacqueline Kennedy, either before or after JFK's assassination. "They were aiming at HER!" declared my mom to the ladies at the weekly bridge tournament, who nearly dropped their Bloody Marys in shock. That was fine; my mom liked to shock people. It should come as no surprise that she didn't have a lot of friends among the neighbors, who probably found her candor alarming.
She fled from convention. She deplored conformists. Ironic, considering where we lived on my hardworking dad's teacher salary: a small, flat ranch house identical to many others in our cookie cutter bedroom suburb. Such a banal existence must have seemed like the seventh level of hell to someone like her. There were many days that she retreated into alcohol and food and ordering things on the Home Shopping Network and shouting out all the right answers on Jeopardy. Her bed was her best friend sometimes.
I've always wondered how her life would have been different if she had continued to work. Clearly, she was a brilliant woman, and proved to be -- to our pleasant surprise years later -- a very savvy investor. There were many times, I'm sure, when she was frustrated and miserable and filled with regrets.
But catch her in the right mood and oh, the stories she would tell! Scheherazade in a seersucker robe. Outrageous tall tales about her childhood, her wacky family, her various unusual jobs, the men she had um...dated...in her va-va-va voom youth before my dad came along (no detail was spared!), and her skillful lampooning of our very stereotypical 1960s-era neighbors...
The Osaka family -- mom, dad and three daughters -- who trooped out of their house every Wednesday evening to their county orchestra rehearsals, all of them with French horns in tow. Mrs. Osaka also gave French horn lessons, and whenever the sound would waft out of their house and over our back fence, my mom would bellow, "Release the hounds!" The McKendricks, whose Grandma had Alzheimer's (we didn't know that word then -- to us, she was just crazy). The poor thing would forlornly wander the neighborhood in her bare feet and nightgown in all kinds of weather, searching in vain for her late husband. My mom would sigh, throw on a coat, grab a blanket, bundle the trembling Mrs. McKendrick into the car, and determinedly take her back home. The Pembertons, who perennially won the prize for the gaudiest Halloween and Christmas displays...co-mingling church and state, they thought nothing of having a big Santa and his reindeer right next to their Nativity scene in the front yard. Mrs. Pemberton, resplendent in her heavy Cleopatra eye makeup, capri pants, and perfect ash blonde beehive, assailing us with an impossibly chipper greeting as she arrived for the early morning kindergarten carpool. My mom had a field day with that -- "What, is she up at four in the effin' morning?"
The time I, a newly-minted five-year-old, refused my mom's help and insisted on personally carrying six big flat boxes of chocolate donuts into my classroom birthday party. Of course I dropped them, and my mom and I, laughing like loons, had to chase down four dozen donuts as they rolled down the snowy street...later doling them out anyway with nobody the wiser.
And the family -- her doctor brother Herb and his family, looking down their noses at us while constantly moving from pillar to post. Her feckless philandering cousin Jack and his long-suffering wife Joanne, who once went after him with a stiletto-heeled shoe right there in our living room -- in front of all us kids -- upon hearing of his latest indiscretion. Her genial faith healer mother, a line of alarmingly bright wigs on her dresser (probably a holdover from her flapper days), whose rambling St. Louis boarding house was filled with doddering catatonic shell-shocked veterans, books on the occult, a perpetually smiling black cook named Elmira (my very first African-American!), and an ever-changing coterie of striped felines -- all named "Mama Cat" -- undulating in and out of the house. Her tight-lipped frugal Baptist mother-in-law, for whom even Mother Teresa would never have been good enough for her only son. She and my mom proved worthy adversaries, doing surreptitious battle for years right under the nose of my unsuspecting father. His only sister, who baked for church socials and raised four Eagle Scout sons in rural Indiana while harboring a secret fascination with bats -- she liked to keep the little creatures in the garage until she was persuaded that they didn't make good pets for the kids.
A running commentary on all of this, and much more, would flow freely from my mom with a swig of beer and a sardonic drag on her cigarette. Was it all strictly accurate? Who knows? As my dad used to say, "Your mom never let the truth get in the way of a good story." Certainly I never tired of hearing her stories -- on the contrary, I was her biggest fan, and made her repeat them over and over. I think she liked that; after all, what good is a performance without an appreciative audience? And in my eyes, she was Carol Burnett, Phyllis Diller and Lucille Ball rolled into one. I hope she knew it.
My last exchange with her, ten years ago this weekend, was typical. In the final stages of lung cancer (all those Parliaments had finally caught up with her), she was now in a wheelchair on oxygen. I had brought her a big tightly bound bouquet of bright pink tea roses, and upon taking them out of the wrapping, I was dismayed to discover that they were full-blown, meaning they wouldn't last long. I said as much, and my mom gasped, "No, I'm glad...I don't have to wait for them to open. They're...perfect."
We had a nice visit and shared a grilled cheese sandwich (sadly, I ate most of it). As I was leaving, I leaned over to kiss her goodbye and said I'd see her tomorrow. She smiled sardonically and rasped, "Maybe I won't be here." I looked at her, weak and ill, hunched in her wheelchair, hooked up to those heavy oxygen tanks and a loudly buzzing generator, and asked her where she was planning on going. "Maybe I'll be out dancing," she whispered, with that old glint in her eye.
I guess she knew more than I did -- she was gone the next day. And maybe she really did go dancing. I like to think so. Tweet
Posted by Pink Armchair at 12:49 PM