In the pictures I have of my mother she looks like the Duchess of Windsor. My husband, who didn’t like her, would say, Oh oh, here comes the Duchess, when he heard her car in the driveway. Raised in an orphanage, how did she come by that royal presence? How could she have been so fragile, and yet accomplish so much in her young widowhood, raising my brother and me? How can she exist so powerfully after she is dead? She seems to have left tracks in my brain like indelible markers that are more than memory, leaking into my present.
She died while I was downstairs in the hospital coffee shop drinking a milkshake and leafing through Newsweek. I found her on the floor of the room after her last desperate moment of pride trying to get to the bathroom alone. She was crumpled on the floor at the foot of the bed, a terrifying stranger in a hospital gown. I screamed for the nurse who came running. It took the two of us to get her back in the bed where she lay, dignified once again, even in this unbelievable death.
In life she didn’t look like anyone’s mother. She was too young-looking, too chic. Back then mothers stayed home but she went to work every day in high heels and bracelets; people thought she was my sister. She fascinated my friends with how unmotherish she was, how charming, vivacious, flirtatious; how much like a girlfriend. But I wanted her to be like their apron-clad moms who didn’t scare and excite and hypnotize and then slip away like ether. I longed for safer plumper arms, the smell of dinner cooking in a warm kitchen. My mother brought home cardboard cartons of Chinese food for our dinner, smelling of her office and stale perfume.
She was a big talker. There didn’t seem room enough in her head and mouth for all she had to say. Her favorite subjects were politics and moral choice. Communism and capitalism Socialism. Suffrage. The New Deal. She pontificated on courage and independence and spoke about art and music as if she were raised in a palace instead of an orphanage.
Reading everything and remembering everything she read she loved getting into political arguments with people because her head was stuffed with esoteric information just waiting to spring on some poor Republican. Who would soon find himself hopeless outmatched by her facts, her passion, her verbosity..
In those days the sex life of single women was hidden, but I could always tell when she had a date with a new boyfriend because she’s get in such a high mood. Once she sent me to live with a relative while she went off to a hotel. To my vast relief, that one lasted only a couple of months and she came back for me. Other times I remember hearing a man’s voice from my bed at night, laughter, the clinking of ice in glasses. The next day my mother would look younger, prettier; even then I recognized the signs. The whisky glasses. The scent of a male mixed with the sort of flowery mannerliness my mother had in those days. Once there was a whole bouquet in a vase; he was a sport, my mother said. She was always alone when I got up for school the next morning and I wondered if maybe her boyfriend was married. But I pretended she didn’t let him stay overnight because of me--for her dignity and mine.
Self-educated in literature, music and art, fluent in the German and Hebrew that she learned growing up in the Jewish Orphan Home, she had nothing but scorn for the institutions the rest of the world lives by—school, organized religion, government, marriage, politics. But anyone who dared label her iconoclast, existentialist or feminist or any other “ist” would have been meet with a withering look. Her independence and courage thrilled me because I always knew how alone and frightened she was. She was my heroine. No book or movie ever had such a star.
But she was too alone and overwhelmed for mothering, too damaged from her orphanhood. Exhausted most of the time, often asthmatic, she shipped me around to the relatives she didn’t like. I never rebelled, not even in adolescence. My girlfriends’ complaints about their mothers amused me because when it came to mothers I was the one with plenty to criticize, and I never did. The way I saw it the only thing that stood between me and total terrifying orphanhood was my flawed and fragile mother. Who somehow always managed to be there. Sort of. More or less. Anyway, I wasn’t about to pick on my mother. I felt this kind of weird loyalty. I had to take care of her. But of course I couldn’t. I was too young for her neediness and fragility.
So I broke away from her grasp on my life and heart into a teenage marriage. Her unhappiness at my abandonment oozed from her pores, her moist eyes, her eager misery, blackmailing me into visits I didn’t want to make, sneaking money to her from my grocery allowance. I was a dutiful daughter, attentive to her complaints and demands for attention, feeling as guilty as if her frailties were my own.
She could electrify a room with her brilliance and charm, but she didn’t know when or how to stop; people became restless; they looked away, they would leave if they could. I was ashamed of her. I was proud of her. But I didn’t know what I had learned from her. That is, until my divorce. Needing independence and courage, I discovered it within myself, put there by her spirit. Also, the pleasure of learning and the life of the mind. Integrity of the self. Compassion, from watching her struggle, and even, from my own unmet needs, how to mother my children.
I was often asked why my attractive youthful mother never remarried. But deprived from birth of parental love and widowed at twenty-eight, she seemed to demand more love than there was in the world, more than anyone could ever give her, souring every relationship of her life.
The night before her funeral I dreamed I was the only pallbearer.