Below is Chapter 5 of my memoir, which was part of another blog I took down about a year ago. I’m still working on it. I think this chapter stands alone — at least I hope it does.
A Smart, Funny, Joyful Lady.
That’s the inscription on my mother’s tombstone. Most traditional-minded people would probably find it odd: no Loving Mother or Devoted Wife or even In Loving Memory. My mother, who regarded conventional expressions of sentiment with deep contempt, would have adored her epitaph—which is one of the qualities I loved about her. In that same spirit, she would have been pleased by the poem I chose to read at her sad little funeral.
by Dorothy Parker
The days will rally, wreathing
Their crazy tarantelle;
And you must go on breathing,
But I’ll be safe in hell.
Like January weather,
The years will bite and smart,
And pull your bones together
To wrap your chattering heart.
The pretty stuff you’re made of
Will crack and crease and dry.
The thing you are afraid of
Will look from every eye.
You will go faltering after
The bright, imperious line,
And split your throat on laughter,
And burn your eyes with brine.
You will be frail and musty
With peering, furtive head,
Whilst I am young and lusty
Among the roaring dead.
Not everyone understood this side of my mother. My father’s family attacked her viciously for the simple epitaph she had put on his headstone: A Wonderful Man. She fled in tears from a Thanksgiving dinner where his mother and sisters attacked her for what they saw as cold afterthought.
After the many toxic words I’ve spewed about the absent, defenseless Rhoda, it’s only fair that I give equal time to her brighter side. Any picture of her would be incomplete if it didn’t include the moments of joy, the fun I had with her when the crazy stuff wasn’t in the way. Like most people, I loved my mother just because she was my mother—and sometimes I even loved her for herself.
That wonderful man, my father, used to poke fun at her, in a tone of boastful affection. She played Lucy to his Desi, Gracie to his George; I cannot watch reruns of Desi and Lucy without seeing my mother in her. He kept people in stitches with tales of her exploits and quirks. The subtext of these stories was of Rhoda as a delightful eccentric, a unique woman of superior intellect. He was proud of her and loved her madly…and I’ve no doubt he would have preferred a more conventional wife.
On one of my adult visits to my parents, we were walking along West 70th Street, my mother and I catching up on news and gossip, my father walking slightly ahead of us. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but something got us going and we started cracking up. Soon I was laughing so hard that tears rolled down my face, and I had to grab onto my mother’s arm for balance on the icy street. I shrieked with abandon, with a hilarity I rarely experience anymore. As we crossed West End Avenue, a large black woman dressed snappily in blue suit and flowered hat was crossing from the opposite side. “That’s right, ladies,” she said, nodding and grinning as she passed, “go on and have a good time.” It was the equivalent of today’s You go, girl!
That woman gave me a wonderful gift by reflecting the joy I experienced with my mother. It was a side of our relationship at least as significant as the emotional abuse.
Most people who knew Rhoda as a person, not as someone’s wife, sister or mother, did not just like her in an ordinary way; they were crazy for her. Whenever I’d meet someone who knew her outside the family, they’d gush, almost always mentioning her intelligence—but also her kindness. I was stunned to hear about this kind, sweet woman I didn’t know. Obviously they’d never met my mean, sarcastic Mommy. I couldn’t help but wonder if she behaved differently out in the world than she did when she was with us. The older I got, the clearer it became that Rhoda was a very different person than Mommy. I’m glad I got to know that person a little, even though I didn’t know I knew her until she was gone.
As much as people cultivated her friendship, she constantly rebuffed their overtures. She’d complain that this one or that was always nagging her to go places with them—the movies, a cocktail lounge, a cruise. Though she had old friends to whom she sent birthday cards for more than sixty years, in later life she seemed to want no part of friendship—an aspect of the aging process I’m beginning to understand. Still, people continued to be drawn to her.
She never told me if there were men in her later years, but I suspect, from hints and an occasional male phone caller, that she got her share of attention from Florida widowers. Years ago, sitting in the Café de la Paix in Paris, my sister, mother and I guzzled wine until we got to the True Confession stage of intoxication. After Linda and I each confessed something scandalous, I prodded my mother to tell us about her sex life–or at least if she even had one. She refused to answer, and finally put an end to my questioning with, “Marcy, I don’t care how drunk we get, we are not going to talk about this!”
Another time she stated the obvious: “Why on earth would I want to remarry?” If she hadn’t liked being married to A Wonderful Man, she certainly wasn’t going to like it with someone who was not so wonderful…and she knew that most of them aren’t.
Offers of friendship continued until her death. Only one woman from the assisted living facility came to her embarrassingly small funeral, but that one woman was devout. When she wrote to me later asking for a memento, I sent her one of my mother’s whimsical pieces of costume jewelry. She’d probably be mortified if she knew the way my mother talked about the residents. “They’re dim,” she told me when she first moved to the facility.
Compared to Rhoda they were dim. While she subscribed to The New Yorker and Time, most of them never even looked at a newspaper. They rarely ventured out of doors, and expressed little interest in anything beyond the walls of the facility other than their grandchildren. She was up and fully dressed each morning in black leggings and oversized, boldly colored blouses Linda continually sent her, in contrast to the other residents hunched in their bathrobes in the front hallway. Occasionally she’d go down early for lunch and sit with them.
“What do they talk about?” I asked.
“Whoever’s not there,” she said, laughing at her own joke.
Before she moved to the facility, where she spent her last four years, my mother lived in a condo next door to her Aunt Minnie, three miles from her sister Janice and not much further from my brother’s house in Fort Lauderdale. She lived in Florida over twenty years, having left New York a few months after my father died. Once a year I flew down to see her; at first these visits were excruciating, but gradually they improved, until I sometimes had more fun than on any other vacation I could have chosen.
One of our better weeks occurred at a time when I’d been experimenting with personal ads, all the rage back then (this was pre-Internet). When I told her about it, she was predictably horrified, thinking it a dangerous way to meet dangerous men. Even aside from the element of danger, the idea of meeting a mate through a newspaper ad repulsed her, as it did most of her generation. One day I dressed for my morning walk on the beach—my mother never joined me; she hated the beach. (I know: how can you live in Florida and hate the beach? You’d be surprised how many Floridians do.) I put on shorts and a blouse, a pair of sandals, and, of course, a pair of headphones attached to my indispensable Walkman (this was also pre-iPod).
She looked me over critically. “Why are you wearing that thing?” she demanded.
“To listen to music.” Duh.
“What if someone wants to talk to you?” she asked.
“No wonder you people need personal ads!”
Then there were the Trivial Pursuit years. In the 1980s my brother, mother and anyone else who happened to drop by—several distant cousins and relatives live in Florida—played the game every night during my stay. My mother would drink her Chablis—rotgut she bought by the gallon in cardboard containers—and after one or two glasses she’d begin a running commentary on the game that kept the rest of us in stitches. I wish I could remember some of her one-liners, but unfortunately the only one I recall concerns airplanes crashing into the Empire State Building—a somewhat prescient joke that is no longer funny.
Like most mothers of her generation, Rhoda didn’t go out to work for the first twelve years of my life. When we moved to Long Island she used the excuse of mortgage payments to take a job as a supermarket cashier. Within a few years she managed to climb the retail ladder, to the hosiery department of Abraham & Strauss, considered an upscale department store back then. Wherever she worked, she gave a thousand percent, both in skill and friendly workplace banter, and as a result she was relied upon and well-liked by her colleagues. After we kids were out of the house and my parents moved back to the city, she found her dream job: front-desk receptionist in the American offices of the British Broadcasting Company. Celebrities wandered in and out of the place: Alistair Cooke, Diane Keaton…she even met her heartthrob, Marlon Brando. She had a record with a song titled brando by Dory Previn, a somewhat obscure singer-songwriter she’d discovered and turned me on to:
Of course I always told myself—
You know how women get–
I bet I could have handled him
If only we had met…
The day he came into her office, my mother phoned me to report, “I could not have handled him—and neither could she!”
When my father died we received dozens of cards and fruit baskets from the people at the BBC. She resigned shortly afterwards to move to Florida, and they published a notice, in the London Times no less, headed BBC’s Deep Ongoing Love Affair With Rhoda Sheiner. After her death I found a scrapbook of the farewell party they’d thrown for her: there she was, standing beside a cardboard blow-up of Robert Redford, another one of her heartthrobs. Their farewell gifts were precisely chosen for Rhoda and her many passions, proving they knew her well.
I can hardly believe it, but my mother was younger than I am now—just sixty when my father died. He’d been sixty-four, a few months too young to qualify for his company pension. She had his monthly Social Security checks and a decent chunk of change from the sale of their New York condo, so she didn’t have to work—but that would’ve been unthinkable. She was barely settled in Florida when she found the exact job she’d set her sights on, a secretarial gig in the office of the Diplomat Hotel less than a mile away. She worked there for six years before everyone was laid off for massive renovations.
By now she was in her late sixties; undaunted, she hit the pavement. On one interview she was waiting to see the big kahuna when she heard him tell his receptionist, in a carelessly unmodulated voice, “I don’t want someone that old.” She was crushed. She didn’t think of herself as old, barely paid attention to the whole aging process. She took the remark personally, and was deeply injured. She never worked again.
With a mother so enthusiastic about work, and an extended family in which everyone fondly referred to their office as my place, I grew up believing that work outside the home, particularly office work, was great fun, a privilege even. Damn, was I disappointed! The first day of my first secretarial job I saw that I had failed to inherit my family’s work ethic. I felt confined, limited and oppressed. I suffered every hour—and there have been many—spent in an office environment. This was something none of my relatives understood about me: when I complained, or–gasp!--quit a job–they thought I was just plain lazy.
Having read somewhere that the sense of hearing is the last to quit, I made CDs of my mother’s favorite songs and set up a player in her room at the hospice center. During the weekend of her funeral, as we sat around my brother’s house, I tried to play her music, but he and my sister went berserk: they despise, but really loathe, Barbra Streisand, Broadway show tunes, and even Frank Sinatra (who loathes Frank Sinatra?!) My brother once confessed that he relished blasting Eric Clapton or the Allman Brothers whenever he drove my mother around, getting revenge for all the years he’d been made to “suffer” in the back seat of the family car listening to my parents’ “garbage.”
My siblings didn’t want to hear music anyway; they wanted to watch football. I sat at the dining room table doing crossword puzzles while the two of them hooted and hollered at the television screen. I couldn’t help thinking of my father’s funeral, when the whole family had come over to the apartment and looked through the photo albums, interacting with more love and honesty than was customary among my relatives. Almost all those people were now gone, and I felt alone and bereft. When I could no longer bear the isolation I broke into their damned football game, blurting tearfully, “I want us to talk about Mommy.”
The look on my siblings’ faces may have been astonishment, or it may have been guilt. “O-kay,” said Linda in a slow, careful voice, as if speaking to a mental patient. “We can talk about Mommy.” (And then you’ll just take this pretty pink pill like a good little girl, won’t you? ) I’d give her the benefit of the doubt and say her tone was one common to older siblings—except that it wasn’t completely unfamiliar. She’d used loony tunes before in response to my expressions of emotion.
It was too late now—the conversation was too forced to be anything but artificial. Soon they went back to their game and I went outside. As I stood on the sweltering suburban sidewalk, a liberating thought popped into my head: I never have to see them again. And I never have to come back to Florida. A weight lifted—but my relief was short-lived when I remembered that every time I’d visited my mother I’d told myself the same thing–yet every year like clockwork I had returned. I had never known why.
Now I know I returned because I wanted to see my mother. I genuinely liked being with her. True, I hated Florida, and some of our visits had been grueling—but when they were good they were very very good.
But I have not seen my siblings in the three years that have passed since my mother’s death. Linda moved to Florida, buying a house near my brother. Neither of them have ever invited me for a visit, but then, they must know I wouldn’t come. Try as I might, I cannot summon up a shred of regret. It’s pure relief not to deal with those people who constantly told me I was crazy, or warped, or too sensitive, or any of the other charming adjectives they used to describe me.
In the weeks of my mother’s dying I discovered that I knew her far better than I’d thought. It was only when she was gone that I acknowledged the depth of our bond. Because my mother was so detached and unemotional, our relationship didn’t look like what is customarily thought of as intimate. Compared to touchy-feely parent/child relations, ours seemed more detached. She never told me she loved me, not once, until I said it first on the telephone about a year before she died. I rarely told her anything about my life for fear of being judged. This wasn’t empty paranoia: whenever I slipped up and told her anything of substance, she invariably disapproved. If I mentioned any discord between myself and another person, she always, without fail, took the side of the other, a stranger to her. And yet, as soon as she died I realized that what we shared went deep, perhaps even deeper than relationships among touchy-feelies.
Yup. It’s a lesson too late for the learning.
I miss my mother every day. I miss my father as well, more than two decades after his death. And yet, my profound wish for every adult is that they get to spend part of their lives without their parents on the same planet. Living as an adult orphan is teaching me lessons about life and death—not all of them too late for the learning.
During the last few years of her life my mother began to talk to me about her fear of death. She told me she was scared she’d be punished for bad deeds. I poked and prodded to uncover just what these bad deeds were. I could have listed them myself, but mistreatment of her children wasn’t what she had in mind. It was, she confessed, something to do with my father, but beyond that she wouldn’t specify. It was totally crazy-making: she kept bringing up the subject, asking me what I believed about the afterlife, or if I believed in it. She was sure that my father now “knew everything.” What’s “everything” I asked. Was she generalizing, realizing that she’d treated him badly in their day-to-day lives? But she made it clear this went beyond that.
I couldn’t help but wonder if she’d cheated on him. Her favorite song was “It Was Just One of Those Things,” a song whose lyrics leave little to the imagination. I asked her outright, but she wouldn’t say one way or the other. Still, she kept talking about it.
Didn’t she know she was torturing me? Any child would go crazy learning of a juicy secret in their mother’s background, but not precisely what it was about. I was moved that she’d confided in me something so significant, and I wanted to help her come to terms with whatever haunted her. When she said, “Daddy knows everything,” I replied, “Yes, and he forgives you.” I think I managed to convince her of that, though of course I have no idea if it’s true. I just figure, if the dead are so omnipotent as to “know everything,” then they have to be evolved enough to forgive.
“Just One of Those Things” sung by Peggy Lee is on my iPod, and every time it comes up in Shuffle mode, I become more aware of its significance to my mother. But I’ll never really know for sure what it meant to her.
As my mother-in-law Sylvia used to say, Everyone carries their secrets to the grave.