Sweater, n.: garment worn by child when its mother is feeling chilly. ~Ambrose Bierce
My mother last saw her “real” father in 1931. She was five and just starting kindergarten. He was about 30 and on his way to jail.
I don’t know what you understand at five, although I suspect what she did understand about her father disappearing, the shame she, her brother and their mother felt, and the fact of growing up fatherless in the Depression became the weakened taproot from which her emotional life grew. Or perhaps failed to fully thrive.
My grandmother went to work to support my mother and her older brother. My uncle got a paper route at seven to contribute to the household. When they lost the house, they moved from Louisville into my great-grandfather’s big house in Indianapolis, where my grandmother’s younger sisters lived until each of them married and moved away. Sometimes, my mother was sent down to an aunt in Evansville for a summer or part of a school year.
Times were tough enough, but how a divorcee with two children managed to sustain a delicate balancing act between homelessness and getting by in an era when women of my grandmother’s social class didn’t work — outside or inside the home — is beyond my comprehension. What I do understand, however, is that something had to give, and what gave was the luxury of time: time for my grandmother to nurture her children and time for her children to be children. My mother tells me that my grandmother was very critical and exacting. She couldn’t afford to run anything but a tight ship because there was no margin for error.
They moved around from relative to relative, from town to town, meaning that my mother was the new girl in class at the beginning of every school year, never acquiring the knack of the outgoing newcomer. When my mother was 14, my grandmother married my grandfather, Lou, an industrial psychologist, always in search of a tenured position at a scattershot of universities. More moving, until they finally settled in Chicago where my mother became part of the sophomore class at Sullivan High.
Lou was teaching at a local university, and, although my grandmother (whom we called “Honey” because that’s what we’d heard Lou call her) had “retired”, the past had already cemented how Mother and her brother related to life: Mom always waited for the other shoe to drop; her brother was always going to be one step ahead of any falling shoe.
She finally had three years in the same place, in the same class of students (among which was my dad, although Mother didn’t like him much then). She went on to the Art Institute of Chicago Design School, graduated, and went to work for a children’s clothing manufacturer as a designer. For a year.
After the war, when my dad got out of the Air Force, they met again at a dance. My mother was engaged to orthopaedic surgeon, several years her senior and several inches shorter. Dad and Mom met again at the dance, and, while I think my dad was pretty smitten with her, she fully intended on marrying Dr. Harry. At least up until Honey had a heart attack and had to stay in the hospital.
Dr. Harry was a busy surgeon who often ended dates with Mom by giving her cab fare to get home as he rode off in another taxi to the hospital on an emergency. My dad, on the other hand, wooed Mom by going to the hospital to visit with my grandmother every day. It struck Mother one day that life with Dr. Harry would mean interrupted meals and lonely taxi rides while life with Dad would mean kindness, stability and devotion.
Life with Dad would also mean a first apartment with a Murphy bed and a first child (my sister). A first house in the suburbs and a second child (me). A second house in which we would grow to be a family, fight tooth and nail, cry our eyes out, laugh even in the worst times, have a basement that flooded with every rainstorm, and eventually grow away from.
Every time I focus on all the ways that my mother has driven and still drives me crazy, I remember her story of continual survival. There was “The Accident”, the time a drunk driver hit my parents’ car head on when I was in fifth grade. Mother went back and forth through the windshield enough times to change her face forever, had broken more bones than I thought anyone had in their body, and awoke in the hospital with a priest giving her the last rites. With all that, she still summoned the courage to have my sister and me visit her in the hospital when she knew she was unrecognizable to us. Although she came home after four months in the hospital to reclaim her role as our mother, the many surgeries it took in the ensuing years to give her back a nose, lips, teeth, and a forehead were something she seemed to take in stride. Or maybe it just seemed that way to us because children are both self-centered and lack the ability to see their parents as anything other than, well, parents.
Now, as she is morphing into an old widow who can no longer balance a checkbook or hear the “ping” of the toaster or the whistle of the kettle, relying on me to do things for her I thought she could do for herself, I remind myself that it was Mom who took on running Dad’s restaurant when he had his first heart attack and by-pass surgery even though she didn’t know how to write a check. It was Mom who balanced that with visiting my sister in another hospital across the city. At that time in our life as a family, we were contentious and divided, and I found it easy to decline her request to come home from the Rockies to help because I’d grown tired of coping with “their” dysfunction.
My mother isn’t easy. Being around her, then and now, is often like being nibbled to death by ducks. She is sometimes insatiably needy and not terribly reflective. She was and is as critical and judgmental as she claims her mother was, but she doesn’t see it. She still asks me "Do you have something on your head?" when I go out the door in the cold weather, and "Who are you going out with and what time will you be home?" on the rare (and getting more rare) occasion that I make social plans.
When I react reflexively to her mothering, I don't understand why she doesn't get that I'm a middle-aged woman now. When I take a breath and think, I realize that this is the way she shows her love. I wish sometimes she showed her love for me in the way she showers affection on her little dog with the dragon breath that has more clothes than I do. But then, I don't sit in her lap and kiss her with my tongue, nor have I ever been a big fan of PDA with my parents. Perhaps it's simply that she loves me in the way I allow her to. And each day, I try to show my love for her in the ways I am able. It's like she's a PC and I'm a Mac.
She shows her love for me every day. It’s in the phone call that comes at 7 p.m. every night — “what’s new?” she’ll ask, and then tell me, as she does each night, that she took her dog for a walk, what the dog’s poop looks like, and what old movie she’s watching on TMC. She will buy me something I don’t need, and then give me the bill for it. But, at 84, she slept on a mattress on my living room floor (the guest room was being renovated) when I was so ill with pneumonia. I couldn’t move.
She chose me, for reasons I do and don’t understand, to live near as her life winds down, and I’m privileged to share that with her on the days I’m not overwhelmed by it.
Every time I want to pluck out my eyes in frustration when she argues with me about what day it is, I try to imagine what it’s like being her: nearing the end of life, losing your hearing and eyesight and connection with the world, not knowing the things you once knew so well, the misplaced memories of things and people who made up your life. She trusts me to be there for her now. She’s not embarrassed that I know most of her most intimate health issues. She knows it’s okay with me that she’s changing with age, so she doesn’t have to work so hard with me the way she does with others to appear to be her former self.
I contemplate a life in the near future without my mother in it, and I know it will be lonelier, even as I grow weary of elder care. It will be, as a friend once said when his band broke up, “a horrible relief.”
I wonder, how will I feel when it’s past 7 p.m. and the phone no longer rings?