My Mother’s Day
My mother died when she was 54. She had been a heavy smoker all her life. Eventually, she got chronic bronchitis, but she never (so far as we knew) had any heart problems until the heart attack that killed her. Her doctor had given her endless lectures about the dangers of smoking, which apparently made enough of an impact on my father to make him quit, but didn’t do a thing for my mother. He had also told her to take up playing wind instruments to strengthen her respiratory system, so she bought a set of recorders—tenor, alto, soprano, and sopranino—and got a lot of pleasure from them. Did it delay her death? Who knows? A medical treatment that gives pleasure in the process of doing whatever it does medically is rare enough that I never felt called on to complain about it.
But all of this happened when my parents were in Montevideo, Uruguay, and Mr. Wired and I were in Chicago. They had come to our wedding in Boston, but their home, and Dad’s job, were in Montevideo, and in those days (1965-69), there was not only no email, even international phone calls were expensive, difficult, and barely audible. We wrote letters. We were good at letter-writing, but it wasn’t the same as being together. And our relationship had been difficult to begin with. I don’t know whether it was because I wasn’t good at being a daughter, or she wasn’t good at being a mother, or some odd combination of the two. I know that even then I was looking forward to when Dad retired (not too far in the future, actually—his firm had a mandatory retirement age of 60, which he would reach in 1970) and they would move back to the States. I looked forward to being able to relate to Mom as a adult friend, because over the years I had seen her gift for friendship and wanted to be on the receiving end of it. What I grieve for most, even 42 years later, is losing that possibility of friendship. I still have conversations with her in my head, and they’re really fun, and funny. I seek that kind of relationship with my women friends and sometimes find bits of it, but I know it’s never quite the same.
So today I’m remembering her, partly, with things she told me, or would have told me if we had had the time. Like: there are times and places where you should never go out without an umbrella, a heavy coat, and a fan (there are lots of those in Chicago, and the last month has overflowed with them.)
Like: you can catch more flies with honey that with vinegar. I don’t actually know much about catching flies with honey (you can google it if you like), but you can catch a lot of flies with vinegar. Take an empty soda can, add a teaspoon of vinegar, a half-cup of water, and a few drops of liquid detergent. Put it out where you have an excess of fruit flies (the little ones that sometimes infest the house in the spring and summer). The flies will be attracted by the smell of the vinegar and fly into the can. When they touch the liquid, the detergent weighs down their wings and drags them under, and they drown. This is the cheapest and easiest way to get rid of fruit flies.
Like: a lady is a woman who never shows her underwear unintentionally. When she first said that to me, I couldn’t imagine showing my underwear intentionally. Now,, of course, it’s a major fashion statement—everybody wears camisoles as blouses, and nightgowns and slips as dresses. She also created a variation I’m fond of: a lady is a woman who never offends anyone unintentionally.
And: it takes two to tango. Not any more, necessarily, according to the National Labor Relations Board. I just read this decision the other day: “concerted action” used to have to involve at least two people trying to organize a workplace to deal with pay and working conditions. After all, how can one “concert” unless there is somebody to concert with. Like a conspiracy. Or a bridge game. Or, naturally, a tango. These days, the labor movement has deteriorated so badly that a disgruntled worker may well not be able to find even a single colleague to concert with, and the NLRB has recognized that by ruling that a single individual can try to agitate around pay and working conditions, and that will be protected “concerted action,” for which the employer cannot punish or fire him. Naturally, this doesn’t solve the worker’s real problem, which is that if he does get fired, the NLRB, which is badly short-staffed, won’t get around to sanctioning the employer until years later, certainly not before the worker has spent years being unemployed and underemployed, possibly not until he has retired. Mom never said “justice delayed is justice denied,” and I don’t remember who did, but NLRB practice is the classic case for the maxim.
Mom and I and my brother had worked together on writing a musical called “Was Boris Goodenough?” about the star-crossed relationship between a Soviet commissar and a local peasant girl in a town that had somehow gotten left off the map when the Iron Curtain descended over Eastern Europe. Its classic theme song was the Volga Vodka song, extolling the virtues of a beverage of which “for every pint that you knock off, get one free vote for Molotov (we are calling it, of course, the Molotov cocktail…)” So I still think of her when I produce such deathless country-and-eastern classics like “You’ve Doused Your Cigarette Butts in the Teacup of My Heart” and “I’ll Respect You in the Morning.”
And I think of her when I look at our family history. Her father was a career soldier, a Rough Rider who honest-to-god fought at San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War. He was also a genius who could play any kind of musical instrument, and who had no patience with anybody less driven and less smart than he was. His family was the classic military family—read Conroy’s The Great Santini for a lot of the atmosphere. Except that so far as I know, he didn’t beat my grandmother, who packed a a gun most of her life. But all four of his sons became alcoholics, and three of his four daughters got divorced under scandalous conditions, in an era when getting divorced was a scandal in itself, which almost nobody did. Anyway, her childhood was spent going back and forth between Cuba and Boston, and in various boarding schools in between. She was the daughter who didn’t get divorced, and didn’t become an alcoholic either. Perhaps the smoking was what she did instead. It could have been a lot worse. She married a man who loved her deeply all her life.
Also, unlike anybody else in her family so far as I can tell, she was deeply religious. I sometimes posit the existence of a Godliness Gene (yes, I know some scientists play seriously with this concept. I got the idea long before any of them went public.) My father’s family has it in a big way. They practice various religions (Judaism, Catholicism, Christian Science), but they seem to practice them all in the same way. They are deeply involved in whatever religious organization’s liturgy and bureaucracy and underlying philosophy, and become pillars of whatever congregation. I see my father’s Catholicism, and the Christian Science of his parents and brothers, in my own Judaism. But Mom’s godliness was, genetically speaking, a “sport,” and I suspect it was one of the reasons she married Dad, so she could express it. Which she did in ways he didn’t. She studied various religions and religious thinkers (William James, Simone Weil, Teresa of Avila, Brother Lawrence, St. Francis, Aldous Huxley, and, briefly, L. Ron Hubbard back when Dianetics had not yet become Scientology.) Our home was probably the only one in the US, certainly the only one in South Florida, where Punch, the London Illustrated News, the New Yorker, Fate, Astounding Science Fiction, and the Catholic World all graced the same coffee table, and P.G. Wodehouse and Dr. Kinsey took up equal space on the bookshelves. (She developed an approach to gift-giving that I try to emulate, giving her friends subs to her favorite mags so she could read the back copies later.)
Dad survived her by 20 years, probably because he stopped smoking back when she should have. And I know he believed utterly that he would be with her again. So I believe he is with her. I’m not at all sure I believe I will be with her again, to have all those marvelous conversations we never had a chance to have. But I hope so.