As I struggle to figure out how to successfully package and sell the long-shot story of my father’s anonymous long-shot life, after years of detailed conversation with his skeleton, it occurs to me that my mother, once a very opinionated and vibrant person, has been mostly silent. To be expected, of course, she died almost ten years ago. Her ashes are in a plastic bag in a corrugated paper box in a beautiful shopping bag. She would like the bag, it is actually elegant. A sturdy old fashioned brown paper bag on the outside, made of heavy paper, with two sturdy handles, slate gray inside; gorgeous. It’s not like her to have been so silent all these years, she loved a good story, hearing them and telling them, and she had strong opinions about everything and never hesitated to voice them.
Her body was reduced to ashes according to wishes she made known two or three times over the five decades I knew her. She was not one to talk about death. I reassured my mother, when a sudden terror of being eaten by bugs and worms gripped her not long before the end, told her to have no fear, that I’d make sure that would never happen. After she died I made arrangements to have her cremated. My father’s written instruction, for both he and his wife, was earth burial. Accordingly, he’s a skeleton, buried in their double wide grave at the top of the hill at First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill cemetery, and my mother is a spirit whose mortal remains dwell in a beautiful bag at the farm where I do most of my unpaid work.
It struck me tonight as ironic that my father, who was a complete pain in the ass most of the time, what he would call a prick, has taken up so much of my energies the last few years while my mother, also a pain in the ass, but a loving one– which makes all the difference, really — has been hanging out quietly, off to the side, seemingly waiting her turn. It seems only right to try to publish a few words about her before I start back in on figuring out how to package the long story of my relentless, tragic father. After all, I have my mother to thank for the pleasure of reading for pleasure.
Growing up I remember my mother telling me that she was a poet when she was younger, when she was an English major at Hunter College. She’d write the occasional rhyme for an occasion, even late in her life, but the blue covered notebook of poems I’d seen once or twice when I was kid was never seen again. It was not among her things when she died. I looked on every shelf, in every box, but nothing. I was disappointed. One poem, written in her distinctive hand, remained, I found it among her papers after she died. My sister blushed at the passion of that poem, noting that it was definitely not written about our father. Though my mother stopped writing poetry at some point, she had a poet’s heart, a lifelong flair for colorful exaggeration.
My mother loved words, even if she didn’t always use them to seek deeper truths. There were good reasons for this, I suppose. I remember how it felt, struggling against the painful limits of my power to express myself, when I was a kid. My inability to have my questions heard burned me, provoked me. As it turns out, the most eloquent, clear-speaking poet in the world, accompanying himself on a lilting samba guitar, against a lush, evocative painterly backdrop, could not have expressed what I needed to express as a child.
The situation we were living in in that little house was insane, nobody could have made sense of it. It was also devilishly subtle, the overarching madness of it, the way it posed as a perfectly normal middle class life and snappishly thwarted all analysis. It wasn’t as if the rest of our once large family had been slaughtered during a particularly hellish period in human history, their letters just stopped arriving. It wasn’t as if her mother’s many beatings had anything to do with my mother’s sometimes volatile temper. There were many things like this, things you simply had to suck up because, no reason — put your pajamas on!
I always loved to draw, though it’s a famously confusing way to communicate. “Who is that supposed to be? What does this picture mean?” became as tiresome as the concerned look on the face of the person asking. Writing was a clearer path forward — more perfect speech. As I learned to write better I was able to get through to my mother’s intellect, sometimes move her with my words, which was always gratifying, to see her happily transported like that.
My father, who could write well but used the skill only for readily practical purposes, read whatever I handed him looking for what he needed to defend himself against. He’d read the telltale words aloud, hum the first bars of his rebuttal.
My mother read like a real reader, if she liked the writing she’d follow the words wherever they were trying to take her. She liked to suspend her disbelief, if she found the writing credible. My father read more for information, my mother read for the journey. I have my mother to thank for my love of reading. I first saw by the way she read, how she read aloud to us, that worlds can be conjured with words, worlds more interesting, more vivid, more immediate than the world that is constantly around us, things endlessly happening, very few of which make great stories.
She died a day after her eighty-first birthday, of a cancer that took its sweet time finishing her off. Cancer of the endometrium, the walls of the womb my sister and I came of age in, took twenty-three years to kill her. She never liked to consider this fact, that she was actually dying, that her unfathomable, indescribable pain toward the end was a not subtle signal that she was dying. She fought the knowledge that she was being killed by a relentless disease with no cure, particularly toward the end, when she lost a lot of weight, lost the taste for even her favorite foods and there was nothing more the doctor could do.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me! I never had pain like this,” she often said in exasperation during those final weeks. Though I am not a big fan of denial, I always considered it a duty of love to play along with her denial of death. She was the one who was dying, I saw it as her right if she didn’t want to make it worse by acknowledging it.
She fought the cancer to a standstill for more than two decades. If we can say anybody can fight a monster like cancer, no matter how proactive and positive of mind and body they are. My mother was fortunate, her body responded miraculously to a new treatment they had just come up with, a synthetic hormone called Megace that had shown some promise and was kind of a last shot for my cancer riddled mother, by then the cancer was everywhere. She got lucky and had about fifteen years of remission, not that she was ever overwhelmingly grateful about that new lease on life, though she had many things she loved about life. In the end, there was no treatment available, just a series of discussions to be had. She had no taste for these kinds of talks.
My sister and I took her to the oncologist, maybe a year before she died. She saw the handsome little silver-haired doctor’s face and immediately said “I don’t want to hear any bad news!”
“It’s been nice seeing you, then, Evelyn, always a pleasure,” said my imagined version of the doctor, though the dapper oncologist was unable to be quite so breezy, nor would it have been possible to be, in his place, I suppose. So, isn’t it really better to say that he was just cool and witty, made a quick, dashing joke out of the whole thing? We all had a laugh, instead of deathly news, and went to a new restaurant and had a delicious lunch.
My mother would appreciate my improving the story that way. It’s not what happened, precisely, but it’s pretty close and why not give the doctor a better, jazzier line than the one he uncomfortably came up with? It’s got to be brutally hard, breaking the bad news to a patient who doesn’t want to hear it. Might as well have the doctor play along with a wink, we all know the score here but, damn it, Evelyn, you’re right, no reason to lay the terrible details out like that.
My sister, who had many more dealings with him, was angry at the oncologist by the time he retired, about six months before my mother died, after he’d said an awkward goodbye. My sister had been unhappy at the way he seemed to lose focus. The visit before he’d apparently asked my mother to take off her shirt so he could examine her breasts.
“She has endometrial cancer, doctor,” my sister reminded him, shaking her head slightly, signaling to her mother that this guy was as cuckoo for Cocoa-puffs as she was.
During her final days, when I was staying with her, my mother would call me in every night to watch Jon Stewart with her. My mother loved the bright, adorable comedian. As much as she loved Stewart she hated his equally brilliant protégé Stephen Colbert. As soon as Colbert’s over the top show began she’d quickly switch the channel to a rerun of some old show.
I got why she loved Jon Stewart, I felt the same way. He made her laugh and think, he informed her of unfolding events with trenchant irony, his wit and his perfect facial expressions made the horrible news easier to bear. He, almost alone among the media in the years of her widowhood, gave her hope that not everyone in the world had gone insane.
She was a secular Jew from the Bronx, had been raised to believe in equality, human rights and social justice. I recall her telling me when I was a young reader that she didn’t think much of Howard Fast as a writer, but that the idealistic man who’d been blacklisted as a suspected Communist had his heart in the right place. As an old woman she was depressed by the many signs that our country did not always have its heart in the right place. She would clench her teeth every time President George W. Bush came on TV.
She regarded him as the worst American president, definitely the worst of her lifetime. One of the last things she said to me on her deathbed at the hospice, spoken urgently: “please promise me Sarah Palin will never be president of the United States!”
I promised her, thinking to myself “at least not in your lifetime, mom.”
As much as she loved Jon Stewart, she had an almost visceral dislike of his gifted protégé Stephen Colbert. As soon as Stewart’s show ended, even before Colbert’s American eagle swept, beak and talons first, toward the camera, she had the remote in hand and was looking for something else to watch. I never understood this. She couldn’t explain it, she just couldn’t stand him.
“You realize that the overbearing right wing blowhard persona is parody, he’s playing a character. He’s hilarious, mom.”
She shook her head. “I know. I don’t know what it is, I can’t watch him. I know it’s a parody, I just can’t stand him.”
So it wasn’t that she was like President Bush’s team who’d hired Colbert to do the Correspondents’ Club dinner, apparently in the mistaken belief that he was a fellow traveler, a very funny, popular comedian who happened to be as patriotic as Sean Hannity and a true believer in the unquestionable greatness of America and the Unitary Executive, right or wrong. In 2006 nobody in the media was saying too much out loud about the Bush administration’s many excesses.
I showed my mother the video of Colbert fearlessly skewering the president at the Correspondents’ Club. I recall at the time feeling great admiration for him, he was about the first person to publicly suggest that the Emperor and those around him might not be dressed as splendidly as they imagined. He showed impressive sang froid by doing it, literally, in the president’s face. My mother admitted it was a great routine. He began:
Mark Smith, ladies and gentlemen of the press corps, Madame First Lady, Mr. President, my name is Stephen Colbert and tonight it’s my privilege to celebrate this president. We’re not so different, he and I. We get it. We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book.
Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works. Every night on my show, the Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut, OK? I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument. (the rest is here)
President Bush is still smiling gamely at this point, but his smile becomes more and more brittle until it falls off his face after a few moments. Good sport and nice guy that I’ve often heard George W. Bush is, his politics aside, I’m pretty sure he shook Colbert’s hand at the end, probably told him he’d done a heck of a job. But he clearly understood in pretty short order that he was being roasted by a merciless chef in a bullet-proof apron. My mother loved it.
I tried to get her to watch Colbert’s show a few times after that, but she never lasted through the opening, switching to an in progress re-run of NCIS, CSI or other murder mystery as I left, befuddled.
One night I was going through a shoebox of black and white family photographs. I found a photo that made me feel like the protagonist of one of her detective novels. It was a shot of my uncle, my father’s younger brother, as a young man, dressed in a well-fitting suit. It could have been a photograph of Stephen Colbert, in character as the rooster-like right-wing talk show host. My mother strongly disliked my uncle. She found him narcissistic, tyrannical, unreasonable, demanding and petty. In a word, Colbert’s character on the show.
She once desperately offered me a huge monetary bribe to spend a week in Florida when my uncle and aunt planned to visit her, after my father died. She kept upping the dollar amount as I hesitated.
“Please,” she begged over the phone, “you can’t leave me alone with them! For a week! A week, Elie! There will be bloodshed.”
I rushed into her room with the photograph of my uncle.
“Is this why you hate Colbert?” I asked, handing her the photo.
“Oh, my God,” she said, staring at the picture, “oh, my God!” And then she began to laugh. Another mystery satisfyingly solved.
I would not say that my mother was a mostly happy woman, though she had several things that gave her delight, things she loved to the end: opera, thoughtful conversation, well-plotted murder mysteries, dogs, intelligent comedy and good writing.
When she was alone, which she was most of the time in the years after my father died, she was subject to dark moods. This is no surprise, considering she was alone day and night for the first time in fifty-four years, with a gnawing cancer increasingly determined to do her in. Also, sorrow had always been as large a part of her life as her robust sense of humor.
After she died I was referred to an excellent book called Death Benefits (by Jeanne Safer) which points out that the life of a loved one, once over, can be seen as a whole and valuable life lessons should be drawn from it. I made a list of the things I’d received from my mother, there were many good things on there.
One that I remembered to add after I spoke off the cuff at her memorial service was: have no fear to shock a little if the truth also makes a good story and nobody is really harmed by it.
At her request we had her cremated. The woman at the Florida crematorium insisted on calling the ashes ‘cremains’, which gave my sister and me a few cringing laughs. I brought the cremains up to Peekskill, the haunted little town where my father’s unspeakably miserable childhood unfolded. We gathered in the beautiful new chapel of the synagogue up there for a memorial service.
My mother’s cremains were in the first row, sitting unobtrusively in a box in their fancy shopping bag. We’d already been informed by the rabbi that her ashes could not be buried in her funeral plot next to her husband of 54 years.
Several people were ready to speak, a looping slideshow showed photos of my mother at different ages, and the people she loved; a recording of her reading some of her favorite Edna St. Vincent Millay poems played over improvised ambient music. She was an excellent and expressive reader and it was eerie and oddly comforting to hear her living voice in that setting.
I changed into my suit behind the folding wall. It was a hot day so I left my sandals on instead of putting on shoes and socks, something I needlessly pointed out to the assembled guests (most of them couldn’t see my feet) and apologized to my mother for. My mother would have certainly given me grief for not putting my polished black shoes on, and done so sincerely, but in the end she would have probably written the offense off as me, as always, having to be me.
The chapel was full, I cued the recorded music to go down, a singer friend and I played September Song. Then I began what were to be short remarks before my beloved partner read the beautiful eulogy she’d written. I had a digital recorder in my pocket, but I forgot to hand it to someone to record the service, so memory, as so often, is the only available guide.
“My mother would not have missed the irony of having this memorial in a synagogue in Peekskill, of all places. Not only did she have only the most tenuous connection to this small town, having visited it only a handful of times, but my father, who’s buried here, left at the first opportunity and never returned.”
”It is even more ironic, of course, that we are gathered in a synagogue. Outside of the occasional wedding or bat mitzvah, my mother did not set foot in synagogues. She had no use for the rituals of our religion, although she proudly identified as a Jew, in fact, you know, she couldn’t have been mistaken for anything else, except perhaps Italian. Now that I think of it, she was last in a synagogue about a year ago, for a Friday night service, of all things.”
“There was a left wing rabbi in South Florida whose column she read every week in the local paper. She was largely in despair about the tidal shift to the right in American politics, how even supposed liberals like Bill Clinton, who called themselves Centrists, were in many ways to the right of Eisenhower. So she loved this fiery liberal rabbi who stood for all the things she believed in and wrote fiercely about his values.”
“She was excited to read that the rabbi would be speaking at the local synagogue. She went to the Friday night service with a friend to see and hear him in person.”
“I asked her afterwards how it was. She told me, with characteristic animation, that it had been horrible, awful. Her rabbi was on the bima, seated, was introduced to the crowd, waved and did not say a word. Not one word! Not only that, she said, ‘they read every goddamned prayer in that fucking prayer book!'”
Those assembled in the chapel laughed heartily at this evocation of my mother, a refined and earthy woman from just off the Grand Concourse in the Bronx of the 1930s and ’40s. I hadn’t really intended to tell this particular story, but as I stood there it became an irresistible opening to my remarks.
My mother would have been only fleetingly embarrassed, had she been there in more than spirit. She would have immediately protested before laughing herself, any embarrassment quickly wiped away by the love she got from those assembled to remember her distinct and unique personality in that godforsaken chapel in the little town that had formed the backdrop for her beloved’s traumatic childhood.