Mother died in January 2013. Since it was winter, I didn’t pull a Meursault. Even if I had random murderous urges and revolver handy, I couldn’t. What two strangers would be strolling on a North Atlantic beach in winter? One? Okay. But two? Please.
She lived four score and four years. Fourteen more than many of us are promised.
Along her passage, she rose from rural poverty into a comfortable middle-class existence. It may be hers is the last generation of Americans who will ever realize the national myth of achieving upward mobility.
Forget all the technological wizardry, the conveniences millennials believe without which life is unbearable. That mother could flip a switch and have rooms brightly illuminated by steady electrical incandescence rather than dim, flickering kerosene lamps or enjoy indoor plumbing which banished treks to and lugs from the family well for her exceeded anything any handheld device could’ve performed yesterday. Or will do tomorrow.
Water closets also removed mother’s greatest fear. Snakes. Hers was a lifelong terror regarding reptiles. Even decades later when the only snakes seen or heard would be televised, they retained their power of abject fright over her. Serpents boldly prevailed during her formative years. And as all know, childhood stamps carry through life.
Unlike Indiana Jones whose sudden immersion in slithering and hissing creatures formed his aversion, quotidian living birthed mother’s. No daring do, no chasing after relics, no Saturday matinee bravery scarred her. Walking along tree canopied dirt roads as a girl, traversing a pitch black path to the outhouse at night, shadows or darkness further tensing already stretched nerves, were more than enough to transform garden variety snakes sensibly avoiding human contact into the most merciless man-eaters alive.
Predators who loved sinking fangs into little girls who misbehaved!
Or so grandmother claimed. In a way I suppose she was quite responsible for mother’s dread. Our matriarch could’ve pulled a 180° turn. Rather than instill panic, instead show her daughter how to kill snakes. The older woman often did that using a big gnarly stick. Of course grandma’s method fostered obedience and dependence. Two traits parents demand from children, right?
Like father, mother also migrated from the rural Let Us Now Praise Famous Men American South. Were both alive today, no doubt they’d appreciate the travails of immigrants legal and otherwise. What lured them from everything each knew were better possible lives. Remaining in Dixie promised them nothing other than second-tier citizenship and at best an economic level around subsistence.
And that South intended delivering this promise.
Happy as they were with their ascent, I’m even happier. Carolinian by birth as I am, I know had I spent formative years there my makeup would’ve been deficient.
Sure. I would’ve been more polite and mannered. Likely uncultured and less erudite, too. Yet I would’ve displayed greater humility – from necessity.
Forget attending Arizona, much less having adventures in Austria and Argentina. (Oh. The stories I may tell after changing names and jiggering times and places.) The American quadrant which my parents forsook worships inward-looking. Not introspection, but know no better and don’t want to know any better continuity. It prizes slavish devotion to traditions that hinder progress in the glorified and garlanded name of maintaining peculiar regional customs.
Being peculiar can be seen as an outgrowth of eccentricity. One can also see it as being willfully stuck and stubborn. Two attributes that dim enlightenment and assure immobility.
Survival instincts launched my parents beyond the South. Here in New York they prospered and thrived in ways impossible there. Despite the casual affluence threatening to engulf them neither succumbed to the material chase which characterizes and distorts America currently.
Even mother’s and father’s attempts at showiness were rooted in practicality. Outside the humdrum, they strode with dignity. Unless it a casual hangout like a barbecue, they swanned in understated elegance. Yes. Both did so intending to project serious images. Looking back on these transformations, they played their temporary roles with a solemnity bordering on weird.
At least to my then adolescent eyes.
Growing older, smarter, did I begin understand why my parents sometimes masqueraded. Not among their friends, but with outsiders. They wanted to be taken seriously. Especially in what served then as rarefied settings. My parents knew well how dominant America regarded those like them. They had honest aspirations. Yet how often were these drives simply swept aside or ignored altogether?
Even before seeding their own first impressions, mainstream society had likely sowed my parents (and tens of millions others) in dismissive pastures. Crowded as those pens became wasn’t there always room for plenty more?
My parents didn’t skylark. Nor caper or goldbrick. Traits which the vast majority of their cohort understood demeaned the whole. By dint of will they disavowed the caricatures. They attacked the lie by denying it through steadiness, stylishness and poise.
That’s why in both mother’s and father’s obituaries I specifically mentioned their comportment. Far more than possessions acquired and left behind, how we esteemed them mattered most. It was recognition which never failed stirring those mourners within their age circles. They approved of the reflections.
While the two messages remained constant, both farewells couldn’t have been more different.
My mother spent nearly eight years as a widow. In that time, the crowd that had seen off father in turn had been scythed. Where attendees jammed to bid him goodbye, the sparse presence paying respects to mother just reinforced the inexorable arc of our lives.
Mother outlived best friends and frenemies as well as entire photo albums of relatives comprising her generation. For mother that meant the verbal shorthand used among associates slowly vanished because those with whom she shared experiences disappeared. It’s one thing to reminisce. It’s another when late arriving ears require the past to be layered with references.
An uncle – jeez, my last one – said mother was unafraid of death. On the surface he sounded trite. One of those platitudes uttered to interrupt sadness. But not only was he correct, he could’ve spoken for that whole age group. All of whom the Depression ground its heel into, much less stamped.
From what I saw and heard from them that group had grown up familiar with life and death. Bereft of abstractions our society commonly uses to obscure both processes.
If the annual growing cycle of planting and harvest, breeding and butchering for sustenance failed transforming mysteries into the mundane, then at-home births and deaths surely chiseled the facts of life. I was among the first in my family to see first light in a hospital. Almost all my elders were born in the same beds in which they were conceived. No doctors and attending nurses for them either, but midwives.
Most good. A few bad. Talk about chancy debuts.
Also no professional palliative end care, though demise amid routine life at home only briefly disrupted the premises. Meals were fixed and served. Children played indoors and outside. All while the dying waited for the inevitable in nearby rooms or inside blanket-partitioned enclosures.
Afterwards change the ticking, of course, and freshen the mattress but bed frames and headboards remained untouched. Huge transitions as life and death are, didn’t those practical people learn spirits didn’t inhabit objects? Besides, discarding “haunted” household items and making new ones unnecessarily diverted time and effort from the next days’ pressing chores and hard work.
I forgot when I stopped complaining. It must’ve been in my earliest teens. I think all the casually dropped recollections about their lives at my age affected me. Too numerous to compute; easily more arduous than any Nuclear Age angst or aggravation. Without sounding boards, or sponges who’d soak up my hormonal teen-age traumas, I learned that perhaps my solutions resided within me.
However mother and father been raised, no doubt they viewed complaining as baseless, and that one step closer to malingering. And delay was wasteful.
Only once did I directly absorb the rigor of their lives. My absorption rate was glacial because I didn’t “get” the lesson until manhood.
Some year in the early 1970s we attended a funeral in South Carolina. An accidental shotgun blast from his wife dispatched a cousin. The incident left plenty of still never asked/unanswered questions.
Father chauffeured us from New York. He thought nothing of 16 hours of white line fever. Mother alone with me and we would’ve ridden the Silver Star train to Columbia. Two aunts joined me in the backseat. Whether they joined us to pay respects or just for a change of scenery, I don’t know.
There and back, women chattered. Father drove. Flighty radio signals surfed among AM stations. During our return trip, the sole time conversation abated occurred when we sped by a cotton field.
We’d departed under a full moon. Probably because then the old man could floor his green whaleboat-sized Merc without worrying too much whether Mayberry’s finest highway patrolmen might spy his New York tags and assume those yellow and blue plates meant Rich Goddamn Yankee.
Cotton burst from bolls. Clear moonlight added a spectral edge upon that ready to reap crop. About six or seven years later in Arizona did I comprehend my fellow travelers almost reverent quiet.
On a sunny late-70s day I steered towards Phoenix. Around Eloy combine harvesters raised red dust while picking cotton. Operators sat in enclosed cabins. I guess those ol’ boys had the ACs blasting and cassette decks blaring country & western.
Doubtlessly when we five passed those South Carolina fields the adults reflexively must’ve remembered when backbreaking stoop labor beneath sweltering suns tormented their days. No wonder they drew such mountain-moving succor from Sunday sermons and spirituals. Far more than mine and my successors ever will.
Now as then I can only imagine how handpicking cotton while dragging a burlap sack motivated them towards improved lives. Although they’d gone far by the 70s, they had plenty farther yet to reach.
During her last hours of being completely among us, mother dawdled. Christmas, New Years and her birthday crammed a 10-day stretch. By 2013’s first weekend she’d wound down appreciably. I phoned her doctor with my worries, thinking her due an appointment. He listened to me recite her symptoms. Afterwards he diagnosed. Deeming an office visit useless, he insisted upon her immediate hospital admission.
She barely made it.
Rather than expedite, she lingered. Mother sipped a second cup of coffee. She spent two hours inventorying, I guess, her apartment. Its closets. The bric-a-brac larding her dresser; the 60-plus years of mementos accumulated along the living room shelves.
Her last clear reckonings? Or did she gauge distance?
Then in mother’s final instance of womanly vanity she primped before the bathroom mirror. (!) Pronouncing herself ready, finally, I went to retrieve the car. When I returned she had collapsed. Nine days later she died. Before strokes and hemorrhaging stilled her voice and shut her eyes, we spoke the words that needed to be said and heard.
Life was kind to her at the very end. Mother slipped away peacefully.
What parent doesn’t recall cutesy, somewhat embarrassing moments regarding his or her son or daughter? And aren’t these tidbits always revealed at times calculated to most mortify the adult child? Oh. It didn’t happen to me. I’m just asking.
Never adversarial with either parent, my mother accustomed me to leisure pursuits. Father measured his pleasure through teaspoons; mother dished hers with a soup ladle.
In what should’ve been my hellion teen phase, she took me to Saratoga or Monticello to watch thoroughbreds or trotters race. Sure. We could’ve been railbirds at Belmont or Yonkers but where’s the real day-tripping adventure in that?
We also spent long weekends in Montreal. Neither one of us spoke French. Not that Americans need fear Quebec’s Francophone tongue-troopers. Save that for English-speaking Canadians. Still, knowing what foreigners are grumbling behind one’s back broadens travel, no?
Some of our more imaginative journeys involved me but I had scant input. In fact I could only babble, not talk.
Back in the earliest 1960s and me wearing diapers, summer sometimes turned our address into a sweatbox. Particularly in August. Windows thrown wide open, bowls of ice propped before roaring fans, offered minor relief on afternoons when humidity and heat vied for the greatest oppression.
Calm as an infant as my parents never failed claiming, a few of those August days got me cranky. Sometimes to mollify her son, mother would, after serving father dinner, collect me and we’d take a local bus excursion. Then, other than movie theaters, buses provided reliable air conditioning. Done right those round trips lasted longer than most movies.
She left slight mysteries. One I manufactured tried determining whether our tours included me toting my binky, a stuffed bunny. Did I? I still have it. I no longer use it but I do retain it.
One never knows when future conditions may demand a binky.
I carried the plush toy to her hospital bedside. Insentient and unresponsive by then perhaps the binky might soothe any final anguish.
Unconscious doesn’t necessarily mean unaware.
On those early 1960s evenings requiring cooling, mother selected buses with mid-Bronx turnarounds. Two routes began in Quarropas. An express and the local. We always rode the second, the local. Tedious now, I’m sure that ride, its frequent stops, offered us both perfect respites from August’s worst.
Here’s a conclusion I prefer. In mother’s loving embrace, my uncomprehending gaze wavering on whatever passed outside. Both of us know contentment. Our needs are simple. We require nothing more.