Not long after our brother Craig died, my aunt and I were standing in the kitchen, drinking champagne. “Your mother doesn’t need to be the center of attention,” she said. “It’s just that she is. She can’t help it.”
Aunt Bets was 50; I was 25. I knew by then what she meant about my mother’s getting her way, though I could no more account for the unobtrusiveness with which she did it than my aunt could.
“She got it from Gram,” Aunt Bets said, invoking their effortless mother, “and she got all of it.”
Aunt Bets wasn’t the only one who spent half her time with our mother trying to learn her charm and the other half trying to break it.
Our mother worked by almost invisible means, grace of bearing, goodness of heart. She didn’t waste words; if anything, she expressed herself with difficulty. I never heard her speak at length on any topic. She never chose to speak at length. She didn’t speak at Chrissie’s or Craig’s funerals, or at Bruce’s two weddings. Her letters, with few exceptions, were brief. This one, from July 31, 1989, is typical:
Dearest Mark— I started in first thing this AM, researching what I actually have been doing since you left on June 19th!. By now I’ve gone through lots of piles and made lists of my lists and tried to collect thoughts and treasures to send to you—and it’s only 4 o’clock, and I’m going to hop on my bike and ride this to the P.O.—it’s an absolutely glorious day, and I haven’t been out in it yet. That’s what happens usually, I think—after so long at desk or phone, I decide to bag it and ride or swim, feeling that I’ve accomplished something by just mailing the lists.
In reading through her letters to me, I found one from 1980, when I was in London, in which she tells me something about her past, her inner life. She is responding to a letter that must have been full of complaining, homesick tones.
Mark, I remember some very strange nebulous feelings in college—having to do with where I was—who I was, I suppose—home and family vs. college and friends and the world—hard to describe, but maybe akin to some of your thoughts—but I think, simply, part of growing up—if you’ll forgive such a motherly diagnosis—nothing to be alarmed about—so stay busy and healthy and happy and all those kinks will work themselves out.
She stood five feet five. Her hair was light brown. Her nose was remarkable. She didn’t like it, but it added to her beauty, which was uncommon. I don’t know what color her eyes were. Her skin was soft and tanned easily; she loved the sun. Her hands were gentle, the veins prominent and healthy, the fingers soft and strong, but not thick, like her father’s. She used to wear nail polish, geranium red, like her lipstick.
I’d watch her dress to go out at night. After her shower, she’d come back into the room with a towel around her, covering her from her breasts to her knees. Under it, she’d put her underpants on, then her bra. She’d put her arms through the shoulder straps, fit the cups around her breasts, then reach around in back to hook the strap. Some women I’ve known hook the strap in front first, then slide that part around to the back, then put their arms through the shoulder straps, then fit the cups around their breasts. My mother never did that. All deviations are from my mother’s ways.
Then she’d take the towel off, comfortable to go about the rest of her preparations dressed so. The next thing she did was put on her stockings (she rarely went out at night without stockings), which must have involved her in a girdle, because I remember feeling satisfied when the top of the stockings got taken up by the button and then cinched down into that hairpin-like wire. But I enjoyed watching her select the pair of stockings, check them for runs, then roll them carefully down from top to toe in her hands, place her toes in the opening, and roll them up her legs. She was deft at this, as I suppose millions of women must have been.
Then she’d light a cigarette, a Parliament, and take a drag. She’d blow the smoke out against the mirror, in which I could see, from the bed, the framed prayer of St. Francis of Assisi on the wall behind her. Now she’d take a sip of the cocktail my father had brought her, either a martini on the rocks with two olives or a scotch on the rocks.
She’d begin to decide what to wear, pushing apart skirts and dresses and blouses in her closet. She might bring one or two out and hang them up to look at, or slip into a pair of shoes and hold a dress up to her body, looking herself up and down—a yellow cotton shift, with a nap like burlap; a green and white print with a silken texture; a blue and white print, also cotton, but smoothly finished. I liked that dress, and might tell her so, or she might ask which one I thought she should wear.
She put her hair up in those days. I can’t remember seeing it down, let down. Her sister wore a braid; my mother never wore a braid. She pulled her hair back into a roll rather than a bun, tucked it in, placed the hairpins in a row. She’d put a slip on, then her dress, followed by jewelry, a bracelet and a necklace, and maybe a pin. She’d finish her cigarette and take a sip of her cocktail.
Then it was time for perfume (Chanel #5), makeup, and lipstick. All my mother needed, she’d say, was “a little lipstick.” I loved watching her apply it. She was concentrated and preoccupied at the same time—but the perfection of that stroke! The very brim of each lip, then the smacking and the checking, the devolving of the stick into the tube, and the click of the cap. I suppose that entire act defined a woman for me then, because it was something a man never did. Nor would a man touch perfume with the pad of his index finger to three or four places on his neck and chest, or take a pencil across the softest part of his eyelid, or a brush to his eyelashes, or a pancake to his cheeks. When I see a lipstick on a dresser or a table now, I almost can’t not pick it up, slide the top off, and twist it until that slope the lips form emerges.
Finally, earrings—gold posts or pearls, maybe blue dahlia hoops—and my mother was ready. “What you don’t know won’t hurt you,” “Out of sight, out of mind,” “Moderation in all things”: these were her watchwords, and with them she brought us through some terrible passages—including her own stroke, ten years ago.
She was gardening in front of the house when she felt the onset of the worst headache she’d ever had (I was unaware she’d had one). She came inside and collapsed at the bottom of the stairs. She called out to my father, who was working on the lawn. He took her to the hospital.
The doctor was inside her cranium when the aneurysm burst. He was able to tie it off and, it seemed, prevent any damage. She suffered no loss of movement or speech. She was sixty-one.
Typically, she said very little about it at the time and has said little more since. Thirteen years earlier, after a dentist pulled a perfectly good tooth from the lower right side of her mouth, instead of the bad one he had meant to remove from the lower left, she suffered in silence during a flight from Denver to Milan. I asked her if she was going to sue.
“Of course not. People make mistakes.”
The “complications” at our sister’s birth, when our mother was thirty-eight, were never specified. After Lizzie was born, our mother had to return to the hospital for an unsuccessful operation on her varicose veins. She had arthritis, too, like her mother before her, and her back and neck pained her. She had had two “little” operations for skin cancer.
As soon as we brought up her health, she dismissed it as not worth discussing. She nodded at our proposed remedies, and then went on as before. I think she took her thyroid pills, but scotch and gin were her medicine.
Few things annoyed my father more than what he called my mother’s “insouciance.” As soon as he felt it, he would insist that my mother acknowledge the importance of the things she didn’t wish to know or see; that she never again make the mistake of trifling with bills, Vietnam, the economy, Nixon, the twigs on the lawn.
To our mother, they were “necessary evils,” like cars. Nor could she share my father’s feeling that his or anyone else’s common cold required sustained attention, or that a dropped ice cube, a broken glass, a change of plans, or a flooded basement warranted a lost temper.
It strikes me now that my mother was a surrogate for my father’s mother, whose every sweet word indicated that, when her alcoholic husband, a straight-commission salesman with no buyers, came home between 1930 and 1940, she treated him the same way our mother treated our father.
Our father’s mother—Nama—believed that we brought our ills on ourselves. God, she would say, is like the sun, which doesn’t exist to burn us, but to give us life. If we get burned, it isn’t the sun’s fault, but our own. We were to “lift our thoughts” above the things of this world.
Our father found this Christian Science insufficient. It lacked rigor. So did our mother’s easy Catholic faith. Another mark against her was that she hadn’t suffered in basement apartments during the Depression. Her father was steadily employed and sober, and her college-educated mother had never had to work. This background, together with her sanguine disposition, made our mother a perfect object for our father’s contempt.
His was the tragic, hers the comic, attitude; they could rarely see each other’s point of view. That didn’t matter to our mother, though. She didn’t have to see the other’s point of view. She had only to feel pity for it, or sympathy for it, or empathy with the person who held it. Our father drew the unwarranted inference that she felt superior to him.
She was uninformed, flippant. He was informed, concerned. The republic was going to hell, the fathers were sacrificing the sons, and she was smiling. The more she tried to lighten his load, the heavier it became.
“Now, Bill, Billy, come on! Not in front of the children.”
“They can hear it,” I remember him saying. “They can hear it.”
Our mother thought not. She thought: we have everything we need and luxuries besides. Couldn’t we just have a nice dinner together? What was the problem?
I don’t know how many times our father threatened to leave us between 1967 and 1977. Our mother didn’t remember a single time; I remembered many. Not every night: he had too developed a sense of remorse to come home drunk and, three hours later, threaten to pack his suitcase and walk out the door, two nights in a row. It must have taken him at least three days to get over the trouble he’d caused, before he’d cause it again.
On those hellish nights when he did walk out the door (but never with a suitcase), our mother knew that he’d come home; that he’d get into bed next to her and go to sleep; that he’d wake up in the morning, with a hangover for punishment, and go to work—or to hell, as he sometimes called the office—after breakfast. Breakfast was in the nature of things, and our father loved us: our mother knew that. He could drink, he could chafe, he could rage, but the next day belonged to her. He resented that.
In siding more often with my mother, I learned from her how not to placate, and from him how to fight for the last word. I also learned—a futile lesson—that there is no last word. Our mother always noticed when we were worried, and quickly tried to absolve us. When that didn’t work, she’d ask us what was wrong, which never failed to catch us off guard. We knew, or thought we knew, that she didn’t really want to know, and so we said nothing. She knew it wasn’t nothing.
“Why don’t you run around the block? That’ll make you feel better.”
The gulf between her remedy and the sources of our worries made her suggestion contemptible.
“O, Mark,” she said two decades later, when I called to tell her I’d checked into a rehab, “I can’t tell you how important exercise is.”
Our mother wanted us to lighten up, be happy, be busy, be cheerful, have fun. She had always done so. Was she so different from her children, were they from her, that her ways and means couldn’t satisfy them? As a teenager, she didn’t drink and do drugs; she didn’t sneak out of the house at night; she didn’t have sex; she didn’t shoplift; she didn’t vandalize her neighborhood. She played with her sister and brother; she rode a horse; she had a dog.
She went to a Catholic women’s college for two years in Illinois, where she grew up, the oldest child of an engineer and an engineer’s daughter, who went to Northwestern in the twenties; then transferred to the University of Colorado, where she drank “joe” and smoked cigarettes with her sisters in the basement of their sorority house.
In 1954, she graduated with a major in Fine Arts and a minor in Botany, moved into an apartment with two of her friends in Denver, and took her first job at May, Daniels, and Fischer, as an assistant in the home furnishings department.
She married our father in 1957. By 1963, she had four children under the age of seven. She told me, as if it would be absurd to think otherwise, that she didn’t know what she was doing when she got married. She didn’t know what having children would be like. She didn’t read any books about marriage or parenthood.
Love was the main force, and you had to keep going.
Manners were important; appearance was important. We were to say please and thank you, and not to use the word “hate.” We were not to refer to someone in the same room in the third person. A belt was needed. Shirts had to be buttoned up to the top but one. Pants were to be worn at the waist, not at the hips. Plaids were not to be mixed with stripes, brown with black. A white shirt was to be worn with a pair of gray flannels and a navy blue blazer.
Of course, what she expected of us she seldom required; she let us off the hook (that was one of my father’s favorite phrases.) She thought she spoiled us.
Ruthie Dodge, our next-door neighbor, told me that my mother called her one day and said she was bored. Ruthie was a little surprised that a woman with four young children could be bored, but she, having three, understood. She and my mother drew and painted; both had studied art and design. They weren’t going to change diapers and clean house all day.
In November 1963, they invited some friends over to see a small collection they had assembled for sale: fabrics, paintings, drawings, antiques, frames, boxes. The day they chose turned out to be the day President Kennedy was assassinated. Within a year, they had established Et Cetera, the interior decorating business our mother ran out of her house until she was 75.
Every now and then, when she was feeling assertive, or neglected, she repeated a line she saw in a New Yorker cartoon: “There’s no time off for good behavior.”
Nor, after having five children and burying two, did our mother ever see a therapist. Therapy? She went to mass and read Erma Bombeck.
A few years ago, at Christmas, I meant to sit down and talk with my mother. Afternoon and evening passed. Later that night, I told her that I was glad to have her temperament and sorry to have my father’s temper. She didn’t like that.
“You’ve had a rough life,” I said.
She pushed the words away with both hands. As she did, I noticed a scar on her elbow that I didn’t remember (a dog-walking accident). That, too, was nothing.
“May I feel your head, where the surgery was done?”
She pushed me away, even as tears came to her eyes. I think she was about to say that she hadn’t had it rough at all. But she thought better of it.
My father, who saw that she’d begun to cry, thought we’d gone far enough.
“You’ve been a lucky girl,” he said.
Mark Scott is the author of two books of poems,
Tactile Values (New Issues, 2000) and A Bedroom Occupation: Love Elegies (Lumen Books, 2007). More recently, he has published essays on Emerson’s verse and on Frost’s prose, and his Epigram Microphone, a mix of longer and shorter prose, can be read at http://pausepress.net/EpigramMicrophone/. He lives in Nara City, Japan, and has taught at Nara Women’s University since 2011.