During this post, I promised to notice the good, to write of the good. My mother was an amazing woman. And, she becomes more amazing as time goes on. She has been dead for 19 years and lived to be 70 years old. She had four children, two boys and two girls. My mother was authentic to the bone. The stories I could tell you and will. In my memory, she comes to me in snapshots and vignettes, conversations, scenes I witnessed, events I lived, stories she passed on from her experiences. Even the smell of her still comes back to me, the feel of her arms squeezing me in a hug, or on a bad day, having me sit on her lap. “My mother told me that you are never too old to sit on your mother’s lap, Pooh Bear.”
She was elegant, about 5’2 and weighed about 90 lbs or so. Smoked Camel cigarettes until she was 65 and always had a cup of coffee in her hand. She was an alcoholic and became addicted to codeine contained in cough syrup. When I was six years old, she separated and divorced my father, joined AA and NA, and, as I was the youngest, I attended AA meetings. A lot of AA meetings, 12-Step calls, manning the AA telephone line on Saturdays. She had 33 years of sobriety and was buried on her AA birthday. She would have loved that.
Her strengths were in her listening and her never-ending faith in you. Finances were always a strange deal – either we had a lot or none at all, having to do with an inheritance from her mother, which was annual income from farmlands leased out to real farmers in Indiana. And from child support. She was the first woman to divorce in our neighborhood, the first woman go to work in our neighborhood and likely, the first woman who got sober in our neighborhood, now that I think about it. She once remarked, “Happiness is a pack of cigarettes and gas in the car.”
She lived for about 17 years in a single apartment that was oblong vs. square. It had enough room for her twin bed, an easy chair with an ottoman, a hi-fi stereo and a closet on the left, and her dining room table and chairs on the right with the stove and refrigerator, and a bathroom. Frankly, I think she picked it so that her children could not move back home. We had done it a few times before she settled on 7th Street. I had helped with the move and she asked what I thought. “Well, I’m wondering about the kitchen sink.” “What about it?” “Well, there isn’t one. You’ll be doing your dishes in the bathroom sink.” She actually went pale. “Oh, thank God, my mother is not alive to see this!” I looked at her. She shrugged. “I never noticed it didn’t have a kitchen sink.”
To this day, memories of her can make me laugh out loud or just grin like a fool. The apartment had a wall of windows where each would slide up. My mother believed in fresh air and always left a window open. She lived on the ground floor, just off the parking area with a little two step stoop up to her door. Everything but the dining room table was situated along that wall with a narrow path between the dining room table on the right and all the rest on the left, leading directly to the tiny bathroom at the end. Two people were a crowd in that space. We used to call one another every morning. Okay, that’s inaccurate. She would call to wake me up as I never heard the alarm, but always heard the phone. One morning, as usual, she called and we talked for a bit and then she mentioned there had been a break-in during the night. I sat up straight, “What?! Are you okay? Why are you just now telling me this, Mom?!” “Well, obviously everything is just fine, Pooh Bear.” “Well, what happened?!”
She had gotten up in the middle of the night, gone to the bathroom and lit a cigarette. Usual routine. As she walked out of the bathroom, in the darkness, she saw a man standing by the bed, next to the door, frozen in place. What he saw was a small, slender woman in a pale knee length nightgown with a lit cigarette in her hand. “What did you do?” “Well, there wasn’t much to do. I said a prayer and walked past him to the door, opened it and walked out, closing it behind me.” I stifled a giggle thinking about it from his point of view and visualizing her standing outside in the dark, on her little stoop. “Did you go for help?” “No. I just stood there and smoked my cigarette. There was a lot of noise on the other side of the door. I heard him scramble out the window – so he must have climbed on the bed and hoisted himself out. Once I heard him land in the parking lot, I opened the door and stepped back in. Really…. that was all there was to it…” I took a breath. “Did he steal anything?” “Oh, yes. Yes, he did. He took my purse, but threw it back through the window. My wallet was missing, but not a big deal. It had maybe five dollars in it.” I was grinning, which, thankfully, she could not see. It is the writer in me. I imagine she scared the shit out of the guy. He probably thought she was a ghost. I could hear someone knocking on Mom’s door. She asked me to hold, went to answer it, and came back. “Well, isn’t that amazing….?” “What, Mom?” “That was my neighbor on his way to work. He found my wallet and just returned it to me. It was outside my bedroom window.” It still had the $5.00 in it.
She was unique in that she never gave advice. If you pursued it and really asked what she thought about something, she might venture an opinion. For the most part, she thought advice was a waste of oxygen. I’m going to tell two quick stories because they truly stand out. My mother was a lady. She very seldom swore and when she did, it was powerful.
Story 1: We’re sitting in my car and I’m early twenties, telling her about this guy I was “dating.” Keep in mind this was the late 70s and early 80s. In California, dating was out of fashion. So, it was more a series of one night stands than a relationship. The man was a jerk, no question. My mother sat, listening to me, probably voicing an occasional “Ah.” “Really?” “Hmmm.” “Oh, dear.” I came to the end of the latest chapter. There was silence in the car. “Well, what do you think, Mom?” She turned a bit to face me. “What do I think?” She echoed. “Yes, what do you think?” I asked earnestly. My mother leaned forward, tapped her ash off in the ashtray, sat back and said quietly, “I think he is a mother-fucker.” I goggled at her. “Well, I do.” She shrugged. I never dated him again.
Story 2: When “Four Weddings and a Funeral” came out on video, I rented it. I wasn’t sure how she would take all the swearing, so I just played a few parts for my Mom. She was all for watching it, so we rewound it and watched it from the beginning until the end. The next morning, on the phone, she said, “Oh, that was so enjoyable, Pooh Bear!” “Really, Mom?” “Oh, yes.” I cleared my throat. “Well, you know, I thought you might find the swearing a bit much.” “Swearing?” “Yeah, Mom. The first five minutes consists of “‘Fuck,’ ‘Fuck,’ ‘Fuck.’ when they’re waking up all over the city.” Pause. “Huh. I don’t think I recall that. Well, regardless, it is one of my favorite words.” I stared at the phone. “It is?” She assured me, “Oh yes.” “Well, I never hear you say it.” “Huh. I must just think it a lot.”
Sometime in the 1990s, my mother turned to me, very serious. “I want to apologize.” I blinked at her. This was from out of nowhere. She nodded, knitting her fingers together in her lap. “We should have taken your writing seriously.” She sighed. “You see, it just never occurred to us. When I was growing up, we tiptoed around the house when my brother was studying. But he was a man. That a girl or a woman should take a career seriously, no. It just wasn’t done. You got married, you had children and that was it. We, or I, really, should have taken your writing seriously.” She reached out and touched my hand. “I am so sorry I didn’t.” I looked at this woman who would face down the devil himself if he threatened her children. “But, you did, Mom.” She frowned at me. “No. Don’t make it easy on me. You are owed an apology.” I said, “Mom, maybe you don’t remember, but I do. Back when we were really broke and we were in that bookstore, looking at Writer’s Digest and I really wanted that magazine. It was a choice between the magazine and buying soup for dinner. We discussed it. Obviously, we couldn’t afford it. I remember, Mom. You didn’t hesitate. You said, “No, we’re buying it. This is your career, Pooh-Bear.”
I’m saving more stories for you. You can’t sum up 70 years and a life well-lived in 1,585 words.