|An Old Irish Blessing|
|May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
“She’s dying,” the doctors told my grandparents back in the 1930s. “There’s only one thing we can try, and we don’t know if it works at all.” My mother was in the hospital again, hanging on through the last of a string of life-threatening illnesses that started with measles at the age of five. My grandparents, who had married and begun their family late in life, were not about to lose their firstborn at this point. My grandfather hired bums from the Bowery in lower New York City to donate blood for the many transfusions she had, and family life had revolved around trips to the hospital for years. This was just one more thing. “Do it,” they said.
And so my mother became a test case for penicillin, even before the clinical trials began in this country. And it was truly a miracle drug. She recovered completely and was never again sickly. For the rest of her life, she would make sure everybody in the room knew she had entered it—and she wasn’t going anywhere.
Until she died this year, I had forgotten how beautiful my mother once was. At many times she closely resembled Shirley MacLaine, although in the later years she headed in a different direction, fueling her body and brain with decades of cigarettes and a lifelong passion for ho-hoes, ring-dings, cupcakes, chocolate, ice cream, and any kind of pastry slathered in a syrupy glaze. (As a result, her last several years were spent in an intense relationship again with doctors and Coumadin clinics.)
But much earlier, before the kids (me and 2 siblings), she had wanted more from life. My mother was a dreamer, an Aquarius rising who lived more probably in her private world than in the one we saw her in. In the early pictures from college, she posed, pushing out her 1950s busooms and turning out her toes beneath the flared skirts she carried off so well. My mother always had fabulous legs.
Growing up with her, I never had a sense of who she was, and ever since she died, I have heard a myriad of impressions from friends and relatives who experienced her over the course of many years. She was cranky, intimidating, smart, pushy, demanding and over all, funny. She was very funny, but in a mean way. In the nursing home they said they knew she had been a woman who took charge…okay, so everybody sees what they want to.
Her name was Barbara, and she may well become the next legend in a family of women who broke the mold. There was her Aunt Jessie, who took off for Alaska sometime in the 50s (I think) and came back to work as the first female comptroller for the New Yorker Magazine at a time when women were lucky to be secretaries. Jessie got my grandmother a job there as a bookkeeper in the 60s, and they worked daily in the company of Brendan Behan, James Thurber, and Truman Capote, who was then a mail boy.
My mother did not have a big career. She had a big imagination. I remember coming home to find her stripping the walls of my bedroom to paint it deep forest green. I remember her keeping the three of us out of school once when it was raining, and then taking us to see “Half a Sixpence” at a local theatre. I remember later when she tried to get stoned with my boyfriend, and when, newly single, she moved to New York and had a better social life than I did.
I never knew what she was trying to accomplish with her life, and by those standards, I didn’t view her as a success. She even said, at the age of 83, “I think I’ve wasted my life.” She was demented at that point, but having what I thought was a lucid moment. Silently, I agreed with her. And then she died.
It was a winter day, cold and gray. I drove past a frozen lake with old men and kids ice fishing and stopped to watch them. The emptiness she left behind was huge. After a lifelong battle with this woman who had been so difficult, even in the best of circumstances, it was so strange to not have her as force, pulling against me, and I felt myself sagging.
So I have waited, now that I know I am the front line female in a family that turned out a few rare petunias. And yes, I have my eccentricities, obviously bred in the bone for many generations. I waited for some epiphany to come, some great wisdom on how a life should be lived. I watched the fisherman sit on the ice, waiting for the fish to bite, probably waiting for hours. I couldn’t tell from that distance, and I didn’t wait for them to catch one.
I waited over the next week, for the weight of maturity to find me—and it did, as I took on my mother’s penchant for a whole junk-food diet. But that was not what I was looking for. It has settled on me slowly. Legacy is in the little things.
Although she was never what you would call a feminist, my mother raised two girls in the seventies, sure in her belief there was nothing we couldn’t do. Her own sense of failure pushed us out into the world with the expectation that we would live the big life she had planned…and on the occasions we did do something, she was sure to be there.
There was no denying that she was weird and inconsistent, and given to wild imaginative rides powered in no part by logic. My mother was about possibility…and miracles.
I can see now, looking at the pictures of her youth, that she had great plans, and greater confidence. And the crankiness and bitterness of the later years was still peppered by a belief that life held something more. In the few years before she became really demented and moved to a nursing home, she lived alone, having divorced my father in her fifties to search for that something. And she was bored by life in the quiet senior apartment, but didn’t know what she wanted to do. “Mom,” I said. “It’s not like there’s some big party bus that’s going to pull up at the door and invite you in.” “Why not?” she responded. She had fought so hard to be here, she felt life owed her something.
And now, two months later after examining her legacy, her voice reverberates through me, a strong presence that will clearly not go away. Her ashes have been sitting on the mantle in a black box, wearing the big white sunglasses she wore in the last months, which we will set free today. She did leave behind her spirit—and a wicked sense of humor, and you can’t confine that.
She had been around the world to many places I have never seen, although I often travel for work. She had moved to Mexico in her 60s for a few months (and then moved back to my couch, but that’s not the point here). She had been to Banft and Brazil, Finland and France, Greece and Germany, and even Orlando. And she had postcards from every one of those places, kept over a lifetime. Pictures that would be hard to find today, but that showed the world as she marched her little feet through it.
And there were the family pictures of her three fair-haired, fair-eyed babies. She made the quintessential 60s mom on the surface. We did seem the perfect family. And we never suspected the depth of her quirks. She had dreams. I will never know what they were, as she didn’t share most of them with me. She did ask me if I thought she could bury the body at the Croton dump for the mystery novel she was writing, but never wrote. And she always wanted to travel—in the end, even a trip to the supermarket was exciting for her.
And then there was that sense of humor. That slice and dice kind of wit that made you laugh while she drew blood. Like when she fought with my sister, who in her twenties was an actress, trying to get established. She did a few small parts in movies, a TV commercial or two, an off-Broadway play—by acting standards, a huge success. So she had this fight with my mother who did something typically Mom and probably mean. My sister recounted to me how she was screaming at Mom, telling her, “that’s it. If you don’t stop, you’ll never get to see me again. The only way you’ll be able to see me is in the movies!” Without a single beat’s pause, my mother replied, “Which row will you be in?” You can’t write stuff that good.
She had a real flare for language, and color, and was given a bit to drama. She tried a lot of things, writing for a newspaper, real estate, paralegal, and then real estate again. She didn’t stick with any of them, or ever draw much of an income, but she certainly drove my father to great success in the law, where he set precedents and established new practices in corporate litigation. He did very well, and they were able to move to a nice house in the suburbs with their three kids. Her mother was very proud. She asked Mom, “did you ever think you’d have so much at this stage in your life?” And Grandma told me “she gave a typical Barbara answer, ‘I thought I’d have more sooner.’
So Mom was never satisfied, and saw her life as a failure. I think the evidence suggests otherwise. After weeks of looking at the pictures and postcards that catalogued her travels, I have come to one conclusion. You were wrong, Mom. You didn’t waste your life. You lived it, without a roadmap to go by. As Woody Allen once said, “98% of life is just showing up.” My mother did a lot of showing up.
Most of us are not destined to do big things. Many people will think they are doing big things, but in the end they won’t matter any more than my mother’s accomplishments did. Hers was a part of a bigger story. She did her part and there will be lots more to tell.
For a while after she died, I had so little to say. The well around me felt huge and confusing. My mother’s off-kilter view of life had for so long tilted my own picture of the world, and I now know it will continue to do so. My love of color came from her. My sense of wanderlust, also from her. Her passing has opened in me a desire to explore the world some more on my own, and in doing so, to pass on her legacy.
Good going Mom!
© Copyright 2013 – Arts Enclave.