Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Sunday Memory Drawer - Musing About Mom

Today would have been my mother's 91st birthday.  Or 90th.  The records say one thing.  She used to say another.  Quibbling over a single year.  What was the point? 

Oddly enough, the photo above was taken at her retirement party down at some office complex on Fulton Avenue in Mount Vernon, New York.  That's jewelry she's showing off and, boy oh boy, did she ever have boxes of that lying around.  Meanwhile, she really didn't live for more than ten years beyond this snapshot.  If you think she's looking pretty good for her age, she did.  And that's not dyed hair.  When my mother passed away, she had very little gray hair.  People accused her of having it colored during those weekly Saturday morning sojourns to the beauty parlor.  But she didn't.  Hair spray, however?  Globs of it.  The Jets football helmet was softer.

Of course, this rather youthful portrait belies the tried-and-true adage handed down over the years.  That smoking ages you prematurely.  Because, if that was really the case, she should be looking like Charlton Heston in "The Ten Commandments," complete with flowing white beard.  

Whether she admitted it or not, my mother was a chain smoker.  I don't even remember her without something lit between her fingers.  She would give you the typical "smoker denial" pronouncements.

"I don't inhale." 

"That's the lightest cigarette on the market."

"It mostly burns in the ash tray."

Uh huh.  So, er, how come you wake up every morning coughing your brains out?

This argument went on between us for all her life.  It wasn't the only one.

As a kid, she could adopt the typical stance as a mother who always wanted to put up the best front possible for the viewing public.  All was perfect.  In front of the stage curtain.  But, once the show was over, she could turn on a dime.  Not exactly into Joan Crawford.  But not ideal mom June Lockhart either.  I remember well the chill.

But I assumed that this was normal amongst all the parents of all my friends.  When my folks would argue, I would be assured that everybody's mom and dad acted the same way.

I took that at face value.  But, secretly, I wanted to be a fly on the wall of their homes.  Just to see if my mother knew from which she was speaking.

Don't get me wrong.  I had plenty of good memories of my mom from childhood. 

The Friday late afternoons where she would pick me up from school.  We'd have an early dinner at the Bee Hive and then take in a double feature at either Loew's or RKO Proctor's.  Seated in the smoking section, of course.

Christmas shopping on Fourth Avenue in Mount Vernon.  Chilly Thursday nights in Genung's or Bromley's.  If we were in the former, my mother would make me go to another part of the store.  This meant she was buying clothes for me.  If we were in Bromley's, this signified that she was looking for her own holiday outfits.  With money borrowed from a loan company. 

"Don't tell your father."

I never did.  I didn't need to throw kerosene onto an all-out bonfire.

Of course, I was clearly apparent of the bad combination of DNA that was embedded in my parents' marriage.  Dad's stoicism vs. Mom's sometimes extreme impulsiveness.  Two traits that now reside rather uncomfortably in my own body.  Their arguments go on.   They're simply carried on by the annoying voices in my head.

I was already out of college when they split up.  I had my own friends and was living my own existence.  So, this news barely registered a blip on my attention meter.  But, I didn't care for some of the ways my mother engineered the severing of their union, so we had little to do with each other for a few years.  Besides, she had taken a fancy bookkeeping job down in Manhattan at the urging of her always pesty girlfriend Marie.  Mom got a little "hi-faluting" which made it easier to me to sit in Dad's dugout.  But she came back to Earth a bit when my grandmother died and my father needed some emotional support.  It was ironic.  All those years grousing about "Grandma this and Grandma that."  Yet, it was the old woman's departure that brought my folks back to together.  Not completely, but enough to make holiday meals borderline enjoyable.

Ironically, it would be baseball that officially brought my mom and me back together.  I don't know if this was by design or pure accident.  But, once she retired and spent more time at home, she somehow started to watch the New York Mets.  One day in our daily phone conversation, she asked a surprising question.

"What's this about Dwight Gooden?"

Huh?  Who is this?

"I like this Keith Hernandez.   He's a good fielder."

What have you done with the lady that lives in my mother's Fleetwood, New York apartment?

"Did you see that Darryl Strawberry homerun last night?"

Okay, I'm done.  This is too weird.

Truth be told, Mom had started to watch the Mets one afternoon and got hooked, mainly because she learned so much about the sport from the Mets' announcer Tim McCarver.

"Oh, and that Tim McCarver....he's so cute."

We don't need to go where this conversation is headed, thank you very much.

Nevertheless, my mother and I had something to talk about every day.  And, when her TV died in the middle of the 1986 World Series, I had to take her to a rental center so she could get a temporary set in her house.

As expected, both Mom and Dad started to come down with the ailments you know will ultimately befall all parents.  And, as an only child, I bore the brunt of all of them.  My father's prostate cancer.  His shingles.  His ultimate bone cancer.  For Mom, it was arthritis in her wrists.  And, for the first time in her life, there was real mental pain from not having a workplace to go to every day.  The absence of a routine made all the physical pain even tougher to endure.   This led to some prescription drugs and trips to a psychologist.

It sucks to get old.

Mom's life stabilized as soon as she established a regular routine.  It didn't involve a job, but she learned to keep to a clock anyway.

By 10AM, she and the other retirees were in the local coffee shop for breakfast.

By 1PM, they were back there for lunch.

By 4PM, they were all napping and then having dinner.

By 6PM, they took turns going over to each other's apartments to watch the daily game shows.  Supermarket Sweep, Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune. 

By 8PM, if they were in season, Mom was in front of the TV watching the Mets.

It may not have been exciting but it was a daily plan nonetheless.  And both her physical and mental outlook improved as a result.

Except for those damn cigarettes.  They were with her at every turn of the day. 

And would be the ultimate downfall that no prescription drug or a session with a psychologist could fix.  Lungs that were likely as black as night.

The smokes took their toll and she was ultimately destined to have an oxygen tank attached to her.  In retrospect, that luckily never happened because, indeed, my mother would have tried to smoke with it in the house.  I'd still be paying off the lawsuits from those relatives of people who expired in the apartment explosion she caused.

Instead, in a weakened state, it would be a broken hip and pneumonia from hospital immobility that would stop her heart on New Year's Eve.  My very first act of the new year would be to sign a "Do Not Resuscitate" order.  She would die "officially" about a week later.

And then precipitate one last adventure for us together.

In what can only be categorized as another example of "life's absurdities," I had gone down to Montefiore Hospital with the expressed intent of telling my mother that it was okay to let go and move on. 

Except when I got down there, she was already gone.  Gone gone.  Not the metaphor.  She wasn't there.  The bed was empty.  

Nobody at the nursing station could give me a straight answer as to where my mother had wandered off to, given that she had been in a week-long coma and not really up for excessive wandering.  But they did tell me she had passed away in the middle of the night and that they had tried to reach me by phone and then by telegram.

By telegram?  Was it suddenly 1938?  These are snafus that I would explore legally over the next few years.  But, for now, Mom was gone.  And whereas I could account for her soul, I certainly had no clue where her body was.  But I was assured that all was okay and that I should go ahead and commence with making the necessary arrangements.

I was a lucky only child.  Neither one of my parents wanted elaborate funerals.  No wakes.  No visitations.  No gawking.  I certainly...and gladly...honored their wishes.

As a result, I went to my office the next morning.   There was nothing else to do.  And my mother would have appreciated my efforts to maintain a "routine."  And then the call came in from the undertaker.

"Er, we hate to bother you but we can't get your mother out of the Bronx?"

Huh?  What?

"Somehow she wound up at the County Coroner's office and they won't release her to us until she is properly identified?"

You're kidding?

I never knew where the Bronx County morgue was.  I learned that January afternoon.  As I stood on a loading dock where the previous night's collection of frozen stiff homeless bums would be dumped down for their own ignoble ends, I decided that I better do this identification pretty darn quickly.  And get my mother back to Westchester where she belonged.

Unlike what you may have seen in the movies, Mom was not pulled out on a slab from a refrigerator.  There was no dramatic pulling back of a sheet.  When you identify a body, you do so from a photograph that they show you. 

As they flashed the snapshot in front of me, I admittedly looked at it very quickly.  And, as long as the lady in the photo wasn't Black or Asian, that would be my mother.

It was her. 

And I thought about the ultra-weird events of this day.  How unpredictable it all was. 

How perfectly scripted for my mother, who had surprised me all her life.

I had Mom cremated and I comment frequently on that irony of that act.  Giving her one last good smoke.

I think that, even with the public persona she liked to display, she would have smiled at that joke.  I certainly always do.

Dinner last night:  Hibachi steak at the Cheesecake Factory.


Anonymous said...

Moment of silence for your mom is in order. I'm certain she "smiling" at you right now.

Anonymous said...

Mothers are strange creatures.

My mother didn't smoke. She'd bum an occasional butt from her sister, but her addiction was food, especially sugar.

She ate a huge Nestle chocolate bar in one sitting, a size that could easily serve six to eight people. This was after a full dinner.

I took her to a restaurant and she ordered two entrees. Then finished them both. Then had dessert. She packed it in and got diabetes as her punishment.

Food was there in the ICU during her last weeks. I fed her McDonald's and cheesecake. What's the point of adhering to a diet when you're terminal?

She enjoyed those final treats, the last French fries. Once again, food brought her a happiness hard to come by in this world.