Happy Birthday Ma! (Wherever You Are)
Mary, my mother, a life time nicotine addict, who died peacefully and painlessly in her apartment down here in South Florida of a brain tumor in 2006, would have been 96 today. (This year my father, a World War II vet and hero who died at 76 of a stroke, would have been one hundred years old.) And while I still think of her bitter sweetly at times, my fondest recollection of her was that she was a bitch.
Buying all that Freudian mumbo jumbo when I was in my teens about how a domineering mother and submissive father made you gay (today I’m convinced it’s in our genes), I blamed her for my atypical life. I never quite reconciled that, though, with the reality that my father was my first sex object and gave me some of the best hard-ons of my youth.
My mother’s family came from a little town in the Ukraine, and my sister and I often referred to Mom as the “mad Russian,” as she was constantly ranting and raving about something with a terribly negative view of people – including her husband – while my father, always the diplomat, stood quietly by. Once when I was grown and long out of the house, I boldly confronted him as she was off on one of her temper tantrums with this demand: “Why don’t you rap her already?” He just shrugged his shoulders.
In hindsight, I think my mother had real clinical psychiatric issues. She may have been dipolar, with a heavy dose of a Napoleonic Complex. Perhaps, deep down, standing at just four eleven, and growing up in Depression poverty of immigrant parents, she felt insecure and inferior and never outgrew her tomboy scrappiness and aggressive often “in your face” character for, in her mind, it was the only way she would be heard. Though she was forced to drop out of high school a month before graduation because she needed to help her family, Mary was intelligent and savvy, and everything I know about handling money I learned from her. Yet she was obsessed with being the center of attention wherever she went, and had the emotional maturity of an eight year old. But if it’s true opposites attract, it was these very qualities I think that, besides her beauty, drew my father to her.
All this made living with Mom hell. You never knew what would set her off and when, which made holiday family gatherings or just simple Saturday afternoons sheer stomach wrenching experiences. And when my father, who never smoked, rarely drank, and seemed to be in terrific shape for someone who was not an athlete, dropped dead in the bathroom after coming home one night from a VFW meeting, I blamed cohabitating with this crazy woman for forty years as the cause of his early demise. After all, she was the one who smoked like she owned stocks in R. J. Reynolds – shouldn’t she have been the first to go? Overly critical of him while he was alive, my mother was totally lost when he left her, demonstrating the best performance by a widow in a leading role, though her grief did not stop her from trying to sell his three month old Cadillac to friends and co-workers – including my boss – at his wake.
My sister dropped out of the family theatrics early in the game, marrying at 22 and moving to Long Island, leaving me, the single son (my closet homosexuality, interestingly enough, never became a subject of family discussion) to watch over Mom. One Thanksgiving long after my father had taken the easy way out, and in my feeble attempt to keep the family together, I drove all the way to extreme northwest New Jersey where my mother, without consulting either my sister or I, had moved to after my father’s death, and brought her to spend the night with me on Staten Island which, in holiday traffic, seemed half a world away. The plan was for us to drive over the following morning – Thanksgiving Day – to my sister’s on Long Island, another marathon on the LIE.
But when my mother saw some light snow falling that holiday morning, she refused to budge, and my frustration in seeing my carefully orchestrated holiday plans go down the sewer reached the point of no return, and in a sudden fit of rage, I knocked this then seventy something woman to the floor. She pretended in typical Mary style to be injured – she wasn’t – and all I thought was how I, a senior health care executive, was going to be charged with elder abuse of his own mother. We later buried the hatchets and spent Thanksgiving as the old lady and her fag son in a local diner.
When guys later on in my life would tell me they knew they were gay when they were practically still in diapers, I would look at them with a jaded eye. Then one night I was watching an old western on TCM and realized that I had had a crush on one of the handsome cowboys when I first saw the flick with my mother at the Central Theater in Passaic, New Jersey. I checked the listing for the year the film was released and saw I was five years old.
But I think my greatest life lesson if not directly imparted by Mom certainly was of her making came a few years later when I was 8 and my sister 3. At the time, my mother worked in a cookie factory, and one of her co-workers offered to pick the three of us up for a Saturday romp to Seaside Heights on the Jersey Shore. How I, even more than my sister, looked forward to that day. (My love of “the shore” was one of the motivating reasons I retired in Fort Lauderdale.) So that morning, with sand pails and shovels and blankets and beach chairs in tow, we trotted down to the pre-designated spot where Mom’s friend would swing by and pick us up.
Only she never came.
After an hour of our futilely waiting and me counting cars whizzing by, Mom forced us to face reality and turned us right around for home.
What I learned that day I never forgot and has, rightly or wrongly, guided me throughout my life: never put your faith in other people; always rely first and foremost on yourself; and always, always have a Plan B.
Mom and I probably fought hundreds of times during the years we shared this earth together, but even when she told me never to come back, I did like a bad penny and played the good son to the end, and, when I moved from NYC to Fort Lauderdale in 2002, I brought her down with me. (Mind you, she had her own place – you can only carry that loving son shit so far.) That’s why, given our roller coaster relationship, I found it strange, even alien, that in her last days as the tumor was eating away at her brain, the boisterous, cranky bitch I had known all my life had become a serene, even pleasant little old lady.
The last time I saw her in her apartment – she was by then on hospice care – I was dressed up for a staff meeting at the college where I taught rather than in my usual jeans and a T. Her final words to me as she gazed with a silly ass smile were, “You look nice.” The following morning, just as the hospice nurses predicted, she was gone.
So when the funeral director allowed me to view her one last time in her coffin before shipping her body up to the cemetery in Jersey to be with my father, I made sure to place a pack of Winston Salems by her side.
But no lighter.
After all, that was the least a son could do.