[Though I don’t intend this ruminative ramble to be linear, I think I should introduce the main dramatis personae, because it’s more about people than events. My mother is a reasonable person-place to start, since she’s where I started.]
My brothers loved my father and hated my mother. I didn’t love or hate either parent. I seem to lack the biological imperative. In freshman French at Penn we read Camus’s L’Etranger, in which the protagonist gets into hot water because he’s going to bury his mother but doesn’t care about her. I didn’t know he had a problem; his response seemed perfectly natural to me.
Psychologists might view my estrangement as a result of my upbringing. In part… maybe. In greater part, it’s a personal – genetic? just peculiar? – deviation from the accepted pattern. I didn’t lack an ability to love them only because love was seldom shown to me. Someone else – someone more empathetic, more spiritual, less empirically insulated – might have reacted differently.
Mom and I listened to the radio together. A lot. This was in the late ’40s, early ’50s. We laughed our way through Jack Benny and Phil Harris every Sunday evening and enjoyed Tonto getting knocked senseless during each weekly episode of The Lone Ranger. We shared a skewed sense of humor. (Dad had one too, with a different skew.)
Mom wanted to be a writer, a journalist. Sometime in the ‘40s she took a journalism course downtown at the Junto, a learning site supposedly founded by Benjamin Franklin (in Philadelphia, anything original – except the cheesesteak – is credited to Benjamin Franklin). Instead, around 1950 she became a church secretary. (What did she believe in? I have no idea.) At least, part of her job included writing the church newsletter.
She resented her scattered upbringing: kicked from one relative to another up and down the East Coast in the 1910s, castigated for her crossed eyes, no time left to develop friendships or stability. I think she saw my father as her intellectual inferior (wrong) and resented her professional limitation of being a woman (right). Her misery, which she kept from the outer world but which suffused her family relations, sprang in equal parts from her background and a personal darkness.
I too lived in a confusing number of places while young (though all in a small area). After WWII, we moved from South Ardmore in the rural Philly suburbs to a second-floor apartment at 3406 Baring St. in Powelton Village, a small Victorian neighborhood across the Schuylkill River from the art museum.
At that time there were only two colors acceptable (or known?) to paint your house in Philly: dark-chocolate brown or park-bench green. The drab, ill-kept Powelton Victorian houses, filthed with a half century of carbon from the trains passing the end of Baring St., seemed superbly ugly. (Yet they had mansard roofs! Where had I heard or read about mansard roofs that rendered them almost magical in my mind?)
Every two years or so Mom instigated our move from one rented house or apartment to another, all within Powelton. Each time, we would redecorate the new place before moving in – including complete reapplication of wallpaper and paint. Then “something” would make relocation mandatory. Possibly this was a reflection of her own turbulent childhood. As likely, she was looking for a sense of completion she never found, anywhere.
She had a minor obsession with sawing the legs off furniture. She lopped them off our china cabinet so it could be placed atop the dining-room bureau (similarly delimbed). But then we couldn’t open the top bureau drawer because of the pressure, so back down went the china cabinet, now oddly dwarfish.
Like humor, our joint interest in the Word – written or spoken – united Mom and me where our biological ties did not. I think she wanted me to be her literary surrogate. She encouraged my teen attempts to imitate Robert Benchley (his “essay” on curing hiccups is funnier than leprosy). Wherever I’ve half succeeded with writing is a belated gift to a woman whose mental acumen was never fully appreciated by her husband or her children.
And what was the impetus behind her material gifts to me – Christmas and birthday presents? She gave me a subscription to the Pogo comic book two years before the strip appeared in the papers. Where did she find it? How would she have realized it was the perfect gift?
Later, she presented me with the first Tom Lehrer album of whiplash satirical songs, filled with an irreverence otherwise foreign to ’50s America. How did she learn about Lehrer – no one I knew ever mentioned him. (Decades later I discovered that his first album could only be ordered directly from him – an underground mystery radiating from Cambridge, Mass.)
Around the same time she bought me short story collections by Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon, the most lush and wonderful fantasy/SF writers of the era. Again, how and where did she find them?
In short, there were sides to Mom that should have helped me love her. But didn’t.
I heard years later that she was physically abusive to my brothers Rod and Vic. With me it was psychological. She told me I had “no backbone,” and for years I slumped and scuttered: which was cause, which effect?
When I was five she found new, tiny dents in the living room coffee table that had “always” been there, in the way childhood furniture is eternal. She decided I’d caused the dents. Cornering me in our expansive Hastings Ave. entry hall, she relentlessly accused me until I admitted to having struck it repeatedly with a small metal hammer. I can still hazily envision myself holding that odd little hammer – I’ve never run across another like it – as I tap-tap-tapped the table. But did it actually happen? I don’t know.
Brainwashing: What an horrendous thing to do to a child.
She would read in bed and ask my father to fetch things for her. She said he liked to do it. Out to the kitchen and back he’d mutter under his breath in seething anger. More than once she told me, “We love each other but we don’t like each other.” Dad did not like her, did not love her. Each blamed the other for their getting married, as though it had been a mutual shotgun wedding.
During my last college summer working as a deckhand on Sun Oil tankers, Mom took up with a seedy Englishman after breaking off with my father, who had moved in with my eldest brother, Rod. Before the age of 60, she was mentally melting.
In our rented rowhouse on Mole St., near City Hall, Sir Bowel Movement sat and dribbled tears at the dinner table. I wanted to shove his face in his plate. Later, brother Vic found him in bed with Mom and threw him down the stairs. The bedroom floor was covered with urine-soaked sheets. Then she ran off with Brit Shit, somewhere down South.
When I returned home between my summer sailings, I found that she’d randomly sawed legs off several living room chairs and thrown almost everything I owned out the back window of my garret bedroom. Crazed with blind anger I crashed down all the furniture in her bedroom, including my favorite, a magnificent mahogany rolltop desk.
The neighbors, hearing the chaos, called the cops. When a cop knocked, I tried to slough the whole thing off, shrugging a lot, but he asked the right questions, looked at the mess upstairs and insisted I call my mother.
Odd that I had her number, wherever she was. On the phone she was plastered and sounded like Madame X from Nutcase Island. She and Lord Fartbody had plowed their car into a ditch somewhere. Then the cop talked to her. When he heard that she was non compos he let it go, spending time just talking me down. A damned decent, caring guy. A good cop.
As Mom slithered across the country she sent letters to me and to Rod. She had never before mentioned anything sexual. In one letter to me she included details on how to excite a woman by raking your nails down her back. I wish I’d kept those letters because… well, background is everything.
Next she wandered to San Francisco, a few months before I railroaded West for abortive grad work at Stanford. The Earl of Schmuck was gone (hopefully run over by something heavy).
In my Menlo Park dorm room I got a call from Stanford Medical that they were holding my mother. I found her wide-eyed, totally fucked mentally, somebody I didn’t know or understand. They declared her acceptable for release, though she couldn’t walk without me supporting her. Those bastards kicked her into the street because she couldn’t pay.
She had an apartment in Palo Alto. I maneuvered her there and became the guardian of a demented, crapped-up woman – me, who had never had a clue how to deal with the world. I don’t know where her rent came from: She claimed she had a boyfriend, of whom she was proud, a minor crook who robbed booze warehouses in San Francisco. I never met him, though one time she came home as disheveled as a street whore and said he’d beaten her. Did he exist?
I bicycled in those days, something I’d never done before (terrible sense of balance) and have not done since. I rode the local paths along dry washouts wondering if I should just plow myself off a cliff. I couldn’t keep this up. I called my brothers and mewled that I wanted to leave, to come back “home” (though nowhere I’d lived since age six was home).
Leave her flat, they said. Come back, forget her.
How wrong were they, how wrong was I? We left a decaying human being, our mother, to her own down-spiraling devices. Rod and Vic were protecting their simplistic little brother (age 22) by signing off on someone who had done them major wrong. Maybe all three of us lacked that biological-connector gene.
Mom was institutionalized in San Francisco. She sent almost coherent letters to me in Philadelphia. In a weird, half-assed way she was happy there. But, like every other medical motherfucker, they didn’t want to deal with her, so they shipped her back to Philly – to Byberry, the city’s huge, infamous nut-tank.
The move destroyed what was left of her. When I visited her at Byberry, she had aged 25 years in 18 months, grown chin whiskers, her face half evaporated, shuffling in hospital dunce slippers.
I never went back.
The surface-skimming doctors there credited her obliteration to a side effect of her recent-years dive into alcohol. No, it was the same dementia that had devoured her mother and grandmother at roughly the same age.
In the summer of 1963 I took my sole trip to Europe. When I arrived back, I found a postcard from Byberry lying on the puke-green dining room table telling me that my mother had died. I read the card and said, “Oh.”
When I think about it, that’s still my sole reaction.
She was cremated. At her request, Vic scattered her ashes in the ocean.