The summer of 2006 was the second brutally hot summer in a row in New York City. I got married on the day Argentina was eliminated from the World Cup. (This may have been an omen. My marriage was over by the next World Cup.) Our original plan was to spend a week at an all-inclusive resort for couples in the Caribbean. We started booking rooms and then realized it was the worst idea ever. Neither of us functioned very well in the heat, and my groom’s obsessive compulsive disorder spiked at the mere thought of booking a Caribbean hotel during hurricane season. Between my Dutch/Eastern European Jewish pallor and his Irish be-freckled translucence, we realized we’d run a strong risk of giving the other resort-goers snow blindness.
Instead, we opted for a road trip so my fella could get to know the Midwest. He wanted to see where I grew up and meet the people who helped shape me. We chose to drive in a rented car from New York to Chicago, with stops in all the towns and cities on the way with any significance. From Chicago we flew to San Francisco to freeze our tooshies off for an arctic August week.
In the Detroit area, we planned to have dinner with Tom and Dean, the neighbors who raised me while my mother was busy entertaining her mental illness. They were my nurturers and care givers, and went to all my high school shows, even though I was the stage manager. They suffered a martyrdom of choir concerts. At dinner, they got to know my new husband, and it was clear they adored him. He started asking them about my mother.
My husband, who I’ll call Brogan, knew just enough stories about my mother to have a hearty dislike for her. He knew she threw me out of the house when I was 11 years old. He knew she came to my wedding three weeks after she “disowned” me (as if she had a legacy) for calling an ambulance when she passed out on the phone with extremely low blood sugar. He knew my mother was essentially my obligation in life, and that I would do the right thing by her no matter how annoyed I may feel at the injustice of it. Since all of this rankled him, I didn’t share very many additional stories about her. I figured it sufficed to say that Tom and Dean taught me about unconditional love and therefore saved my emotional life. He felt the urge to take advantage of the situation for some more information.
Brogan asked Tom and Dean what it was that made me so tight-lipped about my mother. Dean glanced at me for permission, and I granted it. After all, we had plans after dinner to meet my diabetic mother for ice cream (at her invitation). Dean answered first. He said, “Well, you see, Ethel used to be a dancer. But those days are long gone. She sometimes wears… I suppose they’re culottes, but they’re very, very short culottes. Let’s just say that, even if I were straight, I wouldn’t want to see what sits across from me on that low couch.” He gave a shudder. Brogan looked at me, slightly horrified. I nodded.
Tom continued, “Yes. It’s true. And then there’s the general upkeep. Her makeup is getting more haphazard as the years go on. Goodness, I can’t remember the last time I saw her without teased hair.” Dean helped him out this time by asking if it was really prudent to use so much pastel green and blue eye shadow. Brogan nodded, no doubt remembering how my mother looked at our wedding. (He didn’t realize it then, but that was a good self-grooming day for my mother.)
I chimed in last. “And there’s always that moment in conversation when she blurts out something extremely inappropriate, and there’s a pregnant pause while the listener tries to figure out how to proceed. She didn’t just say the “n” word, did she? Holy crap. She totally said the “n” word. How do I continue this conversation?” Tom and Dean nodded and laughed knowingly. Brogan suddenly realized why my cousins formed a protective cocoon around my mother at the wedding. It wasn’t to protect my mother from my father, but to protect my in-laws from her inappropriate outbursts.
We finished dinner and talked for ages. It was great to see Brogan get along with the men who raised me. Then we headed off for ice cream with my mother. We arrived before she did, so we stood in the line, which snaked out the door and all the way to the street.
We spied my mother getting out of her car in the parking lot. She wore groin-length, white culottes and a threadbare T-shirt with a whole or two. Brogan whispered in my ear that he was happy she dressed up for the occasion. Then she stepped into the circle of light from the street lamp under which we stood. We saw the baby-blue eye shadow that was more-or-less on her lids and the un-smoothed splotches of blush on her cheekbones. While Brogan squeezed my hand and recoiled, I reflected silently on the fact that I regularly saw women apply makeup on a moving subway car, but never with such disastrous results. It was as if her entire face was assembled by a machine that was slightly misaligned. Every feature was about a quarter-inch away from where it should be, and it was unsettling. Brogan mumbled something about our conversation with Tom and Dean as she approached.
We bought our ice cream and settled onto the benches. We talked about my first year of teaching, how weird it was to be back in my home town, and what was going on in my mother’s condo complex. Then my mother loudly proclaimed that now the “n*#%$@s” had moved out but the “ay-rabs” had moved into the complex. She proclaimed that the property value was plummeting as a result. Brogan stared at her, slack-jawed. I could hear the gears in his head cranking. While not a lover of political correctness himself, he suddenly understood why nothing he ever said could possibly surprise me. He was not used to being around people who would use such terms.
I gently told my mother, “now, Mom. I’m sure you know that I dated a delightful Muslim man from Lebanon for a year before I moved. He was a math and physics professor at State. What a delightful, honorable man! I don’t appreciate you using words like that about him.” I did this more for Brogan’s benefit than for my own. If on my own with my mother, I would probably let the silence hang in the air until she realized she needed to start a new conversation. She responded, “Well, that’s your stupidity, not mine.”
Brogan stared at my mother, then at me, then at my mother again. I smiled at him and continued to eat my ice cream while my mother stewed and bubbled with anger. I put a hand on his knee and asked him to get me a napkin from inside the ice cream parlor. He needed a time out, and I had a feeling he’d say something that would feed my mother’s rant.
All the way to the hotel that night, he puzzled over my lack of surprise at my mother’s comments and my lack of outrage at her inflammatory speech. I eventually reminded him that I had three decades of a head start feeling outrage and embarrassment at my mother’s words and deeds. By now, I recognized that my mother was my responsibility in life. I was, in many ways, her keeper. If I fought every battle, I’d be exhausted and angry. It was much easier to accept that the universe gave me Tom and Dean for love and nurturing, and then gave me my mother for a tough skin and pragmatism. While I’ve certainly shaken my fist at the universe for taking away my childhood, I’ve also thanked my lucky stars for putting people in my way to keep my compassion alive and steer me away from bitterness.