Sunday, May 11, 2008

Without Her

This is the first Mother's Day since my mother's death. Clearly, I'm not the only one experiencing this.
Here's my mother at 86, a few weeks before she passed away. Stealing the show as she always did. Sorry, but for some peculiar reason, the movie's on its side.

Here's some of what I said at her funeral last August:

My mother had perfect pitch. She could hit a C flat or a D minor without any assistance from a tuning fork or piano key. It was a gift she was proud of, and one she used to great effect throughout her life.
During the war, she sang in the Women’s Army Corps, traveling to small towns in New England as part of an ensemble of musicians and performers who helped recruit other young women to serve in the WACs. In this small group of singers everyone was typecast. Mother’s role was probably determined by her wholesome good-looks. Apparently she wasn’t considered exotic enough to perform the sultry torch songs or to wail the blues. Her role, as she described it, was to be “the girl next door.” And sing the mainstream songs of that era. Show tunes, religious and patriotic hymns.
She got a taste of show business in those two years, and though she eventually turned to a quieter, domestic life back here in Hopkinsville, that entertainer’s spirit never really left her. As I paged through old photographs of her this week, I was struck by how many of them were taken as she was performing.
Over the years she sang in this sanctuary probably more than any other single place. I remember her belting out solos, her voice resonating in this big room. It made me feel special to have a mother who was a performer, though I know I also squirmed in my pew, worried that she’d mess up somehow. She never did.
In those photographs I looked at this week, there were pictures of her singing at events at the Village where she and Dad lived in their later years. There were pictures of her singing on cruise ships in front of small bands of men in shiny tuxedos. She sang at her fiftieth high school reunion. She wore sunglasses as she sang from the stage of a drive-in church in Daytona Beach. I heard her sing there one night at a Christmas service, sitting in the car with the little scratchy radio from the drive-in movie hanging on the driver’s window, and my father and I singing along to Mother’s beautiful voice. Even through that shabby speaker her voice soared above the others.
In those photos from the picture albums, I was struck by the fact that Mother’s mouth was almost always wide open. If she wasn’t singing she was hooting with laughter. More than likely she was joining in the laughter she herself had provoked. She was a joker, a story-teller, a funny woman who enjoyed entertaining others with humorous anecdotes. It was another way of exercising that perfect pitch. Another way of fulfilling one of her favorite roles, which was to be the life of the party.
I remember one night at Christmas, I was six, John was eight. The three of us were parked downtown on Christmas eve. We were waiting for Dad. He was on the second floor of the Holland building in the studios of the radio station pretending to be Santa Claus. As we sat there in in the cold car, listening to him on the radio ho-ho-hoing, the last minute Christmas shoppers were hurrying along the sidewalk. Mother had something to say about every single one of them. Whether they were strangers or old friends, she would make some observation about their clothes, or their stride, or the size of their ears, a hat they were wearing. Something funny, not catty exactly, but accurate and incisive, and very observant. She had a quick mind, a funny, oddball sense of humor. I don’t know why I remember this moment apart from all the others. Maybe it was because the three of us were trapped together in an unusual circumstance, and Mother fell naturally into the role of entertainer. Dad was on the radio being Santa Claus, and during the commericials Mother was in the front seat being witty and observant.
Her perfect pitch extended to parenting moments as well. She could outsmart my brother and me with ease, skewer us with language. We never won an argument. Not once. And when we came to her for advice, for wise counsel or emotional support, we usually got more than we bargained for. There was a moment I remember vividly. I was thirteen or fourteen, a budding adolescent, full of insecurities, and just starting to notice girls. I interrupted her in the middle of housework and asked a simple question:
“Am I okay looking?” It was an important question to me, a crucial one in my psychological evolution. A lot was on the line. She stopped what she was doing and looked at me. She paused for a very long time as though she was noticing me for the first time. It’s pauses like those which make psychotherapists wealthy.
That pause was not what I was looking for. I wanted some immediate reassurance, some automatic response. Yes, of course, you’re a very handsome young man. Something like that. But what I got was a pause, a long theatrical pause.
Then she said, “There’s more to life than looks.”
It was pitch perfect lines like those that Mother could deliver again and again. Little coded puzzles that I would carry back to my bedroom to try to unravel. “What did she mean?” For years when I blamed Mother for all my woes, I’d circle back to moments like this and use them as evidence against her. She was trying to undermine my confidence. She was cutting me down.
It took a while, but finally when I came to peace with her, forgave her for all the slights I thought she’d done to me, I saw the gift of that remark and so many others. “There’s more to life to looks.” Of course she was right. It was something she knew, a piece of wisdom she wanted to share. But more than that it was language that was dense with meaning. She was saying one thing and meaning something else. It was ironic. As I came gradually to understand, it was also the language of poetry and literature. All those hours that I spent trying to decode her meanings shaped me, gave me an appreciation for the subtlties and possibilties of language. Maybe it was not the perfect thing to say to a vulnerable adolescent, but it was one of Mother’s gifts—putting that delicious ironic spin on things.
It’s impossible to talk about Mother’s life without mentioning my father. The two of them were interconnected for most of their lives. When they were kids, ten, eleven years old, they lived less than a block apart and would sneak out of their bedrooms at night so they could meet up and talk. A courtship and relationship that lasted over 65 years. I remember a particular night when I was six or seven, living in a house on 20th Street adjacent to the houses where dad and mother snuck out of their bedrooms. The phone rang one night and I answered it and a man asked to speak to Noble.
I told him there was no one there by that name and hung up. When dad asked me who was on the phone, I told him it was someone asking for Noble. Dad was upset. It might have been a potential buyer looking for a house he had listed. That hang-up could have cost our family money. It took a minute or two for Dad to figure out my mistake. Somehow I’d come to believe that my mother and father shared a common name. I’d heard it a hundred times. It’s the way people always referred to them Anneandnoble.
Though I’d gotten it wrong back then, in an accidental way I’d gotten it right. Those two were intertwined. He was the quiet, reserved one, she was outgoing and demonstrative. He was her lifetime audience, she was his lifetime star.
One Thanksgiving Mother and Dad came to visit Evelyn and me in Miami. We had big dogs then, a great dane and a lab. And Mother and Dad made a fuss over them. They both loved dogs. It was Evelyn’s first Thanksgiving with my parents and she’d gone to a lot of work preparing the turkey and the rest of the feast. The turkey was cooling off in the kitchen and we were finishing hors d’ouvers out on the sunny patio. Mother excused herself and went into the house and came back in just a minute. She stood in the doorway and said, “Is the dog supposed to have the turkey?”
Our great dane had helped herself to the turkey that was on the counter, pulling off a leg and was devouring it in the middle of the kitchen.
“Is the dog supposed to have the turkey?” In that question there was the suggestion that maybe we did things differently in Miami, at our house. Maybe, just maybe, the dog was supposed to have the turkey. Saying one thing and meaning something else. Another of her pitch perfect moments.
One last anecdote and I’ll stop. Back in June this year, around her birthday, most of our family assembled over in Owesnsboro to have a reunion. There was also a mystery conference going on, and I was one of the guest speakers. As Mother and I walked into an event where I was going to talk, she asked me, “Do you ever get nervous at these things? That’s a big audience in there?”
I assured her that I didn’t get nervous. I did these events all the time.
She paused a second then she said, “Have you ever been booed off the stage?”
Now my younger self might have bristled at the remark. She was trying to instill fear in me, trip me up. Undermine my confidence—more work for my therapist. But after all these years, I was finally onto her. She wore that harmless, ironic smile as she spoke the words. On some level she was asking me a real question—entertainer to entertainer. Has the worst ever happened to you?
I said no, I’d never been booed off the stage.
And Mother said, “Well, today could be the day.”
It seems only fair to let Mother have the last word. She usually got it in real life. And since she’s still the life of the party, even this party, I know she’d want to entertain you.
Last month I recorded her at that family reunion. We were having a dinner party get-together one night, and in the place where we were gathered, there was a baby grand piano in one corner of the room. It didn’t take much coaxing to get Mother to sit down. This was around her birthday, her eighty-sixth birthday. Her fingers were crabbed up with arthritis, her vocal chords a bit out of shape, but she pulled herself up to that keyboard, and with a flourish, the girl next door sang a little bit of the blues. Entertaining us all for one last time.


Anonymous said...

What a beautiful tribute on Mother's Day! I especially loved the quote, "Is the dog supposed to have the turkey?"

ZenballWizard said...

I do so know where you're coming from!

Not the Easiest Mother’s Day