Monday, December 7, 2009

A Page Out of Vogue [July 14, 2007]]

One day in my ninth year, when we lived in a cramped apartment just north of Los Angeles International Airport, my mother had a doctor’s appointment that precluded her being there when I came home from school for lunch. However lackadaisical she was about dinner, which typically comprised a piece of heated up frozen fried fish, some heated up frozen vegetables, and a baked potato, she spared no effort on her handsome, precocious, fiercely self-loathing little boy’s school lunches. Other kids would get a slice of vile supermarket lunch meat — Oscar Meyer bologna or something — between two pieces of gummy white Wonder bread. I, on the other hand, would have a huge thick sandwich, an inch of delicatessen cold cuts between two pieces of delicious fresh rye bread from an actual bakery.

This day in my ninth year was no exception. My mom had made me a really nice lunch, and lovingly laid it out for me on our tiny dining table around a note reminding me that she loved me. But I never saw the note, as I didn’t eat at the table, but came into the empty apartment only long enough to grab my lunch and then run back out again, for fear of there being someone lurking within, waiting to hurt or abduct me.

My first memories are of my mother encouraging me to hide under my crib while she went in for a shower. Hide from whom? From the same people who’d have stolen me from the little apartment on Manchester Blvd. in 1955 if I’d tried to eat my sandwich at the table with the note on it.
I knew from the moment I was old enough to know anything that my mother adored me. But I knew from a millisecond after that the world was a terrifying place.

She hadn’t intended to teach me to view the world with her own immobilising trepidation. But she hadn’t tried very hard, it occurred to me in my forties, to teach me otherwise, and God, did I come to hate her for it, and for a thousand other things, none more than the way she made me her mouthpiece, a conduit of her inexhaustible contempt for my dad. We’d actually been very close, my mom and I, before my dad’s death; she’d nearly single-handedly got me through the loss of the first major love of my adulthood, had always been enormously proud of me. But the realisation of how she’d taught me to disdain him at best and to revile him mercilessly at worst made it impossible for me to continue loving her. As I’ve admitted before in these pages, I took to treating her exactly as she’d treated him. He wasn’t around to feel vindicated, though, and I essentially wound up losing both of them — and gaining a sense of myself as one capable of the most unspeakable cruelty.

A couple of years ago, I began to pray each night after getting into bed. I don’t know if God hears me. I do it because I hear myself. Up until a couple of months ago, I would tell my mother, whom Alzehimer’s essentially erased around seven years ago, as part of my nightly prayer that I forgave her.

Kind, charitable me.

I’m no longer conferring forgiveness now, but pleading for it.
Two months ago I told my wife Claire I wouldn’t be going to America to see my mother in spite of her having been diagnosed, at 87, with two kinds of cancer. My mom wouldn’t know I was there anyway, and what did I have to say to the person in the world, other than myself, most responsible for my depressiveness — the person responsible for teaching me, intentionally or otherwise, that the world is terrifying and that I’m weak and that my dad doesn’t love me and that loneliness and despair are the natural order of things?

One month ago, I did go to see her, this woman who was celebrated in her high school yearbook for “always looking like a page out of Vogue,” who always had excellent — and very conservative — taste. Dyed hair was for others, as too were painted fingernails. And the first thing I notice, after I noticed that she has one foot in this world and one in the next, is that they’ve painted her fingernails a gaudy pink. I’d wondered if I’d be able to manage tears at the sight of her. The question became whether I’d be able to stop them.

She never looked at me, never showed any sign of knowing I was there. But if she was incapable of response, maybe there was a part of her that could hear me. I talked to her, for reasons I don’t know, about the hair oil, Dusharme, she used to put in my extremely black hair when I was a handsome little boy, a walking testament to her good taste. I didn’t talk about how I’d come to be oppressed by her good taste — about how, at around the time I wasn’t seeing the sweet note she’d left on the table with my lunch, I’d have done anything to be allowed to wear the blue jeans and black shoes that every other boy in my school wore, rather than the beige denim trousers and brown loafers she (correctly) regarded as more tasteful.

I talked to her about the bolognese sauce she would make every six months or so. Hundreds of nights of warmed frozen fish and undercooked baked potatoes would be forgotten as the perfume of her sauce filled the house. I’d be beside myself for hours looking forward to the moment when she’d finally pronounce the sauce adequately simmered, and would pour some over big plates of pasta. I swoon 50 years later at the memory of it. Nothing I have ever eaten or will ever eat has been or will be more delicious.

I told her she’d be with God soon (scoff as you must, but 'll be with Him/Her too, and so will you), and that I hoped God knew what He-and-She was in for. “No one on earth has ever been able to change your mind about anything,” I whispered to her, “so I don’t see why God should expect any different.” My mother excelled at self-effacement, often so harsh as to embarrass those who witnessed it. She’d have laughed at that with me. We had some unforgettable laughs -- screaming, gasping, tears-running-down-the-face, nearly-hyperventilating ones -- together, my mom and I, as I later had with my daughter Brigitte. I wonder if, when I'm in the state my mom's in as I write this, if my daughter will remember those laughs -- and, indeed, if she'll have yet resumed speaking to me.

And fhe fact is that somebody did change Audrey Louise Kaufman Mendelsohn's mind about something once. I was 19, and not going to be told how to present myself anymore. She claimed all she had against my growing my hair long, as my new idols wore their own, was that I was making things hard for myself; our family doctor, for one — depicted on his office walls shaking hands with the likes of Ronald Reagan — wasn’t so sure he wanted the dedicatedly disreputable-looking likes of me as a patient. But fair was fair. Had I, in being the only boy in my class in beige and brown, and thus very conspicuous at a time when I wanted desperately to fit in, not paid a very high price for her impeccable taste? I said if my self-expression were so objectionable, maybe I shouldn't visit her and my dad anymore. She actually capitulated.

And now we wait for her to die. Both my sister and I have made plans for the money we’ll both inherit — money that’s there in considerable part because my parents could no more have spent any on their own pleasure than opened a successful breakdancing school. I feel enormously guilty about inheriting it — and will snatch at eagerly because, unlike my dad, who was something like 35 years with Hughes Aircraft, the longest I ever lasted at a job was 36 months, and I need the money. My sister has even laid plans to get Goodwill to come and collect my mom’s furniture on the day of her passing to preclude Sunrise Senior Living billing us for an extra day.

It’s ghoulish, and my parents would almost certainly be proud of her being practical and thrifty.

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