Years ago a friend said to me, “You know, I always thought your mother’s first name was ‘For Christ’s sake, Mother.’ It’s what you always say to her.”
“It’s because whatever she says to me, I have to answer that way.”
“The zingers?” my friend asked.
“Yeah, the zingers. My mother is a total noodge. Funny, but a noodge.”
After college, I had to move back home, having no money to be elsewhere. When’ ever I was out at night, on a date or with friends, I’d drive up our steep driveway and see a cigarette burning in the window, at’ tached to my mother’s hand. Waiting for me.
I’d come in at midnight, or one, or two. There she was. “For Christ’s sake, Mother,” I’d say. She’d take a deep drag on her filtered Lucky Strike and say, “So, what’s the scuttlebutt?”
She was a buddy to all of my friends, our kitchen a place of refuge for them.
“You don’t have to get old,” she’d tell me, “if you have friends of all ages. Swap- ping stories, telling and listening, is a big secret to life. Do you have to be dead if you’re 50?”
“Good question,” I thought, even though 50 then seemed like the end of the line.
Every family is a soap opera. I know people who haven’t spoken to their mother in years, and others who speak to their mother multiple times a day. One friend, conditioned to hold daily conversations, once got so busy with her two small children that it ! was impossible to call her mother. The next morning, she rang her mom. Many rings. Finally, her mother answered in a chilly tone. “Hi, Mom, it’s me,” my friend said. Si- | lence. Then her mother said, “Hello, j stranger.”
“It’s always the ice pick in the heart,” my i friend added.
Growing up, the only thing that was mandatory for boys to fight about was insults to one’s mother. My friend Zeke had a famous fight, for two hours, on our dusty school playground in the eighth grade— because of a slur on his mother. “Your dad is a schmuck,” was an insult that could be passed over, a quip thrown back. But diss- ; ing mom was a fighting offense.
Our daughter discovered a diary of my mother’s, kept while she was in high school in the late 1920s, the golden age in America for sports, literature and the arts. One of my “flapper” mom’s entries included this: “More snow than you can possibly believe; drifts up to my chest. The boys and Pa put the chains on the Oldsmobile and off we went to school. We stopped many times to pick up kids walking and we ended up with 12 in the car, everyone jammed up to the roof, and all of us eventually singing songs like ‘Tea for Two’ and ‘It Had to Be You’ at the top of our lungs, with Pa singing louder than anyone. He’s a tenor.”
You’re a lucky man if you have strong female role models—women who love you but aren’t afraid to tell you, as you grow up, that you’re an idiot. My Aunt Marcia was highly opinionated, a “liberated” woman before the term was invented who used words like “nobby” to signify “great.” She taught me at an early age about the Impressionist painters, particularly Claude Monet, and her lifelong ambition was to visit his garden in Giverny. When I was in college, I’d have Aunt Marcia over for dinner because she was so fascinating to me and my roommates. She sounded like a European countess, which is what one of my roommates called her. “Countess,” he said, when she told us that every young person should live abroad for a while, “Pm going to find a rich South American student whose daddy will give me a job down there.”
“A nobby idea,” she replied. “And when it happens, introduce me to the daddy.” Aunt Marcia, years later, did get to visit Monet’s garden, arriving at closing time after a horrendous drive from Paris. A guard told her, “Ferme, Madame. Closed.” “Like hell it is,” she said, and plowed through Monet’s house into the gardens, with several guards in pursuit. The director had to be called. In French she told him, “Monet would never allow a woman who adores him to be turned away from his garden. He would want to paint me.”
“You had a long drive, Madame.”
“One suffers to view beauty.”
“Very French,” he said to her. “Allow me to give you a tour.”
My mother and Aunt Marcia were best friends and railed together at what they thought were the declining levels of taste in America. At my mother’s funeral, her and my father’s special song was played, Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.” Aunt Marcia was big on the right send-offs in life. So am I. “How was it?” I asked about the service, wanting it to be perfect. “She was a character,” Aunt Marcia said, “and they sure don’t write songs like that anymore.”