My mother died.
This is an event that all like myself, slipping into our 6th decade of life on earth, cannot escape. But for me there opened a vunerability I had been fearing since the rest of my family was already gone, my two brothers and father. Mother Nature, I have concluded, rules in random: the Reaper, I just don’t know.
She was born back in 1920, Chicago, Illinois, to a couple with an age gap of 19 years. Her father was a member of the dapper-dandy crowd, high-collared suits and spats, her mother still officially a teenager, and they lived comfortably until the ’29 crash when my grandfather’s socio-economic backdrop simply vanished. A move to an upstairs apartment in a racially-mixed neighborhood came down hard on my mother’s assumptions. With just two bedrooms for a family of four, the times set the rules and my mother was forced to bed with her own. Oral details were always sparse, (“Oh, I don’t want to talk of sad memories. Give me just the happy, happy.) but something has led me to believe that her single goal from those days forward was to get out.
She had her fair share of suitors but her choice was a University of Michigan graduate in Engineering who happened to have one eye made of glass since a teenage accident and came from, literally and figuratively, ‘the other side of town.’ That grandfather built his own business and its success and subsequent sale carried the patricial side of my family comfortably to its end. My father’s mother lived to 106, my mother’s mother, however, slipped into a final coma after a stroke at the age of 77. Comparisons, sociologists now tell us, are pointless.
Because my father’s career often involved transfers, he moved his family to a small town in central New York state and small towns, I have since decided, will never evolve to anything more than small towns: everyone knows a little too much about everyone else. So it was there that I remember overhearing someone or two say that my mother was “quite the social climber.” The gossip didn’t sit well with her three children approaching young adulthood in The Age of Aquarius; I do remember she had a mink jacket that I refused to inherit and that angered her for a time. But she had the life she knew the best to be expected, so even the shadows cast from my father’s clinically diagnosed manic-depression and its often frightening treatment did not cancel a single scheduled dinner party. Alcohol was certainly a facilitator. Back then, “drunk” was funny.
She decided to trade the housewife routine for the working woman when I was sixteen, the last of the children still at home. It was that move, prompted by other women in whatever club she patronized at the time, that tempered my mother’s future. She and her like built the doorframe through which the Women’s Movement subsequently passed, maybe my own mother wanting to huddle with the most aggressive, the Abzugs and Steinhems: she quarreled with Buckley through a television screen as if she were that week’s guest. Liberal…registered Democrat….free from real want, yet with memories enough to empathize with those who weren’t.
My parents retired in southern California, which back in the 1970s competed with confidence against Arizona and Florida for the beneficiaries of guaranteed pensions and government insurance. What they were told they earned, they got: 20 years of sunshine, preferred only activities, and what I have come to call and simultaneously dismiss as “surface thought.”
And yet when I was driving back from The Neptune Society’s Portland, Oregon location with my mother’s remains settling in an urn within a corrugated box, I kept disciplining a pang of envy. Even though the last year and a half of her life she was betrayed by illness and Medicare’s perfunctory answer to that illness, it was I who felt cheated. And now very afraid.
“Wait up, Mom. I’ve decided I want that mink jacket after all.”