In trying to best recall my mother as a young woman, I’m more than a little distracted by my last memory of seeing her. She was laying on a convertible hospital gurney with her mouth open and her eyes out of focus. She was on hospice and easily confused. She spoke with labored effort when she was able to even complete her thoughts—but my mother as a young woman was a force to reckon with. She turned 30 the year I was born and was a few years older than most of my friends’ moms.
My friends considered my mother domineering and didn’t like to come to our house to play since mom demonstrated an overly protective interference that made playmates uncomfortable. “What are you kids doing in there” she’d bellow if my bedroom door was closed. Generally speaking, we were up to nothing worse than a clutter of toys and art supplies but her concern made me feel like I lived in a fishbowl.
“I won’t have you making any messes in this house” was another frequent complaint. Other kid’s moms seemed to roll with the punches, while my mother was continually convinced there was something wrong with my playmates by referring to them as “bad influences.” She’d always been a perpetual worrier. Mom was happiest with me when I was practicing the piano or doing homework. I loved playing the piano. I was never genuinely all that good at it, but I made up for my lack of skill by playing louder than required. That meant even if my mother was doing laundry in the basement she knew what I was up to and was assured that my hands weren’t messing up her perpetually “straightened-up” house. She never liked anything out of place.
Our grandmother lived with us while we were still in the old Victorian double-house on Second Street. When we moved to the ‘L’-shaped’ rancher on a lake-lot in a new suburban development called “Valley Stream,” my grandmother had just begun to fail. In hindsight, a lot of my mother’s tensions and crabbiness could probably be traced to the heart-wrenching task of taking care of her elderly mother. My mom was one of seven surviving siblings, several of whom were far more affluent than my parents, but Grandma Nanny lived with us.
Mom cemptied bedpans and administered medicines, changed soiled sheets and bore the brunt of the burden. Dad was always on the road for business, so she was effectively going it alone. I was about 11 or 12 at the time, and as useless as any other prepubescent adolescent. My mother’s sisters were continually critical of how mom took care of Nanny but you didn’t see any of them stepping forward to help either. They criticized my mother unmercifully when a decision was made to put Grandma Nanny into a nursing home—still, there wasn’t a ‘show of hands’ when it came to taking Nanny into their own homes.
My mother’s back had gone out several times lifting Nanny—and so it became too much for her. Dad traveled, and my brother was college-age by this point (there’s eight and one half years between us). And I was young, unfocused and of little substantial help.
The way I got my own bedroom was a result of my grandmother being placed in a nursing home and dying shortly thereafter. I felt guilty about how I had come by my own room, but I was glad to have the room nevertheless. I painted it colors my mother didn’t care for and I trash-picked chairs and cool junk from the curb to fill my room which my mother viewed as socially embarrassing. I also COVERED the walls with movie posters, which were an endless source of contention. My mother claimed all those pushpin holes in the drywall would be impossible to cover-over and might affect the value of the house if we ever were to sell. My mother eventually won the decorations battle of my room, painting it ‘soft earth-tones’ and filling it with traditional Windsor chairs with hooked seat-covers depicting American eagles and other patriotic ‘faux’ colonial themes.
There was a Wedgwood blue chenille bedspread and a slant-top clerk’s desk topped by a reproduction light designed to look as if it had once been a whale-oil hurricane lamp. Below my window-wall was placed an antique spinning wheel converted into a philodendron planter which mom dutifully watered.
Now the door to my room could be left open when we had company, but it wasn’t really mine anymore. I just slept there, and got scolded if I left underwear and socks on the floor.
I had a sizable collection of movie posters and still-frame production photos from classic motion pictures. I’d gotten them from an old gentleman named Reds who worked for The National Screen Advertising Service. Thinking back, I suspect my parents viewed Reds as a potential molestation risk. I already had a history of experimentation with other little boys. I still think Reds was harmless, in spite of him being an effeminate sort of man. He gave me tons of stuff from classic films like ‘Casablanca‘, ‘Gone With the Wind’ and ‘To Catch a Thief’. Reds never touched me inappropriately but my dad insisted on going with me one time after Reds had called the house to tell me he had more posters he wanted me to have. Dad had answered the phone.
After that visit to collect the posters, I was told not to have anything more to do with Reds. He and my dad had a private conversation while I sat in the car admiring my prized ‘Breakfast at Tiffanys’ posters and stills. The posters sat in drawers where I would take them out only to look at them—then fold them-up and put them away again. Some were rolled in tubes. With my bedroom ‘faux-colonialized’ to my mother’s own tastes, I insisted on being given a small, unfinished section of basement to make-over into my own“MAN-CAVE”. We had 2 pianos in the house, the maple spinet in the living room and an old turn-of-the-century golden oak upright in the basement. My dad had gotten a deal on a Victorian pool table, and the fancy old upright piano was thrown-in with the deal. That was all part of my Dad’s and brother’s ‘Man Cave’. They had shuffleboard, a punching bag and all sorts of butch-stuff which didn’t interest me. However I LOVED the old upright piano.
I put thumbtacks in all the felt-hammers so when they struck the strings the piano had a tinny, old-fashioned sound. My childhood friend Luther and I used to show 8mm silent movies in the basement while I accompanied with honky-tonk piano. We’d charge the other kids a nickel a head. Ragtime was the only kind of piano music that I ever came close to mastering.
One section of the basement was my dad’s table saw and tools. Another section was the washer and drier with the utility sink (where I often raised baby ducks I’d bought / slash / rescued) from the Franklin Five and Dime on Main Street. I kept these little birds alive to the best of my abilities waiting for the disturbing lavender Easter egg die to wear-off or drop-out with the new coat of feathers. Once they got their white feathers, I’d set them free on the bank of the lake that defined the end of our property line.
Our first encounter with baby ducks didn’t go so well. They smelled-up the house, and my mother, Betty, insisted I wash the little birds with Fels-Naptha soap and set them loose in the lake at once. They all sank to the bottom and drowned except for 2 which I was able to fish out from under the waters and save. Neither Betty nor I realized ducks secrete a waxy-oil that allows them to be buoyant. I hated Betty for making me do that and kept the rescued ducks in a large tub within a pen in the basement, from which they learned to escape, often chasing Betty from pillar to post when she tried to do the laundry. (I wonder if ducks hold a grudge?). I purchased Easter ducks other seasons that followed—and while Betty still continued to complain, she never made me wash any of them ever after that.
Per usual, I’ve wandered off the track…
…I started to talk about my adolescent “Man Cave.” There was one small unclaimed, unfinished section of the basement with no windows. I collected old pillows and sofa-cushions from trash-night to toss around on the floor. I taped-up my posters all over the walls, and found an old shelving unit (also from the trash) to display my favorite sentimental toys. As the years melted into the mid-1960s I cordoned-off the room with HUGE free-standing cardboard movie displays thrown out from behind the local movie theater—but you had to be fast because other kids wanted them too. I started adding beaded curtains and fluorescent posters for ‘peace and love’ illuminated with a black-light—eventually burning incense which I‘d heard was a cool thing to do. That really set Betty ‘off‘. If I was burning incense then I must be smoking pot, which I wasn’t. But if I was going to be punished for something I wasn’t doing, then I figured I might as well go ahead and give it a try. After all, I was paid-forward on punishments front. So I started hanging out at the church annex where the kids really WERE smoking pot. Mom was delighted that I was spending more time at church.
One day after an extended time ignoring the space, I noticed all my toys were gone. Mom had given them away to the Salvation Army. After a strenuous argument about the posters, which my mother considered unsightly and a fire-hazard, I was pressured into getting rid of them. Easily defeated, I called friends and let them take whatever they wanted. I’ve since seen some of my old toys AND vintage movie posters on ‘Antiques Road Show.’’ Perhaps not the very same ones—but their duplicates. Prior to the most recent economic crash, if I still had that collection to sell on eBay, I could have paid-off the house I’m living-in.
It wasn’t pressure however, or giving away posters that brought-down my‘Man Cave’. It was a virulent hurricane that caused lake water to back-up into our basement. I can’t for the life of me remember the name of that storm, ‘Donna’ perhaps, but it was back when hurricanes always had female names.
Brother Bob was away either at college or post-grad (I forget). Dad was still traveling for business. So mom and I had to unhook all the appliances, turn off the electrical and put whatever we could lift onto sawhorses and makeshift high ground. There were countless trips up and down the stairs relocating things to higher ground. In no time we had close to a foot of water in the basement. The veneer on the Victorian pool table started to peel and some of the applied carvings were floating on the surface. Betty, in total hysteria, was running around like a wild-woman with a saucepan in hand ‘bailing’ water out an open window. This effort, in my eyes, was beyond useless and against all logical odds, but she was a woman possessed. I flatly refused to participate in her futile exercise and sat myself down at the old tinny upright piano and started to play and play and play…
I began with “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” and worked my way up to “Maple Leaf Rag”. All I could think was; tomorrow my favorite trusty old piano was going to have a warped sounding-board and rotting inner pedal mechanisms. So with pant legs rolled up to my knees, I continued to sit there and play every piece I’d ever committed to memory, like honoring a treasured old friend, giving the instrument a stylish send-off in the moments before it would go silent forever.
I ignored Betty’s desperate pleas for me to assist her in the ridiculous effort to hand-bailout a foot of water (and rising) as the wind and rain pounded down all around our “L” shaped rancher on a lake lot. Betty’s face reddened with rage and the veins at her temples started throbbing with frustration. My mother reached deep down inside herself to find the harshest criticism she could conceivably hurl my way, and said: “YOU… YOU… YOU… YOU’RE no better than NERO…!!!”, she flared.
“Nero was the fat one who played the fiddle while Rome burned”, I laughed, “And you’re on the Titanic trying to bail-out with a saucepan.“ I started to laugh so hard; I had to stop playing, when the opening chords of “Nearer My God to Thee“ fell from my fingertips. The more I laughed, the more bewildered Betty became, until she started to laugh too. We laughed together ‘til we both nearly cried. “Shut-up and shove-over you traitor, you!” she said as she joined me on the piano bench. She played the treble while I played the base in the best rendition of ‘Heart and Soul’ ever performed with no one but the two of us listening. We did a duet of ‘Peg ‘O My Heart’ and transitioned into an improvisational boogie-woogie—and ended our jam only when the piano itself began to choke and jam. We forced out a few chords now missing notes, and played and laughed until the water reached the cushion of the piano bench giving us both soggy-bottoms.
In triumph and defeat we retreated upstairs to higher, dryer ground. My mother, reacting in the way she always eventually did, burst out into tears, and I comforted her. I closed the basement door. The house was gonna stink for months.
That last weekend I sat by my mother’s rolling-cot in the nursing home, trying to decide what I would write about in my recollections of her as a younger woman. I studied her aged features as she lay there with her mouth open like one of my long-gone baby ducks. Her eyes were nearly glued shut by the secretions forever needing wiping from her eyes. It was very difficult to understand her tiny-little voice—once booming, it had softened as she lost strength—to little more than a squeak and a whisper. She was moving her mouth, and I bent in closer to hear what she was trying to say. “I love you so much” she said. “I think you’re beautiful.”