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Remembering Gertrude–a reader


When she was younger, my mother, Gertrude, had a vivid imagination. For example, she took me to the park one day to feed the pigeons. I couldn’t have been more than three or four. I asked her why the birds were so afraid of us, who certainly meant them no harm. This is what she said.

“A long time ago, Steve, the birds weren’t afraid of people. People were kind and harmless. The birds and the people played together and had a wonderful time. But one day, there was a very mean man, and he hurt the birds. Ever since, the birds have been afraid of people. They don’t want to get hurt again.”

It was a touching story, and it involved a lot of themes that a little boy could understand and relate to: trust, fear, pain, hope, betrayal, friendship. I think she made it up on the spot. I don’t know where Gertrude got that spark of creative imagination. Maybe it was from her Southern upbringing, maybe from her reading. She read a great deal of fiction; even now, I can visualize her at night, curled up in her big, stuffed green armchair, her legs tucked under her, a novel in her lap. My sister, a judgmental shrew, often criticized my mother for her “escapism.” According to this theory, Gertrude could not embrace or deal with her real life, which she hated, so she retreated into a fantasy land of pretend. I thought this was harsh, although coming from my sister, a bitter woman who hated our mother, it was hardly surprising.

Yet as my mother aged, her imagination dwindled. I never again heard her make up a story, or show any evidence of an artistic inner life. By her 40s, she had lost that capability of fantasy. Nobody encouraged her, least of all the culture of the 1950s and 1960s, which mandated that women be “barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen.” Life was not kind to Gertrude; her marriage was in many respects not the success she’d hoped for, and she was stuck in a tenement in the South Bronx, a building with peeling paint and cockroaches, with increasing street crime all around. Gertrude may have decided that an inner life was hardly the antidote to her problems, a luxury she couldn’t afford. She needed all her strength to deal with reality, so she got down to the business of surviving.

My mother, who died in 2005 at the age of 90, would have made a good writer, poet, or painter. But although she encouraged these creative practices in me (I went to a high school that specialized in the arts), she herself seemed resigned to a dreary, routine existence. Had she been born ten or twenty years later, she might have pursued an exciting career. She might have gone into politics, always a passion for her. But these are coulda-woulda-shouldas. She did none of these things.

Was her fable about the mean man who hurt the birds really about herself? Someone or something had hurt her, and maybe when she lost her trust, she also lost the creativity of her youth. I’m getting in over my head here, but I think Gertrude sacrificed her imagination because it revealed paths she knew were closed to her. It’s easier not to see the possibilities, than to see them forever denied. So was my sister right? Was Gertrude’s fiction-reading “escapism”? I, myself, read a lot. I have at least two books going at any given time. When I read, I often think of my mother, who gave me the example of an adult sitting alone, with a book, content in that small act. Is my reading “escapism”? At this point in my life, I’ve stopped playing these rhetorical or sophistic games with myself. I read because it gives me pleasure. (Unlike my mother, I don’t generally care for fiction. History and memoir are more interesting to me.) I don’t waste time analyzing myself anymore, something I did far too much of most of my life. Besides, my inner life is boring, compared to the immense dramas playing out in America every day. Look at this current election. You couldn’t make this stuff up! Gertrude would have been glued to the television set (undoubtedly to MSNBC). And, as she did when George W. Bush was president, she would have muted her remote whenever Trump came on.

Here’s the last photo I ever took of her. She’s wearing her little Kerry-Edwards button.

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