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Remembering my mother

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I had a complicated relationship with my mother, Gertrude. She and my father had not expected to have another baby after my older sister was born. But I came along in 1946 and quickly became my mother’s favorite. She adored me and I adored her, in the classic Oedipal way. I can remember being very young, maybe no more than two years old, and just thinking about my mother made me warm all over. She was perfection, heaven-sent.

Of course, that didn’t last. She was emotionally distant, to say the least. This was not a woman who expressed her thoughts or feelings, except in the most superficial way. Nor did she encourage me to express mine to her. She was deeply unhappy, on some level that was inaccessible to me. She was stuck in a tenement in the South Bronx, with a husband, Jack, who had never had ambition and was trapped in a clerical job that paid very little money. Meanwhile, her peers—Jack’s two siblings and her own three brothers—had moved to big houses in the suburbs, with swimming pools and gardens and nice cars. Whatever youthful dreams she’d had (and she must have had them, even though she never talked about them) were crushed by a dreary, middle-class reality and the embarrassment of being “the poor Heimoffs.”

We drifted apart as I reached adulthood. I moved far away from her, first to New England, then to California, while she and Jack moved to South Florida after they both retired. I wrote her frequently, and she wrote me, and we talked on the phone, but these exchanges were never honest or meaningful. I longed to develop a deeper relationship with her, but somehow it just didn’t seem possible.

When I came out of the closet, shortly after Jack died in 1982, Gertrude couldn’t handle it. She wasn’t hostile or aggressive. She was a very polite woman who never forget the Southern etiquette she’d been taught growing up in Oklahoma. Gertrude was never rude. But my oh my, she could shut down and be cold as ice. She let me know, without saying anything, that the topic of my sexual preference was off-limits. It was not to be discussed or even alluded to—not if I wished to maintain whatever fragile relationship we had.

Looking back, I can see how carefully negotiated that relationship was. It teeter-tottered on a delicate balancing point: one was expected to perform the rudiments of a loving relationship, but without any kind of depth of feeling or actual communication. By the time Gertrude moved to California, to live in a luxury retirement community in San Mateo (across the Bay from me), we were as polished as Astaire and Rogers in the choreography of our pas de deux.

Still, I never lost that longing to reach out to her, to connect, to really share our souls before she died. One day, I decided to go for it. She was 87. I invited her to lunch at Brothers, a Jewish deli in Burlingame, where I intended to have “the talk.” I deliberately chose a restaurant so that Gertrude couldn’t freak out. We sat, studied the menu and ordered. She knew something was up; she was a sharp cookie. I began by saying, simply, that I wanted for us to have a little talk about my childhood, about her relationship with Jack (which, in my mind, had been a total fiasco), about my gayness, and why my memories of my childhood were so awful. As Gertrude listened, her eyes welled with tears.

“I don’t know why you’ve convinced yourself you had an unhappy childhood,” she said, dabbing her eyes with the napkin. “We had a very happy household.”

Memories rushed through my mind: Jack’s furious anger, the result of frustration and self-loathing. Gertrude’s silences, the way she cut herself off from her own family every night and got lost in a novel. My own fear and confusion, the horrible feeling of being a monster because of my sexual desires, yet not being able to say anything about it, having no one to confide in or trust. The physical separation I sensed between Gertrude and Jack, with no words of affection, no physical signs of love, just a wary, defensive circling of perimeters. It was a household of nightmares and horror, yet here was Gertrude telling me that it had been Ozzie and Harriet.

It was too much. I couldn’t wrap my head around this cognitive dissonance. How could my memories of childhood be so utterly different from hers? There were only two plausible explanations. One was that I was wrong: in my fever dream I had conjured up a Grimm’s fairy tale about wicked parents, when in reality Gertrude and Jack were just two ordinary people, struggling through a rather ordinary marriage. The other possible explanation was that Gertrude had simply blocked out the truth. That’s the explanation I decided to accept. It was impossible for her to jettison her happy-family fantasy because, were she to do so, the entire infrastructure of the way she explained her life to herself would have been swept away.

She’s 87 years old, I thought. Leave her alone. You’re asking her to do something she’s completely incapable of doing. And so I dropped it. We had lunch, I drove her back to her apartment, kissed her on the cheek, and drove back home to Oakland.

It was an unhappy, unresolved ending to the day I’d planned. But a few years later, Gertrude developed inoperable cancer, and died in the hospital. I was with her almost every day of her final month. We had some very tender moments. As she passed into coma, I brushed her hair. I held her hand, and she gave it a squeeze. The night she went into the death spiral, the nurse called and said I’d better come quickly. I sped across the Bay and arrived in her room well after midnight. Her breathing was labored: the death rattle. I sat by her side until 3 a.m., when, cold and exhausted, I crept into bed with her. She died at 6:03 a.m. that morning, and I swear that she touched my face as she fled this world, like the brush of a feather.

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