People talk about the problems women have with their mothers. That there is some form of taboo stopping them from breaking free, cutting the cord, setting themselves free. I don’t doubt that this is true, not in the least. But women, and you’ll have to excuse me here, are a tribe of their own. They have seemingly impenetrable rituals for the smallest things. I don’t mean the old comedy trope of “you can never say the right thing to a woman if you’re a man”, that’s just blatantly false. If you behave as you would behave towards any man you respected you will be fine. “How does this dress make me look?”. “Mighty fine” you say. You respect her, you respect her judgement, she’ll respect you.
But women like to talk about their mothers, and I guess that’s just the way of the world. As we grow up from seedlings to trees we look around and try to model ourselves at the person who seems, for whatever reason, to be most similar to us. An apple tree, no matter how proud, can never model itself on the mighty oak. It can marvel at its strength, the deep roots, the wisdom that comes with age. But the apple tree should never model itself on the oak. It will lead to nothing but trouble, nothing at all. So, as children, we look around and find someone who we think we want to be. Women learn from mothers, aunts, sisters, grandmothers or female friends. Some even from their fathers. I don’t reckon this being a bad choice after all. Many men I’ve known have raised daughters that have become wonderful women, strong, capable. Heard a eulogy a couple of years back, woman named Eve who talked about her father. He had taught her fishing, hunting, to always tell it straight, never say more than was needed and I could tell that Eve and her father had formed that unbreakable bond. A marvellous woman she was. Works as a newspaper editor out west, apparently a force to be reckoned with. Or so I hear.
What I’m trying to say is, perhaps there is something good in finding a role model who isn’t precisely like you. I don’t know. But I do know this, there are people in this world who aren’t fit to take that responsibility. They can destroy a person’s life without even so much as thinking about it. And they do it with a smile.
I’m old now, or at least getting there. Age has a way of creeping up on you. One day your hair is a nice shade of chestnut brown, the next week you start noticing that there’s some grey in there and that it’s thinning up top. The comb you use seems to collect more hair every day. Your arms go flabby and something strange happens to your balance, not to mention the fact that they seem to be printing the news with smaller letters every year. And even if you don’t want to admit it at first, after all, we’re human, you are getting old. You might look yourself in the mirror and think Hey, I’m still no old codger. But somewhere inside yourself you know you’re just lying to yourself. Don’t be hard on yourself though. We all do it. We all live our lives as best we can and hold on to those last moments of youth for as long as we can. Once they are gone, we’re mostly left with labor and memories. And neither of those provide much nutrition.
Well, I guess I’m trying to get to the point, the point of mama. It’s not an easy subject for me, even though she’s been dead more than ten years now and I’m not ashamed to say I haven’t visited the grave even once. When you read that you can take it two ways. Either I am a no good son of a bitch who should know better or you reckon that the old woman had it coming. Perhaps both are true. I think they are. With age after all comes a certain wisdom, or at least a wistfulness that can masquerade as wisdom in the hands of people like me. She started it but I certainly made things no better.
My mother wasn’t what you’d call pretty. I hear people talking about their mothers and it’s always the same. She was the prettiest girl on town or she was the most popular. My mother was neither. She was smart though, smarter than anyone gave her credit for. My dad, well, I can’t say much about him. He was a deputy sheriff, by all accounts a nice man. He was older than she was, by twenty-odd years, and I guess they both needed someone. Someone to hold in the night; the human need to be held, to be touched, is strong after all it seems. I think people who never experience it or who don’t need it either become or aren’t right in the head from the get go. But that’s a whole different subject. They married, got themselves a little house and I was born. There’s a picture of me in my father’s arms, he don’t look much like me, although I guess that’s because he’s about 20 years younger than I am now in that picture, and a whole lot fatter. Be that as it may, he managed to get himself killed in the line of duty a couple of months later.
Yeah. The line of duty. Being white down here was never much of a problem. You might be poor but at least you weren’t a negro, right? My dad, by all accounts a nice man, picked a fight with a black man who he didn’t like the look of and got himself beaten right to death. One punch was all it took. So we can safely say that as nice as my old man was he was a bit of an idiot. Picking a fight with a big strong man, muscles hard as stone from doing physical labor every single day, taunting that man, kicking him. I think he got what he deserved. And the man who killed him, old one-punch, he got himself killed too. Not surprising. Same thing would’ve happened today I guess. A damn shame though. I would’ve liked to meet the man once. Heard some stories about him later. Apparently liked to read books, not the usual religious fare either. A bit of a thinker. I think we could have had some good conversation. Who knows.
So then it was just me and my mother. The house we had was a small shotgun, almost at the end of a street of newly built houses. They had planted elm trees outside just a couple of years back, they weren’t much to look at back then but now they are mighty creatures. I don’t live down there no more, got myself a house on the other side of town many years ago, but sometimes I take the bus over and walk in the shade of those trees, touching them, feeling their bark under my fingers, equally weathered. But back then they, like me, were young and smooth and I was trying to adjust to a life without a father. I’m not saying a father is necessary. I know many men who’ve grown up without fathers, hell, the wars made sure of that. Most of them turned out just fine. Maybe I just got unlucky.
My mother was pretty shrewd when it came to doing business. She had got to know some black women who were doing laundry for the factory workers and started up a business where she picked up laundry all over town and let the black women do the work. “Loretta’s whiter than white” she called it, had it printed on the side of the blue van and it was good business. There were plenty of women who had no interest in spending half their day washing clothes and the prices were good, mostly because the women doing the laundry got paid as little as possible. It was more than enough to allow us to live comfortably.
You have to excuse me, I’ve thought about writing this for a long time but now that I’m sitting here I don’t even know how to describe it. It may make no sense to you and you might walk away from this thinking that I’m a self absorbed, self pitying piece of shit. So be it then.
Loretta wasn’t a drunkard. She wasn’t running around with men. She didn’t neglect me. She just regarded me as one would look at a particularly noisy parakeet. I can’t remember getting a hug from her, not until she got so old that death was basically standing right behind her, waiting for her to keel over. I worked as hard as I could in school, brought home report cards with glowing praise. She signed them, absentmindedly, without reading them at all. So I tried harder, and harder. Nothing helped. I tried to read the books she read, start discussions over dinner, by this time we had a women who came in and did the cleaning and cooking, but she rarely responded. Just stared at me and went back to eating.
I’m being a bit unfair now. Of course she spoke to me, she did. She scolded me when I broke something, she gave me lectures on things she thought important, I can’t even remember a single one now. I guess she was just cold. I don’t know what part of her life made her that way, perhaps she was just born like it. I watched my friends and their parents and it seemed like a completely different world. But my mother was distant from the world and that distance drew me in, trapped me in that bubble with her and I grew up on the inside looking out.
When I went off to college she handed me an envelope with money. We were standing on the porch, she had hired someone to drive me to the station and I took the envelope and tried to give her a hug. She just let her arms hang at her sides for a while before patting me on the back, “Time to go, the car is waiting”. When I looked back she had already gone back inside. Disappeared into the house that was her life.
We lost contact then, mostly because my letters never got any response. Instead I made friends, looking back I can tell that I was very awkward. But I managed, my room mate was an open minded fellow who guided me through the perilous archipelago of social interactions and for that I am eternally grateful. He told me, late one night as we were watching the fireworks that some idiot was setting off out on the campus grounds, that he was homosexual. I’m not sure to this day if he was asking or just telling. I just said that he was my best friend and he could fuck donkeys for all I cared. And in the dark, lit by the reds and blues of the fireworks he gave me a hug that I will never forget. A hug that seemed to go on and on. Did he have a crush on me? Perhaps, we were young and crushes came and went as often as new records were released. I think the important thing was that he knew that I didn’t care one way or the other. On my part I fell head over heels for basically all the women that even looked at me. But I could never manage to talk to them. Not in a way that made them comfortable.
“You simply try to hard” said my room mate. He was sitting at the open window, smoking a pipe, one of his affectations. “You don’t need to impress them, just treat them like you treat me. You’re a wonderful man. Just show them that.”
Good advice, I should’ve listened to him. But I was already confused beyond all hope I think. I told that story though, the story of him giving me advice on women, told it twice. Once at his wedding to a wonderful man. And again at his funeral. I travelled coach down to San Francisco and stayed with his widower in their fantastic house with the most marvellous views I’ve ever seen. The church was packed, he had so many friends and I spoke about him, about his kindness, about him telling me who and what he was, about his attempts at giving me advice and afterwards people came up and thanked me, shared their stories and told me that he had always described me as one of the most important people in his life, the first person who didn’t judge him.
So there is that. I stayed for a couple of days, I guess I could’ve stayed forever if I wanted to. But my mother had by this point been placed in a home for the elderly, early onset dementia. I had to go home, some age old need dragged me back. And so I sat, every weekend, at her bedside. She still didn’t say much, didn’t look at me. Every once in a while she’d talk to someone who wasn’t there, I could never figure out who it was. Not me, that’s for sure.
The nurses were kind though, said I was nice to come visit my mother so often. Told me that most of the patients only rarely had visitors. And I guess I could’ve done the same thing. Let her die there, on her own. But I was still hoping I guess, hoping for approval. One of the nurses even asked me out to dinner. I declined, I tried to come up with a reason but I’m not very good with lies in social situations so I just mumbled something about not having the time and she shrugged and left. Passed me by a bit to close, let her shoulder brush against mine, like a promise.
As my mother’s state of mind deteriorated she talked more and more but was less and less coherent. She fought of pneumonia once, fell over in the bathroom and broke her arm, but she still kept going. There was a veil over her eyes, they used to be sharp, sharp and pale blue as the autumn sky, but now they were clouded. And she hugged me. Just once. I came in, it was a normal Saturday morning, I had brought a sandwich with me and when I put the bag on the night stand she turned her head towards me and opened her arms and whispered something. I leaned closer to hear and she said “Quick, he’ll be back from school soon” and she hugged me, a warm embrace, stroking my back with her old hands, kissing my cheek. I just gently pushed her away, grabbed my sandwich and left. I could hear her yelling behind me, words I’d never heard her say before in a voice I never heard again.
I never went back. She lived on for another year. When she died they called and asked me what to do with the body. I made the arrangements with a funeral agency. “Just put her in the ground” I said. They found this unorthodox to say the least, I guess they’re the sort of people who are used to large and lavish affairs. Wakes and such. Loads of Irish people in this town after all. But a pine box is what she got, a pine box and a hole in the ground and I’ve got a burial plot out in San Francisco for myself. I got years to go before it is my time but it’s comforting to know that I don’t have to be near her for the rest of eternity at least.
Every now and then I go down to the local bar, people know me there, known me all my life, knew my mother too. Sometimes they ask me if I miss her. I just shake my head, buy them a round, watch the tv until they stop talking and hope they can’t see that my hands are shaking. Because I’d like to touch someone before it’s all over, for someone to touch me before it all ends. But I don’t know how and where that knowledge should be there is a dark hole filled with whispers.