Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Other Janet

My mother never learned to swim, or ride a bicycle. She probably would never have learned to drive, if my father hadn’t gone blind. I am, as a friend recently pointed out, my mother’s daughter in many ways. Because he is a friend, he pointed out the good things I share with my mother. There are other shared qualities that I have spent time trying to uproot and still others that are embedded so deep that it would take years of therapy and a case of dynamite to dislodge them.

I never wanted to be like her, even when I most loved her. Physically we are so dissimilar that until I was shown a picture of my grandmother as a child, I was positive I was adopted. My mother was taller than most of the women we knew and she was black Irish, with fair skin, hazel eyes, and hair that was far beyond dark brown. Against her skin, it looked like ebony to me. I was olive-skinned, brown-eyed—a dark little gypsy. When my grandmother first saw me, her reaction was “She looks just like Santa.” Santa was my parent’s ice-man and my father wasn’t charmed by that observation.

My mother had five children in eight years. After the birth of her last baby, she became a woman obsessed with her weight, one of the first people in our little Alaskan town to use MetraCal. Her body seemed ludicrous to me when I was small, always ripening and bulging and then healing, sagging and flopping after yet another Caesarian birth. Puberty felt like a death sentence when I began to lose my little child’s body. For me it meant the battle had begun-- to keep from turning into my mother.

She was a woman who seemed shackled when I was young, although she would hate that description. We had two horses that she never rode, we lived near a beach that she went to once a year, when we moved to the unsettled area that she loved, it was a rare day that she said that she was going for a walk by herself. Except for her car, she was a house-bound person with three indulgences, her coffee that she drank black by the quart, her phonograph records, and her books. Every night, after supper was over, my mother fell into a book and went away.

She puzzled me when I was little. I had no idea of who my mother was. I used to lie awake at night, listening to my parents talk in the adjoining room, greedily trying to piece together what she liked, what she did when I wasn’t around, what feelings she had other than her volatile temper. Tantalizing pieces of information floated past, eluding my comprehension but filed away in my memory. One night I heard a neighbor tell my father that he loved my mother and sometimes I heard her laugh.

I used to think she was beautiful and told her so at random moments, when she was brushing her hair, when she crooned endearments to our dog, on the very few times that she would dress up and go out with my father. A true New York girl, she always wore black, with a dash of turquoise, even if it was only her eyeshadow. She claimed not to care about her looks; vanity wasn’t encouraged in our household. But she had a drawer that we called “the makeup drawer,” cluttered with lipsticks in varying shades of red, mascara that came in a solid form with a little brush, and a tiny pot of eyeshadow, applied once a year at best. And when I showed a friend a photo of my family when I was four, she zeroed in on my mother immediately. “What a coquette,” she said.

And she was indeed--a natural flirt who never admitted to it. Perhaps she never knew. She often told me “I don’t like women,” and the people who came to visit her were always “the bachelors.” In 1950’s Alaska, the number of unmarried men was staggering and the ones in our tiny community gravitated to my mother. They’d sit and drink coffee and talk for hours while my father was gone on one of his summer construction jobs. One of them, a short, jolly, and rather religious Aleut, sent her a box of Whitman’s Samplers for Christmas every year. We never knew why.

Mother enjoyed the company of men; she came from a family of three children—twin boys and their older sister. Her father had left them in favor of a mistress; in those days divorce was a blazing scandal but a discreet mistress was socially accepted. Her mother was perhaps the worst woman in the world to be a single parent, a “University Woman” whose father allowed her to attend a post-graduation acting school with the provision that once she had completed her training, she would never go on stage again. David Belasco saw my grandmother perform in her last role, before she abandoned acting forever. He was impressed, but she had a promise to keep. That she did was probably a tragedy for everyone. She would have been a fine actress; she was a horrible mother.

Trickles of her legacy were evident in her only daughter, who was a mixture of New England restraint that had been hardened over three centuries in a small town in Maine, and an Irish temper that was much in evidence when I was a child. “Please come in,” I said graciously to one of “the bachelors” when he appeared at our door one day, “Mommy and Daddy are fighting.” Nobody could say “You swine” quite as terribly as my mother, she seldom used a stronger epithet but this one was blood-curdling. I still can’t say it.

“If we were twenty at the same time, we would never be friends,” I told my mother the year before I was married at twenty-one. “Why do you say that?” she asked and it was one of the few times that I heard her sound hurt, without the usual accompanying rage. When I married, she was horrified but I was only several years younger than she had been when she was wedded to my father. I sometimes wonder if her nuptials had made her mother take to her bed; mine did when she was told I had a husband.

My marriage was nothing like hers. My life has been as little like hers as I could make it. Now that she is old, she still provides an anti-model for me. That may be the greatest gift my mother has ever given me.

“Where did you come from?” she has asked me more than once during our life together. The question never offended me. Even as an adult, I took it as my own personal report card. It measured my progress in my life-long work of not being my mother.


AHBoyce said...

This left me feeling sad. I always thought you two shared the best things - books, intellect and curiosity. I am not sad in a bad way. I understand what you wrote. Does that make sense? Maybe I am sad that Mom did not take enough chances...but, maybe in her mind she did. Not expressing myself very clearly, but I DO love (and appreciate) your writing.

janet brown said...

Let's talk soon, okay?

AHBoyce said...