In the pictures I have of my mother she looks like the Duchess of Windsor. My husband, who didn’t like her, would say, “Uh oh, here comes the Duchess,” when he heard her car in the driveway. Raised in an orphanage, how did my mother come by that royal presence? How could she have been so fragile, and yet accomplish so much in her young widowhood, raising my brother and me? How can she exist so powerfully after she is dead? She seems to have left tracks in my brain like indelible markers that are more than memory, leaking into my present.
She died while I was downstairs in the hospital coffee shop drinking a milkshake and leafing through Newsweek. I found her on the floor after her last desperate moment of pride trying to get to the bathroom alone. She was crumpled at the foot of the bed, a terrifying stranger in a hospital gown. I screamed for the nurse who came running. It took the two of us to get her back in the bed where she lay, dignified once again, even in this unbelievable death.
In life she didn’t look like anyone’s mother. She was too young-looking, too chic. Back then mothers stayed home, but she went to work every day in high heels and bracelets. People thought she was my sister. She fascinated my friends with how unmotherish she was, how charming, vivacious, flirtatious–how much like a girlfriend. But I wanted her to be like the apron-clad moms who didn’t scare and excite and hypnotize and then slip away like ether. I longed for safer, plumper arms, the smell of dinner cooking in a warm kitchen. My mother brought home cardboard cartons of Chinese food for our dinner, smelling of her office and stale perfume.
In those days the sex life of single women was hidden, but I could always tell when she had a date with a new boyfriend because she’s get in such a high mood. Once she sent me to live with a relative while she went off to a hotel. To my vast relief, that one lasted only a couple of months and she came back for me. Other times I remember hearing from my bed at night, a man’s voice, laughter, the clinking of ice in glasses. The next day my mother would look younger, prettier. Even then I recognized the signs–the whiskey glasses, the scent of male mixed with the sort of flowery mannerliness my mother had in those days. Once there was a whole bouquet in a vase. He was a sport, my mother said. She was always alone when I got up for school the next morning and I wondered if maybe her boyfriend was married. But I pretended she didn’t let him stay overnight because of me–for her dignity and mine.
Self-educated in literature, music and art, fluent in the German and Hebrew that she learned growing up in the Jewish Orphan Home, she had nothing but scorn for the institutions the rest of the world lives by—school, organized religion, government, marriage, politics. But anyone who dared label her an iconoclast, existentialist or feminist or any other “ist” would have been met with a withering look. Her independence and courage thrilled me because I always knew how alone and frightened she was. She was my heroine. No book or movie ever had such a star.
But she was too alone and overwhelmed for mothering, too damaged from her own orphanhood. Exhausted most of the time, often asthmatic, she shipped me around to relatives she didn’t like. I never rebelled, not even in adolescence. My girlfriends’ complaints about their mothers amused me because when it came to mothers I was the one with plenty to criticize, but I never did. The way I saw it the only thing that stood between me and my own total terrifying orphanhood was my flawed and fragile mother who somehow always managed to be there. Sort of. More or less. Anyway, I wasn’t about to pick on my mother. I felt this kind of weird loyalty. I had to take care of her. But of course I couldn’t. I was too young for her neediness and fragility.
So I broke away from her grasp on my life and heart and fell into a teenage marriage. Her unhappiness at my abandonment oozed from her pores, her moist eyes, her eager misery, blackmailing me into visits I didn’t want to make, sneaking money to her from my grocery allowance. I was a dutiful daughter, attentive to her complaints and demands for attention, feeling as guilty as if her frailties were my own.
She could electrify a room with her brilliance and charm, but she didn’t know when or how to stop. People became restless and looked away, or left if they could.
I was ashamed of her and I was proud of her, but I didn’t know what I had learned from her until my divorce. I discovered within myself the independence and courage she put there and also the pleasure of learning and the life of the mind. I learned integrity and compassion from watching her struggle, and even, from my own unmet needs, how to mother my children.
I was often asked why my attractive youthful mother never remarried. Deprived from birth of parental love, and then widowed at twenty-eight, she seemed to demand more love than there was in the world, more than anyone could ever give her, souring every relationship of her life.
The night before her funeral I dreamed I was the only pallbearer.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Babette Hughes, author of THE HAT and LOST AND FOUND, and co-author of WHY COLLEGE STUDENTS FAIL, has also been published in the Saturday Review; been Contributing Editor of Cleveland Magazine; a twice-weekly columnist for the Cleveland Press; and has published articles and book reviews in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Sunday Magazine. She has also written, produced and appeared in television documentaries and news and feature stories for Cleveland television stations WKYC-NBC and WNBK-UHF.
In addition to her writing career she has been been National Director of Women’s Political Action for Hubert Humphrey in his 1972 Presidential campaign, as well as founder and President of Discover Yourself, Inc., a motivation and self realization program for women. She has also been Director of Public Relations for Revco D.S., Inc. in Twinsburg, Ohio, and Account Executive with Frazier Associates, in Washington, DC. She and her husband live in Austin, Texas, and are the parents and step-parents of eight children.
She is presently working on a sequel to THE HAT,THE SCARF.
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