Sunday, September 17, 2017

Happy belated Mother's Day.

My children have begun leaving the proverbial nest and I was feeling a bit sentimental this year, which is unusual for me.

I have been thinking a lot about my own mother whom I haven't seen in a very long time.

She was a kooky gal and they never made Mother's Day cards to fit her.

I could go on telling you about my mother, but there's no use doing that, because you already know my mother.

My mother is the combination of every character that the actress Shirley Maclaine has ever played.


Terms Of Endearment
That opening scene where Aurora climbs into the crib, pinches the baby to make certain she's breathing then, reassured, walks away. My mother. In fact, every single scene including that final screaming at the nurses, totally my mother.

Postcards From The Edge
My mother was not an alcoholic, but I am certain that Shirley must have been channeling her during the filming of this movie. The resemblance is uncanny. And that pivotal scene where she "twirls" her skirt. So my mother.

Steel Magnolias
Dear cranky, crabby, dog-loving Weezer. The embodiment of my mother. The author who wrote, I'm not crazy ... I've just been in a very bad mood for forty years! most certainly must have known my mother.

Now take all these characters and add in some real life Shirley along with a few UFOs and some ghosts, and you've pretty much got my mother to a tee. With her there was never a dull moment. And the thing that makes me most sad is how hard she tried at being normal. But normalcy, somehow, eluded her.

I'll never forget the dinner party mother threw back in the seventies.

On a whim, mother invited her co-worker, and her co-worker's husband, over for dinner one evening.

Now, to most people, dinner with a couple of friends on a pleasant summer evening is no big deal. Tidy up the house. Throw some burgers on. It isn't rocket science. But for my mother, rocket science would have been easier. Small talk and domestic chores annoyed her. She was a registered nurse working ICU and ER most of her life and somehow this profession had instilled in her zero tolerance and very little patience for mundane day-to-day activities. Our house was an eternal mess and most weeks grocery shopping and cooking were afterthoughts. Thus leaving my younger brother and sister and I scrounging on raw macaroni and giant globs of peanut butter straight from the jar as after school snacks.

As a homemaker and decorator, mother always felt woefully inadequate. Yet with this looming dinner party, she became eager to clean up the place and try to impress her new so-called friends. So after much fussing and fretting, we all began the arduous task of readying the house for honored guests. This meant that by the time the guests arrived, mother had made our lives, and virtually anyone else's who dared cross her path, completely and utterly miserable.

Now most people on the day of a dinner party tend to last minute details like cooking, setting the table and tidying up. Not my mother. She had delusions of grandeur and tried to throw an entire years worth of housekeeping and interior decorating into a single day. We shampooed carpets, moved pictures, rearranged furniture, washed windows, ironed curtains, dusted, cleaned, and otherwise hid the junk. We unfortunately had become so caught up in the cleaning process that the cooking and dinner itself had become an afterthought. No matter, mother was intent on having this dinner party; she was going to cook, entertain, and be her version of a traditional nineteen-fifties housewife and no amount of stress, turmoil or torture was going to deter her goddammit.

Next came the staging.

For reasons I will never fully understand, mother sorely wanted to impress these people. So the house had to be perfect. Which meant, in her eyes, conveying the illusion of a casual mess. Of intelligent, domestic artists living in a nineteen-seventies farmhouse with a garden and jars of jam cheerfully awaiting in the cupboard. This was so unlike our house. So after a manic cleaning spree, mother ordered me to drag my plastic, portable Singer sewing machine down from the closet and place it conspicuously on the table in the den, along with an art book and her Merck Manual. (What that had to do with anything, I'll never know.) Then mother strategically placed potted plants and more books around the house while I scoured the kitchen for a set of matching, un-chipped dinner plates.

By the end of the day we were exhausted. But for a moment, all seemed well. The house was shaping up and dinner was coming together, this party just may be a success after all, I thought to myself. But mother was an irascible woman and the longer she prepared for said dinner party and honored guests, the more she began to resent them. "How dare they come to my house and make me do all this work!" she muttered while peeling potatoes. It was going to be a bumpy night.

Dinner consisted of pot roast, carrots and potatoes, haphazardly cooked in a dented metal cake pan, along with an iceberg lettuce salad with Ott's French dressing, canned vegetables, store bought rolls, and the guest was bringing dessert.

Beyond this I recall little about the evening. I left soon after the guests arrived. I could not bear to stay and watch my mother, a person more inclined to conversations on matters of life and death, make small talk. It exhausted her. My role this evening had been strictly service. I had cooked, cleaned, thrown her a lifeboat and now it was up to her to row herself in.

There was one particular thing about the evening I do recall, however. A minute thing, but enormous in scope.

Just as the sun slipped behind the shadow tendrils of the elms, a perfectly coiffed, unwearied guest teetered out of a white Ford sedan and presented my mother with a towering vanilla cake and along with it, she had had the forethought to bring (dum-ta-dum!) a cake knife.

Now, a cake knife is a benign thing. A trivial little piece of kitchen arsenal with no inherent value. But in my mother's post-nineteen-fifties "Enjoli" world, this had become heavy artillery. This was big time. The lady owned a cake knife. This meant organized. Responsible. An outfitted kitchen. We, on the other hand, were just a bunch of hacks. I remember it well: serrated, fake ivory handle, elegant but efficient. Even at the tender age of seventeen, I coveted this knife.

My mother's kitchen had been filled with odds and ends, mismatched utensils, melted Tupperware lids, rusty cheese graters and dented dime store pans. It had never occurred to her to purchase something so extravagant as a cake knife. So when this wide-eyed, gullible, cake knife wielding guest stepped upon her porch one fateful summer's eve, I looked into my mother's eyes and saw defeat. This blatant, ordinary kitchen utensil had become a source of reflection upon all which was missing and all that had gone wrong in her sad domestic life, and I knew then that the party was over, and there was nothing left to do but carry on with the show. Mother never threw another dinner party after that evening. And it was a long time before we had cake in our house again.