I am in the middle of a flight to St. Louis to give a reading. I was reading a New Yorker story that made me think of my mother all alone in the seat I whispered to her “I know, Mother, I know.” (Found a pen!) And I thought of you – someday flying somewhere all alone and me dead perhaps and you wishing to speak to me.
And I want to speak back. (Linda, maybe it won’t be flying, maybe it will be at your own kitchen table drinking tea some afternoon when you are 40. Anytime.) – I want to say back.
1st I love you
2. You never let me down
3. I know. I was there once. I too, was 40 and with a dead mother who I needed still.
Mom – Anne Sexton to her daughter, 1969
My mother is not the sentimental sort. The only time I remember seeing her cry when I was a child is when she thought we might have to move to Plattsburgh, New York, because of my father’s job. “The nearest Neiman Marcus is in MONTREAL!” she said at the time, completely bereft that we would be settling in a fashion and cultural hinterland. We didn’t end up moving ultimately, so in my memory the waterworks were a one-time thing.
But she had become a complete sap over my upcoming wedding, in particular the gown-shopping trip we’d taken together. When my parents were married in the early 70s, these sorts of rituals would not have occurred to my mother, nor her mother. My mom bought her dress by herself, a Mexican wedding gown, for $50 off the rack at a store in the Village. I don’t even know what my Oma wore, just that she was wed in a quickie ceremony so that she and my Opa could leave Vienna in 1938 on the visa he had been fantastically lucky to obtain.
Though she does like to shop, my mother isn’t even girly. She is a shrink with a severe, Madonna-circa-the-“Rain” video haircut and favors crisp, architectural Calvin Klein suits in shades from charcoal to pewter. Oma, on the other hand, has always been both sentimental and girly. I remember when I was a kid and we were staying with my grandparents, I would sneak up to her bedroom and examine her endless rows of perfume decanters and the carefully arranged shades of nail polish-from crimson to camellia-on her vanity. When my fiancé and I went to visit her last September, right after we got engaged, she cooed and clapped her hands over the impending nuptials. “Does that mean I get to get a new dress, too?” she asked my mother. Of course, my mother said.
I guess the twee explosion skips a generation. I like to think of myself as organized and logical, like my mother. I theoretically disdain the evil, super-commercial wedding industrial complex, and the Swarovski-crystal encrusted, overpriced ball gowns that go along with it. But shortly after I got engaged I realized I was the same sort of superficial dum-dum I always made fun of: part of me couldn’t wait to buy some exorbitantly priced tulle monstrosity and parade around in it in front of my 200 closest kindred spirits.
So last fall, my normally non-sappy mother and I made a pilgrimage to the Mecca of wedding hysteria: Kleinfeld’s. We sat in a pink and white holding pen with several other brides-to-be and their families. The brides were uniformly dolled-up, with their glossy hair blown out, high-heeled boots and their best Tiffany’s necklaces on. Some women had brought their entire clan to watch them try on dress after dress-their posses included not just mothers but best friends, babies, grandmothers, and even, disturbingly, fathers and brothers. It gave me the willies to think about the Elektran implications of a father watching his daughter try on a series of virginal white gowns. The sound level stayed at a fairly constant low-to-mid squeal range.
In my Converse and jeans and my mom in her drapey dark-hued cashmere we conspicuously did not belong. When the receptionist called our names we were brought through the sea of squealers and past a dizzying number of bright white gowns to a rather dumpy row of rooms in the back of the store. Our guide was a kind, 60ish woman named Barb who was not offended when I asked to look at gowns that didn’t have any of that “poufy, princess bullshit” on them. Barb spent at least half our session giving us the dirt on the TLC reality show “Say Yes to the Dress” that films at Kleinfeld’s (the clerks don’t get paid for going on the show and most of the brides featured don’t even end up purchasing the gowns they’ve tried on. Just so you know).
My mother was sitting in a chair inside our dim fitting room, watching me climb in and out of a series of increasingly fancy dresses. I watched her face in the mirror while she watched Barb fasten the back of a form-fitting antique lace gown. She looked tired-the deep under-eye circles that are our shared genetic legacy were far deeper than usual-and I saw her brush away tears that had started to wend their way down her cheeks.
“Aw mom, you’re getting all cheesy on me!” I told her playfully. She just nodded and smiled wanly.
We didn’t buy anything that day, but we did go out to lunch afterward-to a funky, art-filled bistro called the Kitchen Club. The owner’s French Bulldogs saunter through the joint while you eat, and one of them had squatted next to me while my mother and I were waiting for our food.
As I petted the dog, my mother sighed. “I wanted to tell you, your Oma’s not doing so well. She’s been having these episodes, they’re called TIAs,” she said. My mother went on to tell me about Oma’s mini strokes, ones that left her confused and weak for a day or two, ones that she didn’t remember after they had occurred. “She’s fine afterward, but they keep happening,” my mother said.
“Why didn’t you tell me before?” I asked. “I’m an adult now, you can call me if Oma isn’t doing well, you can call me if you’re upset.”
“I didn’t want to worry you,” she said.
About a month later, the mini-strokes started increasing in frequency. My mother had mentioned this in passing on our tri-weekly phone calls, but she never made it sound dire. And then one afternoon at the office I received this characteristically blunt e-mail from her.
If you want to see Oma breathing, you might want to take some time off from work to come up. It seems unlikely that she will be alive in 2 weeks time.
She is not aware of what is going on and seems to losing ground every day. You would come up for yourself, not her-she would not know.
I thought you would want to know, but I meant what I said about this visit-it would be for you, not her.
We went to see her, of course. Oma was a charming fibber. Until she was 90 we thought she was born in 1915-we realized she was actually born in 1913 when she chuckled to a doctor’s office receptionist, “I’m not even sure how old I am anymore I’ve been lying about it for so long!” She liked to tell people she was 5’5”, but in reality she never cleared 5’3” and she had been gradually shrinking throughout my lifetime. When we got to her bedside in Northern Westchester, she looked even smaller. The woman who had raked leaves into her 90s looked impossibly small and frail.
I was afraid she wouldn’t recognize me-but she did, and she even recognized my fiancé. But otherwise she was incoherent. She kept asking us what time the concert was, and I liked to think of her anticipating some lovely, long-ago evening that she had with my Opa. We didn’t stay long-it took all her strength to speak to us for even a few minutes.
After we saw Oma, we stopped back at my parents’ place for dinner. My mother was pensive but resigned. Her mother was 96 and she had lived a good, long life-we all recognized this and were grateful for it. I asked my mother if she had known back in September that we were never going to be buying a new dress for Oma. “Of course I knew,” my mother said, “but I didn’t want to mar your excitement. I know how much you wanted her to be there. I wanted her to be there, too.”
After dinner my mother went to her bedroom to lie down. My fiancé went to check his computer and my father and I sat alone at the kitchen table.
“You know your mother asked me last night if Oma’s dying meant that she is the family matriarch,” he said.
“Of course she’s the matriarch. She’s the only daughter. And everyone looks up to her,” I said. It’s true-my mother has long been the familial rudder. My adult cousins, whose mother divorced my uncle in the early 80s and lives in California where she still smokes pot and dates bikers, is not the woman who organizes a Mother’s Day luncheon for 15. My brother and I are both adults now, with careers and serious significant others and wedding dresses to buy. It was shocking to hear that my mother, my mature, psychologically advanced mother who always arranges everything perfectly, could not see that the mantle had been passed to her already.
“That’s what I told her,” my father said, “But she doesn’t feel like she’s ready.”
My grandmother died a few weeks later, the Monday before Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving Day, my mother woke up at 5 and started cooking all the things my Oma always cooked-the sweet potato soufflé, the wild rice stuffing with sausage and the pumpkin pecan pie. She and her mother did not have the same sort of relationship that my mother and I have, which is to say, it wasn’t particularly modern. My mother didn’t call her mother-as I call my mother-to sob over a falling out with her best friend, or to rejoice over a good day at work. But there she was at 61 with a mother who she needed still.
“I wanted to pick up the phone and ask her what pan I should use for the soufflé,” my mother said. “But I couldn’t.”
She figured it out on her own, and the soufflé was delicious.
Jessica Grose is an associate editor at Slate and the co-author, with Doree Shafrir, of Love, Mom: Poignant, Goofy, Brilliant Messages from Home.