the better truth

the better truth

Monday, April 02, 2012

In loving memory of my mother

For Irene

How do you create efficient burning kindling out of newspaper? Answer: Shape it into a triangle. It’s not easy to do. It looks simple but it takes practice. It’s not something most people know about but I learned it from my mother. She had read it in a NYT article when I was a child. She showed me. In fact I was charged with folding many “triangles” at the many fireplaces in our house on Long Island. In my career as a Newspaper kindling creator I don’t think I came close to making the number that Mom folded. She wanted all the fireplaces to be “ready” so that all the guests needed to do was strike a match and put it to the nest of “triangles” that held up the logs.

This small remembrance brings back my mother’s determination in terms of organizing and prioritizing. To many of you my mother was a “free sprit” who had a casual sense of style and a “live and let live” philosophy. That is true but I’ve heard it said that great “free verse” poetry requires the most attention to craft. Effortlessness requires dogged practice. For those of you who were privileged enough to experience the thousands of meals she served or sleep in the thousands of beds she made – every single detail – from the wattage of the light on the nightstand to the breezy background music to the way the hedge was pruned – were all her hand. I mean HER hand. My mother did not delegate willingly. She worked with loyal groups of people to create the setting but make no mistake – it was her vision. She was the director.

This brings up another aspect of my mother’s vision – she was a truly egalitarian person in that everyone was treated with the same amount of respect. Ironically this led to strange evenings and encounters – I remember once she invited my piano teacher to join us for a family meal. He was the male musical version of Elenor Rigby. It was a long night punctuated by his racist views and the ugly display of an alcohol problem. But you know even after 40 years I can remember how happy he was to be invited for dinner. I was furious at the time but it’s odd how that evening takes on a much different cast when viewed from middle age. As a child I felt the whole thing was inappropriate. But now I’m not so sure. Ditto for her choice of a summer helper who lived with us. The fact that he only spoke Mandarin and was prone to serious mood swings might have given pause to most employers – not my mother. I remember when she helped him get into a boarding school and we visited him en masse. He was sullen and depressed. But you know I remember seeing his Christmas cards on the walls years later – he was beaming with his young family on a suburban lawn. Certainly made me think. But at the time I was hoping she’d fire him and I wouldn’t have to deal with his awkwardness. Shame on me.

But you know it’s hard to understand the big picture when you’re a child. My mother’s endless patience with strangers was inversely related to her expectations of her own children. My best friend was allowed to come to the table looking and acting like Jimi Hendrix at Montray Pops – lets just say there was a different dress and conduct requirement for my siblings and I. This is not to give the impression that my mother was a “stuffed shirt” as a parent. Quite the contrary – she had an unothrodox way of approaching life’s lessons. Here is an example: When I was 14 I gave a 17 year old friend an record for Christmas. I dropped it off at his father’s store. It was the Dead Boys second album and unfortunately for me the lyrics were printed on the inside sleeve. The father was deeply offended. Once again in looking back I guess a tribute to the serial killer Son of Sam (who had been recently arrested) and a number of anti-Catholic and misogynistic ballads were maybe not the most appropriate choice as a holiday gift. But my mother focused on something else: I HOPE THIS IS GOING TO TEACH YOU TO WRAP YOUR GIFTS! It might seem odd that a mother would stress the proprietary of giftwrapping and ignore the impropriety of late 1970s punk rock – but that was my mother. Someone who cherished old world values of conduct while embracing new, often disconcerting, forms art and behavior. We had a house-guest in East Hampton who almost burned the place to the ground while cooking “lunch” at 3AM. But what angered my mother was the mess he left upstairs when he finally left. She could tolerate his alternative schedule, odd jokes and even his carelessness that almost cost us the house – but to trash the guestroom?

This brings up another facet of my mother as host – I venture to guess that most if not all the people in this room spent many weeks or days as a guest of Irene’s. But I’m equally confident that very few of you ever hosted her – and if you did it was for a very brief period. This isn’t to mark ingratitude on your part but to point out – my mother did not care for being a guest. I think it was too stressful for her. She looked on it as an awesome responsibility. I know this sounds strange but to be a good guest, in my mother’s view, required a whole-hearted acknowledgement of the host’s generosity. The basest thing is to be ungrateful. There are times when you just want to kick back and not be polite and be rude – but this is something my mother would never really want to share with the outside world. Mom was a private person who found the modern confessional society to be base and undignified. She had very high standards that she applied rigorously to herself. Once again she hid this harsh Calvinist self-critism within the veneer of a downtown bohemian façade. There were very high standards which needed to be upheld in herself and her family: dress could be “different” - but it had to be “thought through”, furniture could be made from found objects – but it had to be clean, you could be a free-spirit – but not rude, you could be laid back – but not lazy.

I used to be angry because there were many times when I felt badly dressed, sloppy, slovenly and rude. I expected encouragement and I felt criticism. But from my mother’s POV she merely applied the high standards she set for herself to her children. That was her way of showing love: To explain the correct way to behave… to give tips on how to get things done CORRECTLY, NEATLY, EFFECIENTLY….. For example the best way to create kindling out of newspaper. I really resented making those newspaper triangles….. but low and behold many years later I found myself living in the middle of the woods, off the grid in an un-heated house – and wouldn’t you know it – making those things kept me going through the winter.

I’m going to show all of you how it’s done – (make a triangle)

I’m going recite a poem by Robert Hayden. I took the liberty of changing the sex of the protagonist:

Sundays too my mother got up early
and put her clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked her.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, she’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to her,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Towards the end of my final conversation with my mother I broke down. She calmly told me she loved me. In a gentle frail voice she explained that she wasn’t crying and so I shouldn’t either. It took me nearly half a century to understand. But in the end I did.

1 comment:

Clarinda Ross said...

What a wonderful tribute. You must edit it and submit to magazines for a Mother's Day issue. Irene must've been proud to have such a smart and ultimately understanding son. She'd of liked this tribute I'm sure for it's graciousness and it's attention to detail. I've had the privilege to know many women from your mother's generation. Smart, savvy ladies who had the ability to make art of dinner party. Mothers all struggle and make mistakes. We want our children to surpass us, to excel. I bet you make a wonderful host, and perhaps you've cultivated the ability to also be a good guest.

Clarinda Ross, Mama, Advocate, Playwright, Actress