My mother died in September and my primary reaction to this has been relief which makes me feel guilty. I am at Costco where for the past several years I buy for her Depends and dark chocolate and find myself, two months after her death, weeping for the first time. Witnessing my mother fade these past years is harrowing and the pathetic diminishing mother distracts me from the perplexing real mother.
Now that the vestige of mother is gone I worry that I mistook signs of Alzheimer’s for chronic nastiness and was mean to her between the onset of dementia and the time when it didn’t matter what I said or did as long as I brought candy. Maybe the dementia started to take hold about ten years before I recognized it and what I interpreted as selfishness and meanness was merely a response to her terror at her diminishing memory. My attempts to assuage my guilt lead me to mine ancient memories for proof of my mother’s selfishness decades before the dementia could possibly have taken hold. As if forgiving myself is contingent on blaming my mother.
Being what my kids used to refer to as a “Hanukah person” and particularly when the Festival of Lights comes early (although it actually is always on the same dates it’s just that we use the wrong calendar) I feel a little weird the weeks before Christmas. I am relieved at not having to do much but it also feels kind of bad assed and subversive not to. We observed Christmas when I was growing up but I don’t remember a lot. Family lore has it that there was a visit with Santa at Valley Plaza and then another the following evening at Fashion Square. The Bullock’s Santa asked what I wanted and I snapped, “I already told you last night at The May Company.”
We had a Christmas box stored in a shed on the patio. My mother painstakingly repackaged the tinsel so it could be used again the following year. There were a couple of pretty glass ornaments that I looked forward to unwrapping from yellowed tissue. There was a chipped tree topper and a Styrofoam star with glitter and pipe cleaners that was attributed to my sister and labeled “Sheri, 2nd grade.” We never used the fancy living room unless we had company or a Christmas tree.
I am sitting Indian style and opening presents. It is probably the first Christmas after the divorce, I am about seven, and my dad enters. Mom and Dad exchange a few tense words out of my direct earshot, a bag of gifts is deposited and my father is gone. This is the earliest Christmas memory I can conjure but due to my vantage point I can only picture my father’s gray slacks and Florsheims and the hem of my mother’s pink terrycloth robe and her mules glittery with sequins and marabou feathers.
My cousins who lived in the preferable valley location, south of Ventura Blvd., always had a tree larger and more ornately decorated than ours. We would count the presents and evaluate on a numerical scale the quality of the wrapping. Bright pop-art boxes tied with thick day glow yarn from Joseph Magnin rate way higher than thin dime store paper and tacky ribbon that curled when scraped over the blade of a scissors.
Santa would fill my argyle knee sock with packs of Juicy Fruit gum, one of those Christmas Lifesaver assortments that looked like a book, burnished leather hair barrettes with a stick stuck through and later Camel cigarettes, encouraged to help with weight control and purchased from the V.A. commissary for 35 cents a cartoon. When I was about twelve I started making my mom her own stocking with Uno Bars, black licorice, Loreal nail polish, martini olives and Stimudents stuffed into a pair of pantyhose.
When there was no more child support to squabble about my parents settled into cordial relations. My mom and her boyfriend would double date with my father and stepmother. They went to Disneyland and to the track. Both men had enormous white Cadillacs and would take turns driving and compare features. My mom would still disparage my dad and his younger-than-his-daughter wife but with less venom.
My mom always said my sister had a “goyishe kopf” and “kopf” means brain and for my readers who have little contact with people of the Hebraic persuasion, the first Yiddish word is derogatory and used to describe people such as yourself. Even though Mom had a tree herself she found Sheri excessive in her observance, as Mom, who eschewed any garment suggesting novelty, was not a big fan of Christmas sweaters. About thirty years ago my sister hosted a Christmas extravaganza replete with aforementioned sweaters, Honey Baked Ham and red and green plaid everything.
My mother never purchased a four door vehicle in order to discourage people from asking for rides and she avoided driving herself as much as possible. It may have been that the beginnings of Alzheimer’s reduced her confidence behind the wheel or just her child o’depression thriftiness. My mother lived less than two miles from my sister but called my father and asked if he could pick her up for Sheri’s party. It would have been just a few blocks out of his way but I think perhaps Mom, had inveigled less convenient transportation in the past a few times too many and my stepmother put her foot down. My mother blew her stack but made her own way to my sister’s. My father and stepmother arrived a few minutes later, both in red sweaters. My mother glanced at them and hissed, “oh, father and daughter.” My stepmother never spoke to her again although she felt guilty when my mom was laid low by Alzheimer’s and sent her many gifts signed from my dead father. I tore off these “Love, Al” cards thinking they might open a can of worms as, even though 45 years divorced, my mom would try to escape from the board and care and scream for my dad to rescue her.
I attend a wake at the Echo Park Film Center for Kodachrome which will no longer be processed after the end of the year. Three projectors are set up and Kodachrome films and slides are shown. I think about bringing a few minutes from the many hours of Kodachrome my dad shot of the family but it doesn’t happen. My parents wore insanely bitchin’ clothes. My Dad wore blue to match his eyes rayon shirts with hand stitched details from Desmond’s and slender mom wore sailor pants or bright sundresses and Bakelite sunglasses. But the thought of seeing them so young and in such vivid color gives me the heebie jeebies. Others bring home movies from the 1930s and footage shown that is shot by a pair of young filmmakers who are racing across the U.S. to shoot as much Kodachrome as possible by the deadline, in less than three weeks.
In a home movie found at a garage sale someone’s mom swigs gin from a bottle and brandishes a hunting rifle. An elderly man shows vivid films of his boys paddling a boat at Lake Havasu. He shakes his head again and again and says, “That little boy is 50 now.” One girl shows some slides unearthed from a great aunt’s apartment. The aunt emigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines after losing both her husband and son in World War II. She earned a masters degree and settled in Manhattan. Her whimsical photos are from the late 1950s and show dressy social gatherings and fantastically elaborate Easter bonnets and children in bunny costumes at a parade. After a few days, when the lab in Kansas closes, we will never be able to make anything look quite like that ever again. We note sadly that home movies and family photos end up end up at garage sales and thrift stores and while I was merciless with many of my parents’ cherished possessions I saved the reels of film, slides and scrapbooks.
Now that my young adult son is in charge of his own transportation and also that of his brother I am even lazier about leaving the house on a weeknight. But my niece Marlene Maginot didn’t really have to entice me with grilled cheese night at The Oaks next door or free tickets to attend a sketch comedy show she’d co-written at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater. I understand that about 40% of a person’s capacity to experience happiness is hard wired and the rest is nurture. I suspect the same is true with humor because my parents and sister are redeemed for fomenting drama and acrimony because they made me laugh. Marlene’s mother Cari was not raised by Sheri, her birth mother but she makes me laugh too, particularly with her gleanings from small town police blotters and accompanying droll commentary. Marlene’s dad Mike also has deep roots in funny business. He teaches Improv and as a cinephile, has a remarkable collection of comedy, giving Marlene a double genetic predisposition to be a crack up.
Marlene’s sketch is about an over-protective Hollywood mom and the result supports the advice that you should “write what you know.” Marlene has done a good deal of babysitting to subsidize her career in comedy and has obviously done a good deal of listening. The piece was written for comedienne Lauren Lapkus who I could watch forever. Lapkus appears in a couple of sketches and she uses her face, voice and body with a remarkable fearlessness and imbues her characters with weird and distinctive quirks and mannerisms. Marlene, when she performs herself, also demonstrates a remarkable physicality, sort of channeling Judy Holiday with a gangly clumsiness that is counterpart to a naïve sexiness. Marlene’s sketch really showcases Lapkus’ offbeat talent and makes for a serendipitous combination of writer and performer jibing successfully and without a net.
The evening is a family affair and the second half of the show is directed by Marlene’s fiancé Kevin Pederson. There were a number of very good sketches but a parody of “16 in Pregnant” with a guileless girl taping a PSA, designed to encourage girls to protect themselves from pregnancy, waxing on about the cool attention she gets from the kids at school, the lowered expectations of home schooling freeing up time for video games and Facebook and how much easier it is for teen moms to get their figures back. It is one of the most fun evenings I’ve had in ages and the only bummer is that Marlene’s folks weren’t in town to see the show.
My mother’s wicked sense of humor, which I and the generation after me, seem to have inherited, tips the balance in her favor. I do worry that some of my other memories may do her an injustice. She is beautiful in Kodachrome and would be sad to know that I can’t bring myself to watch the films or pour through the old albums. But I saved them and, unlike just about everything else, they will never fade.