June 27, 2005 at 1:34 PM (family) ()

When I think of her, I tend to hear “Charade.”

May 1941, with her mother waiting for the war, my mother was born….When she was a baby, she could smile freely. I know, because there’s this picture of her with a broad absolutely toothless grin on a baby blanket. She became a serious child with blue-gray eyes who created a specific “picture smile” to paste on her face because she believed it was expected. She adored her parents and they her, taking particular pleasure in her bright mind and athleticism. She set the bar for her two younger siblings, and I think they were the first to be a bit intimidated by her.

She had long, heavy dark hair as a child, and I often wondered what she would have looked like had she kept that length. She was tall and broad shouldered, but never awkward by the time I knew her…lithe and beautiful….She cropped her hair in her teens, wore black velvet and lipstick and was quite admired…by the time I was sentient in the mid sixties ten years later, she had the look, fashion sense and attitude of Audrey Hepburn in “Wait Until Dark” (Just take out blindness and the suspenseful subplot.)

Gorgeous, with little makeup but (seemingly) unaware of it, just carried it around with her like a purse or set of keys. I was to learn a bit later how much work went into gorgeous. She loved lists and organization and planning, so that outings went off with very few unplanned variables. She owes a great debt to the inventor of the yellow sticky note.

She worked hard to make A’s and not just A’s in lit or home ec. No. She made A’s in math, in physics.She would later wonder why in the world the Math Gene hadn’t made the trip from her to me. (I did get the most elementary piece of that math gene. I calculate additions and subtractions in my head if they’re four figures or less. It’s faster. But the ataxic cerebral palsy with its annoying lack of spatial coordination may have been part of the downfall of things like [shudder] Trigonometry.)

In order to get work she taught herself COBOL and FORTRAN in the infancy of computer programming. In excellence of learning she was my role model. She did not “take up” the feminist cause, per se, but always acted the equal (superior?) of any nearby man; from that I took the measured position that me and men were equals and that they would have a darn difficult time convincing me otherwise, even if I couldn’t do Extreme Math. My father put her through hell. Period. Emotional abuse for years…high decibel and constant. She stood it for me and we were a team. She also stayed for some reason of her own, but when I was nearly out of high school freed us both from that. There was the vacation where our cabin nearly exploded because of his inebriated mismanagement of an oil furnace. Her running out into the dark with me in her Ohio state sweatshirt and pelting up the hill to where my grandparents were sleeping so she could conjure up some maintenance people and save him and the cabin. Nights of her stashing me into the back seat and making the same drive over and over downtown to haul his sorry butt out of some bar. Uncertain nights where we didn’t know what had become of him. A wrecked car. Or the past everything silliness of him showing up wasted with a pizza for us and then falling downstairs to land unconscious and unhurt the side of his face smack in the middle of the pizza. We left him downstairs overnight. She made a conscious decision after the divorce that nothing bad would ever happen to her again.

She was burdened from the beginning, with one unfinished, and one uncooperative housemate. She handled both “men’s” and “women’s” work with economical fierce brilliance and a portion of bitterness. If we grew tomatoes, had a newly painted house, a mowed lawn or a decent Christmas, it was certain that the uncooperative member of the household at best had nothing to do with it, and at worst was an active saboteur.

When I was young, it was obvious by everything she did that she understood the responsibility of nurturing a child, of showing love so that the child wouldn’t want for emotional sunlight. We learned, gamed, baked, and talked together. There were no siblings, so she couldn’t help but indulge my fantasy that I was an adult. She was the constant, that center of reliability that I grew to depend upon. No matter how much money was mishandled (*never by her*) I did not lack for clothes, food or allowance. We worked together to minimize and combat the tornado that was my father’s alcoholism. She enjoyed the few times I managed the “dress up” part of my adolescence. She took great pride in the occasional grand surprise: a trip to the Shakespeare festival, or tickets to the theater to indulge in our shared love of plays. And she was my first teacher. Between two and three and four I learned to pick up and carry things, walk with leg braces, math flash cards for the numbers and letters, all because of her. She made it a game, so that learning became something I wanted to do, not something I hated. She would roust up early, lash me into my earliest leg braces and help me dress for school. The only thing besides the walking that lagged behind was tying my shoelaces. She and I were both rather mortified I think that it took me until I was eight years old.

When I was in my teens I gave her a plaque. Calligraphy done by a friend. It hangs in her kitchen today. “Perfection is something you never achieve. If you try too hard it’s a waste of your time.” My mother never stops trying for perfection. Even before I gained weight, the disability made me de facto, imperfect. I couldn’t help but wonder if this pursuit of perfection was a run away from me and my out front imperfect self. I was grateful she wasn’t Old. An Old Mother would never have agreed to a day at the amusement park, just her and I and the rollercoaster…She was determined I would master it, I was equally determined not to, but as was often the case, she was a mix of persuasive and implacable, so I went. I owe my love of coasters, particularly the back seat, to her.

An Old Mother wouldn’t have gone to concerts with me either. At work, my mother was often questioned and the coworker’s were often amazed that she had a teenaged daughter. She has an airy eccentric good humor, for example about directions, “But, I don’t feel like making a left.” She tells stories well, with visual aids and uses her body like a charade match to make a point.”Which way to the Beach?” reads a silly tee shirt memorializing a 1982 trip to the oceanside.

She had her beaux, apres my father, some I met, and liked, some I never met face to face.I was rather irritated when it became obvious that one of my friends from college could appreciate her attributes much more than mine.

She could never just leave a room. One could count to ten and she would return with “Just one more thing…”

When she decided to find a steady again she listed ten attributes she considered essential to be part of her new man. The gentleman she eventually married only had eight of ten and that initially troubled her. But he is a sunny, balanced, kind spirited fellow that loves her very much, and they attacked the second half of life with great enthusiasm, traveling abroad, cross country skiing, biking, and beaching. She could still wear a white bikini at fifty-two with impunity and without today’s nip, tuck obsession. No plastic surgery necessary.

She and I fought over physical activity. Pain hurts, so I’m not inclined to inflict it, part of the reason that to her and my great regret; I’m fat now. Even if I was thin, I did not inherit the height or grace of her side of the family. I’m now as the doctors put it, markedly obese, the rounder shorter buxom lookalike to most of the women of my father’s people. She saw it as vital that I get in as much activity as I could. She was right, I was wrong.

She keeps her youthfulness, so that one would never take her for sixty four today…it’s almost frightening, the way that Sophia Loren still looks the way she looks, and one wonders, “Just what sort of deal did you have to make to look this good?”Some carmaker talks about the relentless pursuit of perfection…. Have they met her?


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