Monday, March 26, 2007

The Longstanding Problems of Mothers and Happiness

Birthdays usually don't bother me one way or the other--we all get older, so get over it. But this birthday is an odd one for me as it's the first since my mom died, and to have a birthday without the birther as well as the birthee is something I'm not quite used to. I wish I could say my mom and I were close, but in many ways I was a betrayal of everything she wanted a child to be. I have two older sisters, and my mom and dad wanted a boy, so heard some old wives' tale that if you wait seven years you get one. They waited and got me. I was never a very good boy boy--bookish and creative and non-athletic and allergic to things that help make kids kids (milk, chocolate, pollen) from day one.

It got worse from there, at least as far as my mom was concerned (my dad's disappointments are entire 'nother blog entry beginning with my complete lack of mechanical interest or aptitude), for after going to Catholic schools through high school, even teaching CCD while in high school (albeit by teaching them about narcissistic distortion and playing them Neil Young), I left the church, don't go to church, didn't get married in the church. (It's probably a good thing she didn't realize Amy and I adapted our vows from Tony Kushner's "Epithalamion" not just because it's brilliantly beautiful but because we liked the idea of a gay man's words being part of our wedding.)

I won't even begin to discuss how in addition to religion, politics was off the table with my mom, for she took her Republicanism like her Catholicism--a whole lot of faith got her through.

In general, she just wasn't an easy woman to deal with. Maybe it's some Eastern European/Slovak thing, where the glass not only is half empty, but also you can't help but fret how close it is to the edge of the table and who's going to wash the glass later, if it somehow miraculously doesn't fall off the table and break into bits that will be very hard to clean up on the floor I just scrubbed as usual on Wednesday morning? Amy and I used to joke, because what else could we do, when she'd leave messages on the phone, always proceeded by a tiny pause that you could sense was her irritation that we weren't home so she couldn't be irritated with us in person, "'s your're never home...give me a call."

Of course then she got pancreatic cancer, which it almost seems she never seemed to get she got. Sure, she'd tell people she had it, but never once did she admit it was pretty much a death sentence. Clearly, based on 77 years she wasn't suddenly optimistic, although we all hoped her faith we turned our backs on didn't turn its back on her when she needed it most. (And I have to admit her parish priest was very good with her through it all.) I just think she refused to believe she was dying. She was one willful woman and she wasn't going to let it happen. Indeed, she lasted days beyond when someone should after no longer really eating or drinking, and made it to Christmas morning so now Christmas will always be the day my mother died. Some gifts keep giving. At the wake, one of her fellow parishioners told us how blessed my mom was, for Mary takes anyone who dies on Christmas immediately into heaven. I can only hope that bit of old wifery holds true, especially as the one part of Catholicism that still fascinates me is where it becomes superstition.

After her death my sisters and I went through all the photo albums we weren't smart enough to go through with her when we still could have learned something. Now many of the photos open to mysteries, for while we recognize many of the faces, even one like our grandfather (my mom's dad) who died after a mine accident when she was only 16, others are unknown to us. Some are clearly from the Old Country, which might as well be Mars (poor Slovakia, getting bumrushed through the 20th century as part of Austria-Hungary, then the Third Reich, then Czechoslovakia, and now the country bumpkin cousin to the Prague centered Czechs).

But then there are the photos of my mom in which she might be from Mars, too. Like the one at the top of this entry, on a trip she took to New York City from Scranton, PA (yep, the town where The Office is set) with her girlfriends before her marriage. Who knows what hope she felt, how much the world seemed possible. She seems happy and should be, beautiful and young. This was before her life became obligation, even though her older brother had already told her mom that girls didn't need to go to college, so she didn't. This is long before her marriage would fall apart, and she, too Catholic, would never even date, let alone marry again.

So here's to Marge's small joys (and me calling her Marge wasn't one of them, so sorry, Mom). Manhattans, she liked those, and let's hope it's not just fanciful of me to think it wasn't just the booze but the promise every cocktail offers, none moreso than one named after New York City. To the Mets, damn them, who couldn't even get to, let alone win, the World Series for her last year. In real life Babe Ruth doesn't hit the homerun for Billy in the hospital, he's just some drunk who strikes out. I called her a lot last summer, because that's what you do--it's not like I'm free from the onus of obligation that runs in my genes. And since politics was a sure fight, and religion was, too, we talked about the Mets, to the point where she'd often give me play-by-play over the phone. And, somehow, it often seemed games would turn during our phone conversations, rallies would kick up out of the dust. She'd still be skeptical, convinced they'd give back a lead, but you could tell she wasn't just happy the Mets went ahead, but that she shared it with me. I'm going to miss those calls this season, the ones when the woman in the picture above would briefly flicker into view, the person I'm worried she too barely even knew.

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Blogger Mike said...

Great post, George. It would've been nice if the boys had done it last October, if only to give her a good farewell.

My Mom -- with whom I, too, had a rocky relationship -- died 15 years ago, right before Thanksgiving. That holiday (which had always been my favorite) remains tricky, and Novembers in general are tough. Her birthday was also tough for a few years, but that one passed. Not the death day, though.

It's good to be honest with yourself about it. Anyway, good luck getting through the day today. And like everything else, it passes with time.

8:41 AM  
Blogger Tom Hilton said...

Beautiful post, George. And happy (if that's the right word) birthday.

10:29 AM  
Blogger Shakespeare's Sister said...

Lovely post. I can relate (although it's a daughter-dad thing in my case). And happy birthday, George.

12:04 PM  
Anonymous Steve H. said...

That was a nice rememberance, George.

It's funny how things go sometimes. If it's today you're talking about, it's my birthday too. And I'm a Mets fan. And my mother is a baseball fan, too, although she rooted for the Cincinnati Reds for many years -- including the whole time we lived in the NYC area. She rooted for Ted Kluszewski and Frank Robinson long before that, and wedged herself into a seat at old Crosley Field within a day or two of giving birth to the oldest of my younger brothers. Now, living in Sacramento, she roots for the Athletics and goes with my dad to see the AAA River Cats every now and then.

Thanks for opening up your thoughts to the rest of us. Happy Birthday.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Marty said...

Beautiful post, George. I hope you had a wonderful, if thoughtful, birthday. A belated toast to you and your mother. Manhattans all around.

5:18 PM  
Anonymous James said...

This is a really great post. I think we learn the concept of mixed emotions from family. Have the happiest birthday you can.

6:35 PM  
Blogger Trekking Left said...

Nice post. Here's to Mothers ... and their sons.

9:41 AM  
Blogger George said...

Thanks, everyone, for the comfort and birthday wishes and compliments--what more could one want for one's birthday?

Net friends are nice.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Queen Whackamole said...

Beautiful writing... one of those INOTBB posts that leaves me feeling
Best belated wishes from the ranch, George.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Wow, George. Count me among the many moved. Your tribute to your mom is as honest in its acknowledgement of your annoyances as it is loving in putting those annoyances in the context of your mom's sometimes dashed hopes and dreams. It makes me think of my dad (may God rest his soul, as your Catholic mother would likely add), especially the baseball talk.

11:32 AM  

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