Sunday, May 17, 2015

Hi Mom

I am the son of Rozalia and Richard

One week ago on Mother’s Day I did something I never did before. I wished my mother a happy Mother’s Day. Thanks in large measure to the gravediggers who started shoveling dirt on her casket the moment it was being lowered into the ground, I’ve considered my mother nothing but dead since she died. I felt like the gravediggers were slapping me across the face, but a point was made. You’re alive or you’re dead, and my mother was the latter. Message received.

I’ve never “talked” to my mother since she died, have seldom dreamt of her, and until about a week ago never thought that maybe someday I’d see her again. Like most kids, as I got older I realized my mother wasn’t perfect. But unlike many mothers, she was not here to defend herself, so my anger and impatience toward her won every time. I suppose first and foremost, I was mad at her for dying.

She was confined to her bed with uterine cancer from about the time I was six, and died just after I turned nine. She was not told she had cancer, and neither were I or my older brother. My sister knew as the eldest child, but when I’d ask what was wrong with Mother (as we had to call her), I was dismissed or yelled at by everyone who knew the truth.

How my mother’s illness and death were handled would make a textbook example of how not to deal with such things. Like many cancer patients, her behavior grew erratic, even irrational, as her illness progressed. At night her cries to God to let her die woke me, and when I mentioned this to others they snapped at me as usual. She of course also physically degenerated. I was an observant child, and this experience gave me a lifelong sixth sense as to when someone was about to die from illness. It’s a dubious skill I could live without.

For the last week or so of her life the door to her bedroom was closed so I could not see her. Yet on the morning of the day she was to die, I opened her door. Various relatives called out, “Don’t go in there,” but I already manifested the curious boldness that so often would get me in trouble over the years. My mother turned to me and said, “Yes?” as if asking what she could do for me. I mumbled hello before they pulled me away and whisked me off to school.

My maternal grandmother immigrated to the U.S. from Eastern Europe when she was only twelve years old. She kept talking about wanting to come to the USA, so her dirt poor farming family somehow arranged it. (She came by herself, and would see her family of origin only once more.) Granny arrived at Ellis Island knowing but one word of English, “broom,” which came in handy. She was a house servant for a time, and then worked in a factory until she retired. For over seventy years her home was Perth Amboy, New Jersey, a good place for blue-collar workers to find jobs.

Her husband died when she was pregnant with her fifth child, and in fact Granny would outlive three of her children. She worked a man’s machine in the factory for extra money—in other words, an extra dollar or two per week. Only two of her children would graduate high school (one was my mother), while the two others still living were forced to quit school to work in the factory. Granny herself never learned to read or write, though she always had an opinion.

My grandmother was devoutly Russian Orthodox, and like most everyone in my family—and many Russian Americans—a lifelong conservative. However poor she and her children were, they never took a handout. She kept a picture of the Czar in her bedroom, and believed communism to be evil. Taking money from the government was shameful in her eyes, and she always gave thanks to God for all that she had—which was not always much in other people’s eyes. (When I lived with my aunt, I was not allowed to get an after school job or eat at a friend's house, lest the neighbors think we were poor. I likewise got fed the riot act one day in summer, when I left the house barefoot. The neighbors again—they’d think we were too poor to buy shoes.)

Like her mother before her and her sisters, my mother grew to be an attractive young woman. And like something out of The Glass Menagerie, she had many promising suitors, but chose an exceptionally irresponsible one to marry. By the time she was pregnant with me, she and my father were literally broke—as in, no food in the house. My father also was in trouble with the law, and would do a stint in prison. He liked betting on horses more than Fate enjoyed rewarding his efforts, and men with guns came to the house looking for him. I was nine months old when my parents divorced, and none of us kids would see our father again. (Though we learned of his death.)

My mother, like her siblings, felt caught between her old world heritage and new world reality, though more than the others she erred on the side of the old world. She even made sure her second husband was Russian, though he proved no more dependable than his predecessor.

Her fascination for all things Russian rendered me highly embarrassed by my heritage. Like many third generation Americans, I strove to be 100% Americanized. As a kid, I wanted to live in a suburban ranch house like the perfect TV families. I wanted Betty Crocker cakes and Thom McCan shoes like the other kids. Granny was famous for her homemade bread and poppy seed loaves, but I refused to eat them.

At the time, it must have seen only fitting that my mother be given a Russian Orthodox funeral. Her siblings supplied the lengthy and complex a capella chorale. But not a word of the funeral was in English. There were no speakers who talked about her, nothing set aside for her children to participate in. It’s a strange sensation to feel excluded at your mother’s funeral. But everything was done as my grandmother wanted it. Even had it occurred to any of her surviving children to do it differently—and it probably did not—they could not stand up to her even when they were middle aged. 

I should also mention that my mother’s was the second of four funerals in a row I attended over a period of four months. They were all Russian Orthodox affairs, which meant I also went for several evenings in a row to the wakes for all of them. Decades before it became fashionable, I saw dead people. Perhaps this contributed to my eventual interest in writing murder mysteries. Certainly it contributed to a chip on my should I carry to this day—though I’d like to believe it’s gotten smaller—as to why other people had “normal” things like a steady home and parents. I’d live in several different households before going off on my own at fifteen. I wore my poverty as a badge of honor, proof of my emancipation from the past. Or so I told myself many times over.

I could write a book about all the thoughtless things my family did in the wake of my mother’s illness and death. But this blog post is already too long, so I’ll only mention two more. One was during her wake, when an aunt of mine smiled and said, “Well, when are you going to kiss your mother good-by?” She said this like someone saying, “Would you like an extra dab of mayo on your sandwich?” Or at least that’s how I heard it. So I walked up to the open coffin alone, and, always afraid of disobeying at the most self-destructive times, counted one-two-three and forced myself to kiss her cold dead lips. Nothing more was said about it.

Then, several years later, the same aunt told me that my birth was what caused my mother to get cancer and die. The American Psychological Association owes my aunt a debt of gratitude for all the financial support her remark set in motion over the years. 

Anyway, I got tired of feeling like damaged goods whenever I met someone, because sooner or later they ask you about your family, and the tale of my early years doesn’t exactly make for a surefire anecdote at parties. I felt ashamed to have no parents, to live with other relatives or then be on my own as a minor. I remain ashamed of my Russian heritage, and still have only a theoretical grasp as to why people take pride in their ethnicity. I don’t know what it feels like. I joined several different faiths to “erase” the Orthodox from my life. I went back to using my birth father’s surname instead of the Russian one of my stepfather, which embarrassed me every time I heard it. Better a crook than a commie.

But last Sunday, the outpouring of support I received from Facebook friends prompted me to come forward with all this. I hope I haven’t bored you. Moreover, if you are facing the loss or potential loss of a loved one, please, talk about it. Even—or especially—if children are involved. And as for my mother, I am starting to get to know her for the first time.

PS: She had some minor success as a singer, but most all her mementos were routinely discarded upon her death. I was told I could keep one picture of her for my own, and this is the one I chose.