Mother Dearest

Can you feel this photo? What’s the first word that comes to mind?

This is my mother and her mother. The photo was taken probably around 1965 at my gay uncle’s first false wedding. Well not false, exactly, but a ruse, a show, a public event to prove his heterosexuality to those that could affect his opera career.

He loved this wife, I believe he loved all of them. But this was more of a business arrangement, they had an agreement. He could sleep with any man he chose, or as many men as he chose, but if he were to stray to another woman, he would be castrated, and probably slowly, without anesthesia. And so, the rings were placed, the papers were signed, and they moved into an elegant three-story town home in Connecticut.

But back to the photo. Elegance. Disdain. Contempt. Animosity. Acrimony. Secrets. Adultery. All the best ingredients for a steamy reality show.

Since I was not invited to this fete – probably because I was still in the prime of my drooling and relentless attention seeking season – I do not have first-hand knowledge. I do, however, know this relationship.

Let me catch you up.

My exquisitely dressed grandmother in her silk shift with the precisely placed brooch and oh-so-understated pillbox hat seems to be saying, “I can’t believe you’re still with that man, when is he going to marry you? What do you see in him anyway? I know you’re doing this to spite me. You’ve never listened to me. Well, now I guess you’re getting what you deserve.”

To which my stunning mother in her Audrey Hepburn hat and understated jewels, quips, “I love him, Mother. We have a child to consider now. He’s going to leave her. You don’t get a say in this one.”

This will not be the end of the conversation. It will continue openly throughout the years, silently simmering with an undercurrent of imminent eruption and outwardly with gin-laced venom and righteousness. I could feel their caution around each other as a child but never really witnessed – or don’t recall – any verbal assault in my presence. Instead, my grandmother would buy too many gifts for me on special occasions – things my lousy-no-good-cheating father could never afford. She would fly me to Florida to visit her. Alone. She would take me places and teach me the ways of the world she probably hoped would poison me against him. Turns out she didn’t really have to work all that hard at it.

This nonverbal tug of war left their relationship threadbare and my mother would work this out her entire life, how she felt about her own mother. She was clear that certain women that set her teeth on edge just by the way they said something or acted a certain way were reflections of her mother. She held them blameless but would not befriend them.

For my grandmother, she was sure she was right, so there was no internal conflict on her part, my mother just had to come to her senses.

But to be fair to my mother, there is another photo of my grandmother in this pile of proofs I’ve uncovered, in which she is reaching to shake the hand of the beautiful and happy bride, with a similar look on her face. In that one she seems to be saying simultaneously, “You’re not good enough for my baby brother and I feel sorry for you and the difficult future you have chosen.”

That look it turns out is genetic. An accident of birth. I have shot a similar look at my own mother – mostly in that adolescent black hole of junior high – and for sure my mother cast a disdaining look upon some aberrant behavior that was surely a genetic flaw on my father’s side that I exhibited. But outside of age 13 or 14 I don’t think we would have had the balls to go toe to toe like this.

Maybe they didn’t either. Maybe this was just a flash of a moment caught on film while they waited for the ladies’ room that I’ve crafted a story around. Albeit a yarn built on truth.

A mommy dearest moment.

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