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.

The Mom Chronicles

I have a project, a book idea, that I really want to start. At least I say I do. I think I do. My body, though, is offering some sort of different direction.

I have bazillions of family photos, maybe a literal ton. Somehow, I have become the family historian. I completely embrace it, but now that I want to do something with all this history I’m stuck. Memoir? Novel based on imagined histories? Something else yet to be revealed?

There is this clear chronological plan in my head: take all the photos from the 1800’s through today and organize them by year, or decade if the specific year is unclear. So I started. And as I am sorting I feel so much tension in my core. Angst even. It doesn’t matter what decade it is, my body does not like this. A tiny little voice, and sometimes “random” outside influences, whispers, “let go of the past.” But I’m not holding onto it. Am I?

I’ve said all along that I’m not sure what I’m supposed to glean from this project. There is not a ton of hidden history. I mean, I’m on a first name basis with all the skeletons. And deep dives into my ancestry show pretty solid hard workers, no slave ownership, northern stock, farmers, railroad men, way too many children for each household. For sure there are secrets I’ll never uncover in the way back. For sure there are hidden truths within my own lifetime. But that doesn’t resonate as a plan or feel like the source of this unease.

I’m shifting my focus, changing up my process. I will gather all the photos of one person regardless of decade and create a timeline. But what about the other people in that person’s life? Where do they go? Why am I doing this anyway? There is something I need from all of this. Maybe the clenching in my gut is a sign to keep going. To find the right path. I hope there’s juicy dirt or ridiculousness hiding for me.

Whatever the case, I am going to choose one photo a day to write about. Could be of anyone from any era. Whether my writing is rooted in the truth or a complete fabrication will remain to be seen. The process is to write. To connect words with the image.

So here goes.

This is a photo of my mother and an unknown friend. It’s the mid 1940’s and she is living in Texas with her mother, new stepfather and new little brother. Her new dad is in the military and will use his training and GI Bill education to become an engineer like his father. He loved my mother, adopted her the moment he could after he married my grandmother. Her young childhood was good, sandwiched between a traumatic entry into the world and the realization, around 7, that her step grandparents preferred to believe she didn’t exist. She wasn’t blood. They would shower her younger brother with gifts at holidays and leave her with nothing. They doted on him while turning away from her, adhering to some antiquated code that made no sense to a young child. Or even her grown parents.

But here, in this photo, at this time in her life, she was free and happy.

There are parallels between my mother’s life and my own. Her birth story is quite dramatic, mine less so, but still not ideal or average. Her younger brother would garner the lion’s share of positive attention. Mine did the same, especially from my father who already had two daughters by another before I came along unexpectedly. If he had to have another unplanned child, at least a golden boy child was bestowed upon him.

But back to mom. She’s not around anymore to query about the mysteries of her past, but she did share a fair amount while still living. I love a good story so every opportunity I had I would throw out a few questions while pouring her another glass of wine. Maybe as I pluck photos from the past some of these stories will resurface and I can share them.

If not, I’ll make something up that sounds feasible and hopefully entertaining.

Gay Uncles

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I took a break from organizing and donating crafting supplies to begin the task of categorizing photos. The entire surface of the bed in the guest room is covered in boxes and baskets of photos. This room, the guest room, is my most favorite. It is decorated exactly the way I want it – simple white linens, an antique cherry night stand on one side of the bed and a filing cabinet hidden under a round top and layers of white linens on the other. The headboard is painted white-ish and gold – perfectly distressed – there is a cream colored bookcase, a dark oak hutch, white linen curtains and a dark wood chair. The art on the walls consists of bird prints and tiny pieces of original art I purchased on trips abroad. It is simple and clean (most of the time) and it’s where I go to breathe. The one room that is almost always neat and clean. I miss that feeling, so I’m digging in to unearth my little island of calm.

The photos are a mix of recent, with vibrant colors and uniform sizes and old yellowed, black and white with creases and cardboard backing. I love them all. The fresh memories and the bits of history I’m left to make up in the older ones. It’s those stories waiting to be told that I get lost in.

In these various piles there are two secrets closely held: one in a brown vinyl travel bag, the other in a tan photo album. They belong to my uncles. The twin great-uncles that I loved so dearly.

There is nothing scandalous hidden here. No pornographic images, no confessions or blackmail. The memories and photos are powerful in their simplicity. Each had many photos of the two of them together, they were very close, just standing side by side smiling for the camera. They were gay, both of them, though the opera singer would never claim his preferences. His brother, discreet, but out, would share his twin’s secrets with my mother and I after his death.

They weren’t really secrets.

The photos they left behind hold images of men seated in living rooms and kitchens, laughing, smiling, enjoying themselves. There are couples, it seems, only if the time is taken to go through them all. The same two men are standing or seated side by side with their arms around each other like “pals” on more than one occasion, in different clothes and maybe a change in hair style or length. These were relationships.

Tucked in with these photos are newspaper clippings of accomplishments of each other and their friends, their family.

What is so striking about these photos is nothing. Yet they were held in bottom drawers of dressers under winter clothes. I imagine them filling a roll of film half with these photos and the other half with shots of them with family and women so as not to arouse suspicion at the one-hour photo processing center in their home towns. Or even driving the unprocessed film far enough away. They would carefully cull out the photos and place the special ones in albums to be viewed often and probably alone or just with the subjects contained within. The other photos would be found loose in a kitchen drawer or in the envelope they came in, resting on the coffee table. Or maybe discarded.

So much of their lives were manipulated and restrained for the comfort of others. These secrets and maybe lies would ultimately undo them.

The opera singer, became well known in the opera community of New York City. He was married three times to different women, powerful artists in their own rights. I always suspected he was gay. He was just this side of flamboyant – dramatic perhaps, that was his job after all – and he never had children. Never wanted them. He was happy to be an uncle and he was an awesome one.

But his secrecy made him sick.

Ultimately the “not gay” opera singing uncle would succumb to AIDS toward the end of the eighties. He wasted away. He had denied his actual existence in favor of the persona he thought everyone wanted. And it killed him.

The other uncle lived much more quietly, pursuing the arts differently. He would work in Europe for Fortuny, then in Boston. Later he would open a lighting store, then a florist shop. He would drink and make the unfortunate decisions that come along with alcoholism. It was not easy living inauthentically. Liquor helped.

Later in life he would give it up. He met and fell in love with someone a decade younger who was sober but infected. They never had sex, he told me, but they were affectionate and madly in love. There are photos that make this obvious. Sweet, gentle images of the two of them engaged in conversation, smiling, listening.

But AIDS would take him too. They both knew it would eventually come and were as prepared as anyone can be for such profound, gradual loss.

There would be no other lovers. Instead he turned his life over to AA. For over 30 years my sweet uncle would take in people in the “the program” who needed a soft place to land for a while. He had inherited his father’s house and there were two bedrooms and a Florida room surrounded on two sides with jalousie windows and a back door. He moved into the Florida room to allow the residents of the other rooms some privacy. That’s just how he was.

The house was a very small typical Florida home built sometime in the 40s and 50s. Just one small bathroom, a large kitchen with a window over the sink with a wide sill that my great grandmother would place peanut butter crackers on for the local squirrel population, feeding some of them by hand and a living room big enough to fit an upright piano. His parents had lived in it over 30 years. He moved in with his father to help take care of him in his later years, to be sure he took his meds and didn’t drive after too many cocktails. His dad “knew” but it wasn’t discussed. His mother had passed ten years prior and she would not allow it to be spoken about. She knew too, they were her babies, the youngest of six by about 12 years. But still, you just didn’t talk about such things.

He would, much later after his beloved dog died, check himself into an assisted care facility from which he would not emerge alive. He was beginning to forget things and didn’t want to be a burden. He knew what was coming, he had seen it in every one of his older siblings, except his twin who would escape that fate by dying too young.  Less than a year after he moved out of his tiny Florida home he went to sleep and didn’t wake up. I’m pretty sure he planned it that way.

Their lives were rich, they mattered. They loved wholly and completely. They each left a legacy of art, beauty, laughter and love.

They were great, great-uncles and sifting through their photographic pasts fills my heart with compassion and sadness in equal measure for the lives they lived and the ones they hid.

 

Inheritance

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Tomorrow it will be a month since my mother passed away. It was unexpected. Nearly a decade ago she had surgery to replace a heart valve. After that she had lots of energy and spunk but she would be on medicine for the rest of her life. It is that medication that is likely responsible for her death. “A catastrophic bleed.” A stroke, she simply laid down in bed one night really tired and never regained consciousness – it’s how she wanted to go, but probably not when.

I share this with you not to elicit sympathy or use her life as a cautionary tale, but by way of explanation for my absence from the interweb. And to share a little story about a lot of stuff.

In the weeks since she died I have been handling her “estate” and its contents. She had no money, was on social security and Medicaid, but her modest two-bedroom apartment told a different story.

My mother was not a hoarder, but she did have an affinity for all things crafty and written. She had three enormous bookshelves packed with books – floor to ceiling, wall-to-wall, sometimes two rows deep. She had one bedroom, the larger one, dedicated to crafts. She sewed, knitted, made jewelry, painted, drew, fantasized, dreamed and created all sorts of things in this space. She had 5 bookcases in this room filled with fabric, beads, yarn, paper and more books. Two desks for working. And when those filled up she opened a table.

Her closet and dresser were packed with clothes, good quality, known brands, yet she often complained that she needed new clothes. She had items stored in her kitchen that she never used. At least a dozen cups full of notepads and pens, crochet hooks and feathers, dotted the landscape of her home. She had multiples of personal care items like deodorant and soap – different brands, not like she bought them in bulk – just in case, I suppose.

Dealing with her home and its contents provided a welcome distraction from grief for a while, but in the larger picture it was full of life lessons on prosperity, abundance and stuff. It felt like a cruel joke at first: this is my year of letting go of stuff, of purging my home and now I have added a whole (almost) two bedroom apartment to the mix. It wasn’t about me of course, only it was.

It was a lesson for me. So many lessons, some still being revealed.

I brought a lot of her things home, but I was also able to off-load a ton of the fabric and craft supplies to a crafters guild she belonged to, I left some furniture behind for her neighbor and donated some clothes and kitchen items to the local charity thrift shop. But I still filled 6 car loads, an SUV and one of those super tall vans.

It overwhelms me, but it was very clear to me that I wanted to take my time with what I culled. And I’m glad that I am. There’s not much of monetary value, but a lot of memories and clues to the woman that was my mother.

I was completely prepared after this “year-long purging project” to chuck all my personal things and never look back. That could still happen, but as I paw through the personal effects of a life that spanned 75 years, and a handful of states from coast to coast, I’m starting to recognize value in things.

Not all things. I am not changing my tune completely.

But finding the book my mother read to me as a child stirred the sweetest of memories. All the bad artwork my brother and I created as children was saved, as were a tiny outfit or two, a blanket, locks of hair.

I uncovered a poem my grandmother wrote and some of her artwork. Tucked in a folder I found an autobiography my mother had written for admittance to ministerial school that revealed a few things I did not know. And a mountain of cards and letters from my mother’s friends showed her to be much loved.

While it’s true the memories do not live in these things, they do serve as a touchstone that creates a picture of the person who elected to hold onto them. These things convey what was important to her, what mattered. It’s a comfort.

I have already released many items. I just needed to touch them, to take my time with them, learn something from them, investigate. But now, they have served their purpose. I am slower in giving up photos and items she made and maybe I’ll always hold onto them. I have set aside a few items I know she particularly loved. But I have also been able to gift specific books and items to my friends who are a perfect match.

I have let go of the self-judgment that would have forced me to toss them before I was ready. My mission for my own home. Instead I am learning the value of a few items to bring comfort.

My mission for my home, even with her stuff in it, is still the same. I am going to go through everything and release that which does not serve me or bring me happiness. This was never about living in an empty home, but about lightening up, I just have more stuff to go through now.

It’s a process, a journey, and like all journey’s it’s made much sweeter by taking time and moving mindfully.