My mother left our home in an ambulance on a sunny spring morning while my sister, my brother, and I were at school. I was in the fourth grade. Before I’d left that day, I’d come downstairs and seen my mother sleeping on the couch. The early-morning sunlight, shining through the wooden blinds and flowered drapes, rippled over her blond hair and pale orange nightgown. Although she appeared to be asleep, she had actually fallen into a diabetic coma. As I leaned over to kiss her goodbye, I smelled the thick, sweet scent of apricots.
I remember once as a girl being in a liquor store and seeing my mother, in a green silk suit, mink stole, and sunglasses, reach for a bottle of George Dickel sour-mash whiskey. The liquor — copious amounts of it, in combination with the insulin she injected from small glass syringes — eventually poisoned her, and she became frozen in time, a woman of the 1950s who’d once looked like a movie star but was now clad in flowered cotton dresses and white ankle socks and living in a building with bars on the windows.
After she’d gone away, the house seemed oddly quiet. My father, who knew nothing about cooking, took us out to dinner every night at the Ham ’N Eggs, where the waitresses were kind to us, and my siblings and I became fascinated by a machine that could flip a piece of toast in the air and deposit it onto a waiting plate. Just down the street from the restaurant was the hospital where my mother lay in a coma. Children were not permitted in hospitals then, so we drove right past her in our blue Buick convertible, but I always turned and looked back at the six-story tan brick building. What kind of dream were we living in? How had so much changed so quickly?
I wish I knew more about my mother as a young woman: the secretary who eloped with a handsome man twelve years older than she was; the housewife who filled her home with antiques and tended flowers in the backyard and one day picked up a glass of whiskey. Had she been happy once? Why had she started drinking?
I spent hours in her walk-in closet, sitting beneath her dresses and evening gowns, shadowed by racks of shoes and hats stored in round boxes. I pressed her furs against my cheek — foxes, lambs, and minks whose small, scared faces had once dangled from her shoulder. I sifted through her dresser drawers, filled with lace handkerchiefs, elbow-length gloves, nylon slips, feather-trimmed bed jackets, and silk nightgowns smelling faintly of lavender. I’d stand in front of her full-length mirror wearing one of her taffeta gowns, a string of her beads cool against my neck. I loved opening drawers and breathing in the sweet, musty, powdery scent of her.
After three weeks, my mother awakened from the coma, her brain damaged, and was moved to a nursing home an hour from our house. Letters from her began to arrive each day, addressed to my father in fluttery script on onionskin envelopes. I sometimes snuck one upstairs to read it. The letters always said the same thing:
Pick me up on Sunday. Bring a suitcase. Don’t be late. Get here by one o’clock!
Some days the postman pushed three or four of her letters through the brass slot in the green front door, but I never saw my father open them.
On her days off from her job as a switchboard operator at the Hotel New Yorker, my mother’s mother, Nan, arrived to help out. Grandmothers were supposed to wear aprons, bake pies, and read stories to children, but Nan had been in the navy, lived in a hotel, and liked to jump in the Hudson River every winter with the Polar Bear Club. She would come to our house with jars of wheat germ and cod-liver oil and vitamins, and she’d cook for us what she called “Nan’s specials.” (She later told me she had no idea how to cook.)
Nan lived in a hotel on 29th Street and Broadway in Manhattan and loved to take us to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes, or to the automat, where we could put coins in a slot, open a small door, and slide out a piece of pie. She would not admit my mother was an alcoholic and was always saying, “Of course she could come home! The man down the hall from me has diabetes, and he’s not in the hospital.”
I did not tell my fourth-grade friends what had happened to my mother. When I brought my classmate Carol home with me after school, I called out, “Mom? Are you home?” After waiting for a reply, I said, “She’s still at work.”
“Your mother works?” Carol asked. “What does she do?”
I hesitated, wondering whether liars burned in hell or just went to purgatory. “She’s in the navy,” I said.
After a while Carol stopped asking questions, but her mother once pulled me aside and said, “Carol never sees your mother. What happened to her? Where is she?”
I could have told her that I had no idea what had happened to my mother; it would have been the truth. But instead I just stood there and said nothing.
My father worked in New York City as the head of his own company and had little vacation time, so the first summer after my mother went away — the year I turned ten — he sent us to New Bedford, Massachusetts, to stay with our aunt and uncle. Their yellow house, shaded by a sprawling maple tree, was neat and orderly, and no one there ever drank cocktails. Dinner was served at five o’clock every day. We were fifteen minutes early for Mass on Sundays, and at noon Aunt Helen served a feast on a lace tablecloth in the dining room: pot roast, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, deviled eggs, watermelon, and homemade strawberry-rhubarb pie with vanilla ice cream. My older cousin Mary Beth advised me to “offer it up” whenever something irritated me, and Aunt Helen and Uncle Jim seemed to enjoy teasing me out of my shyness.
I rode my bike around New Bedford all day, and when I got home, I’d find Aunt Helen in the living room drinking tea from a china cup and reading poetry, her white hair pulled back in tortoiseshell combs and a medal of the Virgin Mary around her neck. She was always there: rolling out pie crust, making cream puffs, squeezing fresh orange juice, planting zinnias in the backyard, talking with me and laughing. I’d hear her whispering her rosary in the next room as I lay in bed at night, a breeze off Buzzards Bay blowing in through the screen, a gold crucifix shining on the wall, my crisp, flowered sheets smelling of the sea air.
When my siblings and I returned from New Bedford, my mother called to say that she was coming home the next Sunday. I ran to tell the neighborhood kids — who, unlike my friends at school, knew about my mother’s hospitalization — and we planned a spectacular welcome-home parade, with kites and balloons, our dogs and cats ready to march with bows around their necks, our bicycles festooned with crepe paper. But Sunday arrived, and my mother did not. The next time she called, she said, “Guess what, Valerie Anne. I’m coming home on Sunday!” Soon after that, the calls stopped.
My father did his best to keep my sister and brother and me amused. Sometimes he’d bark like a dog or crow like a rooster at the dinner table, and we’d nearly fall off our chairs laughing. He once offered five dollars to the child who grew the best garden, and I won the prize with my red gladioluses. He worked at the dining-room table every weekend with his slide rule and magnifying glass, designing fabrics: dark stripes and plaids woven with strands of silver or gold. He was intelligent and jovial, with blue eyes and thick white hair slicked back with Vitalis. Even for his Saturday-afternoon trips to the barbershop and supermarket, he put on a white shirt, sport coat, tie, and gray felt hat. In the summers he wore a bowtie and a straw hat with a striped grosgrain ribbon, and sometimes he’d barbecue on Saturday nights wearing his chef’s hat, knee socks, and Bermuda shorts.
Playing Simon Says or Red Light, Green Light with the kids outside, I’d look up every so often at the window of our red brick house to see if my father was still there, working at the dining-room table or sitting in the window seat, reading the Herald Tribune, a coil of smoke from his cigarette drifting through the screen. I never heard him complain. Perhaps he modeled his behavior after his own father, whose wife had died of pneumonia at age forty, leaving him to raise five children alone.
Once, someone invited us over for dinner, and one of our hosts said, “Poor children,” in a way that told me my mother would not be coming home. When my father talked about the future, however, he always said, “When Mommy comes home . . .” He never used the word if.
He visited my mother on Sunday afternoons and was patient with my frequent inquiries about what had happened to her. “Her brain was damaged from the coma,” he said. “She can’t come home right now. I wish she could, but without a short-term memory, who knows what she could do? She might turn on the stove and forget, or light a cigarette and leave it burning somewhere.”
“Why can’t we go see her?” I asked.
“Because children aren’t allowed in nursing homes.”
“Do you think she’ll get better?” I asked.
“I hope so.”
My father hired a Czechoslovak woman to iron our clothes in the basement and Maria from the Virgin Islands to clean our house. Maria took two buses and a train from East Harlem to Manhasset every week and earned fifteen dollars a day. I liked to follow her around as she dusted, vacuumed, and scrubbed the oven, chattering to me in her Creole accent. I noticed that she never made a comment about the future, including whether or not she would see me the next week, without adding, “God willing.”
Our family, being considerably less devout than Maria, was always twenty minutes late for church. Our real interest seemed to be breakfast at the diner afterward. I wished my father would join the Holy Name Society. I wanted him to put a Saint Christopher statue in our car or invite a priest home for dinner. But he never did. Some Sunday mornings we slept past noon. When I woke up and ran in to tell my father we had missed Mass again, he’d say, “Well, let’s say a few prayers at home today, dear.” I wondered if things might have been better for us if we’d had a faith as strong as Maria’s.
I recited rosaries and novenas and spent hours thinking about my mother. In most of my memories she was screaming at someone: yelling at another driver on the road, or accusing the maid of having thrown out her engagement ring (which she had left in a tissue on the windowsill), or claiming my father had tried to blind her by putting poison in her eye cup. I tried to figure out what she was really like from the artifacts she’d left behind: two huge candy-cane Christmas decorations made out of stovepipes; a wheelbarrow filled with geraniums on the front lawn; her collection of antiques and demitasse cups; a small blue box filled with glass syringes, stored in the drawer of her night table. I pictured her walking into the house like a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I continued to recite rosaries and novenas and waited for my prayers to be answered.
Sitting at her vanity, coating my lips with her cherry red lipstick and painting my eyelids blue, I thought, So what if she’s a diabetic: I could learn to give her injections. So what if she’s forgetful: I wouldn’t let her near the stove. So what if she smokes and is careless with her cigarettes: I’d hide her matches.
Slowly my mother changed from the volatile woman I remembered into a saintlike presence: beautiful, aloof, unattainable.
My father struggled to raise three children and run a business. My older sister was angelic, but my father seemed to have no idea how to get my younger brother and me to behave. The best threat he could come up with was “Watch your step, kids, or we’re moving to Paducah!”
One Saturday evening we drove all over Long Island looking for a children’s-clothing store that was still open so he could buy me the black bathing suit I needed to perform in the water ballet at the country club the next day. When I marched as a Brownie or Girl Scout in the Memorial Day parade, we were always late and had to chase the procession in our car to catch up with my troop. Without a mother to advise me, my habits of hygiene apparently became a bit slipshod, and one day, when I arrived at school with washed and combed hair, wearing a clean red corduroy jumper and an ironed white blouse, a girl in my class came up to me and said, “You look really nice today, Valerie.”
My sister became a wonderful cook, and as I watched her make our dinner one night, I flipped through my mother’s copy of The Joy of Cooking and read:
The chief virtue of cocktails is their informal quality. They loosen tongues and unbutton the reserves of the socially diffident. Serve them by all means, preferably in the living room, and the sooner the better.
As a teenager, browsing through my grandmother’s photo album, I found a picture clipped from a local newspaper of my mother wearing a flowered skirt, dark blouse, pearls, and a straw picture hat. The caption read: “Summer scenes include Mrs. K.J. Hurley wearing a smart ensemble and lattice shoes after lunching at the Strathmore-Vanderbilt Country Club.”
I loved to read Bible stories about miracles: the loaves and the fishes feeding the masses; Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana; the healing of the nine lepers; the raising of Lazarus — but eventually I started addressing my prayers to Saint Jude, help of the hopeless. Sometimes my fantasies of my mother’s homecoming seemed so real I could see her ruby red fingernails and smell her Tweed perfume. I could picture her playing canasta, wearing a white sundress. But as the days passed, she became less a memory, more a dream.
After I turned eighteen, I asked my father if I could accompany him on one of his Sunday visits to see my mother. I had not seen her since I was nine. After spending nearly a decade in an expensive nursing home, she had recently been transferred to the state mental hospital. She did not really belong there, my father said. He had agonized over the decision to transfer her, but there seemed to be no place she did belong.
I was so nervous about the reunion that I asked my dad if we could stop for a drink at a bar near the hospital, and we each downed a Scotch before we drove to Building 93 of the Kings Park Psychiatric Hospital. Men hung on the bars of the windows, hooting at us as we walked up the path. The elevator moved slowly, creaking like an ancient cattle car, and deposited us in a bland hallway, where we pressed a button that rang a bell. A nurse let us in, then locked the green metal door behind us.
Inside Ward 65, old women in faded cotton dresses and brown oxfords paced listlessly up and down the green linoleum hallways. A nurse had set up a table for our reunion, complete with a white tablecloth and a pitcher of red roses. I looked around for my blond mother. Instead a heavyset woman with dark brown hair came rushing toward me, shouting, “Valerie Anne!”
“Hi, Mommy,” I said.
We hugged, and the three of us sat down. There was so much — and so little — to say. I, who had been a skinny young girl when I’d last seen her, was now four inches taller than she was, my bleached-blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, my eyelashes darkened with mascara. My father relieved the tension by telling stories and jokes as I gazed across the table at this stranger who did not remotely resemble the mother I remembered. I hated this place: the plaster walls painted swimming-pool blue, the dormitory beds and lockers, the barred windows, the medicinal odor tinged with urine. I felt sorry for my mother, for all the women on Ward 65.
“I haven’t been home in over a month!” my mother exclaimed. “Do you know what, Valerie Anne? I didn’t even go swimming this summer!”
I vowed silently that I would get her out of this hospital.
I began visiting on Sundays with my father and grandmother, but rather than sit on the ward, we’d take my mother to a dingy bar in the town of Kings Park. My grandmother drank port wine, my father drank Scotch, I drank beer, and my mother drank diet ginger ale that she thought was a rye and ginger. She repeated the same questions again and again: “Did you bring me any cigarettes?” “What day is today?” At home her clothes still hung in her closet. She had no idea what year it was. She did not know how old she was — or I was.
Alcohol shimmered in glass bottles on a shelf above the bar: pale green and bright yellow and topaz and amber liquors. What were we doing in a bar? Why was I drinking? Why did no one talk about the dangers of alcohol? Why did no one talk about so many things?
My mother’s dark brown hair was held back off her forehead with a bobby pin. She took out her compact and powdered her nose. “Did you bring me any cigarettes?” she asked.
“Yes, Mom, we did.”
“What day is it?”
The tables were covered with red-checked oilcloth, and metal awnings on the windows shielded the interior from sunlight. A clock ticked wearily on the wall. The room smelled of peanuts and stale beer. My parents — a man and a woman who had once loved each other so much they had eloped to Maryland — sat beneath the fluorescent lights, talking about inconsequential things. Beside them was my grandmother, who had given birth to a daughter named Valerie on Valentine’s Day when she was twenty-five years old. And then there was me, a dreamy eighteen-year-old who turned nineteen and twenty and twenty-one and twenty-two and twenty-three as we all continued to sit there, Sunday after Sunday, waiting for those endless meals to end: several rounds of drinks, then hamburgers and French fries, then ice cream and coffee while I restlessly tapped my foot against the table leg and my mother shouted, “Waitress! I’ll have another cup of coffee!” I hated that bar almost as much as I hated Ward 65. But we owed her this much, didn’t we: some time away from the hospital, some family togetherness, some shred of normality?
On the way out of the bar I held her arm, which was round and soft under my fingers. I wanted her to be wearing the royal blue taffeta evening gown in her closet, not a baggy hospital-issue raincoat that hung down to her ankles. I wanted to take her aside, to gently shake her and say: “Mommy, don’t you remember me?” I wanted to be nine again, to be eight, to be five. I wanted to start over.
As an adult I didn’t visit my mother as often as I felt I should, and sometimes on my visits I’d simply sit and look at her. She still wore red lipstick and spent a lot of time looking for her comb, her compact, her wallet, her purse. Often she had on a necklace she had won at bingo. The hospital staff called her “feisty.” I listened again and again to the tale of how she’d fooled her grandmother by staying over at a friend’s house and then slipping off to a dance, or the account of her shopping trip to buy high heels that her grandmother would never have approved of. I showed her photographs. I brought her chocolate ice cream. It was easy to make her laugh. “I love you,” I always said before I left. “Will you remember that?”
The first time my mother visited my husband and me, we were living on a farm in upstate New York. Our yellow house was surrounded by fields of corn and hay, the pale gray-blue mountains turning lavender at dusk. Beside the brook in front of the house, where an old white lilac tree stood, wild horseradish grew, and yellow lilies bloomed beside blue forget-me-nots. Our two daughters, Mara and Erin, were both sweetly attentive to their mysterious grandmother. My father had died, and I was grateful to my sister, who still lived on Long Island, for taking my mother out of the hospital every Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter and Mother’s Day.
By that time I’d read about children of alcoholics — about the atmosphere of half-truths and white lies; the kids trained not to acknowledge the obvious; the unspoken rules: don’t talk; don’t trust; don’t feel. I knew some of those traits applied to me, for all those years of wanting and needing and begging and hoping had dulled my emotions.
My mother’s meager possessions — cigarettes, comb, makeup, photographs, old cards and letters — were stuffed into her black plastic purse. Someone at the hospital had packed for her: no nightgown, no underwear, six pairs of slacks, no tops, one tube of toothpaste, no toothbrush.
When my husband got up to wash the dishes, my mother said to me, “You have him well trained!” When she wasn’t smoking, she was powdering her face or applying her lipstick or, with a shaky hand, slicking red polish onto her fingernails.
One day I took her to the ophthalmologist, and when she thanked me, I said, “It’s no trouble, Mom. That’s what daughters are for.”
“No, they’re not,” she snapped. “Daughters are for talking back to you and trying to get you to buy something for them when you don’t want to!”
I was amazed to see that she wasn’t joking. Then I remembered that her words were often like a time capsule from the 1950s. Is this the way many mothers had felt about girls then — that they were materialistic and manipulative?
One night, as my mother sat at the table in the kitchen, I watched her from across the room, as if I were an artist preparing to sketch her. I’d been reading a poem by Theodore Roethke:
The whiskey on your breath Could make a small boy dizzy; But I hung on like death: Such waltzing was not easy.
I imagined being in her womb, listening to her and my father talking and my sister laughing. Had she been happy then? Had she chosen to have me? Had she been hoping for a boy? Had I, a willful, introverted, and dramatic child, been a disappointment to her? I wondered what kind of woman she had been before she’d started to have a second cocktail before dinner, and then a third; before she’d kept a bottle of whiskey in her closet and become a regular at the bars downtown; before she’d become what back then was called a “lady lusher,” a woman who “helled around” with the boys.
She was sitting in a chair in my kitchen, nearly asleep beneath a painting of sunflowers on the blue wall: my mother in her dress of blue leaves. I’d started calling her “Ma,” a breezy appellation that made me feel like a cherished daughter, even though she seemed more like my child. I cooked her favorite foods — lamb chops, steak, lima beans — and she’d rave all evening, somehow recalling how good the meal had been despite her memory loss. She loved it when I washed her hair in the bathtub, pouring pitchers of warm water over her as she laughed, her dark hair streaming down her back.
“Do you like liverwurst?” she asked.
“No, Ma, I’m a vegetarian.”
“Oh, you’re a vegetarian?”
I got out the box of family photographs, and she pointed to a picture of a blond woman my father had dated several years after my mother had been hospitalized. “Who’s this?” she asked. “I don’t know,” I lied. “I guess it’s one of the neighbors.”
She told me about her life as a teenager in Brooklyn: the Saint George Hotel, the cocktail dresses, the horseback riding, the dances at the Boswick Grille, her chauffeur, her school in Switzerland. I knew some of this was true and some wasn’t, but I had no way to sort fantasy from reality.
She concocted a detailed story about how she’d discovered me smoking in the bathroom when I was fourteen and sneaking out to dances when I was fifteen. Although I realized it was probably she who had done these things, the stories made me angry. I had my own memories: my inebriated mother sitting in sunglasses and a linen dress on the stone wall on Main Street as I marched past her with my Brownie troop in the Memorial Day parade; Parents’ Day at camp, when my sister and I waited all day and into evening for my mother to make an appearance; the Valentine’s Day when I was seven and she instructed me to walk home for lunch so she could give me a box of candy to bring to the party at school that afternoon. I came home for lunch and waited for hours in the empty house. Valentine’s Day was her birthday, and apparently she felt entitled to do a little partying herself. When she finally drove up in her convertible and took me to the party, all the lights in the school had been turned off.
“Do you like liverwurst?” she asked again.
“No, Ma, I’m a vegetarian.”
“Oh, you’re a vegetarian?”
As we sat together, mother and daughter, I felt grateful to her for giving me life, and sorry for our pain. This is my mother. I have a mother, I repeated to myself, but the words became an empty refrain. My mother would never make me feel safe and warm. Still, because my father and grandmother, and my husband and children, had provided me with the love I had longed for as a child, I could now — at least, for a short time — offer her safety and warmth.
After I’d seen her off on a bus headed back to Long Island — an express bus that made no stops where she might wander off — I went and bought a copy of Vogue magazine and retreated to my bed. Living on a farm in my braids and old corduroys, I was not really interested in fashion. But Vogue was the magazine my mother would have chosen, and perhaps I hoped, amid the glossy pages filled with elegant models, to get a glimpse of the woman I remembered so vividly rustling down the stairs in midnight blue taffeta, leaving behind a trail of perfume, her high heels tapping on the wood, her blond hair swept back off her face with rhinestone combs, her lips bright red and shimmering.