Every few years, I like to thank my original Valentine for having me (and having my back) on my birthday. Can’t let 2/14/14 pass without another shout out.
My mother Frances didn’t resemble the archetypal TV mother & housewife circa 1955-60. No — she wasn’t the Donna Reed single-strand-of-pearls type. She was a bit more Technicolor with a whiff of B-Movie glamour about her. A former brother-in-law once called her the “poor man’s Loretta Young”. I always thought if you could clone Loretta Young and Dolly Parton together, there she’d be.
But she was, in fact, a domestic goddess. A good peasant cook (by her own admission), her vegetable soups, beef stews, and macaroni casseroles had their own fan club. She put enough food on the table most nights to feed the entire block. From knee-high, I learned the art of making good soup (it’s all about the stock), and killer fruit pies.
Her training at the Cornish School in Seattle as a theatrical costume designer was put to questionable use making Halloween costumes for my brother and me. In middle to high school, nothing reduced me to a puddle on the floor quicker than pattern pieces, pins, and a sewing machine. Her timely rescues saved many a hopeful project from the scrap bin.
When I was three to four years old, I got separated from Mom in our local fabric store. The bolts of fabric piled high above my eye level became a terrifying maze. When at last (five minutes can feel like 60 when you’re small) I caught a flash of her wasp-waisted, full-skirted dress rounding the next aisle, I caught up and grabbed onto her skirt. A startled stranger turned around. An imposter was wearing my mother’s dress!!! I burst into tears, which brought my real mother quickly to my side. I’m not sure who wore it best, but both women sported the identical dress with a large flower print in shades of red & blue. Bingo! Like Helen Keller at the water pump, I got the meaning of retail.
Dramatic makeup, jewelry, and bold prints were my mother’s signature style to go with her eye-popping figure. Going out at night, her neckline got lower, her heels higher, and a bit more bling, hairspray and perfume got layered on. When I was very young, her “going out” perfume seemed to infuse her with glamour when she kissed me goodnight, like some exotic adventure was beckoning her away. Mom was born with the accessorizing gene (which bypassed me completely and went straight to my daughter). Rifling through her jewelry drawer and closet could keep me entertained for hours.
The Age of Embarrassment would come later—when my mother appeared less glamorous than misplaced—like one of those tropical parrots who’d gone AWOL in my neighborhood, nesting among sparrows (i.e., my friends’ mothers). With the arrogance of youth, I sometimes thought Mom should try to blend into the background a bit more, to cede center stage to me and my generation. After all, she was old.
As a design student then a career girl, I wore a lot of black. Black is the go-to wardrobe staple for women today, but to my mother it said “funeral”. Meanwhile, Mom was a carousel of color—wonderful, wonderful color (and prints). Years after we’d reached fashion detente, she was good enough to run by me the blouse with polka dots the size of ping-pong balls that she planned to wear to my wedding. Here, I drew the line. She wore a tasteful blue suit instead. Turns out she hated that suit. The fact that my working girl wardrobe devolved for a considerable spell into a mommy wardrobe, making me two steps removed from a bag lady, puts it all into different perspective. When I look at these old photos now, I think Mammma Mia.
Real fights with my mother were few and far between. There were a couple serious skirmishes over my first boyfriend. But, mostly we butted heads over differences across the generational divide—music, and mores. The collision between my frequent (undiagnosed) allergies and Mom’s Christian Science upbringing was another source of conflict. Other times, I simply tried her patience with my angsting over popularity, talent, and beauty (my perceived lack thereof on all three fronts. Absurd, but not unheard of in preteen-to-teenaged girls).
Turning the tables, one of our silliest fights was over a doll. I never cared much for dolls, except this one. On my fifth birthday, I awoke and stumbled over a box wrapped up with a big ribbon that had been strategically placed right next to my bed. Inside the box was a beautiful doll, very well made, with a hard (not squishy baby-doll) head and real glass eyeballs. I never played with her much, but kept her displayed, later storing her inside tissue in a box in my closet.
I was in high school when I noticed the box was missing. Mom (who had no legitimate business in my closet) had found it and given the doll to our housecleaner’s daughter a few weeks earlier. I was livid! How could she have done this without asking me! Little did she realize, she’d handed me the trump-you card. Whenever she tried to scold me for being thoughtless or inconsiderate, I could raise one eyebrow and volley back with … but you gave away my doll. Owned.
When I became a mother myself, I looked into the face of my little changeling and knew the statute of limitations on any latent grudges or recriminations towards my own mother had run out. It was my turn to err, embarrass, intrude, and overstep. I could only hope, to end up loved and appreciated nonetheless.
From my mother I inherited my affinity for art & crafty things. I can’t remember a time when she didn’t have a project going. She sculpted in clay, painted, and built intricate mosaics that could take weeks or months to complete. Once she made a fiberglass coffee table with embedded stones and leaves. (I can still smell it curing.) On weekends or over the summer, she’d occasionally take me to some craft store workshop where we’d work side-by-side on our respective projects. Several Christmases in a row, we painted our dining room window creating a “mock stained glass” tableau, as I’d been taught to do at school. Making art was something the two of us could share.
Her artistic talents also supported my brother Paul’s passion for the natural world, amphibians and reptiles in particular. She spent hours drawing detailed colored pencil pictures of his live specimens (who were returned to the wild, after they’d been classified, studied, and recorded). Mom was the polar opposite of “outdoorsy”, yet entirely “chill” about having snakes, lizards, and frogs as constant guests in our home.
She loved words and books, another legacy she passed on to her children. We played Scrabble or word games of our own invention after dinner & dishes, or in the car. While we were at school, Mom wrote short stories and screenplays in the guest (erstwhile maid’s) room behind the kitchen and pantry.
Once, in fifth grade, I confessed after dinnertime why I didn’t want to go to school. I hadn’t done my homework report due the next day. Mom’s solution? We decamped to the guest room fortified with hot cocoa, and I dictated while she typed. The later it got, the further we disintegrated into such a laughing fit that we barely got the damn thing done. The next day, I practically stopped breathing while my teacher verbally humiliated a classmate who didn’t have her report—silently thanking Mom for saving my sorry ass.
By the time I was in high school, she’d rented one of the somewhat coveted, tiny offices in the Writers & Artists Building in downtown Beverly Hills. Legendary screenwriter/director Billy Wilder was two doors down (doing an excellent impersonation of a grumpy old man). Like other higher-profile tenants, he was in residence incognito. Meantime, at the whim of the building’s owner, the directory downstairs boasted the names of other notable residents long dead or moved on. I often walked from school to her office to catch a ride home, or a chance to practice driving on my learner’s permit.
After my brother and I’d flown the nest, and a couple near misses, Mom was published at last. In her sixties and seventies, she enjoyed her most productive years publishing numerous articles in local Santa Barbara magazines and newspapers, and three books: a non-fiction collection of biographies, Maverick Women; and two novels, Napoli, and Kimura, Fallen Hero.
Fast Forward: Seven years ago, my parents moved north to be closer to us. My parents are long-livers, so the inevitable role reversal came about. I found myself taking on responsibilities I’d never imagined, parenting my parents. Sometimes the juggling gets a bit intense. Occasionally, my patience with Mom’s waning memory and lack of time-awareness wears thin. But, I’m constantly reminded, it’s a privilege to grow old. An equal privilege to have this poster girl for the nonagenarian set near and dear. Very much alive, if not exactly kicking.
Mom turned 95 this past November. Vicissitudes of age, such as macular degeneration and caring for my father during the difficult last years of his life, have taken their toll. She seems to have put her writing practice aside for good. But she enjoys audio books, old movies, and good company. And, she can still play a mean game of Scrabble. Not too shabby for 95.