CULTURE AND MY MOTHER
Most people considered my mother not just the nicest, the most beautiful, but the most cultivated person they had ever met. She said “tomahtoes”, giving many words their English pronunciation; she floated through my childhood in a haze of elegant gardening, French cuisine (she made her own mayonnaise) and general gorgeousness. She had the famous “Marilyn Monroe” dress, sheer white with pleats and v-shaped neckline that she wore to parties with her arty hammered silver hand-and-feet earrings and necklace. She was tall, narrow-hipped and full-breasted, used no makeup except lipstick and she looked like a movie star in old slacks and a Mexican shirt. Grown-up people gazed at her adoringly, and as a child, it was hard to get her attention. It was, however, fairly easy to make her cry. We four sisters played a game my father called “ripflesh” which was basically torture. It was “Lord of the Flies” with girls.
The sport of Ripflesh was forbidden, making “the Queen” cry was forbidden, and Dad informed us that any promises we extracted from the Queen outside his presence need not be honored.
Mom was an “early education” specialist, so we had a playroom, a costume trunk, a full collection of puppets and all the Newberry Award-winning children’s books. I wrote my own children’s book based on Harold and the Purple Crayon; Poor Left-Out Harry – which much impressed my parents. They sent it around to their friends and we never got it back. Mom and Dad went to local art galleries and hauled home big modern art paintings by local artists. She enrolled us in modern dance classes taught by Dad’s business partner’s second wife, who wore a pencil through her ponytail and looked like a Feiffer drawing. Our Christmas tree was decorated with Mexican pierced tin ornaments and the modern house with the huge picture windows built to Mom’s specifications had heated polished cement floors.
She was dismissive of the exciting and sentimental TV, vulgar movies and comics we enjoyed but she did promote Classic Comics, which were my first introduction to Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson. I went on to read and enjoy the books. Visits to museums gave me a fondness for Egyptian art which she fed. She bought me all the Narnia books which I read one after the other.
Mom used to lock us out of the house so she could have “Quiet Time”. She would tell us to go play in the local arboretum, a haunt of pedophiles and up-to-no-good teenage boys. Luckily we were usually in a group. I was attacked and de-pantsed only once, but managed to get away. When I needed to be alone I climbed a tree. When she wanted us home Mom would yodel fearlessly out the back door. You could hear her for blocks.
On trips to Europe my mother clutched the Michelin guide and insisted we see the sights. They were usually well worth seeing. My mother and I bonded over medieval, Byzantine and Mannerist art which nobody else in our family liked but which woke me up to a lot of religious and artistic possibilities. We both had a taste for strongly stylized representation. I began to see the echoes of ancient art in modern art; and to be excited by the progression of ideas, experiments and languages. I wrote my own ancient Greek play (Chrysothemis).
As I became a teenager our tastes diverged. My mother loved beautiful clothes and often had hers tailored and hand-made at considerable expense. She visited China in the days of Mao’s mandated blue uniform and everyone gasped at and wanted to touch her bright pink raincoat. I have a pink raincoat now, in her memory. She ruled out polka dots (I love polka dots) and considered pink and black colors should never be in the same room. (I love pink with black.) She almost never liked my teenage fast fashion, but right before graduation she took me to the local ritzy dress shop Jane Chalfant’s, and bought me a white Walter Lanz graduation dress (they had to be white) and two op-art sundresses with matching bikinis for Senior Parties. She dismissed the outrageous cost, confiding to me, “It’s nice to be rich,” something my father would never publicly admit.
When I became a dancer she was particularly appalled, and not in the least mollified by my “Colette Was A Nudie Dancer” bumper sticker (she didn’t like Colette, either.)
We shopped for my wedding dress together on the Philadelphia Main Line but we were both disgusted by the mishmash of sentiment and glitz at bridal shops. (I said it was like buying a casket to inter yourself in.) We found a shop in Bryn Mawr we both liked that sold copies of antique wedding dresses – Ann Pakadrooni’s. I bought a gorgeous puffy-sleeved Edwardian dress of silk moiré with inset lace medallions. We also found her mother-of-the-bride dress, cobalt velvet with a gold brocade top, and a Victorian brown velvet riding habit for my maid of honor sister.
After my marriage, she often gave me money for clothes and was incredulous that I usually spent at least half of it on books. She shopped at Bonwit Teller while I went to Kmart. (My youngest sister still has to be reminded to look at price tags.) Didn’t I CARE how I looked? (Not enough, that’s for sure. And I needed a steady supply of expensive books.)
For my second wedding she clearly thought things ought to be toned down – when she showed me the suit she was planning to wear I told her she would look like she was “going to the airport” and she laughed and laughed. She wore a chiffon summer dress instead.
She did not like my adult writing and often acted like I was doing it to torture her – still playing “ripflesh”- although occasionally she admired a poem.
She would have been a committed grandmother but cancer intervened. My sisters took her on a tour of the famous Sissinghurst Castle garden I couldn’t attend. She sent me a postcard of V. Sackville-West’s study that I keep in my study.
She created many gorgeous homes (remodeling every kitchen); finally dying in a beautiful condo on the harbor in Rockport Maine filled with art books, silver, china, sculpture and paintings.
She often scared me by warning me that I would certainly have the kind of upsetting daughter I had been; but the curse never came true. Instead, I had the daughter she wanted me to be; the perfect balance of beauty, mothering, intellect, professionalism, charm, religion, art, taste, culture and warmth, with a happy marriage thrown into the bargain.
I think of her every day, and I still say “tomahtoes.”