Essays - Autumn 2009

Mother Country

A daughter examines a life played out in romantic defiance of bad fortune

By Evelyn Toynton | September 1, 2009


I lived in two places as a child, one I was directed to call home, another that was home, though I didn’t know it at the time. For 12 days out of every 14, my older sister and I lived with our father and stepmother and half brother in a commodious split-level house in the suburbs, where I had a spotless room to myself, with built-in shelves adorned with china parrots and shepherdesses and a built-in desk of shiny white Formica flecked with gold. For the other two days—every other weekend—we stayed with my mother in a tiny apartment in upper Manhattan, with a pullout couch that we slept on together. My mother’s narrow bed, covered in lumpy pink chenille, was squashed into the alcove between the front door and the single room that comprised the living area. Sitting at her rickety table, we ate TV dinners or boiled eggs and toast and told each other stories. Being there did not count as real life, any more than daydreaming counted. And like daydreaming, it was pure happiness.

As a young woman my mother had been high-spirited, graceful, almost beautiful—I knew that from the snapshots she kept in a scalloped envelope in her little pine desk. But by the time I knew her, there were veins bulging in her forehead; her gait was clumsy and lop-sided; her left arm hung, stiff and useless, by her side. When she was pregnant with me, she’d started having blinding headaches; a tumor—benign, removable—was discovered in her brain. A month after I was born, my father went deeply into debt and hired an eminent surgeon to remove it.

Eminent though he was, he botched the operation, severing certain vital nerves. My mother spent several years in a makeshift rehabilitation center on Long Island, really a sort of lodging house where drunks who were drying out and people recovering from strokes were sent by their families until they were deemed fit to enter the world again. When she returned to Manhattan, she moved, alone, into the dark apartment, close to where she had lived with my father, and where my sister and I still lived with him: his remarriage would take place the following year, the move to the suburbs a few years later. Apart from our twice-monthly visits—and the monthly checks my father sent—the only things in my mother’s life were books.

I have just been looking at a novel called Brief Gaudy Hour, one of my mother’s favorites, and probably the first adult book I ever read. “Nan! Nan!” it begins. “Come and be fitted for your new dresses to go to court!” Nan is Anne Boleyn; the book tells the story of her ascension to the throne of England as Henry VIII’s second queen and her subsequent downfall and beheading. Much of my mother’s reading consisted of such novels, with titles like Within the Hollow Crown and Isabel the Fair, about the Tudors and Stuarts and Plantagenets, the scheming and intrigue at the royal court.

Having fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, she had lived in England for six years, and was planning to return there when she met my father, also a German Jewish refugee, during a visit to her cousin in New York. After her banishment, English history, not of the serious academic kind, but the sort akin to romance—the sort known as “the rich pageant of history”—became her chief source of entertainment. It was also her chief means of entertaining us on our visits.

She told us about proud, wicked John of Gaunt and poor, clever, murdered Lady Jane Grey, and Mary Queen of Scots’ reckless passion for Bothwell. She told us how Anne of Cleves, a sensible woman, had made eel pie for Henry VIII after their divorce, and that Richard III had been not a monster but a wise and gentle king, traduced first by the Tudors and then by Tudor historians: the first thing I remember learning about Shakespeare was that he had been unfair to Richard.

But there was another kind of history too, the one hidden in the scalloped envelope in the desk. Sometimes my sister and I would fetch it after supper and make my mother tell us, once again, the stories behind the black and white photographs. Many of the snapshots of my mother were a little blurred, as though she had been captured in motion: turning to smile at the camera, holding her glass aloft, gesturing with her hand. The woman in the cape she was laughing with on a London street was her friend Charlotte, with whom she’d just returned from Paris; they had run out of money while they were there and had to choose between eating and buying their tickets home (they chose the tickets). The little boy on the pony was her pupil; she had finagled a job as a governess in Kent and had to study mathematics secretly, at night, to keep up with him. The picture of her walking down a path between two hedges had been taken by Charlotte in the Scilly Isles, when my mother had ducked into a maze to escape from a too-ardent suitor acquired on the train.

All her stories were in comic vein, including her reminiscences of my father, whose extreme gravity, even sternness, she had evidently felt free to tease him about. Someone had once said to her that before she married him he had seemed like everybody’s grandfather; now, thanks to her, he only seemed like everybody’s father. There was no hint of bitterness, no allusions to his perfidy—he had asked for a divorce when she was still in the house on Long Island and been granted custody of their children; in those days, no judge would have awarded custody to a brain-damaged woman. When she spoke of him, she only sounded fond and amused, as though he were still her husband: as though he might walk in the door, home from the office, at any minute.

And I tried to amuse her in turn, telling her about ridiculous goings-on at my school, most of which I exaggerated to make them more interesting. Together we engaged in what I took at the time for witty repartee, or held tea parties at which we pretended to be different characters from English history, even trying to imitate their speech. She seemed to take such pleasure in it all that I honestly believed she wanted nothing more from life than to act out the part of Margaret Tudor every other weekend. It was years before I realized what a gallant fraud she had been.

But then I too refrained from referring to anything unpleasant, such as the situation in the split-level house. I did not tell her about my Catholic stepmother’s violent hatred of dirt in all its forms, as though it were the outward manifestation of sin, or her seeming belief that any mud we tracked into the house, any food stains she detected on our clothing, were by way of being malicious personal attacks on herself. I did not tell her that we were all—even my brother, my stepmother’s son—forbidden to enter the living room or use the telephone or remove an apple from the refrigerator or even talk to each other when my stepmother was not present; that failure to comply, or failure to express sufficient gratitude for those unceasing efforts to banish uncleanliness from our lives, would result in explosions of Sicilian curses, long days of furious sulking, retributive assaults with dishtowels and pointy red nails. Compliance and expressions of gratitude, however, were no guarantee that such punishments could be avoided.

My sister impressed on me that certain things were never to be mentioned in my mother’s hearing: how I had been locked in a closet, for example, for some minor act of disobedience, and had to beg and cry for hours before I was released; how my sister, having been called ugly and dirty for the hundredth time, had sawed away at her wrists with a razor blade one night and then, frantically, had to scrub the bloodstains from her blouse in secret; how she had found my magisterial father, who seemed to us children very much like the God of the Old Testament, weeping in his study after a particularly savage diatribe from my stepmother. “She’s God’s judgment on me,” he had said, “for what I did to your mother.”

If my stepmother’s power seemed absolute, my mother never exercised the most ordinary maternal prerogative: she never told us what to do. My sister and I were the bossy ones, telling her she must have her hair cut or her coat cleaned, telling her she ought to go out, it was such a nice day. Then we would bustle around, helping her into her shoes and her coat, fetching her purse, and take her to the little park near her house, to sit on a bench looking out at the Palisades. After a few minutes, when her nose started running, one of us would fetch a crumpled Kleenex from her bag and hand it to her.

In my rageful adolescence, when I was as nasty to her as I did not dare to be to my father or stepmother, I sent her to the park alone, embarrassed to be seen with her in public, though I never went as far as to say so. And I became bossier than ever, in a scornful, withering sort of way; I marched her fuzzy old coat directly to the incinerator instead of telling her to replace it, declaring that it made her look like a bag lady. Then I might rummage in her closet until I found some piece of finery left over from her old life—a pair of black satin sandals, a green silk blouse with silver buttons running diagonally along the front—and lock myself into her bathroom to try it on in front of the mirror, turning this way and that, tossing my hair into my face and back again. I rummaged in her battered jewelry box, too, and festooned myself with gold clips from the ’30s and square art deco rings. If she knocked at the door, asking timidly to be let in, I would tell her to leave me alone, I was busy.

She only ever gave me two pieces of advice. One was that if a drunk asked for my telephone number on the streets of New York—something I don’t believe ever happened—I should give him the number of the weather line. The other, offered in a mild, musing voice, as though she were talking to herself, during my period of greatest surliness, was that I really wasn’t suited to having a boss or a nine-to-five job; I would have to find some kind of work that did not entail either. Maybe, she said shyly, I could be a writer. At the time, I suspected she only meant I was unfit to be around other humans: People could not decide to be writers, the way they decided to be teachers or airline pilots or nurses. She might as well have told me to be a duchess when I grew up. It did not occur to me that the idea had any connection to herself.

Yet shortly before she died, she told me that she had taken a writing course at the New School years before; her teacher, she added, had complimented her on her powers of description. How nice, I said, trying to sound pleased; what I really felt was such a confusion of pity that I could not even ask what it was she’d been describing. A sudden, painful image had flooded into my head: my mother, in her shapeless brown coat, shambling uncertainly into the room, sitting at the table without meeting anyone’s eyes while all the hip young people in the class chattered or flirted across and around her. (I knew what the atmosphere in those classes was like; I had chattered and flirted there myself once, when I was first trying to write.) I should have asked her, at least, who her teacher had been; I should have asked her a lot of things, but I was afraid of what she might tell me.

Both my parents died painful deaths, my father of bone cancer, my mother, 20 years later, of slow suicide. The day I told her that my father was dying was the only time I ever saw her cry. But after his death she seemed to become more acerbic, less humble; her humor was laced with a certain defiant cynicism. The planet would be such a lovely, peaceful place, she said, once we humans had finally killed each other off completely: imagine how happy the animals would be. Religion was a particular bugbear: mostly just an excuse, according to her, for people to hate each other. “How much better off we would be if nobody had ever invented God.”

Her death itself was an act of defiance. Blind and crippled, living in a nursing home, she was not permitted to close her door; the other patients on her floor, all of them demented, wandered in and out of her room, ranting and crooning, trying to get into her bed, or trying to steal her blanket, or accusing her of stealing theirs. She had had enough, she told me, and besides, if she didn’t do something soon, there would be no money left for us. “I wouldn’t mind robbing you of your inheritance if I were enjoying myself. But there’s not much enjoyment around this place.” Because we could find no other legal way for her to die, she starved herself to death, a long and agonizing process.

My older sister, to all appearances more conventional than I, was more of a rebel when it came to my mother’s influence. She majored in Irish history in college—that long litany of shameful deeds by the English—and became what my mother sorrowfully referred to as a religious fanatic, that is, a practicing Jew. I, on the other hand, not only became a writer, but wound up living on a semifeudal estate in England, a country I came to associate with love at such an early age that, even after being here for eight years, I can hardly see it objectively. I did not deliberately set out to return to the scene of my mother’s stories, or the scene of those photographs in which she was whole and happy, but when circumstances brought me here, it felt oddly like coming home. Some years ago, I scattered my mother’s ashes in the ancient walled orchard next to my cottage and started a novel based on her life.

My stepmother began to turn benevolent—sentimental, even—when she reached 85. At 94, she lives alone in the split-level house, which she cleans herself, unable to find a cleaning woman who comes up to her exacting standards. After my father’s death, she became active in all the good causes he had sponsored, and is now an esteemed member of the community, much in demand, as she takes pride in telling us, at charity luncheons and raffle drives. She accounts for her continuing good health by claiming, with a trace of the old belligerence, that God must be taking special care of her. I always want to ask her about the less fortunate ones: Why did God decide not to take care of them? How does she explain His choosing her instead? But as with so many other questions about the why of things, there would not seem to be any good answers.

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