The decline of my mother, now 90 on 14 May, has been a slow, long descent since I was a teen. In my youngest youth, she was beautiful and loving. But as I turned 13 or so, her inability to navigate her way through reality became more evident. Things, jokes, music began to bug her. Her loving was replaced by a kind of obsession with the formalities of mothering, the rituals, the cleaning, the forbidding – the mechanics. This has increased over time and even while me and my brother were growing up, neighborhood kids would mock and tease my mom and call her Crazy Tina.
I never tried to analyze it until about 10 years ago, when I realized that her life had probably been more adversely affected by World War II than we thought. She was a teen in Amsterdam and had her best years confiscated by circumstance and any hopes she had for using her artistic inclination toward something satisfying in life somehow became secondary to survival and recovery.
This is from her journals I asked her to write: Hunger Winter: A terrible cold & nasty winter entire Europe 1943-44: Ice snow no food. No nothing. No heat. Everything was gone. People did go trough the garbage cans – you were realy lucky to find one piece of food or some wood you could burn to warm your hands. I was the kind of person who was very fast cold so at night we left our socks on at least it did help.
My shoese got bad and no shoese in stores. The Krauts took all the shoese out the stores. I did not have a descend pair so going to work barefeet or on socks. It was realy very strange to walk Overtoom on the stone sidewalk with no shoese on, cold and unpleasant. The socks where very quick gone on the stonen sidewalks.
Found a pair sandals from cork material in garbage cans but they were quick gone but better than nothing and my dad did make soles under it and that is what I did wear to work better than nothing for quite some time. Also later on when winter came my ankles where open wounds and hurted. Mom put bandage on it but it was hopeless. Later on dad found old ice skating boots from mom on the attic and he made them to low shoese and put some extra stuf on the soles. They where nice and did holds up quite a long time. 2 years!
Hans Puts’ father did give us bread again.. Also we tryed now fryed sugar beets and small tulip bulbs – the aftertaste was terrible but realy filling food. At night in bed you did hear your stomach ronking from hunger. next morning we had cabage soup. It was warm and tasted good. we did get 2 potatos for family also 2 at work. We cooked them up with straw heating and tasted good at work. It was heaven.
She became a housewife in 1953, a mother in 1954 and was displaced to a foreign land – the US – where she was never to feel totally at home again. Her inability to deal with these changes – and they were many and probably often more despairing and desperate than parents let on to their kids – as we became not unlike a migrant family, albeit my father was a white collar worker, a metallurgical engineer. We moved a LOT, so everywhere we had to start over, to prove we weren’t weird as immigrants. Even though my mother had a wicked [embarrassing] accent and a different approach to mothering than my friends’ moms. Her unhingedness could be quite entertaining, gonzo, uninhibited, unlike other moms. All that plus what I learned from my mother’s [war] stories about privation, angst, traumatic stress, seeing her Jewish friends disappear forever, never knowing for certain, seeing people killed, executed, bombs going off, having almost nothing to eat probably had a profound effect on her brain. She is now suffering advanced dementia and that is mostly bad although I wonder if she forgets all of those haunting WW2 memories and is finally left at peace. I sense not, since I gather the formative years are forever etched into the walls of your brain like grafitti scratched onto a bathroom wall while short-term memories are nothing more than a dandelion’s fluffy plumes whisked away by a brisk wind.
Here is BEER MYSTIC chapter 33, when Furman’s mom comes to visit his East Village apartment:
There was an extraordinary silence, where memories seemed to create entire holographic films starring my father and we were both watching this movie. … That my mother could talk forever about nothing but almost never about something was also part of the conundrum. My father had “disappeared” during WWII and never really reappeared – if you know what I mean. He was an engineer and worked everyday and brought home presents and yet, he was never there, always deep in thought, deep in books about certain WWII details, the “World at War” on TV.
“What’s about your vader’s ashes?”
“What about’m? should I sprinkle them on my corn flakes?”
“I don’t know vat to do wid dem.”
“I think the weird thing is that he stopped taking his Coumadin.”
“He did take them every day and I watch him to be sure.”
“I have tried to tell you that I found 133 tablets in a small box in among his stuff. You know, like spit out. Why did he stop taking them?”
“I do not want to hear you talk about him so.”
“He left them behind to show that he wanted to die of his own accord. Have dignity in death and – in my mind – deny forever the existence of god.”
“I know not where you get dis from? You are saying that I am to blame for him wanting to die?”
“It’s not your fault. It is just that in living, surviving, he just saw himself losing face, losing, I dunno, dignity, human dignity.”
“I tried to give him …”
“It wasn’t for you to give. Pain and debilitation squeeze the spirit out of soul.”
“I do NOT want to hear any more.” The more I thought about it, the more sense it all made. I did not tell her that, indeed, her vigilance, her paranoia, her excessive doting drove him crazy. “I wish to masturbate. I wish to die.” That’s what he said. “This is not living.” He told me that he wished it to be while watching pornography with a hard on. He told me about his WWII girl friends – German, but not Nazi. He showed me photos. They were naked photos. I have them hidden. I will never tell her.
The phone rang again.
“Do not these vimen want me to be two minutes alone met her son?”
“I went up and down the dial during the time you said you were on the air. Didn’t you say Tuesdays from midnight till three? And so I called information. There’s no listing for any XYZNO Radio. They’re NOT located at 156 Rivington. [No, not any more because illegal frequencies have to remain mobile. XYZNO had, in fact, once been located in the basement of ABC No Rio]. This makes me think you’re lying. This means that you’ve thus far received numerous sexual favors based on false pretenses. And I do mean favors! They certainly did me no good! What goes on? I mean are you a DJ and am I going to be able to read from my book on your show or what?! If I don’t get a satisfactory answer in 24 hours – it’s four on Sunday – I will go public with details of tales of your BEEEEEEEP …”
“What is de matter here? You are not tellink de troot? I seem to not know you no more.” I watched her pick up the glass of flat beer. “Dis is disgusting mit dee roaches dar in.”
“Its a roach trap. They’re attracted, go in, get drunk and drown. At least they went in a nice way and I get rid of some more roaches. It was a beer I wasn’t going to drink anyway. I mean, what’s the big deal!? So I left a beer out over night.”
“It iss filt’y. No wunder dat you are popular met dem.” Her heaven would be a tidy and orderly place. “Let me just help you. We clean up and we feel better.” To her, help meant cleanliness. To her untidiness, a dusty place, was indicative of – nay – the very cause of depression and lack of motivation. To her, dust, dirt, and clutter were the enemies of sanity, well-being, progress. Sanitation for sanity. She saw my “suitcases” emblazoned with hundreds of beer labels. I had already fit my beer paraphernalia collection into three old naughahyde-covered cardboard suitcases.
“Are you now moving some place new again?”
“Vhy not find a nice place wid a nice girl who can maybe cook a little bit you know?”
“I dunno. I think I mighta.” I was ready to move. Was calling Djuna’s bluff. Threatening her with peace of mind. But then situations fell back around to nothing and I did not move. I admired how Nice could live nowhere, without permanence or knickknacks. How she maintained a presence without a homebase. But then again, I think I may have actually inspired that in her. That there can be pride of no place as well as pride of place. The clochards in Paris are not dejected like the homeless, for instance, because like hobos, they choose their lifestyle and find their place in movement, esteem in travel. Attachment in detachment. It’s like Buddhism. Maybe it was Nice who told me this. Or maybe it was I who told her.
“You were always so happy as a boy. And now … Maybe always preparing for your worst you make happen this worst.” Another hour, another glass of lukewarm water, was consumed when finally she spoke up again. “To stay here will drive me crazy. And maybe you too. I will use a toilet in maybe a restaurant …”
“We can go to Leshkos. Eat something.”
“The people from Eastern Europe, they cook dirty. I do not vaant to get sick riding home. Or is dat vat you vaant?”
“Let’s go to Veselka then.”
“No. I only get sad when I stay here in this place.”
“That’s what I mean. Let’s go out.”
“You have no money. And I am not paying again and I mean by dis place your New York.”
I walked her out, down the stoop where I kicked a used Pamper into the gutter. I held my breath, hoping no one would throw a fire cracker our way or maybe a blood balloon or fake dog shit… I walked her up the street to where she had parked her car. She ran a finger over the hood. She had lasted 90 minutes.
“LOOOK, I just clean my car and already a coat of dirt in two hours of time. And you breathe dat all day. I am asking you now again if you will help me with those salesmens.”
“I will. We’ll go down to their offices and give them something to chew on.” My mother has been bothered by burial plot and gravestone salesmen and we think we know where they are located. “Next time I come out. The vultures.”
“When will that be I hope before I die.”
As she climbed into her Honda Civic I noticed for the first time her swollen ankles, the blossoms of varicose veins on the backs of her calves. The climb into the front seat was one serenaded by an amazing tragic stillness. It brought back the stories of her deprivations during the Big War. From the black-and-white photos it was obvious she had had perfect slender legs once and a smile that glowed. And now the way she hunched over ever so slightly like she’s beginning to curl back up into the spiraling cocoon. The way each memory remembered with such authority was meant as testimony to her infallibility and immortality. It actually performed just the opposite: You became aware that each memory was flawed or a necessary rewritten fiction like the teenager who brags about his sex life to hide the fact that he is a premature ejaculator.
The way she held the top of the steering wheel as tightly as ever. Here eyes straining just above the wheel’s upper curve. Her knuckles turning white. Holding on for dear life. Just sitting there. “OK, mom, put’r in drive already.” I whisper. Just before she pulled out into traffic I saw her reach into her tote bag and place the Tupperware container with my father’s ashes on the passenger seat next to her.