Sunday, April 15, 2012

77th Birthday

By the time I knew my mother, her Hollywood days had come and gone.  The spiked heels, glamorous dresses, flamenco dancing past had left behind just an affinity for dark crimson lipstick, drawn-on eyebrows, and sometimes, when she felt good, bright red nail polish.  Most days she wore stretch pants and sweatshirts, a pair of cheap sandals or Keds.  She liked black coffee, not too hot, and Pall Mall cigarettes.  Real butter when she could get it, margarine if not, and pasta, and meat.  I remember standing beside her as she made dinner – she’d snack on bites of raw hamburger, laugh at my revulsion.  Vegetables were not her friends.  She liked orange sherbet in a mug with milk poured over it for dessert.  Her culinary specialties included homemade egg noodles, tacos, flour tortillas, meatloaf, apple and blackberry pies (best pie crust ever), lemon meringue pie, enchiladas, refried beans from scratch, French toast.  Comfort foods.

On her birthday, if we were flush, we always went out to the one Chinese restaurant in town; growing up in Los Angeles, she’d grown fond of Cashew Chicken, deep-fried shrimp and other Americanized dishes.  My mother read constantly, fat books of fiction or obscure self-help treatises that temporarily made dark reality bearable.  She was smart – probably, brilliant.  She could have earned a Ph.D. in how to feed a family on a food stamp budget. She put herself through two years of community college, earned an Associate’s degree in library science, and interviewed at a local TV station for the position of videotape librarian.  They hired her in large part, her Black co-worker later whispered, because of her Hispanic last name – it boosted the station’s number of Affirmative Action employees up a notch.  Miranda was my father’s name, which she’d gone back to after divorcing my step-father.  Sometimes, fate works like that.  She was single, poor, raising an Indian kid, she had survived my father once, and still had another round coming.  I’d say, she earned the name Miranda and the one perk it ever gave her.  

Madgel Eleanor Miranda, April 16, 1935 - November 21st, 2001
She worked like a dog at that TV station, long hours, low pay, little recognition. But the job gave her a blessed slice of freedom, independence.  She loved to travel; mid-life, she paid her own way to places like Israel, Denmark, and all over the U.S. for genealogical research trips.  She was brave.  In her short lifetime, my mother had been many different women.  Some of the lives she lived, I wouldn’t have recognized her.  She was one mother to my older sister and brother in the 1950s, a completely different one with me in the 1960s.  She didn’t use endearments with anyone.  Never said “honey” or “sweetheart” with any of us at all, let alone with the promiscuity that I used (and still use) with my own children.  My name was her only endearment for me: Deby, when all was well, Deborah Ann when I pushed her limits.  My mother’s heart was a secret compartment which took in everything she experienced; very little every came back out.  She didn’t write things down, she didn’t go to a therapist, she didn’t have a close friend more than once or twice in her lifetime.  She swore rarely, and only when profoundly provoked or completely surprised.  She was a closed book, a book whose pages she burned as soon as each one had been written.  She loved, however, and fiercely; usually men who hurt her, or who were unavailable, or both. 

I realize only now how angry my mother was all her life – at herself, for sins none of us could see, or at losses she could not let go.  Pregnancy at seventeen.  “We didn’t have her long enough,” my grandmother once sighed, remembering that shot-gun wedding.  Three babies before she was twenty-one.  The death of a child through her own neglect and addiction.  A thirsty woman in many ways, my mother drank for much of her life, never really stopped until she found the deep well of Judaism and converted in her forties, learning Hebrew, learning ritual.  She was brave, and determined.  She died an observant Jew, but her Conservative rabbi wouldn’t hold a memorial service for her because she had told me that she wanted to be cremated, and I refused to disobey her last wish.  Six months later, when I finally located her will, I discovered that in this document, she had actually directed that she be buried in a plain pine box, like a good Jew.  Why, in her last weeks, had she said “yes,” when I asked if she wanted cremation?  I’ll never know.  Secrets.  Secrets. 

That was my mother – always the smell of cigarettes, a smoke screen, a thunderous silence wrapped around her like a cloak.  A kind woman who took in strays, paid for veterinary care she couldn’t afford, stuck up for the underdog, faithfully paid her union dues – The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers – and marched in the WTO protests through downtown Seattle, not knowing her body harbored squamous cell lung cancer, not knowing she didn’t have long, but living every moment as if she did.

Maybe if she’d lived longer – like her own mother, a week away from 95 when she passed – my mother would have eventually come out of her shell.  Maybe we would have been able to talk with words instead of the inarticulate language of love mired in deep confusion.  Maybe she would have told me her reasons for some of the inexplicable things she’d done in her life – done to herself, to her children, her parents, herself. 

But my mother, she didn’t live to see anything like 95.  She didn’t live to see anything like clarity or closure.  Like the rest of her life, her death was hasty, hurried, a rush job that was over almost before we had time to realize it had begun.  Sick in late August, diagnosed in September, treated in October, dead by mid-November.  Eleven years later, I’m still trying to figure out how to say goodbye, all the different ways to tell my mother “I love you” even as she moves farther and farther away on a journey in which I, and our time together, was only one brief moment.

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