Imagine not having one.
In the four years since I’d last seen my mother, I’d managed to finally get a FANTASTIC tattoo I’d coveted for probably 50 years, one in which her being (if not her likeness) played a central role, but it seemed a good idea not to show it to her. She was halfway through her 80s, see, and had had a couple of little strokes, not the kind that leave you paralyzed or powerless to control certain bodily functions–hers only, uh, meddled with her memory–but a stroke of any magnitude comes baggaged with allusions to, well, death (hey)–so I figured it wouldn’t be right to rub her nose in the damn thing: A TOMBSTONE W/ “MOM.”
What a beauty!!!
During my sandy summers in Rock Rock Rockaway Beach, the late 40s, early 50s, I saw some bang-up tattoos on the arms and chests of sailors and hepsters and hoodlums and so forth, hotter ‘n’ hepper by far than those lick-ons they sold in candy stores for a penny a sheet.
There was this guy I saw once with no arms, just stumps, and a state-of-the-art pompadour somebody must’ve combed for him. On one stump he had an anchor with a snake twined around it–how do I remember this?–and on the other, his mother’s headstone with flowers and shit.
This wurn’t the first time I eyeballed a mom-stone on somebody’s person, nor by any means the last. It was a my-t-popular design back then, an idiomatic discharge of contempo-iconic whatsafugga. Before “cool” entered white mainstream youth parlance, I know that on some visceral level I regarded the design, the icon, as very, very COOL. Don’t ask me to explain it (ain’t sure I could).
So anyway–hey–flying in to see my living mom, I decided, though it was summer, to keep my sleeves down. If somehow the plan failed, like if I had a beer and it got so hot I inadvertently rolled ’em up and she caught a peek of the good’un on my arm and said somethin’, I could tell her it was simply a classic design from the archives of tattoo yore…hey hey!…NO REFERENCE to present company intended.
She’d buy that, right?
Whew. If you put it in strictly binary terms, not allowing me the luxury of a scale from 0 to 10, and insisted I answer basically a yes-no question, “close” or “not-close,” I would have to say my mother and I have never been close, not in any substantive way in this here world, this here life, but I did once have hot, drippy sex dreams about her, one of which, 20-some years ago, led directly to this poem:
well whaddaya know
it’s my semi-annual
FUCK MY MOM DREAM
only this time
she is not holding back
I am getting to penetrate
to several inches
of penile excitement
is it ever juicy
it’s got the stuff
she must be on the pill
or the timing is cool or something
’cause she is not diaphragming it tonite
no, it’s day
–light is streaming in–
my birth day (36)
and also mother’s day
a great day for mom & son alike
mother’s day 1952 I was 7
and I went ‘n’ caught
Lost Continent starring Sid Melton & Cesar Romero
in green & white
the print was tinted green–true
and after that I can’t recall if my day
and her day
were ever the same day
never sent her a card
never bought her lace hankies
or a box of chocolate covered
never gave fuck-all f’r a holiday
you didn’t get school off for
mother’s day is not a holiday
nor is it a holy day
never gave a thimble worth of piss for it
then or now
but this fuck dream I’m having
is developing to where I’ve eaten her already
fingered her clit from behind her back
she likes the finger more than the tongue
but she does like the tongue
–I don’t think she’s faking it–
dick tho she’s got less stake in
but in it is
it’s up her
and ready to spit a healthy mother-load
up mom’s golden passage
all the motherlove
I could’ve bargained for
and jesus did I bargain:
learned square roots when I was 9
long division when I was 3
no actually I was 8
but would’ve at 3
if she’d’ve just let me
suck her tit
my mom the math teacher
I was her prize
of the blackboard equation
had pi-r-square up the old wazoo
I’ll be Newton before I’m thru
firm-assed vixen of 35
just a year younger than me
hadda wait I guess
till I was older than you:
you hot blooded
woman of flesh
and all that shit including sweat
jeez you’ve kept me off your pelvis
for centuries mom
but shit ma I’m finally home!
thanx a bunch mom, ain’t it great?
your only son
the firstborn fruit of your womb
planting his hot creamy seed
up your real swell
hot steamy CREASE
I knew all those logarithms would someday pay off between us
rhythms of my log howev
are not exactly
to your liking
you ain’t moving no more
I know you didn’t come
you seem to be bored or somethin’
AND SHE SEZ TO ME:
look I don’t like dicks
just don’t like ’em
so please remove it
I mean if you can get it over with quick, okay
but enough is enough
how much more do I gotta take?
finger me tho I’d kinda like
you can just keep working my clit
that I like
I like it a lot
you can eat me if it’d make you happy
but–really–I don’t like dicks…
she don’ like ’em, she don’ like ’em
what’s a boy to do???
this frustrated sonnyboy
to the bitter end
willingly strokes her
button of love
love for someone
or some dream
or the original Lost Horizon of 1937
–she liked that movie–
but not for me…
r-r-ring goes the wake-up call
at the Hi-way Host Motel on Colorado Boulevard
my real one
not the dream one
it’s fucking popping:
I got into mom!
if only for a couple secs
that’s s-e-C-s not s-e-X-x
jeez the puns in this part of town
‘re driving me nuts–
whoops there’s another one
and nuts not in chocolate
or in a cookie or somethin’
are nuts she can do without
just like the funny-lookin’
that shares its name
with the one she gave me
“Little Dickie” to his friends
4 foot 7 inches of mathematically worthless
hey does he even have a dick?
y’know to match his goofy name?
not that SHE’d give a flying hoot
dick of any color
talent, shape or face
she don’t like dicks singular or plural
and I know in my singular BONE
why I never sent her
My mother now lives with my sister in, of all places, Woodstock, NY. At this stage of things it’s just a place, not so flagrantly bohemian anymore (if it ever really was), nor artsy in more than a stripmall frou-frou sort of way–a middleclass town like many another, green and white and small, neither rural per se nor wholeheartedly suburban.
Still and all, ‘gainst the tide of histories both bogus and real, W*o*o*d*s*t*o*c*k qua name lingers on as a buzzword for, well, you know.
Which makes this an ironic, and mildly implausible, outcome: that this is the place where my mother lingers on, holed up for the rest of her days, seeing as how she is quite literally the only adult human I know (as opposed to know of) who has NEVER SMOKED POT or sought ANY means, for that matter, of getting off. “Consciousness” hasn’t been too big a theme in her life, nor has “pleasure”…what the hey.
Fortunately there were other things for the old gal and me to talk about, and on the morning following my arrival, after my sister finally found her cassette recorder, we shot the shit:
R. Meltzer: So how do you like the view out this window? You ever just sit here and look out?
E. Meltzer: Uhh…no. It doesn’t really interest me.
RM: Yeah? You’d rather watch television?
EM: I look at television. Or I’ll go sit outside in the back.
RM: You ever see a deer go by here?
EM: Uhh…not this close. In the other…I saw three of them the other day, right there in that…uh…
RM: In that window?
EM: Yeah, yeah.
RM: And you liked that?
EM: Yeah. Nice to look at.
RM: But unless there’s a deer or something, it’s not much of a view?
EM: It’s alright. I’m enjoying what’s going on with this leaf, this bush here. It’s getting bigger, its growth…
RM: It’s growing towards the window?
EM: Not that, but it’s, uh, the bulbs that were there are getting bigger. The little bulbs or whatever you wanna call them.
RM: They’re gonna blossom? They gonna be flowers?
EM: I don’t know. I don’t know.
RM: And do you like being in this house, in this town?
EM: It’s as good a place as any…heh heh heh heh heh.
RM: Do you remember living in Florida?
EM: Oh yeah. How do you know that?
RM: I saw you in Florida.
EM: Oh really?
RM: Many times.
EM: That was nice, a very nice place to live.
RM: You liked the weather there.
EM: Weather doesn’t bother me one way or the other.
RM: I don’t think you like things cold.
EM: Well, the weather in Florida would be cold too.
RM: Could be once in a while, but not usually.
RM: I remember once I was down there, it was January and there was ice on the ground.
RM: 29 degrees.
EM: Heh heh heh heh heh.
RM: It was right near your birthday.
EM: When is that?
RM: January 7.
EM: Are you sure of that?
RM: Yes. Do you remember my birthday?
EM: I’m afraid not.
RM: May 10.
EM: May 10?
RM: Yeah, spring.
EM: Huh. How old are you?
RM: I’m 57.
EM: You’re a young man.
RM: Young enough.
EM: And do you know how old I am?
RM: You’re 86.
EM: About…something like that.
RM: And that’s young enough too.
EM: Heh heh heh heh.
RM: But these numbers after a while, they get kind of abstract…like what’s 57? What’s 86?
EM: 57 is young!
RM: Well yeah, thanks.
EM: Heh heh heh heh heh.
RM: So when you watch TV, you have favorite shows?
EM: Not particularly.
RM: I heard you watch Wheel of Fortune every day.
EM: Wheel of Fortune? Well, that’s because that’s part of my, after Jeopardy is Wheel of Fortune.
RM: Ah ha. So Jeopardy you like, and Wheel of Fortune you just…
EM: Well, Wheel of Fortune could be almost anything…there is nothing special about it.
RM: It’s not much of a show?
EM: No, it’s not. It’s more of a, a…oh, what’s his name? I forget.
RM: The guy who hosts the show?
RM: Pat Sajak? Does he still do the show?
EM: Pat Sajak, yeah…but not Wheel of Fortune.
RM: Jeopardy? Alex Trebek?
EM: No. No.
RM: You’re talking about a third show?
RM: A show that’s on after Wheel of Fortune?
EM: Jeopardy is on before. It’s on at 7 o’clock at night. And Wheel of Fortune is on at 7:30 or so.
RM: So you’re talking about what’s on at 8 o’clock?
EM: No, what’s on at 8…I’m in bed by 8. I’m talking about the fellow who’s on, the actor who’s on at 7:30. I keep forgetting his name.
RM: An actual actor who’s on Wheel of Fortune?
EM: Uh huh.
RM: You don’t mean Vanna White.
EM: No. There’s a fellow who’s on…
RM: Well I don’t watch it, I don’t know.
RM: So wait, you watch those, but what about before Jeopardy, 6:30–is there a show on before that you…
RM: Just those two, and then you fall asleep?
EM: At 8 o’clock I go to sleep.
RM: How come you’re so noncommittal when I ask you whether you like these shows?
EM: Well, during the week Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune are on every night, y’know, not the weekend but…
RM: But do you like them or not like them?
EM: Oh yes, I do. I’m just trying to think of the name of the actor.
RM: Well, tonight I’ll watch it with you and we’ll see.
EM: Heh heh heh heh heh.
Alex Trebek. Pat Sajak. Vanna White. That’s it.
No other actors or faces or nothin’. And the kicker was she had no recollection of having brought it up. Gone from the files: phffff.
Heh heh heh heh heh.
But her mind was alert, and quick, quick enough. She even guessed some of the dumb word things on Wheel of Fortune.
Maybe watching this shit five nights a week is good for her.
A DAY I REMEMBER CLEAR AS DAY
More’n half a century ago. Truman is President. A weekday afternoon, cold blue sky, the winter sun lost behind a row of buildings, walking freezy side streets with my mother and sis.
No more than three-four blocks from where we live, yet somehow, [seemingly] apparently, we’ve never been this way before. Maybe it’s only our vector of approach, the sights and sightlines at this particular hour, or the fact that not another soul is in view, but this is unfamiliar, daunting turf for us–a bleak deserted landscape of stucco houses, bungalows, dark shadows and dust.
Daunting and also invigorating…thrilling.
My 2-year-old sister is in the stroller I used to ride in, hard brown molded plastic, all bundled up, very little skin exposed. Our faces red from the cold. So very unlikely for the three of us to be out together…a rarity I’m relishing…but enough walk, we’re freezing, time to get home.
I spot this alley–a short cut, let’s take it!–but my mother has no interest. A dingy walkway where we’d have to go single file…too much of a “boy thing”–if I want it, I’m on my own. Fine by me: ‘s gotta be the first time she’s let me be on my own, even this close to home, without some version of supervision–without a leash. Yippee yay!
So I race down the alley, one block, another–hey, I’ll show her, I’ll beat ’em home!–and then suddenly a dog barks, roars, this hairy beast lunging at a chain-link fence to my left, and I burst into tears and dash back where I came from.
By the time I’m on the main street again, out of breath, my cheeks stinging from the tears, my mom and sis ain’t in sight…fuggit. In the same instant I feel both betrayed–abandoned!–and hugely embarrassed…gotta collect myself quick to avoid HUMILIATION. I wipe my face with a mitten and walk briskly, too breathless to run. They’ll beat me home, but maybe not by much.
As I stomp along, heart pounding, I know–know!–my mom would not have gone back to look for me, not in finite time. I know she will never participate with me in boy things–in my things–my energy and brand o’ mischief (what a filthy, yukky alley!!) ain’t for her. I feel absolutely alone–she is not my friend nohow. I choke down a thudding gulp of insecurity–she might not’ve come back to SAVE MY LIFE.
But these thoughts take a back seat to the SCREAMING URGENCY of the moment: to get home pronto and pretend nothing happened. Don’t want my mother to see me as a scaredy-cat, nor do I want her to know I encountered d-d-danger–she might never let me out again.
Whether there have been precursors to this moment or not, THIS is the defining episode, the fount of all Et Cetera, I will forever revisit. From this day forth, skittish and unloved, I will play the little tough guy, tough to myself at least, on my own in a big scary world, even a few square blocks’ worth of one, a world in which monsters in alleys will always lunge at me…so I’d better watch my ass.
Without actual friends yet, I’ll be on my own in spades. If I venture anywhere, it will be without an ally, a helping hand, even a second opinion. What is a friend? I wonder (where do I find one?).
And then, whoops, next thing I know, a friend comes calling…only–DANGER! DANGER!–that “friend” is my hapless daddy-o.
OLD MAN MELTZ
Pompous blowhard; stultifying omnipresence; dreary s.o.b. with a heart of gold, no, silver, no, aluminum; white collar drudge; earnestly mawkish drip-dry sap.
SOMEBODY ELSE’S O.M.
By the time I got around to having one drilled in my arm, the vogue for tombstone tattoos, honoring mothers or brothers or anybody, had been gone with the wind for decades.
In the late 60s, you could still walk into most any tattoo joint in the country and get a sampling of headstone/gravesite designs, two or three or four, different eras, different artists, the real deal. Through the 70s and 80s, the frequency declined steadily, and on the brink of the new millennium, in the 10-12 joints where I peeped at the wares, there were NONE. Not on walls, in portfolios or display books, nor in dusty file cabinets…nothin’. Oh, well.
Finally I met this kid named Cherokee, a tattoo apprentice who said his father had once been B-b D—n’s heroin dealer, and over the next few months he designed me a lulu. Stone-cutter lettering…jagged, “weathered” edges…symmetrically petaled fleurs to the left and right…fat, fleshy blades o’ grass, lotsa grass (hence lotsa green)…lookin’ good!
To which, per my request, he added a woman’s hand groping upward from the sod. (She’s hard to keep under, y’see.)
Quick! What were you doing the day, the moment, you first heard “Surfin’ Safari”?
That’s easy. I was in a ’55 Merc with my parents & sister headed for Horace Harding Hospital, Queens, NY, so my mother could have surgery to remove a polyp. September ’62. A Monday.
But the kinda polyp, that I don’t remember. Nor does my mother. Nor my sis.
My father? He don’t ‘member nothin’. He’s dead.
Tho responsible for the bulk of emotional mayhem round the house, and all too adept at tormenting & badgering me in arcane, labyrinthine ways, my father was uncomfortable with physical intimidation, and his forays into corporal discipline/punish were fiascos. High-strung, he’d end up hitting himself ‘stead of me–scary shit–but on a couple of occasions, when I was 6 or so, totally losing it over who fucking knew what, he actually took shots at me, with his hand and a rolled up science-fiction mag. Weak swats to the butt, they were painless but jarring just as morbid accelerations of a woebegone psyche.
My mother, on the other hand, cool (let’s even call her cold), not given normally to weird takeoffs or landings, once WALLOPED me with staggering unrestraint–in the face no less–to stop me from LAUGHING.
Could we call the lady prudent? A Chesterfield smoker her whole growed-up life, she gave up cigs forever, cold turkey, the minute the Surgeon General came out with his first big announcement about, y’know, cancer and what-all…didn’t even give herself a final puff.
No fan of vermin or boystuff, she barely noticed the crawling & flying things imprisoned in lidded jelly jars around my room. A hobby she left me alone with–fat city. I was so stoked, tho, from capturing my first black widow that I went ‘n’ showed her the shiny little fugger–“Look! The hourglass!”–whereupon she dumped and squooshed it with a patent leather slipper shinier than the spider. Good thing I didn’t mention I’d found it in the basement, in a web alongside this enormous egg case, or we’d ALL have got cancer from the oceans of pesticide she’d’ve bombed the house with.
Okay, so nobody got bit and kilt by the 8-legged spouse eater (possible assist to her). But this laugh caper, sheez–heck hath no fur like a mom who CARES…
Ralph and Ed were mixing their first test batch of the hair restorer they’d been flammed into buying a boatload of, investing their pitiful savings to get!rich!quick! or in any case get the bloody hell out of Bensonhurst. Kramden and Norton–the male half of The Honeymooners.
Ed reads the label on one bottle: “H2O.”
Ralph corrects him: “Those in the know just call it ho.”
Ed, being Ed, gets a little sloppy. “Watch it, Norton! Don’t spill that ho like it was water!”
Being in the ho-know myself, a precocious 9-year-old math & science simp, I exploded. One of those goddam PAROXYSMS you feel in your gut like you’re doing situps or something, hoowooooo!…body-mind intensity like I wouldn’t experience otherwise till I started fucking.
So my mother sees me spasm-ing like some crazy toy, having the time of my life!–joyous in my own skin–and what does she do, she hauls off and slugs me.
She was a textbook person, ya dig, and according to the book–whichever one–such a brutal response was not merely the safe thing but the ONLY thing to do. Mandatory!
Laughter can be perilous bizness, apparently. Who knows what mighta-coulda happened if I’d kept it up?
Cryin’ to keep from laughin’!
What dizzy backwards dawg-shit.
RM: Do you cook anymore?
EM: I haven’t cooked in a long time. I do make, y’know, I’ll make bagels and I’ll cook, every morning I cook a bagel and that’s my breakfast.
RM: Do you remember when you used to cook…
EM: I guess I used to cook.
RM: …these elaborate recipes for…
EM: That was a long time ago. A long time ago.
RM: You used to get these recipes from Woman’s Day, Family Circle.
EM: You’re talking about me?
RM: Yes. Things with names like Chicken Almondine.
EM: Heh heh heh.
RM: Which was like chicken with slivered almonds, the kind that’re already slivered in the package.
RM: And you also did various Chinese dishes, like fried rice and um, I think you got that off the Minute Rice box.
EM: Mmm hmm. How about you? Do you do cooking of any kind?
RM: Oh, I don’t make things that are very complicated, but I cook for myself and I…well, once in a while I’ll make my own pasta sauce, y’know, from mushrooms, peppers, that kind of thing.
RM: But usually I’ll just, I’ll use a jar of sauce and add my own spices. I’m trying to mainly eat healthier food than I’ve been eating.
RM: I eat very little meat.
EM: So are you gonna try and eat more meat?
RM: No no, I was eating too much meat.
RM: So now I don’t eat much meat at all.
RM: And instead, y’know…fish, chicken… vegetables. I never liked salads when I was growing up, but now I do.
EM: Salads I’ve always liked.
RM: I liked what we ate last night at that restaurant.
EM: What we ate?
RM: When we went out to that restaurant.
EM: We did?
RM: You had ravioli, you remember the ravioli?
EM: I didn’t have ravioli.
RM: Yes you did. You had ravioli, and there were these strange-shaped mushrooms that you couldn’t figure out…
EM: What it was.
RM: …immediately…but we figured out, looking at the menu, that it was mushrooms.
EM: Heh heh heh.
RM: And I had scallops, and everybody else at the table had steaks.
EM: I didn’t have steak?
EM: I don’t trust mushrooms. I’ll eat them, but I don’t trust them.
I always had a hunch that Esther B. Meltzer had never breast-fed me. It just seemed like…she hadn’t. At 49 or 50, I finally got around to asking her.
“Of course not. Nobody did in those days.”
“But lots of women must’ve done it once or twice–just to see what it felt like.”
“You weren’t even curious?”
“Absolutely not!” Well, okey doke.
Not much of a nurturer, if truth be told, she also wasn’t much of a cook.
“Fresh” and “ripe” were v. low on her agenda. For every fresh apricot or peach, we had canned or frozen a dozen times, regardless of the season. There wasn’t a single fresh mushroom in my entire childhood. We never had fresh peas. Never a soup made from ingredients, only canned or boxed. Never a pear that wasn’t hard as a rock.
Her attempts at salad were minimalist nightmares. Lettuce/celery/tomato was the basic deal, no onion (we only got onions on burgers). Her tomatoes of choice were cellophane-wrapped hardballs so wooden they might take weeks to ripen, and she never waited a day. It’s a wonder her knives could cut them. Dressing was some variable (but ever insipid) ratio of vinegar to mayonnaise. Fortunately, she only attempted these a couple times a year.
Potatoes she didn’t hafta wait on to ripen, but still you gotta do something with ’em, and Esther had verylittle aptitude for spuds. Home fries, fat-fried scalloped, whatever you wanna call ’em, were a slimy, undercooked mess, and mashed were a triple dare (boil, mash, and spice) she shoulda politely declined.
Basically, she didn’t–on a first-name basis–know a spice besides salt. They were there in the cupboard, sure, part of some official 50s “homemaker” thing, she just never used them. In my early teens, I took to spicing up the meatloaf when she wasn’t lookin’, mixing in garlic, pepper, thyme, paprika ‘fore it went in the oven–half an act of mischief, half one of survival. (Her own palate not being attuned to the parameters of such ado, she failed to notice the diff.)
The mix & match of main course and condiment: chicken w/ ketchup!! How else to cover up the greezy gristly BLAND of it all? Steak sauce mighta worked, but we never had steak sauce. Chicken Almondine–why’d I flatter her?–had tinfoil stuck to it that you hadda scrape off or like die or something.
I have NEVER et a hamburger more vile than my mother’s. I retch every time I think of one.
But nowhere as bad as whenever I think of her slime-baked frozen mackerel…yikes. There was no cover-up sauce, and no lemon when you needed one, only ReaLemon in a bottle (before they had the squeeze-thing). Pretty rancid stuff…”fishy” in its most diz-gusting incarnation. I grew up HATING fish and FEARING it.
But her gag-reflex masterpiece had to be her GRILLED CHEESE SALTINES. Squares of Velveeta ‘tween Nabisco saltines were sizzled and tortured in an inch of Wesson oil, saturating the cracker till you could see the cheese through it. Spatula’ed from the pan, they were drained on paper towels which became stinky enormous GREASE MATS. Two of these treats were enough to destroy any hunger. I can’t remember my sister or me ever eating more.
Great moments in killing your kids!
MY LIFE AS A PENIS
I came home from the last day of kindergarten without a report card. “The teacher didn’t call my name,” I explained. The last name, yeah, but not the first: no Dickie, only a certain Richard Meltzer–whoever the fuck he was.
“Richard is your real name,” my mom was obliged to admit. “Dickie is your nickname.” Say whuh?
The way it had worked till then was she’d arranged with my teacher to call me Dickie in class, but that day there was a substitute, and what the dootz did she know?
Aw well, I’ll live, I figured.
Then, in second grade, I discovered that dick = penis…jesus f. christ. I lobbied the parents to stop nicking me and go real already–“Call me Richard”–but it was like pulling teeth. (Not for another ten years–symbolically enough: the day I graduated high school–did they agree in principle to accede to my request. My father began trying to call me Richard…it took my mother ten more to even begin.)
In the meantime, for the remainder of my childhood, I kept my eyes open for what today you would call role models. Richard the Lionhearted I knew was bullshit. Some Brit named Richard Greene played Robin Hood on TV–but he wasn’t Robin Hood, he was an actor. Finally, a few months after catching Elvis on Ed Sullivan, I saw this flick called Mister Rock and Roll, and dig it dig it DIG IT: Little Richard!
Who leered and smirked and yawped and yowped and surged and manifested BIG HUNKS of previously unrevealed Universe and got down.
And was so goddam palpably REAL.
Which turned out to be a good deal, I guess. If not for my predickament, heh, and my predicament writ large, i.e., small, Little Richard might not’ve had quite the impact on me that he did.
I was a little guy myself, y’know, on the cusp of adolescence. Suddenly having Richard Penniman as my psychic copilot made me two-thirds, at least, of all I would ever be–or need to be–Richardwise.
Sometimes you luck the fuck out.
MUSIC! MUSIC! MUSIC!
My father had a “thing” for Hawaiian music, or said he did, yet I never heard him play any, on records or radio, in all the years I lived with him. The only music he paid active attention to, tunes of the 50s and early 60s passing through the ether, was the occasional hit evincing the theme “Life is grief.” Weepers like Bobby Vinton’s “Roses Are Red (“Is that your little girl? She looks a lot like you”) and Kitty Kallen’s “My Coloring Book” (“Color me blue”) affected him viscerally. So would perennials like the Bing Crosby “White Christmas” or any version of “Danny Boy.” He always got mushy over Eddie Fisher’s “Oh My Papa,” not so much because it clicked him back to his own papa, but ’cause he wished and hoped I would feel the same buzz of sentiment for mine.
To my mother, meanwhile, music, current or ancient, meant virtually NOTHING. The original cast album from South Pacific, the LP heard most often in our home, was but a keepsake of the Broadway show, of her memorable journey with my father to Manhattan, dinner at Rosoff’s, etc, etc–an evening she talked about for years–but one without enduring sonic specificity. Even when her memory was more or less intact, she couldn’t’ve passed a blindfold test for “Some Enchanted Evening.”
My father objected to rock & roll (it rattled his, y’know, world). My mother never even noticed it.
My sister first became aware that “something” was a little off with our mom when she took her to some silly movie about knights and dragons and such hoke, and on the way out the momperson said, “Those were the days…back when dragons still existed.”
When I heard this, it struck me as kind of endearing…childlike. If she was losing anything, I said, it was all these useless layers of sophistication. Here she was back at a place of open-eyed innocence–what could be wrong with that?
No, Nancy insisted, there was nothing that sweet about it. Here was the loss of a frigging faculty: something functional. That she didn’t remember there ain’t never been dragons was, fuh, a verybad sign.
Well since then the losing has picked up speed, and I can see with my own eyes things fallin’ away like Post-its in a wind tunnel…whatever, that is, that hain’t already fallen.
She doesn’t remember her lousy cooking or her horrible driving or the fact that she smoked or taught trigonometry, nor does she actually remember her husband anymore–hasn’t mentioned him since her daughter stopped showing pics of him–and it troubles me now that I can’t recall certain things about her either.
Like her smell, for inst.
There were so few hugs, so little close-quarters contact, that I have absolutely no sense recollection of the odor, the fragrance, of her flesh.
If the house hadn’t reeked of tobacco and foodstink, maybe I’d’ve picked up whiffs of her without the hugs…dunno. All I know is this: I don’t rightnow remember how she smelled, nor am I clear on whether I ever knew it. I just can’t for the life of me scare up a take on how she might even theoretically have smelled when I was young and she was (yes yes) the v. first object of my hot-dang desire.
SCENT OF A GEEZER
My second morning in Woodstock, when I joined her on the porch, my mother smelled like chocolate donuts and shampoo. We sat for 30-40 minutes and she listened intently as I wheeled out old stories, mundane and not, trying (I suppose) to see if she remembered anything about anything, stuff like aunts and cousins and our beat-up old house and dinky little town and grade school and the beach and actors and actresses she used to like.
With infectious good cheer, she’d say things like “You have a great memory!”–trusting me implicitly–“I don’t remember any of that,” then shift to doubt mode–“You’re not kidding me, are you?”–then back again.
Finally she asked: “But how do you know all these things?”–like how could I, a stranger, be privy to so damn much?
“Well, except when I went off to college, I lived with you till I was 21.”
“Really? Do you know my son Richard?” Geez–what a classic straight line. Could she be kidding me?
“You’re looking at him.”
“Heh heh heh heh heh heh heh heh!” Real laughs, not nervous titters. What a comedy team!
She just seemed so AMAZED in the nicest way, pleased to learn I was her son–after knowing damn well who I was yesterday and the night before. The double-edged “revelation” (BLOOD, y’know, and FORGETTING) didn’t especially alarm either of us, ’cause it felt kind of in a way irrelevant…we were otherwise getting along so well, y’know?
THE LIFE OF MY PENIS IN A WORLD WITHOUT SEX
My first sightings of scumbags, as they prob’ly still call them back east–“bags” for short–were of used scumbags in various states of decomposition, tossed in the street by horny hepcats, I presumed, on the rebound from red-hot rock-roll sexdates, a grace note to their evening which said, “Hey, I got some!”–like wow. Seeing them in the gutter beside a cigarette butt, on somebody’s lawn, or under a bus stop bench got me all tingly with idiot expectancy: someday I would get some too.
First time I saw a fresh, unused scumbag was in summer camp. Jerry the counselor took one out of this gold coin-shaped case, unrolled it to its full extension, waved it over his head–what a card–re-rolled it. Hey, Jerry got plenty.
The first bag I actually handled came out of a 36-box of Trojans I found in my father’s sock drawer. Three dozen–what wishful thinking. In the two years I kept checking, the count never got below the mid 20s. My folks didn’t fuck much, see. I never heard things remotely like fucksounds or bouncy bedsprings.
Why waste good bags? If they weren’t being used, might as well put ’em on my own wiener, OK? Every so often, if I got hard, I’d roll one over my thing and tug on it a little, then put it back. Unlubricated, basic boring white latex–but what’d I know? It all seemed pretty magical to me.
This was before I’d ever even jerked off, eh, and the first time I tugged it all the way, came and everything (whoopee), lookin’ at pics in a mag that didn’t show nipples or cunthair or complete naked butts, no skin but cleavage and thighs, I by design wore one of these communal Trojans. It seemed the classy way to go–doin’ it like you would if you were really fucking. That one I didn’t put back in the box.
Hey. There was lotsa good wacky sexual energy in the house, but the only ADULT sex energy you could feel in the air was my father’s thudding frustration…fluggit.
Here was this poor lusty guy, one of whose REASONS for marrying was to get some ginch (didn’t seem to’ve known how to score any w/out), and he still wasn’t getting it. Was the impasse a “chemistry” thing? Dunno, but it was a lucky day when he even copped a kiss off the missus (more of that naughty boystuff). Lotsa times she shoved him off for getting too close. I would bet the FARM they never ate each other.
Oh, d’I tell you my mom was really a hotte-looking woman? In glossies from back then she’s Bess Myerson with an edge–a curvycurvy 90th-percentile mid-century brunette. Her ev’ryday wardrobe flaunted her niftiest hotwoman features–paraboloid knockers and a dandy spherical ass–nifty enough to have helped her “land a husband,” whether or not, once the accessories (home, hearth, offspring) had been provided, she deemed it any longer nec. to hop to the promise implied by the flaunt.
A thought just occurred to me that possibly didn’t then. Could he have fucked her with one of the bags I tried on myself? Popped his cork way up her forbidden cranny with the lingering AURA of my dick surrounding his own suffermeat?
THE MATH WE DO FOR LOVE
Dirty mags weren’t the only paper products I from time to time had to sneak past Esther. She would get on these periodic kicks where comic books were, if not outright forbidden, then heavily discouraged, hah, and not only stuff like EC, y’know, horror comics and murder and mayhem and all that. Even bland pap like Casper and Disney–Goofy and Pluto and Chip ‘n’ Dale, those luvable chipmunks–hadda be smuggled in under my shirt and stashed deep somewhere in my room…deeper than the old man’s condoms.
The way candy was supposed to ruin your appetite for official sit-down meals, a familiarity with comics of any sort, she believed, would terminate the growth of good reading habits, i.e., a hunger & craving for hard litrachoor.
“I wish you would read SHAKESPEARE,” she told me more than once, which in hindsight is funny and sad and truly absurd. She was not in the slightest a liberal arts pantheon-of-culture type person–who was she kidding?–she taught high school fucking math. The hardest lit she read was Earl Stanley Gardner, Agatha Christie–that and Reader’s Digest. Mysteries to her were the pulp equivalent of math–problem solving–just like riddles and mazes and how-many-things-are-wrong-with-this-pic?
Well, I didn’t fall for the Shakespeare ruse, but I fell for a major shitload. To win this woman’s love, to stand a chance of even getting on the waiting list, I had to lift boulders with my fingers, elephants with my tongue. I had to acquire a life’s worth of academic mettle and muscle by the time I was 7 and keep it up!, keep it up!, for one fucking interminable haul. From first grade onward, college was my destination and destiny, and woe was uh me.
Whew. I was the only kid in town with TWO parents who’d been to college, which woulda been pressure enough, but Mrs. M, more than mere cheerleader and motivator, ran me through the paces like Woody Hayes or George S. Patton. I by all means “got” my work ethic, my discipline, from her, well, from both of them–but she wasn’t keen on my father’s slob version. Every bit as disciplined–fuck yeah–as she would ever be, he was also a grumbler and too, too sweaty a guy. What she demanded amounted to stoicism, to unreflected humdrum–1-2-3-4, do the task–with no mammal content. Plan it…do it…almost military.
I strapped mind and body to the grindstone and overachieved like a motherfucker (sorry, no pun). She wants 100 on every test? OK, I’ll get 100 on every test. Got ’em till every other kid hated my guts. Worked instead of played till I dropped. Carried a schoolbag too heavy for somebody twice my size, one of those hideous giveaways that you’re totally useless, without a life, an out-of-it dork with no age-peer smarts and less street sense than a Disney chipmunk.
And what I gained in the transaction, hell, I barely got a hearty handshake. I earned the privilege, basically, of staying at the grindstone in perpetuity.
A perpetuity I ain’t shook yet.
Even after she didn’t teach it no more, math remained the acme and the ajax of my mother’s educational paradigm. I won my high school math medal, some stupid little blue & red thing (a round of claps, please), but by the time I finally entered college, having placed easily into sophomore calculus, I’d had enough of math and its bloodless abstraction. Within a year, following a D in one advanced course and an F in another, I changed my major to philosophy. My mother was pissed, and she was no less pissed when, three years later, I got expelled from graduate school, still a philo major.
Grad school?…sheeeez…I stayed way too long in school. I mega-schooled my ass so thoroughly, so indelibly, it feels at times I’ve never left that wretched giggle-pit. At least once a month, I have a dream where I gotta take a test in some subject I haven’t thought about in 40 years–French, let’s say. I tell the teacher: “Hey mamzelle, don’t fuck with me. I already got an A–I graduated this dump!–in 1962.”
Then she says: “No matter. You will take THIS test NOW.”
“Well, I won’t.”
“Then we’ll take your diploma away.”
“Sorry. You still must take the test.”
Meaning, I dunno…whatever.
All I know is I’ve been out of school since LBJ was prez, and I’m still dreaming this hogwash. And every time I dream it, I think: it’s HER doing.
My loving mom’s.
The faintest of alarms went off, so I went and checked, and sure enough. On page 88 of The Night (Alone), my ’95 novel, the guy I’ve got as my first-person stand-in casually mentions his first tattoo, and what the hey, it’s exactly the one I’ve been telling y’about, well, minus a hand coming out of the earth. Mentions he got it in ’69, same year I got my first (a shark), and I’m wondering if when I wrote it I felt, in retrospect, that I should’ve got the other one first…that’s one mem’ry I can’t shake loose.
But god, thoughts of this tat have been with me a long-long time, and I’m still achin’ for an angle on what, um, might underlie the funereal fixation. Maybe this:
That while my father, for all his twitchy incompetence, was too appalling to imagine killing, too pathetic to even picture dead, my mother, for all her cold, sassless dominion, was a relative pushover. ONE of ’em had to go…so let it be her.
Kill the mother: Now I am a man? Wasn’t that Freud’s puppy? Or was it Bruno Bettelheim’s?
My father’s been dead eight years. He died very grimly. I don’t wanna die like he died.
Nine years before, he’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, but he’d begun slipping into the fog long before that. Was he already “senile”–that declasse catchall? How ’bout “feeble”? “Demented”? Well, certainly one or all of the above.
When the diagnosis came in, my mother’s response was “Oh, that explains it.” While it failed to supply full specificity for his physical-emotional-existential “condition,” it at least opened a window on how fucked-up he was. Now that something was finally official, she had valid reason, thank both their lucky stars, to treat him as a SICK PERSON and administer compassion in doable (if largely medicinal) doses. Before that, she dealt with him as some kind of reprobate, a slacker when it came to the usual homestead grunt-work, scolding him for goofing off when all he was doing was shivering terrified in the fog.
Possibly I exaggerate the severity of her disapproval–it maybe wasn’t quite that severe, nor all that consistent–but until his proper-noun malady became one of her designated chores, she was anything but kind to him.
During the last couple years of his life, he could rarely get food down without ordeal. Nose drool dribbled down his face much of the day. He dislocated a shoulder. Couldn’t wipe his own butt, and wore diapers. When he wasn’t in bed, strapped in tight, he was strapped into a wheel chair, the placement of which was well beyond his control.
With about 6 months to go, a doctor estimated the ol’ guy to be “no more than 5 percent conscious,” and it took tremendous effort to crank him up in the morning, to try and get him to utter a word or two, to express anything (one way or another) about zip. In lieu of aiming to trigger such a payoff, what my mother did was simply wheel him in front of the TV and leave the room.
TV! TV!…oh boy!…which for his final week on earth meant that fright show, the Oklahoma City bombing. TV Mom thought NOTHING of having him sit ‘n’ die before replays of bodies and rubble and symphonized horror, day unto woeful day, hour after hour. The medium is f’r goddam sure the message, and this message in extremis was her final gift to him, the decisive flavoring of his final agony.
Yes, by gum, she did indeed wipe his ass and spoonfeed him purees of pablum and bathe and clothe him and toil above and beyond the call of grunt-work just to keep him alive…but really, folks, wouldn’t you expect something an itty bit more personal in her manner of dealing with HIM, her mate of 51 years–in her mode of communicating and communing with what remained of that itty bit that wasn’t yet putrefied bio-matter: the 5 percent, whatever? She never, on evidence, tried to mingle with the 5; she gave up, probably, when it was closer to 50.
Hey, people, I hold none of this shit “against” her (honest), but gee, heck, I would expect more.
She could at least have rented the video of Lost Horizon.
SISTER, BROTHER, SON
Proper nouns with faces, or at least contexts. Not too many left.
Esther. Nancy. Lenny. Jessie. Richard. Artie.
Aside from herself, and my sister and her husband and their daughter, and me when her recall is firing on enough cylinders–and hey, throw in Alex, Vanna and Pat–the only other character/role/person, living or dead, who with any frequency comes linked in my mother’s front-burner mind with a NAME is her retired pharmacist brother.
Though it isn’t clear whether she actually remembers Artie anymore, she does get a lotta play out of namedropping him. During one of our Woodstock dialogues, she asked me: “Are you Richard or Artie?”–it hadda be one or the other (we’re the two absentees in the lineup). I’ve seen the guy–a beefy 6-foot bruiser (to my mother’s 5-zero)–only once in the last 35 years, and she hasn’t seen him in about 10, but even without being fed his photo (Nancy’s no fan of our uncle), she still manages to get a great big BUZZ from reciting his name and perhaps (on some level) thinking–or at least conceiving–of him.
Which, speaking of photos, might for all we know be more’n can be said about me. Without my li’l sis show-&-telling my pic umpteen times a month, who knows if I’d even be half of the Richard-Artie namedrop tag team? (Artie’s been a player 50 percent longer’n I have, y’know?) Nancy, at any rate, has been taking no chances, and strut out my mugshots she does. Maybe it’s a “sister-brother thing”–and so the hell is Esther-Artie–what’s it all fucking ABOUT, eh? But yes, Nancy is a Good Sister (much better, prob’ly, than I am a brother), and on the third day of my stay she made me a nametag for Esther to see:
“RICHARD MELTZER”–first name and last. It gave me an odd feeling to wear it. Even back when she unequivocally knew, I.D.-wise, who I was, she never knew or especially cared who I actually was, or what I was, y’know what I did. I always had this chilly sense that her take on me was more or less “Your son’s name goes here.” Her regard for me seemed not so much conditional as one-size-fits-all–or an extra-large that itself could never be shaped by the wearer. Beyond my academic record and other markers of the Great Nuthin’, she had virtually no interest in the workings of my soul or any but the shallowest details of my non-generic life. For years, I sent her copies of all my books, and she always behaved as if, y’know, proud of me, but she never ever opened one.
Well, shoot–I’ve never known who the hell she is either.
A miscellany of E. Meltzer speculation, interpretation:
Insensitivity without callousness.
Intelligence without awareness or comprehension.
Practicality to the point of heartlessness.
Comfort without enjoyment.
All pleasure as overridingly mental, not to mention labor-intensive: the mastering of mental challenges.
Never just doodled or goofed off. No gratuitous activity of any sort.
Big on accepting the hand-as-dealt, not going against the grain…why waste time complaining? But when the complaint is hers…uh oh. Throw out the deck and deal again.
Emotional reticence? Self-control? Are unexpressed feelings bottled up–contained and controlled–or merely concealed…or are they (possibly) not even there? (An unanswerable question.)
‘Fore I was 10, I was already having trouble calling her that, and soon it became “Mom.” Midway through high school, I began addressing her without any capital M-word at all (“you” seemed perfectly adequate).
These days, when I speak to my sister, I can’t bring myself to use such wds. even in a 3rd-person way. Usually it’s “How’s our mother doing?”–ho ho ho (fuck me).
The mommy ROLE I have no trouble with. It’s applying it to my own m-person that gives me the heeby jeebs.
“I want my mommy”–that number–eeyowwww. She ain’t delivered on anything like it in 50-somethin’ years.
Hey, I’ll cop to it: I do want my mommy–a mommy (or equivalent). Wish the hell I had one–what the fucking fuck.
So I’m sipping a beer and my mother is sitting there giving me this squinty, not exactly thirsty look, and I ask her, “You want a slug?”
“No thank you.”
“Yes. Did I ever drink beer?”
“No. And you didn’t drink wine either. Just whiskey.”
“Well, mixed drinks, cocktails, y’know, Manhattans, whiskey sours…”
“I don’t believe it!”
“You even got drunk once.”
“You’re not trying to trick me?”
“I can’t trick you.”
“Heh heh heh heh.”
I wasn’t there, so who knows what actually happed, but 10 years ago at a wedding, according to Nancy, our female parent not only got looped but made a wildcrazy spectacle of herself.
As implausible as it sounds, she somehow downed five or six more silly geezer drinks than her normal max, one, kicked off her shoes, and climbed up and DANCED ON A TABLETOP. Work out, Essie!–firs’ time in this LIFE she ever let it rip!–but she DIDN’ REMEMBER A MINUTE OF IT.
An amnesia variation slightly diff from the current installment…and when told the nex’ day what a swell time she’d had, she shook her head, tut-tutted gravely, and vowed never to do it again.
THE USES & ABUSES OF OBLIVION
No, I’m not gonna trick her, but my sister has, and it’s a good’un.
Nancy’s feet get sore, she’s on them a lot, running ’round doing things for the mom (for inst), so finally she tells her: “When I was a little girl and my feet hurt, you rubbed them for me”–an outright lie–“and it always felt so good, so loving. Couldja, wouldja do that now?” And she complied! Does it most days ‘pon request!
And Nance ain’t the only one to benefit from someone’s memory problems. The old gal herself recently got through a traumatic day at the doctor’s by losing track of the sequence of big/little past-tense traumas, thus avoiding being traumatized cumulatively. She had some node kind of thing, and they had to biopsy it and poke her and ultrasound and bloodsuck her, and all sorts of dire etc, but as minutes became half-hours, even quarter-hours, she would only remember the most micro-immediate horror, and by the time my sister got her home she remembered none of it…”Did we just go somewhere?”
So misery-efficient, this life. But if past mis’ries would only just drift away…what a deal!
LOVE AND LAUGHTER, EVER AFTER
Fun and games time. On the last day of my visit, I flunk a one-on-one comparison w/a two-year-old photo. “This is my son–you don’t look as good as him”…fuckit, lady.
Ten minutes later, I take off my nametag and point to its absence on my shirt.
RM: Who am I? Who do you think I am?
EM: You can be anything you want. I don’t know who you want to be.
RM: No, I’m not asking you to use your imagination. I’m asking you who I am in fact.
EM: Heh heh heh heh heh.
RM: Do you remember who I am?
EM: I can’t remember the name.
RM: Well, I had a nametag here, I took it off. Do you remember what it said?
RM: Not Artie…begins with an R.
EM: That’s what it is?
RM: That’s who I am.
EM: Heh heh.
RM: So you remember.
EM: Richard Meltzer.
RM: It’s like you remembered the nametag, but not the face that went with it.
EM: Oh yeah?
RM: You didn’t think I looked like the guy in the photo.
EM: No…heh heh heh.
RM: And why not?
EM: You look better.
RM: Oh–before you told me I looked worse.
EM: Heh heh heh heh heh heh heh.
RM: So in other words, I’m your son, right?
EM: Right, okay.
RM: It’s okay? I’m okay as a son?
EM: Sure you are. Sure you are.
EM: So what?
RM: It’s nice to see you, y’know, ’cause you’re my mother.
EM: It’s been a long time.
RM: So you remember, sort of.
EM: Yes. Yeah.
RM: Good. But even if you just thought I was a stranger, do you think I’m a likable enough person?
EM: Right. That’s true.
RM: So we could have a conversation even if you forgot my name.
EM: I don’t know.
EM: I’d have to say I don’t know.
RM: So you’re just being polite? You’re just agreeing with me?
EM: Mmm hmm.
RM: ‘Cause I love you, and I’ve known you for over 50 years, y’know?
EM: I love you.
RM: That’s wonderful. And we’ve known each other half a century.
EM: A long time.
RM: As long as I’ve been around, I’ve been your son and you’ve been my mom. Mom. (I kiss her forehead.)
RM: Is it time for Wheel of Fortune?
EM: It is. It’s right now.
RM: Or Jeopardy?
EM: Yes. Jeopardy comes first.
WHEN J.D. WAS IN FLOWER
For years, I was puzzled by the confluence of two events in the fall of ’57: my mother’s first home dye job and her throwing in the towel as a teacher. They happened within weeks of each other.
Before starting the new year at Andrew Jackson H.S., to cover the grey, she dyed herself flaming red with an off-brand of storebought slop–first time she was ever anything but a dark brunette. It looked pretty fake, and kind of tawdry–the way a lot of rock-roll chicks try to look these days–conspicuously painted. I was a little embarrassed for her.
A couple weeks later, she came home one day and announced she’d had enough. It made no sense. Her claim that “Teaching isn’t for me anymore” didn’t play at all. No warning, no buildup…too abrupt. She was only 41.
It would be 25 years before I would learn the uh Truth behind the concurrence, when finally my father, with supreme sarcasm, spilled it for me:
A remedial math class–she hated those–always a buncha rowdies. During a lull in the proceedings, a “juvenile delinquent” (or maybe just a clown) yelled from the back of the room: “Hey, Mrs. Meltzer, stand on your head so we can see if you’re a natural redhead.” (Rock and fucking ROLL!)
She walked out and quit on the spot.
The thing with my mom is that, for all her dress-up and flaunt, she never had the slightest sense of just how much sexual heat she INVOLUNTARILY emitted (as opposed to exhibited…or felt down in her cells), or if she had a sense, a glimmering, it made her hopelessly squeamish. She didn’t understand her basic ALLURE, she just couldn’t handle it.
And to suddenly have this scuzzy lout draw loud attention to her PUSSY!…poor mommy!
And I even slept with her once, um, at least once, maybe more. I vividly remember one time–I was maybe 10.
The old man was gone–his only over-nighter during my childhood. His gloomy father was getting his cataracts plucked, and his mother, a frantic old ninny, wanted him there. Which made for some very weird energy in the house–neither unpleasant nor pleasant, just weird. Anyway, I got lucky.
I lay in bed listening to the sounds of TV, then TV was done and I still wasn’t sleeping, and my windup clock ticked louder and louder, and it got later, much later, than I’d ever been awake. I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t sleep and at some point I think I might actually have been groaning, and my mother let me come in and sleep with her.
Oh baby! What a sweet-ain’t-the-word occurrence: real goo-goo ga-ga time. She didn’t snuggle or cuddle or offer me a shoulder or an arm to rest my mournful little head on, or offer anything, really, with a physical dimension, but hey, c’mon…you can’t have everything.
You’ve gotta figure, in the same way that she never nursed me, she prob’ly just put me in a crib as soon as we both got back from the hospital, from birthing, so it’s possible, even probable, this was the ONLY time I slept with her–there’s nobody alive to tell it diff’rent.
Look–I’m not one of those once-is-not-enough type guys, give-’em-an-inch-they-want-a-foot…malcontents, y’know? Once with this dame was plenty sufficient…yes YES! I wouldn’t shit ya.
At 2 AM (2003), I toss and sweat and try to catch a thread of anything that might help me remember the Fonz’s real name–who played him–and the show John Travolta was on…this is really troubling me. Even on a piecemeal basis, keeping up the pretense of total cultural recall–40 percent of my writerly shtick–can be a tough row to hoe.
And while I’m struggling with this horseshit, hours before the answers come to me, a verrrry distant memory sidles into my consciousness: that my mother actually SANG for me, oh, two-three-four times, probably on consecutive days, to settle me into my afternoon nap. The song each time was “My Blue Heaven.”
Just Molly and me, and baby makes three. With my baby sister, we were already four, so I didn’t take it literally, but gosh GOLLY–could THIS have been my mother’s perception of our life/lived? Was the Meltzer House of Dysfunction really a “little nest”? Her voice was more grating than soothing, the notes were off, but she didn’t stumble over the words, and the overall experience was way more agreeable than not. On first listen, I misheard Molly as Mommy.
Or is most–or all–of this simply how I’m choosing to remember things–to reel in and stack the shards of a hypothetical (and barely even anecdotal) yesterday? Is my mommy-lore remembrance quotient worth its weight in slugpiss?
Really, what was I thinking when I said she had no interest in music? Or was “My Blue Heaven” where it all came to a screeching halt?
Wish I knew whose version she learned it from…certainly not Fats Domino’s.
(CAN THIS REALLY BE THE END?)
I always imagined that someday I would get to hold the mothermom “accountable.” Not in a scales-of-justice sort of way where I would dangle evidence of ill will or errant causality or any such shuck, but simply… well…I assumed I would get a chance to talk the past over with her–talk it pointedly.
Fat chance now.
Before my father lost his ability to hold a pencil or concentrate on anything for more than a minute, I encouraged him, for really no reason but to get his engine spinning, to write to me about his beginnings–his primal memories. He sent me maybe 10, 15 illegible rambles about his parents, his sister, life in Brooklyn in the 1920s, and from a later period, what he thought of FDR–stories I’d probably heard 100 times before. In the course of his letters he kept repeating the same stories, in the very same words…like a tape replay. After he could no longer write, I had him tape me his rememb’rings…and those too kept coming up identical.
Anyway, I was sure I would eventually get my mom to take a verbal walk through some of her old sights and scenes.
Too late for that one too.
It was less than ten years ago that I found out that her father had killed himself when I was two. The line had always been that he died of a heart attack. Talking to some cousin or somebody, my sister discovered otherwise, and my mother conceded, “Oh yes”–very matter-o-factly–“he took his own life.” (Who knows how many secrets of hers have by now become defunct secrets? Forgotten concealments in lapsed databases, they’re not anything anymore, not even lint…they’re simply not.)
The only time she and I came anywhere near discussing the concept of death was on the phone when Artie’s wife died in the early 90s. “You sound depressed,” I told her.
“Well, it makes you think…”
“About your own mortality?”
End of conversation.
Whatever it is that life “means,” I’ve never been able to convey to this woman especially much of what it means to me, to dialogue it with her in any significant way. Not when she was totally with it…and now I daren’t even try.
Some years ago, when I read her a snippet of a poem I’d written, a riff on the theme of there not being enough total love in the universe to fill the heart of ONE lonely man, she shrugged it off with a heh heh heh. Now, I’m guessing–and all I can do is guess–it would sadden her as even just a mock-up notion, a cosmic disclaimer, a moment’s toss-off not wedded or welded to my being or hers or to anyone else’s. Why fucking sadden her, ‘specially when she appears, for broad twinklings at least, to be a functional (if preposterous) approximation of “happy”?
Likewise, there are “insights” I wish I’d been able to score off of HER in the course of this life-strut we’ve chacha’ed. One thing I’ve never had a clue about–emotional, intellectual, whatever–is this wacked-out business of Blood Relation. When my father was still alive, and all four partners in the Meltzer Experiment would get together after longtimes apart, about an hour into things I’d corner my sister and ask her what she thought the blood thing was about…’cuz even staring it in the face, I couldn’t figure it. Later on, when I’d try and prod the matriarch of our club into oozing a little of her own take on the matter, it was always just more of the heh heh…keep it.
It occurs to me that families have permanent legitimacy mainly to their begetters: parents. The begotten grow up and scram, their connection to the club shifts and mutates like crazy fug-all, but parents are maintainers of the glue, and in spite of all else, long as they retain their wits, their willingness, they remain gluemasters.
And when the wits are gone and the glue (qua glue) is gone, well, it’s just about people, with all their relational baggage, decades apart in age, galaxies apart in experience, relating to each other as, well, people. Nothing is ever neutral or symmetrical, or anything like reciprocal–everyone’s baggage is immense, and too immensely complicated–but maybe if you’re fortunate you can wing a sort of neutral non-neutrality…a less baggaged baggagedness. Or is this just some sappy, genteel commonplace I for too many reasons never clenched my teeth on before? Dunno.
Aside from the mem probs (and the node false alarm), my mother seems as healthy as the proverbial horse. She takes quarter-mile walks (supervised, of course). At 80, she still played tennis. I’ve always felt that if she didn’t make it to 90, she was being cheated. Well, she will make it to 90, but who and what will “she” be by then, as her conscious mind skates closer, ever closer, to nothingness?
My father was almost dust before he stopped being a world-class asshole. My mother isn’t an asshole, she never was an asshole, but who/what she is still very much escapes me. As her bare feet start straddling the Pit, and I look yonder to a time when she ISN’T, I suspect that a true sense of her being, her non-nothingness, will if anything, by then, have escaped me by an even greater margin.
MILK OF MAGNESIA
This morning I was on a checkout line at the supermarket when this woman sez to me: “Milk of magnesia???”
“What?” She was Filipino, wearing a nurse outfit, and her eyes were on my forearm.
“Why you tattoo milk of magnesia?”
Hospital code for a laxative. How neat!
1937. Esther Bersin, 21, and three girlfriends step outside the Strand Theater, Far Rockaway, NY. They take bracing gulps of night air and walk past the bus stop from which they planned, originally, to ride back to their homes in Rockaway Beach.
They’ve just seen Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon, a movie Esther will talk about for at least the next 30 years, and are all so blown away by its rendering of Hollywood utopia in the snowy Himalayas, not to mention its vision of a better world, that they continue to walk, as if on a cloud, blissfully smiling, saying not a word. Though they each live between three and four miles away, and pass any number of stops en route, the thought of taking a bus doesn’t occur to them.
My mom the utopian…
Long into her tenure as Esther Meltzer, Lost Horizon will loom large in her synapto-whatsosphere. Its male and female leads will keep playing crucial roles in her life, foxtrotting her all the way to middle age. Ronald Colman’s sole TV vehicle, The Halls of Ivy, a show even TIME will in short order forget, will end up as her top show of the 1950s, while the benign presence of Jane Wyatt on Father Knows Best will make that show required nuke-family viewing, despite its limited viability to the rest of the household.
By the time the movie itself is televised, enabling her to share it, at long last, with the whole damn family, a jack-a-dandy suave and handsome as Colman himself will occupy the White House–a dandy whose own better-world song-&-dance will feel my-t-viable to her adolescent son…making him easy prey for utopian hi-jinx on a snowy-blowy soundstage.
It’s a life!
Sitting tall in my saddle as I survey the attrition, the dissolution, the termination in the most strictly self-centered of ways, I can’t help but reflect upon one perk in the deal above all others: that while I still know this person, this woman, this rare bird as the former Mommy, she hasn’t an atom of an inkling of me as the former Dickie.
There are myriad things that either or both of us ain’t no more, but here and now, on this last merry roundup, those two–and in particular, the latter–will more than do.
As sole caretaker of the shenanigan, I say Begone!!
From this minute forth, all azure dawns of my peeny will be LOWERCASE, not upper.
(What the bloody hey.)
Richard Meltzer’s essay collection Autumn Rhythm: Musings on Time, Tide, Aging, Dying, and Such Biz will be published by Da Capo on November 1.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrea J. Wright.