My mother would have been 89 years old today. Would have been. I didn’t realize it until later, but the day my car was totaled was the twentieth anniversary of her death.
And all I can think about is how glad I am that she isn’t around to see that I lost the house, that I’m living in a shelter, that my cats are living at the vet’s and that I don’t know how long it will take me to even begin paying him back. Let alone how long it will take me to pay back all the people who’ve kicked in to help keep me afloat the last couple of years, helped me pay for my bankruptcy — there’s a supreme irony in the fact that if you have reached the point of needing to file, you’re too poor to afford to do it — and all the rest of it.
Let’s face it. There’s a big part of me that’s ashamed.
There’s another part, of course, that points out my mom loved me and would never be ashamed of me as long as I was doing my best. And I know it. Another part that reminds me in no uncertain terms that if I’d had any idea this was waiting for me, I’d have made a whole boatload of different choices. And I know that, too. But like that line Julia Roberts’ character says to Richard Gere’s in Pretty Woman, the bad stuff is easier to believe.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we find it so difficult to understand that no one person can know everything, that in fact, most of us are lucky to understand enough to get ourselves through the day without blowing ourselves up, figuratively speaking. (And maybe literally, I mean, pumping gasoline into our cars? Fraught with danger, I tell you. Fraught.)
I know there are choices my mother made that she regretted. Some of her choices in men, for example — my mom did so NOT know how to pick ’em, bless her heart. I think she regretted helping out my aunt as often as she did, knowing it wasn’t really going to change anything. I think maybe she regretted not taking better care of herself, at least toward the end when she finally seemed to be doing so, what with quitting cigarettes cold turkey and managing to drop about twenty pounds.
She wasn’t perfect, of course, because no one is, and I don’t think she ever wanted to try for perfect. But she sure as hell knew how to stand up for herself, how to fight for what she deserved. When she was negotiating the loan on the house, way back 40 years ago, I remember her telling various friends that the loan officer, a man many years her junior, kept pushing her to have an impound fund. And she kept saying she didn’t want one, didn’t need one, and what exactly was he trying to say? “Well,” he told her, “you’re a woman, you’re alone, etc.” ad infinitum and most likely ad nauseam, and to hear her tell it she finally looked him dead in the eye and said, “I am NOT getting an impound fund.”
And she didn’t.
After her heart attack, the one that turned her from a 50+ hours-a-week workaholic into someone who was virtually unemployable (short-term memory damage and being a major health insurance risk), she had to fight to get her Social Security disability, even though Social Security’s own doctors certified her as disabled and unemployable.
And she got it.
She loved animals. She moved me progressively “up” through the responsibility levels of the animal kingdom, from goldfish to a bright blue parakeet (named, I think, Tweety. Hey, I was six or seven, cut me some slack); to a hamster from the pet department of the big Sears Roebuck that lay on the way from our house to downtown; to our first cat, rescued from the street out front of our rental house where he’d spent the day fighting his way out of the pillowcase one of the neighbors said he’d been dumped in, only to be hosed down by our landlady when he finally got out; and then our first dog, who arrived a few months after we moved into our house, just trotted into the back yard when Mom opened the gate to drive to work and sat down by the back door like he knew he was home.
Then there was the time she told me to take my aunt’s cats to a particular shelter of which my aunt had often spoken. My aunt had lived with us for a while, and when she left she left the cats behind because she couldn’t take them with her. We had a good-sized pen on the patio, purchased so we could put our own cats outside to get the occasional snootful of fresh air but not risk them escaping, and when my aunt moved in, we made the pen into a place for her cats to stay full-time (my aunt had permitted them to develop “bathroom” habits that were NOT going to fly in our house).
When when my aunt died, Mom decided we weren’t going to keep her cats, that her sister should have done more to be responsible and it wasn’t our job, and so I loaded them into their carriers and took them to the shelter, crying all the way, and paid the surrender fees, and drove home, crying. And over the weekend Mom had a change of heart, because she did her own crying, too, so back I went to the shelter to “adopt” the ones who hadn’t already been adopted. Which I did on the condition that they would be fully our cats, not stuck in the pen no matter how cozy we’d made it.
And she agreed. And they were our cats.
Not to say she didn’t have her down times. I was afraid for several years after her heart attack that I’d come home and find she’d killed herself, which she threatened more than once to do — because she’d lost her whole sense of self when she couldn’t work. She taught me to read, loved to read, but her eyes got progressively worse; when I offered to bring her large-print books from the library where I worked (my first paying job), she always turned me down. Instead, she pretty much stopped reading books, chose Reader’s Digest and TV Guide instead, sitting on the sofa wearing her glasses and with a magnifying glass somewhere between her nose and the printed page. She always said that if she ever went blind, even lost enough of her sight to not be able to drive, she’d kill herself.
That, fortunately, is something neither of us had to face. She died before her sight got that bad.
As best I can recall, she never left a job without having a better one waiting for her. She was well liked, and she was loved. She worked hard (too hard, for too long, in a lot of ways). She threw hella good parties. She loved to cook. She loved to drive. She loved the occasional tacky joke — somewhere in storage I think I still have a scratch pad whose pages feature a person viewed from the back, lower half of the body, nekkid, one hand raised to a butt cheek and featuring those little “motion” lines — happily emblazoned with the words “Scratch Pad”. She was…well, I was going to say she was honest, and I think she was, but I also think she was happy to lie by omission to avoid worrying me, when I was little and when I was grown.
Mostly I think she did the best she could with what she had. And she could have done a lot worse.
I love you, Mom.