My Mother in Seven Superlatives: A very brief memoir

B.G. Firmani

Most Baffling Mom Story Involving a Tennis Racquet

I’m cheating a little bit here with the title, but I have to do this since just about 90% of my mother’s stories remain baffling to me. She once told me about something that happened one day when she was visiting her parents in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, from Buffalo, New York, and she was outside, barefoot, hitting a ball against the wall with a tennis racquet. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania my mother had worked in Philadelphia and then Wilmington, Delaware, for a time, as what was then called a “commercial artist,” before she eventually moved to Buffalo. This is not exactly a city that would suggest itself as a place anyone particularly aspired to move to, but when I was a child this was all just part of mother lore, “when I lived in Buffalo.” That she had followed a man there became distinctly clear only later. The man was her “steady,” sort of a fiancé, but my mother being a nice girl, and this being the Fifties, she of course didn’t live with him but roomed at the “Y.” She was maybe ten years older than most of the other girls there, and everything suggests that my mother became the fun-loving leader of the pack. In fact, those years when my mother lived at the “Y” with her girlfriends seemed to have been the time of her life. The stories she told about Buffalo were always full of the most vanilla kind of fun, things like weenie roasts with her gang, playing records on the hi-fi, or staying up late to eat hot-fudge sundaes! If I really want to go into the realm of the insane, all I have to do is imagine my petite, demure mother doing something completely against her character, say, taking a big hit off a bong or using the word “motherfucker.” I believe it was my eldest sister, who would always attempt to talk with my mother about woman-to-woman things, who later told me that the man my mother had followed to Buffalo finally broke with her because she wouldn’t sleep with him before marriage. This really begs the question: was my mother a virgin when she finally got married? This wouldn’t seem so strange for that era, except for the fact that my mother married my father when she was thirty-four—which was almost “old maid” time back then. But there was something in my mother’s character that refused reality and kept her more or less in her own little world, which might be one way of staying young. That day when she was hitting the tennis ball against the side of her parents’ house, a woman going door-to-door came up to the fence and saw her. She was an Avon lady, I believe, if the historical record for the existence of Avon ladies in 1960 bears this out. The Avon lady saw my barefoot mother with her little white tennis dress and her racquet and her ball, and said to her in a mincing voice, “Is your mother home?” My mother said yes, and then the Avon lady said to my mother in an even more mincing voice, “How old are you, dear?” And my mother said, “Thirty-two,” and watched the woman’s mouth flop open.

Most Impossible to Fact-Check Mom Story Involving Ice Cream, a Convertible, and a Mink Coat

My mother was driving my grandmother and a girlfriend in an open convertible, perhaps somewhere in Pennsylvania. The friend was in the back, wearing a new fur coat, and my grandmother was riding “shotgun,” as they say, though the idea of my melancholy and deeply abstracted grandmother holding a shotgun fills me with a certain lunatic delight. They had just bought a gallon of ice cream and, as my mother drove—which I imagine looked a lot like how they drive in old movies, moving the wheel broadly this way and that in those days before power steering—the container of ice cream kept sliding back and forth between my mother and my grandmother. It would touch one of their thighs and they would say, Oh! and take turns trying to slide it back to the center. Clearly this was a big distraction, because my mother crashed the convertible into a scaffold where a man was painting a building with a big can of green paint. My mother’s girlfriend in the back got green paint all over her new fur coat, and my mother’s face hit the wheel, which resulted in her having one nostril slightly higher than the other. This was nothing you could readily see, this nostril issue of my mother’s, except that when I was little I was always studying her so intently, and really so up in her face, that when she had a sniffle I could detect a tiny bit of clear mucous in that nostril, whereas in the normal nostril you could see nothing at all. This gave me the idea that the human body really is well-made and shouldn’t be messed with, and probably influenced me away from any thought of getting a nose job later in life, even though a number of girls in my high school did and my nose, unlike my mother’s, has quite a lot of Italian overstatement about it. The thing about this story of my mother’s is, really, why would she be driving the convertible with the top down if it were cold enough to wear a fur coat? You could argue that they were bundled up against the cold, but if it were winter would they really have bought a carton of ice cream—? Also, my mother never owned a convertible in her life, so just whose car was this? I picture my mother, in this unknown convertible, driving off to some imagined Brigadoon.

Strangest Request I Ever Made of My Mother

I was a fearful little kid and in some way I made my mother into my own personal idol. I trailed around after her and would stand plaintively by, whining at her, while she did the dishes. My mother always seems to have been doing the dishes in my childhood, wearing big yellow rubber gloves. She was an outrageously bad housekeeper, and I chalk this up to the fact that first, our house was so crumbling and packed with junk as to be virtually uncleanable, and probably more that my mother was in a state of untreated depression going as far back as I can remember, what with her violent husband constantly hitting her children in the name of “discipline.” After my father died, in my angry college years, sitting across the table from my mother over a cup of strong, cheap tea, I would retail my anger at her, asking her why she let her husband beat up her children for all of those years. Just what had she been thinking? In anguished tears she told me she had been raised to obey her husband. Did she regret it? Yes, she regretted it. I wonder if it was helpful to me to hear that she regretted it. Probably it was. There were things about the way my mother related to me that only later I would realize had dented my brain in some permanent way. For example, since I was the youngest, usually I’d go on errands with her, things like grocery shopping. This to me wasn’t a chore, even if we were going to the most poverty-ish grocery store on say, an ill-favored stretch of Maryland Avenue, because any time at all spent out of the house, except at school, was a relief to me. My mother would always be worried about something, very often money, and she would say aloud to me, “B.G., what should I do? What should I do?” And I would rack my nine-year-old brain for an answer: What should we do, what should we do? Understand that I was a somber, 90% interior, haunted little kid. At some point my mother would snap herself out of it and say to me, as if in apology, something like, “Honey, sometimes I forget how young you are.” But my brain would go on worrying the situation, looking for the silver bullet that would mean the end to my mother’s suffering. Actually, I worshiped the idea of being her personal savior. If I could have shrunk myself down to the size of a statue of a saint in a pocket shrine, the kind of thing that has tiny doors that open and that in fact looks like a large bullet when those tiny doors are closed, I gladly would have done so for her. The fact that my given name is Mary would make this all the better, thematically speaking. I am trying to remember the point to all of this, and somehow I have begun thinking of movies. My mother was a great fan of Jeanette MacDonald. Her favorite movie was San Francisco, which came out in 1936, when my mother was eight years old. The movie is, quite frankly, an epic ham-and-cheese fest with a ridiculous plot, Clark Gable as the bad man called Blackie, some forgotten actor named Jack Holt as the wealthy, boring, solid choice, and Spencer Tracy as the inevitable priest. I can still see Jeanette MacDonald marching up the hill at the end of the movie, looking like an angel all in white, her shining tresses cascading down her back despite the fact that she’s just been through an earthquake. Oh, brother! I wonder, then, what it says about me that when I go to read the Wikipedia entry for San Francisco tears come into my eyes? My mother was very affectionate with me, full of hugs and kisses, and I believe it was because I had this to offset the general trauma of my childhood that I’m not a cutter or violent drunk or a whingeing basket case today. On the day when I asked her my strange request, which was if we could kiss longer, kiss like you see people kissing in movies, she didn’t treat this as strange at all. Instead she said to me, “Honey, when you’re married to your husband, you’ll kiss each other like that.” The surety that I would live to grow up and, weirder still, have a husband—a husband I would want to kiss like that!—filled me with astonishment. How could she be so certain? I walked away with dazzled eyes.

The Most Humiliating Thing I Ever Did to My Mother

My mother’s past seemed mythic to me, so different from what I saw as the diminished present that we were stuck living in when I was little. In some ways I saw my mother’s past as still happening, or in fact only waiting for her so that it could resume again. In my mind it was separated from the present by a kind of river that she could swim in order to get back to it; if I were lucky, I’d swim it with her. As I remember it, my mother had only two bathing suits in the course of her adult life, the second one bought once the first one had lost its elasticity after twenty-plus years of use. The “new” one was a dark blue maillot with small red and white irregular dots on it that, when you looked closer, turned out to be abstract hearts. Since my mother wearing anything with a heart motif on it is absurdly out of character, she probably had bought the bathing suit only because it had been drastically reduced, likely slashed to less than 50%, and considered not too terrible. Once I watched a documentary about the painter Joan Mitchell, she of the beautiful unsmiling severity, and in one of the interviews, when Joan Mitchell has become an old lady, she’s wearing a sweatshirt with appliqué bears on it. I almost fell out of my chair. It seemed the height of outrage that Joan Mitchell should wear such a thing. Was she doing it as a joke? Or was she past the point of caring? My mother’s married life, starting from around the time of my birth, say, ran on similar lines. It wasn’t just about her not being able to “see” her clothing anymore—it was about what she could allow herself to expect from life. Everything shrank, became permanently reduced. It became about how to just get by. Getting by took an enormous toll on my mother. I especially remember her, glasses raised, standing at the dented-can pagoda at the A&P, holding a can of generic-brand chunk pineapple very close to her face so that she can read the ingredients. Nearby, a big woman in a good coat stands looking at my mother with derision in her eyes. Young as I was, this scenario still made me die of shame. I hated that my mother was reduced to buying dented canned goods and even worse, dented generic canned goods. In fact, I want to write about another story of my mother appearing pitiable in public, but even thirty-