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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-five years on, when I remember it I’m still so covered in shame that I only want to stop. Probably because I was the one doing the shaming in this case. We were at the John Wanamaker’s up on the Augustine Cut-off. This was a fancy store in a rich part of Wilmington, and it was also a standalone, not in a mall, so there was a certain amount of exposure in going there with your ancient beater station wagon. Back in the day when my mother was a young career girl working in Philadelphia, she probably thought Wanamaker’s was good if perhaps a little pedestrian. As a fifty-five-year-old mother of four, however … well, life for her was about diminishment. I would not give into this, and we were at Wanamaker’s because I wanted to buy myself a pair of extremely stylish and unusual black gladiator sandals that I had saved my pennies for. It was a weekday evening, and my mother was tired from work and sat down as I browsed the shoe section, dreaming my future. When I was finally done, I went back to her. She had fallen asleep. Her mouth was open. Her knee-high stockings had fallen down and you could see the bunchy tops of them around her ankles beneath her slacks. I was so angry that I said very loudly to her, “Mom, WAKE UP! You look like a HOMELESS PERSON!” At this my mother sat up straight and said Oh! Another woman in the shoe section, a well-dressed lady who was Black—a fact that only increased my shame, because in my fifteen-year-old idiot mind I was exposing something that white people shouldn’t expose in front of Black people—gave me a sharp, critical look. My mother, however, apologized for looking so messy. She pulled up her stockings, fluffed her hair. Probably she took out her lipstick and reapplied it, using as a mirror a shiny compact that my father had uncharacteristically given her, and which she kept in a fuzzy Ped, as if to preserve for use in the golden future.

The Only Time in My Entire Life that I Heard My Mother Swear

My mother spoke with great clarity and no regional accent at all, which was very different from my father, who for all his education retained a strong kind of Philly/Camden accent that made certain words completely incomprehensible. For example, he said the word “iron” like “arn,” and one time I stood by baffled as I tried to figure out just why my father would be looking for yarn. Both of them also spoke some kind of Italian, my father’s a sort of debased mush-mouthed corruption of the Marchigiano dialect that my grandmother spoke, my mother’s “good” Italian. My mother had a flawless ear for pronunciation, something that even in my angry teen years I still registered with deep respect; she also was one to correct a person not with censure but with easy fluidity. I was always reading, and I would use words that I read but hadn’t heard aloud, and I remember, for example, my mother gently correcting me when I pronounced the word “obsequious” like “ob-sek-quious.” It struck me that my mother had a kind of musical intelligence, and before she got Alzheimer’s and lost language entirely, there was only one word in the course of her life that I ever heard her mispronounce. In college I was writing a paper for my Latin class on the Menaechmi, and I told this to my mother over the phone. She said, “Is that Plautus?” except she pronounced it like “Plowtus” instead of “Plawtus.” I probably less-than-gently corrected her to show her what a smart college freshwoman I’d become, all grown up in New York City and away from her. In fact Italian-wise “Plautus” would be said with the “ow” sound, just like her maiden name, Auriti. Today I like to pronounce “Auriti” to various credit card companies with that strong “ow” sound, as if I’m planting a flag and claiming my heritage. In fact I’ve always related much better to my mother’s side of the family, which one might roughly characterize as melancholy dreamers, as opposed to my father’s side, which one might characterize, perhaps at her own peril, as angry people with shovels. I think about a particular woman with a particular shovel that hit my father square in the head when he was a little boy. Living through what he lived through, maybe it’s no surprise that my father, who like a Lamborghini could go from zero to sixty in 2.3 seconds if not in land speed then on the anger scale, had a terrible trash mouth. In fact my father had the worst trash mouth of anyone I would meet in my life until I began working with commercial real estate brokers. In contrast, my mother said things like “Oh, sugar!” when she was upset, or made it into a sort of prayer, calling out to God, “Give me strength!” In fact, I only heard my mother swear, or “cuss” as we used to say, once in her life. My mother was driving all of us kids in the station wagon somewhere, probably to the strip mall where the J.C. Penney was, for some big event such as the purchase of new school shoes. My father was definitely not in the car, because my brother and eldest sister were having a lively smack-fest between the front and back seats. I’m sure we were all joining in, or maybe my sister Poogy and I were just covering our heads and wailing. My mother was trying to separate my brother and sister while driving at the same time, and she pulled over and rolled to a stop. She turned and yelled at us, “You damn kids!” We were so shocked we all flew back in our seats, like trees blasted flat to the ground after the detonation of a nuclear bomb. Then my mother burst into tears, and put her head down on the steering wheel.

Clearest Augur that You Have Just Made a Big Mistake

Objectively I imagine you’d agree that it’s sad to write about things that are unredeemably tragic, like the folly of your parents’ union. I related very closely to Delmore Schwarz’s story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” when the narrator is imagining his parents’ courtship and he stands up in the theatre and shouts at them, “Don’t do it!” I remember talking about this story in graduate school to a guy I had a crush on, a crush driven mostly by the fact that the guy was funny and seemed kind, and had a Gene Autry watch. He was not prepossessing at all, in fact the fellow was not blessed with any kind of physical beauty whatsoever, and once in class when he was sitting in front of me I remember studying a pimple on the side of his neck that was so big it cast its own shadow. This didn’t matter to me, however, since he was so smart and cool, and I was in a lonely way since just before grad school I’d broken with the boy I’d been with for six years, and I was stuck living in a small, alien city. What was strange about Gene Autry watch boy is that he gave every indication of liking me back, even accepting an invitation to come over for dinner, if a very frugal one, at my bare apartment. Things went on like this over several weird months until I was at some get-together with two other women and, after we’d had a few bottles of wine, I confessed my crush on Gene Autry watch boy. One of the other women, who was around my age but was married with kids, confessed that she had a crush on him too. The third woman, a playwright some years older than both of us, in fact old enough to have been one of the chic, coked-up crowd at Studio 54 in its glory days, was completely aghast. She didn’t have to say it, but it seemed like she was thinking, What are you two intelligent and attractive young women doing being interested in that dweeb with the novelty watch? Not long after this I would be at a truly awful event where the married woman would hold me back until we both got very drunk, at which point she told me that although she was married, what she had was an open marriage, and she and the Gene Autry watch boy had been carrying on a “torrid affair” for months. So if I had any ideas about him, I should “back the fuck off.” I’m really always the last to see things like this coming, my head is absolutely in the clouds when it comes to subterfuge; but it occurred to me that Gene Autry watch boy had been playing me like that character in Emma was playing Emma to cover his secret engagement to the penniless orphan girl. Almost more frustrating about that night, however, were two other things. One was that I was broke and yet had to waste money I didn’t have on beers I didn’t want only to arrive at this embarrassing outcome. The second was that the married woman was so drunk that she begged me to drive her home in her car. And I did! Even though I was only marginally less drunk than she was. I drove her home along Hope Street in the snow in her big sedan, rolling along at a rate of three miles an hour. I made sure she got inside, to her bland blond waiting husband, and then I stumbled home to my bare apartment and fell asleep on my face. Something about the words “torrid affair” brought home a point to me that I hadn’t considered before, however. The next day, when I was taking the shortcut to the bagel place, exactly at the point where there was a sad, starveling little tree, I realized something. If I’d followed through with my crush on Gene Autry watch boy, I would have to make love with him. My God, I hadn’t actually considered this. I realized I didn’t want to have sex with Gene Autry crush boy, I wanted to go to the movies and like eat hot-fudge sundaes with him and give him a peck on the cheek. Sad to say, though, I was so angry at myself that I’d let news of my crush get out and so humiliated by his “rejection” that I was a bitter, sarcastic jerk to him, even going so far as to forget that he had a severely disabled relative, and then spitting out the word “retarded” in some moronic show of punk rock bona fides. Ah, Gene Autry watch boy, please accept my very belated apologies. In time, I came to be deeply thankful to the open-marriage woman—just as Emma was perhaps thankful to the orphan girl—because her match with Gene Autry boy has persisted in a nice way that suggests it was meant to be, while the person who was the red herring in this torrid equation, clearly, was me. What would it be like to jet nimbly through life with no real entanglements? After my mother married my father, they were about to go off to honeymoon in Cuba, a honeymoon ultimately truncated to Florida because of the ill timed run-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and she and my father were temporarily staying in Kennett Square with my mother’s parents, in the house my mother had grown up in. They were sitting on the glider on the front porch one evening when it was beginning to get cold, and my mother stood up and said, “Well, good night, Chip,” and gave my father a peck on the cheek. She went inside and closed the door. In a moment there was a knock on the door. My mother opened the door to find my father standing there. “Colette, we’re married,” he said to her.

Best Mom Dream Ever

My dream as a child was the suburban dream, where you lived in a big split-level house that didn’t touch other houses on any of its sides, where you had a wide lawn that set you far back from your pleasant, tree-lined street, where you had a driveway. Most important of all, in this house of my dreams, was that you had a front door that did not open directly into the living room, which was a thing about the house I grew up in that gave me no end of horror. Instead, the house would have a voluminous foyer with useless objects in it like a pair of tall stone dogs, a bench no one sits on, a freestanding bentwood coat-rack. Basically, the house would have a buffer zone. In time, I would develop increasingly sophisticated versions of what the dream house should be, and I would come to thumb my nose at the idea of a suburban split level; the thought that I’d ever even been impressed by one would seem appalling to me. In fact, the ideas of my dream house became so fine in my mind that I became like young Morel, lover of the aged, rouged Baron de Charlus, who would take on the Baron’s aristocratic prejudices, judging things as if he were himself a Guermantes, never mind that he was born the son of a common valet. However, when I was a kid, the split-level house was an object of fascination for me. Maybe because one or two families from our neighborhood had graduated from their brick row houses to spacious suburban split-levels—? So it seemed in the realm of the possible. The row house we lived in, of course, was supposed to have been strictly provisional. My mother told me later that my father had said to her, when they first got married, that they would live there for a year or two, and then, when he became a well-paid lawyer, he would buy her a house with “columns all in front.” I would think of those words, “columns all in front,” when I’d take the SEPTA/NJT economy trip back to New York City from Philly, while I stood waiting at 30th Street Station, with its tall stone columns, looking up at Archangel Michael holding the dead soldier in his arms. Well, both my father and my mother went to the grave living their provisional lives. Once when I was little and my mother still had the strength to argue back, my father was yelling at her, “Why don’t you divorce me, Colette? Divorce me, Colette!” I was cowering in bed, the covers pulled over my face, having been taught in Catholic school that divorce was the worst possible thing that could happen to your parents. But then I thought, why? Who the actual heck came up with that stupid idea? I pictured my mother free of my father. I pictured her returned to the state of career girl, swinging her patent-leather purse as she walks to her job at the architecturally significant Huyler Building in Buffalo, New York. She could start over. All would not be lost. It was maybe not long after this when I had a dream where I was in the perfect suburban split-level, a big white house with black shutters. It had a spacious double-height foyer with a striking, overscaled pendant lamp in it. I walked up the stairs to the front room, where there was a party. Everyone was wearing big white clothing with gold accents. The music was some kind of “cool jazz.” I saw my eldest sister holding a glass of chilled white wine in her hand, and looking very modish in white flare-legged disco pants, white shirt, and golden circle-chain belt. I saw my brother in white linen yogi clothes. There was the sound of curated, bell-like laughs. I realized everyone in the room was tremendously sophisticated in a way I couldn’t hope to match. They were part of a closed system. In fact, they didn’t even acknowledge me. Just then I realized that my mother was standing beside me. I turned to her and she shrugged and made a funny, what-the-heck kind of face. Instantly I knew what to do. We quietly made our way out of the house, gently closing the door behind us. Ready to go in the driveway was a beautiful pink station wagon. My mother got in one side and I got in the other. We drove off down the street together. I saw us from the back of the car, and soon we were flying. We were never coming back! The elation I felt in this dream has stayed with me, unabated, for more than forty years now.


B.G. Firmani is the author of Time’s a Thief, published by Doubleday in 2017. She writes a very occasional blog about Italian-American literature and folkways called Forte e Gentile, and has a day job in the building trades. She lives in New York City. 


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