Her name was Cleo Lorraine Ashley, but only her dad called her Cleo. To me she was always just Mom or Mama, though in later years my sister decided always to call her Lorraine instead of saying Mom. However hailed, she was surely a most extraordinary person. So says everyone who ever knew her, not just me.
What a stressful and alienating youth it must have been for her! My grandfather was a businessman of the independent entrepreneur type, into all sorts of unusual ventures. He was restless (in the extreme, apparently) and moved the whole family every spring and every fall, often all the way across the country. As a result, my mother and her two sisters Irma and Thelma (both older) had virtually no continuity in their childhood experience, either socially or educationally. How can you make friends when you've just arrived and are about to move away?
The other two girls were nearer each other in age and great confidantes, but that left Lorraine the odd person out. They resented having to drag a little sister around with them, especially when they were older teens, living in the sophisticated, fast-paced Jazz Age in New York City, going to speakeasies, smoking reefer, picking up guys, etc.
The year she was 9, Lorraine didn't even go to school. My grandmother, who had been seriously depressed most of her life, was in that period a very smart clubwoman, out and about, living a well-heeled social life. She had no time for her kids; none of them ever quite forgave her for this neglect. Indeed, it has been my impression that parental neglect is one of the things kids almost never forgive completely; it's just too scarring for the psyche. (This is probably as true of perceived parental neglect as of the actual thing.)
That year her sisters were hardly ever around, her father was away on business all the time, and her mother was noticeably absent. They were living in a huge apartment (Grampa Charlie had lots of money) on Riverside Drive in New York, at the time a very smart address. Even in those days, a girl child of 9 did not wander around the streets of New York by herself, so my mother spent almost all her time completely alone in the apartment, seeing and talking to no one. She was too old for a nanny, I suppose. It must have been a monumental personal and social deprivation, and it has boggled my mind since I first learned about it.
It scarred Lorraine for life, in a way. Years later she learned how to be trusting and outgoing, but inside she was always shy, frightened, and alone. To get way ahead of the story, I first realized how deeply the current of fear and isolation ran within her when we were in Paris together for her 75th birthday. She kept wanting to take buses, whereas I was more familiar with and much preferred using the metro. One day she really rebelled, and I exasperatedly asked why. Then she told me she hated being underground because it made her feel trapped, and by degrees the whole story of the year she was 9 crept out. I can't recall saying "no" to her about one more thing for the remaining eight years of her life.
Later on the same trip, I had another insight related to this. We were having a very expensive cup of coffee in a cafe on the Place de l'Opéra, not talking, both tired after a long day, and immersed in our own thoughts. I turned to look at her. Every line in her tired face was drooping, a sad and totally "down" look. I was so struck by it, sure it was a moment of inner truth, that I quickly took a photo of her. It was just so forlorn. Hearing the camera's click brought her back from her reverie and she at once broke into the familiar broad smile.
To put a parenthesis within a parenthesis, several years later I was sitting in my study working. There was a mirror above the monitor, and for some reason I looked at my reflection in an absent-minded way, having been sunk in private thoughts immediately before. The person looking back at me was the very same image I had photographed in Paris. It was a great revelation, and ever since I've realized how perfectly I have melded my mother's persona into my own. Of course it gave me pause and made me more respectful all at once.
When she got married, she was an entirely innocent, pampered and unsophisticated young woman of 21. Her father violently opposed the marriage, even threatening to disinherit her. As it was to turn out, he had nothing to leave when the time came, three years later. He thought my father was no good, and certainly not good enough for his youngest daughter. He was probably right, but then I wouldn't be here.
At any rate, she was utterly unprepared for the expected life of young marrieds in the early 30s. She didn't know how to sew, cook, wash dishes, or clean house. But at the time she was a total believer in the traditional view that women were to get married, be mothers, and serve their husbands faithfully in all ways. My father believed it too; his shirts had to be ironed just so or he'd have a fit.
When we were children, neither my sibs nor I realized the extent to which our mother made good on the idea that she had to be a proper mom, that raising kids was a major goal and a major accomplishment for her life.
I have very young memories of this, though. I remember the breast (not very many of my friends believe that, however). I remember being warm and secure, being held, rocked, sung to. I remember playing outdoors, laughing, while she was just watching. (Oh my, sometimes I do miss her, I really do.)
Until she went to work in 1943, she made bread every day -- we didn't even have store-bought bread until I was 8 or 9. There was no such thing as frozen food, of course, so home canning was the only way to have good fruit or vegetables out of season, for the tinned kind were as awful then as now. During most of the War, we lived in a big frame house with a sizable back yard, where we had a grand garden for vegetables. And for fruit, there were two long grape arbors and three cherry trees. Oh my goodness, the pies, jams, and jellies that resulted from that were wonderful!
Out of necessity she had become a terrific cook and learned all the domestic arts to perfection. Boys traditionally love Mom's cookin', but my mom really was a great cook. To the very end of her life, you could always expect to be eating good food within a half hour of arriving at her house. When I was 9, she taught me how to cook, a story I'll tell in my own chapter, I suppose. But I could never top her vegetable soup, her pie crust (lard, it had to be), or her chili sauce.
But she was adept and clever, and god knows a hard worker, so she rose in the organization and ended up managing the advertising department. The company was eventually bought out by Carson Pirie Scott of Chicago, and after my stepfather's death, my mom moved to Chicago and worked in the main downtown store.
She was with Carson's until her retirement in 1974. By this time, her contacts and skills had put her in charge of special promotions and events. This might include all the hoopla associated with a splashy opening for a new shopping center, say, or the then prestigious Four Seasons restaurant at O'Hare Airport. She had a talent for carrying out large-scale projects that involved spending huge amounts of money and juggling many tricky egos.
Personally, she had paid the price. In 1946 women did not get divorced if they wished to remain respectable. A divorcee with three kids (and we were hellions, all three) had a very hard time even finding a decent place to live. Our landlord, following the divorce, was a Mrs. Julian, a somewhat wild-looking Hungarian woman. We lived in a third-floor flat in one of those endless six-flat blocks. Beneath us was a woman named Blanche Yetter, who often complained to Mrs. Julian about the kids stomping over her head. Mrs. Julian, bless her generous heart, informed Miss Yetter that a spinster lady living with her addled brother could much more easily than Mrs. Anderson with her three kids find a place to live, and if she were so unhappy living there, she could move.
Those were some hard years for all of us, but for Mom most of all, having to deal with the unremitting responsibility. I was probably in my mid-30s before it dawned on me what a huge job it had been to raise us, begging the grocer to extend a little more credit, going to work even if she was ill, and always minding these brats. It took enormous physical and moral strength to do what she did. I could never have done it, that I'm sure of; they say necessity makes us strong, but maybe not that strong.
Of course, when I was older I realized that she had a special gift: she really could sense what was just around the corner. I think she did this best with certain people, and I was clearly one of them, that is, not only did she receive signals of some kind, but I must also have been sending them. It was never possible for me to keep anything secret from her.
I have a really wonderful story about that. She turned 75 in May of 1984. We were having our regular Saturday morning phone conversation, some time in February, and she said something about my sister's birthday, which was coming up in March. Well, I had had the idea, just before calling Mom, that maybe I should take her to France for her 75th birthday. So after she mentioned my sister, I said, "Speaking of birthdays..." but she interrupted me at once and said, "You're taking me to Paris!" I laughed and said "Damn it to hell! Couldn't you at least once in a while make believe you didn't know everything in advance? I mean, I only had the idea for the first time ten minutes ago, and it was supposed to be a surprise!" We got a big laugh out of that.
At the time I thought my brother and sister would be only too glad to kick in some bucks for Mom's exotic present. Nothing doing, as it turned out. But the first morning my Mom and I were actually in Paris, it was a gorgeous May day. We took the metro to Place Charles DeGaulle (the Arc de Triomphe) and started walking arm-in-arm down the Champs Elysées. All at once my mother stopped, turned to me, and exclaimed, "My god, I am in Paris, France, am I not?" Responding "Yes, my dear, you really are," I was selfishly glad not to have to share the moment with my sibs. It was a childhood dream come true for her and I was elated to be the agent for realizing it.
He had two basic techniques for punishing us kids. He would either slap us in the face backhand (the gold signet ring he wore on his right ring finger sometimes produced a cut), or he would reach in his pocket, take out his penknife and order us to go to one of the cherry trees in the back yard and cut three switches, which he would then splinter on our bare butts, each stick in turn. This might be 30 or 100 strokes, you realize. It was a fairly savage experience. My sister and I both took these punishments stoically, because we knew that if we didn't cry (sometimes we just couldn't help doing it, though), we would win.
The most dramatic of my punishment stories, and it's really about my mom's great strength, is this. One night we were having dinner. Dad could never carve a roast, so though he did the serving, she did the carving. One night, for some infraction or other, as she was carving, he got up, came around to where I was and smacked me a good one in the face, backhand, with sufficient force to knock me and the chair over backwards. I stood up and said, "You're a sonofabitch!" I was 7 years old. He said, "You little shit, I'll teach you to talk back like that!" and reached out to grab my shirt front, this time cocking his fist as though to punch me in the face. But before he could launch the blow, Mom had come up behind him, grabbed him by the hair, pulled his head back, and put the carving knife against his throat, saying, "One more move and you're dead, buster." Home sweet home.
All this was right at the start of the Depression, 1929 and 1930. They lived a pretty fast life and made fabulous money -- $1000 a week then was probably equivalent to 40-50 times that now. They made a few records, which I remember hearing as a child on our wind-up record player, but though I've always suspected my sister has them squirreled away somewhere (she probably doesn't), they've vanished without a trace.
She was really pretty good as a painter. She had a few gallery and bookshop exhibits, but mostly she sold her work to people she met through Alcoholics Anonymous, in which she was extremely active those last years of her life. She got very good money for her work. In fact I used to tease her that I couldn't possibly afford to own any of her paintings, since her prices had gotten too rich for my purse.
I was always very excited about her work. She concentrated mainly on two types of subject: large canvases of flowers, usually marvels of lighting, or rather stern, almost pensive landscapes, often of rural scenes. There was only one painting with a human figure in it, and there's a story there.
I took her to Paris and Vienna for her 75th birthday (a story told above). When we got home, she was so grateful for the trip, the Paris part having been the realization of a dream since childhood for her, that she wanted to do something special for me in return. I had thought about that already, of course, because after all, we knew each other perfectly well.
"Well, Ma," I said, "I've never been able to afford your paintings, so maybe you would paint something just for me, but be forewarned that I have a subject in mind before you agree. You've never painted anything with a human figure in it, and my commission for you might be especially difficult, because I would like you to do a self-portrait." "I knew it!" she said (of course she knew it, she knew everything I thought). "That's so hard, Jess." "Well, my dear, you asked, and that would fit the bill very nicely indeed, but of course it's up to you," I replied.
Several months later I visited her and she gave me the painting. It's quite remarkable, I think. Before I retired I had it up in my office, with two other paintings of hers, a landscape and a flower, wonderful daily reminders of a remarkable person. I think I really lucked out in the mom department.
I wouldn't go quite so far as to say it's a general rule, but as it happens I've never met a person who grew up with alcoholic parents who was not lastingly scarred by it in one way or another. It seems -- to me, at least -- that I made it through more or less intact, though I can easily spot certain residues of those experiences in my present attitudes and feelings about people who drink. I wonder if my brother and sister, however, weren't affected more adversely by alcoholism in the family than I was.
My early childhood memories are dotted with all-night poker parties at our house, increasingly raucous and often ending in loud arguments, cases of beer having been downed by the group. Once in a while I would come downstairs, awakened and unable to get back to sleep, angry and willing to risk the beating I might get, to complain of the noise. To this day, the loud and boistrous antics of people who are drunk -- college kids on the streets near campus, say -- put me off.
Later on, it was emotional violence and trust issues that booze raised for me. A person who is drunk cannot be relied upon, I thought -- and I still think so. The kind of drunk who becomes argumentative, bellicose, or abusive is someone I don't want to have anything to do with. My father was notorious for this, but my mother too, was either obnoxious or depressed when she was plastered.
She went at least twice to Europe before that last trip, the one we made together. The first time, as I recall, she and Kay went to Spain and Portugal. She found the Spanish severe and joyless, compared to the Portuguese, so she much preferred Lisbon to Madrid. Later, with a man who was her closest drinking buddy before she retired, she traveled to the Soviet Union -- Leo spoke Russian well -- and got sozzled in Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev, scandalizing the prudish Russians by staying in one room at Moscow's Rossiya Hotel, walking fully clothed into the Black Sea at Sochi, and so forth. On that trip or on yet another, she was in Munich, which we visited together during our 1984 trip to France, Austria and Germany.
She was the sort of person who could make up her mind that it was time to die. She got the cancer diagnosis on a Monday; on the following Sunday morning, she was dead. On the intervening Tuesday she was discharged from the hospital to a nursing home. The next morning, intuiting correctly -- I inherited some of her clairyoance, I guess -- that things were not right, I drove unannounced to the Twin Cities. When I walked into her room, she burst into tears. "Thank god you've come, I was hoping you would. You have to get me out of here right away!" All I could say was, "That's why I'm here; I promise you you've spent your last night in this horrible place."
My sister and I got busy finding a hospice for Mom, but as it turned out, they could not take her until the following morning, which gave me the idea that Mom should spend a last night in her own apartment, in her own bed. Though she was in terrific pain, we managed to get her there, and I slept on the floor of her bedroom so as to be there if she needed anything. We had that last night for private time together, time to cry, time to tell each other all was well and fit and proper, time to declare the love that so often gets glossed over.
The ambulance guys who came to the next morning to take her to the hospice were totally great, though they were not allowed to give her morphine until they actually had her in the vehicle -- laws can be so inhuman. The hospice too was a terrific place, both for the living and for the dying. From Thursday afternoon until Sunday morning, there was a constant stream of friends and family coming to make farewells. Mom was alert and responsive until about 8 hours from the end.