A mother’s touch

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Letting the air in. Photo: JH.

Monday, May 10, 2021. A sometimes sunny, sometimes rainy, mainly chilly Mother’s Day Weekend in New York. Good for restaurants too; inside and out. A tradition.

We never celebrated Mother’s Day in my mother and father’s house. I didn’t know it existed until I was a teenager and my mother asked for a card. At that particular point in this young boy’s life, just past puberty, Mother and Son were no longer on the same page. Looking back, I can see how off-putting and probably hurtful it must have been for her to see son behave like his father. Father who was not easy for Mother, far from it.

Tillie at 53. She didn’t like photos of herself, which is not an uncommon sentiment, so I was surprised to learn that she’d had a portrait done. She was a working girl all her life, frequently in a uniform of some kind. She had no time for fashion except for formal affairs, or church. This portrait is how she liked to see herself, if she could. She deserved it.

My mother died in her 82nd year, 32 years ago. In retrospect, I see her life on a much broader canvas than when she was living and often managing to inject controversy (to put it politely) into her relationships with her children. Ironically, she did no such thing in her relationships with her grandchildren who rightfully had great affection for her.

Mothers are complicated figures in our lives. In our truths and in our falsehoods. There are good mothers, wonderful mothers, horrible mothers, terrible mothers. Same goes for fathers. Nevertheless, it is with them or at least because of them that we learn how to make our way in life.

Tillie had four children, three of which she brought up, and a boy, her second child — whom she put out for adoption at birth, and never knew. He and I met for the first time about fifteen years ago when his daughter found me. He’s now well into his ninth decade and has very strong emotional and physical characteristics of his mother.

As a parent she had her faults, one of which was what can only be described kindly (and patiently) as maternal meddling. She was of that generation where such meddling was considered a parental right no matter the age and maturity of the child.

I smiled when I wrote that sentence because as much as it (really) annoyed me and my sisters to the point of rage (when she wasn’t around), it is amusing to recall. For despite her overbearing curiosity, she was as naïve and innocent a being as she was when she was born. She worked all her life, at jobs which were pure labor — behind a counter, carrying a tray, over a steam table. Because my father, Frank, was not dependable in the support department. She provided and prepared the food on the table as well as the clothes on our backs and the roof over our heads.

Sometimes clearing the table at the end of the day, it was time for her tears. She’d shed them over the kitchen sink while washing the dishes from dinner, sometimes uttering to this young boy (all-ears) that she was going to leave my father when I grew up. At the time, this kid would be thinking (at age 6 or 7): why wait? The irony was that after I went off to college and basically never returned home to live there, she didn’t leave Frank and, I gathered from her attitude, she liked him. Or liked that he liked her. They had something going on, that same something that no children ever know about their parents’ relationship.

Aside from the ongoing domestic dramas which were very real-life, and her long work hours, she had a flower garden, and a large vegetable garden which was harvested and canned every autumn for the colder months. She loved decorating her house with wallpaper and paint — I used to make fun of her constant use of the color grey (because I had no idea interiors had designs and style). She used to make doughnuts in the wintertime before she had to leave for work, and would send me out on my bike to sell them to our neighbors (60 cents for a dozen sugared). My eldest sister Helen once in testing the product said you could “bounce them off a wall” — which made my mother guffaw with pleasure.

She read to me every night until I could read myself, and since I was the last child in the house by the time I was ten, I was the ear for her to talk about her long and tragic loss of her mother at age nine. She recounted the death scene several times — and it was dark and saddened worse by the presence of her mother’s six small children at her bedside. My mother was the second oldest; her mother was 33 — when she passed on before them with tears of leaving her children.

My mother’s father then put all of the children in a Catholic orphanage outside Springfield, Massachusetts where they were all abused both physicaly and verbally, and then placed in foster homes where there was additional abuse, including the physical. The youngest child, a girl, was only 18 months old. She was adopted out and her siblings never saw her again.

My parents Frank and Tillie Columbia (left) at the wedding reception of me and my wife Sheila, and her mother and stepfather Jane and Harlow Culbertson in October 1964.

When I was living in Los Angeles in the late 1970s and early ’80s, she’d call me every Saturday afternoon and we’d inevitably get into an argument about something I’d said, or was doing. Our altercations always left me with a bad feeling when I got off the phone. I’d be griping to myself about it for hours afterwards. Fortunately I came to the realization that such “criticisms” (which she delivered liberally and freely) were something she’d done her whole life with all of us.

I also realized that at this time in her life, she was long widowed, and living alone (which she liked!), and that I was 3000 miles away and she never saw me. As angry as I could get with her, it did seriously occur to me that I was her only son (that she actually knew) and her words were meant with that motherly love that we sometimes hate. I decided that since our phone calls always left me feeling angry and frustrated, they certainly didn’t leave her feeling “up.” And so it occurred to me to “plan” our conversations before they started so that we could bid goodbye peacefully and leave Tillie, as well as me, feeling good.

One day I was listening to Garrison Keillor on his “Lake Woebegone” hour doing a monologue about his mother. He recounted how when he talked to her on the phone she’d complain that he never called her very often, nor did she see him much also, and that it was disappointing for her. Thinking about her complaint, he realized that he often heard his mother’s voice in his head — “son, be careful of that,” “son, watch out for this,” “son you should beware of that …” “I realized,” he concluded to the audience that he didn’t have to call his mother on the phone because he “could hear her voice in his head all the time!”

I laughed at the denouement and related to it of course. I also knew Tillie would be amused by that too. So when she called me the following Saturday afternoon, I told her the story, and she laughed. My mother had an open and free full laugh.

Then I asked her if she ever heard her mother’s voice in her head. No, she answered, suddenly solemn, adding that her mother died when she was a very young child. I knew that of course, having heard the story many times in my childhood and youth.

Tillie in her 70s. This was a family gathering no doubt. I don’t recognize the interior except that I know it is not the house where I grew up. She had “retired” in her mid-sixties, living on her Social Security but she missed the habit of going out into the world every day. She got a job looking after the daily life of a retired judge, She loved it, loved hearing about the world he was part of, and so she worked until her late 70s.

I didn’t pursue the issue but instead asked her if she ever heard her father’s voice in her head. I should add that she never ever — not once — talked about her father, the man who had abandoned his children to their fates. She never mentioned him to me. I did not know his name, first or last. I knew nothing about him, or what he looked like, or how he acted. I only knew how he reacted to his wife’s death at the expense of all his little children.

So when I asked her that Saturday when we were on the phone, if she ever heard his voice in her head, she quietly answered “yes, everyday.”

I was shocked. I didn’t let on what I was thinking but I asked her “what” he said to her. She quietly replied that she couldn’t remember …

I said “but you just said …” And she’d say “I don’t remember.”

She was 80 years old at this moment. Her father, my grandfather, from what I knew from my favorite aunt, was not easy. My aunt in her innocence and lack of insight had once told me that “Tillie was very naughty when she was a child.” (she was 9 when her mother died).

I asked my aunt, “in what way?”

She said she didn’t know, but that their father used to have to pull down Tillie’s pants and spank her bare bottom a lot.”

So on that Saturday afternoon on the phone in Los Angeles in Tillie’s 80th year, having evoked a laugh out of her about the voices in our heads, having told me the shocking news that she heard her father’ voice

I asked: “does he reprimand you?”

And like a child who’d been reprimanded, she answered very quietly: “Yes.”

I never mentioned the matter to her again. I later learned that of all of her father’s children, she was the only one who occasionally saw him when we lived in New York where he lived with a woman whom he never married. But most important to me at that moment on the phone with her, was the realization that those “criticisms” and admonishments that came out of her, directed at me all my life, were really her father’s voice, and that indeed, he was the primary person in her life — not me, not my sisters, or her other son or my father, but her father. Who had done her wrong.

Tillie’s bedside reading included Gayelord Hauser’s “Look Younger, Live Longer” and Rev. Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking.”

Tillie kept two books on her bedside table which she’d read before she went to sleep every night after a long day of labor. One was Gayelord Hauser’s “Look Younger, Live Longer,” an of-the-moment health and diet tome. And the other was Rev. Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking,” a major best-seller in the early 1950s America.

I was too young to see her relationship to those books, and used to make fun of them because of the titles. I was surprised when I coincidentally learned years later that Mr. Hauser was a longtime very close friend of Greta Garbo who was born on the same day of the same year as Tillie. I don’t think Tillie ever knew that. Nor do I think she would have cared one way or another. She was doing her best to avoid her father’s wrath.

When I was a little boy of 8 or 10, I asked my mother for a dollhouse for Christmas. This was not, in those days, a usual (or even acceptable) request from a little male child. Nevertheless, on Christmas morning, under the tree, was the dollhouse. In it I created families who lived a life (in a much nicer house than ours) that was harmonious and always positive, no matter the troubles. The parents did not argue and the house never experienced the rage in our house.

When I was eleven, I saw an ad in a magazine for new portable typewriter that Smith-Corona had created. It was small and efficient with a simple grey metal cover. I asked Tillie if I could have that for Christmas. By then I knew that any expenditure was cautious because she was the breadwinner and the bread she was winning was what a woman (as opposed to a man) could earn in those days.

That Christmas morning, under the tree was a box containing the typewriter. I hadn’t known why I wanted it, but with it I stopped playing with characters in the dollhouse and started to write out the dramas on the Smith-Corona. It was only many many years later that I realized the gift that was Tillie’s was the gift for my future, and this story is my witness.

She loved New York where she lived with my father and my sisters when I was born (we moved to Massachusetts where her sisters lived, shortly thereafter). She loved everything about the city and first brought me here on the New York, New Haven & Hartford line on a Sunday “excursion” (go and return same day) where I got my first glance of Saks Fifth Avenue with its American flags flapping in the breeze remain in my memory’s eye .

She never understood why I abandoned a fairly successful business I had in my thirties to pursue a career as a writer. I am sure (except for this particular text) that she would have liked the result. Especially the part about living in New York. She’d done her job.

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