by Keith Hoffman
THE MOMENT I WAKE UP
I loved watching her put on make-up.
I would sit in the bathroom and jammer away while she stood in front of the mirror. My mother was not one of those women who just threw on eyeliner and concealer and whisked out the door. Her morning routine was a serious time commitment, and to my young eyes the transformation was magical.
I don’t know how my mom even got out of bed after losing her husband at 43-years-old but she had five kids to raise from the ages of 17 to 7 (me) so I guess she didn’t have much of a choice.
The word people usually used to describe my mother was “survivor” but she was more than that. My mom was beautiful and strong and glamorous. Men fell all over themselves to try to get her attention but she wanted no part of them. Her volatile and passionate marriage to my father apparently had been enough.
“Men only want one thing,” she would often say to me.
I wasn’t sure what the one thing was but from the look on her face I could tell it was not good. And I was determined I was never going to be like those men who wanted that one thing from women.
Make-up was a huge part of my mother’s life. She became a top selling Avon lady to support her family (this was the early 70’s and widowed housewives were not exactly sought after in the work place.) And by the time I was a teenager she was the top salesperson at the McAlpins Department Store make-up counter in downtown Cincinnati.
I loved visiting her on my lunch breaks from my summer job as the roast beef slicer at Roy Rogers.
She would paint the faces of frumpy insecure ladies making them look beautiful.
But none of them were as beautiful as my mother.
THE PHANTOM WITCH OF THE OPERA
But that make up was concealing a few things….
My widowed hardworking mom had her bad days too.
We kids were a messy lot and somewhat out of control.
It wasn’t the big things about her children like drugs or drinking or homosexuality that threw her over the brink. She handled those issues with aplomb.
She hated the mess. She would leave anonymous notes around under a threatening nom de plume to try to get us to stop making the mess.
Put your dirty clothes in the hamper!!
The Phantom Witch
And then there were the dirty dishes.
She hated the dirty dishes.
They were the tipping point.
They undid her every time.
One Saturday morning when I heard her slamming things around the kitchen and cursing angrily I knew we were in for a bad day.
The rest of my siblings knew it too. And luckily some of them also knew how to drive. We hightailed it out of the house before she had the chance to corner us and we escaped to local park.
We had no concrete plan except to avoid our mother’s dark angry unreachable mood so we hiked aimlessly until the sun went down.
As we pulled into the driveway worn out and exhausted, we heard music from my brother’s organ loudly playing from every door and window of the house. I had seen enough scary movies to know organ music could only portend certain danger.
We climbed out of the car with trepidation and crept into the pitch-dark house.
In the shadows we saw our mother playing The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down in an almost trance-like state with her back to us.
That was weird enough but nothing could prepare us for what we saw when our eyes adjusted to the dark. Our shag carpet was covered in what looked like thousands of pieces of multi-colored plastic shards.
Apparently she had smashed every plate and cup we owned.
That was certainly one way to solve the dirty-dishes-in–the-sink problem.
BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO
In my early 20’s I lived in New York City.
My mother knew I was gay but we didn’t really talk about it much.
When I had finally sprung the news when I was in college her reply was, “I suspected but hoped it wasn’t true.”
First of all, I wasn’t surprised she had suspected.
If my love for Julie Andrews and Beatrice Arthur wasn’t enough of a clue then maybe the Playgirl she found under my mattress that I insisted had been left by my sister was. (My sister had moved out a year earlier).
But the second part of her response was more problematic. Why did she hope it wasn’t true I was gay?
“Because I don’t want your life to be harder”
Okay, that was an acceptable response although I could have pointed out that she was straight and her life was no bed of roses.
But after I had moved away we kind of avoided the topic. I hadn’t told her I had fallen madly in love with a playwright since I wanted to avoid any awkward conversations until after I was living with him for several years. The first she heard about him was when I called her crying inconsolably after our painful break up on the streets of the East Village. I could barely speak through my pain-wracked sobs but my mom comforted me anyway just as she had done when I fell off my bike as a little boy.
As much as I I had fought to forge my independant life out of my mother’s purview, the truth was she knew me to the core. And for that afternoon at least I was glad of it.
I don’t know if she was shocked or surprised by the call but she nevertheless rose to the occasion and stayed on and comforted me for over an hour assuring me I would live to love again.
Like I said it was the big things she didn’t sweat.
And at least now we could both bond over those damn men who only wanted one thing.
A CALL A DAY KEEP THE MORTICIAN AWAY
My strong mother’s body began to betray her later in life and this spirited woman began to become more and more housebound. My sister who lived down the block became her caretaker—a role she both protected fiercely and resentfully lorded over her brothers.
To ease my sister load along with my own guilt I began calling my mom every day on my long commute to work.
Some days went pretty well and we continued our mother/son relationship that started those many mornings I watched her put her face on in the bathroom mirror.
Some made me want to cross the yellow divider line on the highway to end the phone call and my life.
Those calls went something like this:
“Do you know what movie I saw last night?”
“Um, no Mother.”
“The one with that actor I like.”
“Yea…I’ll need more information….”
“The one who is always in the movies with that actress.”
“Still need more info.”
“The actress with the eyes! You know who I’m talking about!”
She began to depend on these calls. I couldn’t miss them even when I was traveling and running from one plane to another in the airport.
“Hi, I have to make my connect and can’t talk long.”
“Okay honey. How is Houston?”
“I don’t know, Mother. I’m in the airport for about 15 minutes.”
‘Oh okay. How was the food on the plane?”
“I’ve told you they don’t feed people on planes anymore. Food on a plane is now potato chips.”
“Mmmm…those sound good.”
“I have to go now..”
“Okay, take some pictures of Houston while you’re there!”
“Mother is making me crazy!!” I would text my sister as I settled into my seat. “Welcome to my life,” she’d inevitable reply.
But still I called her every day.
Somewhere along the line in our relationship I had gone from the protected to the protector.
RHYMES WITH PHANTOM WITCH
My sister was in a coma in a hospital room down the hall.
My family was in agony.
My brother and I were sent to get food, which we discovered was not an easy feat in the middle of the night in Cincinnati. I had been home a week and this coma thing just wouldn’t let up. It was getting on my nerves.
My mom had been a trooper heroically getting to the hospital every morning even though she could barely get around her apartment on her good days. She complained about her tongue hurting a lot though. This was just the latest in what was now a long line of awful ailments that had befallen her.
Finally my brother and I found Skyline Chili, a Cincinnati staple, open in the middle of the night and were on our way back to that horrible hospital with food in tow.
When we arrived I walked up to my mom and gently unwrapped her chili dog as she sat watching from her wheelchair. “Need anything else?” I sweetly asked with the utmost compassion.
She summoned the most martyred look ever undertaken by any human being in history.
“Not that I have to eat,” she replied “but it would have been nice if you had brought something that didn’t burn my tongue.”
I looked at her in shock.
And I responded with the only thing one could say in such a situation.
And with that I stormed down the hall and out of the hospital.
Yes, that’s right.
I called my ailing mother whose daughter was down the hall deep in a coma a bitch.
And yes, I realize no matter how many soup kitchens I volunteer at I will go to hell for this.
I paced outside upset with my mother, upset about my sister, guilty and ashamed and hungry for that Skyline Chili I had left behind. My only solace was that if my sister woke up she would definitely understand the whole “bitch” thing although she would also remind me to be nicer to our aging mother.
Finally an hour and a half later I went back inside and walked sheepishly up to her.
“You didn’t have to call me a bitch.”
“Maybe not.” I replied begrudgingly.
And we forgave each other.
Because we had known each other an awful long time.
And because that is what families do.
I DON’T WANT NO HUGS
It was the day of my sister’s funeral.
We had all somehow managed to get through the unthinkable. We had watched our adored sister, daughter and friend die right in front of us. Not only had we let it happen but had somehow accepted it—at least in that moment. We had let go of her because she seemed determined to move on without us but we were beat up and bruised from the surrender.
And now we had to memorialize her. It was all so surreal.
My mom, still the survivor, silently put on her make up. But now instead of standing proudly in front of her bathroom mirror she sat hunched in a chair peering into a magnified one.
Later my brother Paul drove us to the cemetery as I sat in the back seat behind my mom with my ex-boyfriend Steve. Steve and I remained good friends and he adored my mom even though she never forgave him for me breaking up with him.
Suddenly my mom broke the weighted silence in the car.
“I want no one to hug me at the memorial,” she announced with grim determination.
I wanted to reach up and throttle her.
Now not only did I have to get through this memorial in one piece but had to announce to everyone withn earshot that the lady in the wheelchair was not accepting hugs. I was furious with her and I was furious with my sister for leaving me with this to deal with on my own.
“Don’t you worry about that,” Steve assured her. “I’ll run interference for you. I’ll tackle them if they get to close.
God bless him.
Neither my mom nor I comfort nor be comforted by each other. This was just too awful. We could get through it together but that was about it. We needed other people’s help. We needed Steve to appease her and prevent me from committing matricide.
And by the way she let a lot of people hug her that day.
Mother and Steve during the period she accepted hugs
A VERY MERYL CHRISTMAS
What bothered me most about my mom was how smug she was about hating Meryl Streep.
Our phone conversations would go something like this….
“I saw Bridges of Madison County last night and Meryl Streep was great. ”“Oh!? Did she take acting lessons??”
At some point I believe she started hating her just to drive her youngest son to madness.
I came home for Christmas, four months after Julie died to endure the holiday together. I had gotten “screeners’ from a friend–movies that were up for awards that were sent out to voters. We both decided we detested Anne Hathaway which can be quite a strong bond between any mother and gay son.
In fact we were having a nice holiday together with just me and her and my brother Paul. We didn’t have to pretend we were doing better than we were. We could be sad and kind and try to hold each other together even though we were all in jagged broken pieces like those plates my mom had crushed so many years ago.
It seemed like the perfect opportunity to prove once and for all that Meryl Streep was the most amazing actress in the world.
So I went to Target and bought Devil Wears Prada.
Everyone loves Devil Wears Prada.
I could tell early on Mother was not going to cooperate.
She didn’t laugh at the right moments and her silence unnerved me.
The movie seemed endless.
I wanted to tell Meryl to step up her performance—land the jokes better.
By the closing credits I was soaked in flop sweat.
I nervously pressed “eject”.
“I’m sorry but I just didn’t see any acting,” she finally said not sorry at all.
I had a fantasy of buying the hottest Skyline Chili possible and surprising her with it like Joan Crawford surprised Bette Davis with a rat for dinner in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.
But I didn’t.
I let her have this victory.
No matter how mistaken it was.
IN KEITH I TRUST
She had survived a messed up childhood, a bad divorce, a husband dying and horrendous health later in life and she had done it with a strong stubborn loving soul.
But she really wasn’t very interested in surviving her daughter’s death.
I knew she wasn’t getting better so what was I supposed to hope for?
It was the end of my Christmas visit. Paul and I had done our best but our Mother could barely get off the couch, open a can of food by herself or make it to the bathroom in time. She loved her tiny apartment and her fiercely devoted cat and she was determined not to leave.
But she had too. I couldn’t leave her here. It wasn’t right.
“Mother, you can’t stay here. You need to go to the hospital.”
This was her biggest fear in the world after one of her children dying. She had always made each one of us promise repeatedly that she would not end up in a nursing home. And a hospital was just one step closer.
But I looked her in the eye and I said it.
And my stubborn, determined Meryl-hating mother looked back at me almost meekly.
And it punched me in the heart.
“Okay,” she replied without a hint of fight.
She trusted me. I was her youngest son. We had gone through so much together and she trusted that I was right.
If only I knew that I was.
Later as she was being carried out on a stretcher from her beloved home, my brother accused me of flirting with the cute paramedic.
We cope with awful moments the best way we know how.
ASHES ASHES WE ALL FALL DOWN
“I want my ashes scattered in my ocean!”
None of us kids ever knew when our Mother came into ownership of the Pacific.
Paul, Steve and I went to Santa Barbara on a late September day to perform the final act of love for her.
I waited for my brother to visit me in LA as I was sure I would drown in a tragic water accident doing it myself.
She had died a month after Christmas in the hospital. She had always hated February and died on the last day of January. She at least had the dignity of going out on her own time.
We found a remote area and climbed out on the rocks.
As Steve watched from the beach we grabbed handfuls of ashes from plastic bags and flung them into the air. A wind gust scooped them up and they swirled like a tornado up to the sky.
We laughed delightedly.
Our mother was free of her failing body. Her spirit could dance again.
“How is heaven?” I wanted to yell up to her. How was the food on the plane ride there??”
My mom has been gone almost five years but there are times I still miss her.
Like now for instance when I get a really huge splinter in my finger that I can’t seem to get out and I want to call her to ask what I should do.
I remember that she used to use a sterilized needle to get them out when I was a kid but I can’t find one in my disorganized apartment that I’m currently turning upside down.
I come across the box of her ashes that I had not tossed in her ocean kept for myself. Desperate, I place my profusely bleeding hand on it.
“Please Mother…help me.”
A few minutes later I am rummaging one more time through my sock drawer and find one of those metal buttons you pin on your shirt hidden in the corner. With a little sterilization that needle on the back will work just fine. I pick up the button and turn it over.
It is a button that belonged to my Mother.
Even with a splinter in my finger and my life’s blood draining out of me I have to laugh.