I Remember Mama – A Mini-Memoir

by rthieme on May 12, 2009

I Remember Mama


Richard Thieme

published in Review Americana, Summer 2009

I remember my mother talking on the telephone.

She sat on the telephone bench in the hallway, turned toward the wall. She always talked loudly, as if what she had to say had been compressed and forced itself out of her. Energy sprayed out around the telephone like water from a garden hose ill-fitted to a spigot. Her laughter sounded like artillery fire, making me wince, and somehow she would still be laughing when she began her next sentence. Her need to connect with her friends was relentless, but they always seemed to remain just out of reach; she would no sooner finish one call than she made another, reaching out incessantly through the coiling black cord of the telephone toward someone’s distant voice.

I knew there were others on the line. When she paused, which was not often, I could hear their little voices in the receiver at her ear. They sounded tiny and far away, a collection of toys like the big box of metal soldiers in my bedroom, or like Lilliputians, while she was Gulliver–if you can imagine Gulliver sitting on a telephone bench in a filmy nightgown, open turquoise robe, and turquoise mules with pompons on the tops.

Of course, this is just a broad outline. Later I would fill in details, working in from the brittle edges of her life: the reasons behind her hair-trigger readiness to snap back before the other voice had finished a sentence or the way her eyes jerked rapidly back and forth while she waved her cigarette in the air, not in time to any music. Perhaps this is how an artist sketches an outline and then fills in details, discovering progressively the receding depths of his subject.

I never could draw, but I do know how to remember.

As she finished a call she’d have the telephone in her hand, flipping through her address book and dialing with her free hand while she balanced a cigarette above the cup of coffee on her knee. The saucer caught more ashes than the glass ashtray from the Fountainebleu Hotel on the ledge beside the telephone. I didn’t know then that, unable to sleep, she tranquilized herself with sedatives which put her so deeply asleep she couldn’t go to work in the morning unless she roused herself with a different pill. Nor did I know that my mother’s struggles would translate into my mine as well but with a different flavor, different obsessions, different addictions.

The contours of our lives spill out of the cornucopia of time in surprisingly concentric circles, our patterns of behavior, from generation to generation, as self-similar as fractals. To see that pattern – to see ourselves wholly ourselves and the spitting image of our parents or our children – is healing. To see clearly the boundaries of our lives – our real place in the scheme of things – is the definition of integrity, humility, and peace. That’s why I won’t reduce this story to a catalog of details documenting the dysfunction of my family. I am not writing a case history nor am I engaged in self-examination prior to confession. Besides, every family is also a functional family, it all depends on where you are on the continuum and who defines the notches. These are the details, but if there were nothing but details, there would be nothing to write toward. I am writing always toward the possibility of glimpsing that fractal pattern; I am writing toward light, toward the intimation of a self or soul that will not be utterly obscured by the details of my life, toward a distant star looking as the sun must look from the orbit of Pluto.

I am writing toward home, listening for a signal.

The telephone fills the foreground of my memories of my mother. It looks huge, and I see her peeking around it, looking for the other pieces of her life. I learned to listen closely to how she sounded on the telephone, because it told me what to expect next. If she’d had a run of energizing conversations, she would return to the dining room table talking, the giddiness of her momentary excitement spilling over like the cup of coffee she carried back to the table too quickly. Sitting at the table, she would then play solitaire, smoke, drink coffee, and watch television across the table where she also spread out the newspaper, writing paper and pens, and various personal records, and where she placed the bicycle-backed playing cards in wide columns and rows. Smoke hung in the air between the glass chandelier and the crowded table. As she lay the cards on the plastic cloth, she maintained an energetic conversation with myself, in a way, even if I was not in the room, and the television, which kept her company and whose stars sang to her and made her laugh or, sometimes, cry, and with herself, although she was usually too busy listening to the television to respond. If Jan Pierce sang “Bluebird of Happiness,” or Eddie Fisher let loose with “O Mein Papa,” my mother would freeze, her hands holding the deck of cards in mid-air, like one of those tragic figures buried in the ash at Pompeii, suspended forever in the midst of an incomplete gesture, until the song finished. Then she exploded. “Oh! God, that was powerful!” She literally vibrated in her chair, unable to contain herself, waiting for my brother or myself to respond. We never knew what to say. Today, of course, I enjoy popular music, and when I drive in the countryside listening to “the hits of the sixties, seventies, and eighties,” I am often transfixed. Alone in the car, the farms and fields passing outside the closed windows, I use the music like a drug. Then, however, I didn’t know what to say, and her expectation that I would respond with emotion equal in intensity to hers would sooner or later give way to resentment. She sat up stiffly, snapping the cards with exceptionally crisp and deliberate precision, waiting for one of us to speak. After a while, one of us would say something to lance the tension – make a bad joke, ridicule the sentiment of the maudlin song, or just say something nasty – and she would burst into tears or explode with rage. She kept turning cards, moving aces up or playing from the deck, her back to our raised faces, showering us with shame and recrimination.

I don’t remember what exactly she said; I only remember her inexplicable rage. I discovered a metaphor years later for these outbursts when my mother-in-law, growing confused and forgetful, placed an empty coffee can in a microwave oven and watched, wide-eyed and frightened, while the oven erupted with arcs and sparks of white fire. Mom simply couldn’t forgive us for not responding as grown men should. Of course, we were not grown men; we were boys; but the absence of a grown man in the family blurred that distinction, and in the intensity of her need to have a grown man in the house, she conjured one up. We lived with him, that ghost which haunted our house more like a poltergeist than an insubstantial shade, although nothing flew through the air or crashed into the wall. Her wishes and desires commingled with a vague outline of our dead father to create a point like a Lorenz attractor against the power of which we were defenseless. We were drawn again and again toward a point it was always impossible to reach. Perhaps Hamlet lived with the same vague sense of an interrupted person always on the verge of coalescing into a genuine if imprecise expectation. I understand why Hamlet waited. It is difficult to model yourself after someone who has disappeared into thin air. The lack of form and clarity of their outline make it very difficult to color your own life entirely within the lines, although that very lack of definition creates an infinity into which to grow.  Since no one is really there, you vacillate always between who you are and who you believe you are meant to be. You become a kind of ghost yourself, and the incongruity between self and sought self makes it likely that you will resemble your father, who is absent and present at the same time, more than you know.

My brother and I learned to do everything we could to be who we weren’t. A high proportion of our energy flowed into letting go of ourselves and hoping we would coalesce on the other side. Is that what constitutes a haunting, a spirit giving everything it has to try to manifest itself in another dimension instead of just staying where it is? If so, my brother and I were also like discarnate spirits, seeking to manifest ourselves, to be present, to have an impact or make a difference, simply to show up somewhere and be.

Years later, we are still trying.

The telephone bench is where she came alive. That bench, a brown seat on a dark wood base, with a shelf for the telephone book under the black telephone which itself sat on a ledge beside a pad of paper and a gold pencil, that telephone bench in the entrance hall of our apartment is the picture frame, elaborately carved and gilded, which always contains the image of my mother.

It was also where she planned and carried on affairs. I remember her mouth pressed almost to the receiver, talking into the pores of the handset as if they were the very ears of the men with whom she connected. I felt the electricity in the air and the burning shame and sense of helpless grace before which I was abashed, like Moses before the burning bush. Emblems of the presence of God arrive in strange envelopes. Watching my mother make love with her voice and the language of her body to the telephone taught me something of God. Grace came later and gave me the strength and courage to realize with neither shame nor rage but with deep feelings of sadness and wonder that the forms in which God comes to us are always distorted by the memories which make such a maze of our spiritual quests. It is a miracle that out of the smoke and fire of the battlefields of our lives we one day do emerge onto the plains of redemption.

Theodicy. The problem of evil, sickness, accidents, death. Why do bad things happen to good people? A masterful title for a best seller! Why do bad things happen to people? would never have sold; none of us think we’re just “people.” The indifference and selfishness in our daily lives is shielded by the belief that we are good. The problem, of course, is not that bad things happen to good people, but that bad things happen to us.

My brother was five years old – I was two – when our father died. Our father had loved my brother very much, and when he died, the hole it left in my brother’s life was huge. He remembers more vividly than I the sounds and sights of grief, lights burning at midnight, the telephone ringing, strangers milling about our livingroom, holding each other and crying, and he will remember always the well-intentioned aunt who told him God wanted his Daddy in Heaven. My brother, of course, immediately became an atheist, suggesting, I think, that atheism at least some of the time is belief in a power greater than ourselves which either does incomprehensible and hurtful things or simply refuses to show up. The God in which Arthur refused to believe is not a being who says “I am not,” but one who says, “I will not.”  Given the evidence, Arthur’s decision made sense.

Otherwise we were Jews, not very good Jews, but, still, Jews. The way one responds to the word “Jew” is what makes one a Jew. Being a Jew is not exclusively about tradition, religion, or culture. It is about the vibrations that resonate in your breast as if you are a tuning fork when the word “Jew” is sounded. When, as a child, you hear the word “Jew,” regardless of whether it is said nicely or derisively, and you know they’re talking about you, then you are a Jew.

Learning to be a Jew, then, means learning how to respond to people who think you’re a Jew and treat you as a Jew, including yourself. Including God.

We went to a reformed synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Twice a year we were pressed into a forced march along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago that we derisively called the “Zoo Parade.” Hundreds of us marched up and down the street in what we believed was nothing but an effort to see and be seen. The twilight along the lakeshore was a nocturne of shadows cast by streetlamps, cool damp mist, and mink. Had animal rightists been around, they could have stood in blinds in the decorative shrubs that framed the lighted signs in front of apartment houses and mowed down the matrons who had caused the slaughter of so many hapless animals. The excursion was a ritual of mortification which began when our mother powdered her face and rouged her cheeks and sprayed on so much perfume I expected visible mists to rise like fog from dry ice. The passenger elevator in our apartment building often retained her scent for hours; when I came home, I could tell if she had been there first, and if so, how long she’d been home.

It was eight blocks from our apartment to the synagogue, and as we walked, our mother examined the faces coming toward her through the evening, the ones coming home from the early service, ready to say hello. At the same time, she managed to keep us walking on either side of her so we looked like the escorts she wanted us to be. We felt like wings without which she might spiral down through the air and crash. We hated having to hold her up, pretending to care about being greeted by people we barely knew. When she saw someone she recognized, I could feel a surge of enveloping warmth which no one on the crowded sidewalk could easily resist. They had to nod and say hello. That “hello” was a validation stamped on all of our foreheads: you are here: and also a kind of searchlight which illuminated our inner being as the fluoroscope in the shoe store showed us the bones of our toes. As they passed in the night, our mother’s eyes were already searching other faces, her smile held in readiness, waiting to flash. Between greetings, we walked in a kind of suspended animation, waiting for the next hello. People who passed without saying hello or didn’t know us barely existed. They were ghosts floating among real people. There were forty or fifty ghosts for every genuine human being. Those ghosts created vast amounts of interstellar space among tiny islands of brightness. During walks in the autumn night we learned that people are real only when they’re acknowledged. My mother’s example was imprinted deeply on our souls; my brother and I grew up within a field of loneliness and longing that is like the descriptions I read of spacetime wrinkled by ripples and dips of gravity. One cannot extract the thing itself from the field in which it occurs. Our essential selves are indistinguishable from the waves of distortion which make the others we encounter look like faces in the funhouse mirror of our own souls.

I sometimes think of that indelible lesson, learned during those long walks, when I watch my brother, a folksinger for many years, perform. He sits on a stool in the spotlight, mopping his forehead and cheeks with a red bandanna, looking out at the faces caught on the edge of the light. Their eyes are turned upward toward him, a reflecting pool in which he sees himself, and when he sings ballads and they applaud or tells jokes or tall stories and they laugh or groan, he is alive. His image is reflected back to himself clearly and with a minimum of distortion. From my seat beside the stage, the shadowy faces vague in the smoke and dimness of the distant reaches of the cafe look like shades in Hades. They indistinguishably blend into an ebb and flow of approbation which uplifts and renews him. He sings and plays his guitar the way Mom said hello to the ghosts of the autumn night. In a dark cafe to which you have driven miles through rain or snow, eating a Big Mac while you stay focussed on the lights of the oncoming traffic, it must always feel like an autumn night into which you walk alone, a frightened child stepping onto a huge vacant stage. Some nights, there are more than forty or fifty ghosts for every genuine human being.

I also thought of those walks when I became an Episcopal priest and celebrated the Eucharist or stood in the pulpit preaching. Sometimes it was deathly still, as if the members of the congregation had all inhaled and held their breath. At my best, I was deeply attuned to the personality of the congregation and could read feelings rippling through the crowd as an islander looks out at the ocean and reads the sea. I felt waves of anxiety or hospitality or affection, my antennae searching for the signals which gave me the feedback I need. Then I followed the signals home.

I have been listening for a long time. Listening to my mother talking on the telephone told me what to expect next so reading feelings in the hearts of the faithful was not the hard part. Learning what to do with them is what took time.

In all the congregations I have served, my mother is alive. She sometimes wears disguises, but I always know when it’s really her. I can feel the surge of enveloping warmth, the relentless need to connect, and the hopes and expectations which can never be filled by any human being.

Knowing all that, and knowing so many other things as well, nevertheless, years later, I am still trying.

From one point of view, then, my brother and I both used traditions we had to learn – the world of American folk music in his case, the world of the Episcopal church in mine – traditions foreign to the obvious externals of our upbringing, to organize and somehow make sense of a history that is not even ours, except by proxy. We are branches grafted onto someone else’s tree, adopted sons of imaginary fathers. By learning and telling the stories of other people’s lives better than they can tell them themselves, we make their story ours. They become our brothers and sisters, children of one father who is present and absent at the same time.

I have watched my brother elicit patiently and with subtle effective diplomacy from a drunken drifter in a slum hotel the fragment of some song as if he will discover in the variant narrative something of himself. This history, which customers are in danger of forgetting, he remembers for the members of the audience. Their applause is an echo of the self he discovers as he sings, the bounce of a radar wave. On a good night, you can’t tell where he begins and the audience ends. It is not that his boundaries are so blurred that he has no identity. On the contrary, he has discovered who he is, making a community for himself each time he takes out his guitar and sings.

The source of all communities, gathering for an evening like campers in a forest around a fire, are mixed motives issuing from the invisible point where the orbits of self and sought self almost touch.

As I said, that’s one point of view. From another, we’re still just two small boys, putting ourselves out there, making people say hello.


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