Hey, Ma! Who the Hell Are You?


My mother – “Ma” to us kids – died 24 years ago. I was 35 at the time, old enough, you’d think, to have a pretty fair handle on who she was. Certainly I had a better understanding of her than if she had died when I was a teenager or in my early 20’s. I had a family of sorts – the love of my life was a woman with a daughter by a previous marriage and that daughter was 11, for a girl the most tempestuous and disdainful age of all – and I’d been beat around by life enough to appreciate, at least somewhat, the perspective of a woman who had been 11 in the depths of the Great Depression, fallen in love in the middle of the worst war in human history, and married on sheer hope almost as soon as her love’s boat docked in the first uncertain year after the war.

Actually, I hadn’t been beat by life so much as batted around like a cat toy. On one of my periodic visits home to rest and recoup, she asked what I had been up to and I told her – some of it, not all – and she said, with one of those uncharacteristic flashes of insight that unsettled us whenever they appeared, suddenly and without warning, like heat lightning, “You don’t have to live my life over again, you know. I already did.”

I didn’t see the connection, of course, and characteristically, she refused to explain what she meant. Which was why these unexpected bursts of uncanny perception always rattled us. It wasn’t just that they seemed to come out of nowhere. It was that they very clearly meant something and we didn’t know what. And she wouldn’t tell us.

They still rattle me whenever I’m reminded of them. They suggest levels of complexity and an ability to penetrate any facade that’s at odds with the rest of what she was, a simple woman from a working-class immigrant background who had no interest in politics, history, or art (except classical music, of which more in a moment), who never graduated from high school, who took her religion (she was a Canuck Catholic) as she found it and never let it interfere with the rest of her life, who found her place in the world at home and liked it that way. She wasn’t an activist or a gossip, she drank black coffee thick as mud from the time she got up to the time she went to bed, she only watched sit-coms and variety shows on tv (she thought soaps were silly and ignored them), and she never said a bad word about anybody, though she thought plenty of them.

How do I know if she didn’t say them? Her face. Ma was not a gameplayer in any sense of the word. She would play cribbage if you forced her but then give away her hand as soon as she got it. A blind poker player would have known what she had just from the noises she made. Everything she thought or felt showed in that guileless face. Usually.

There were exceptions. When my father’s hell-on-wheels mother went after her with claws out over some stupid little thing no sane person would have wasted a tenth of a second caring about, Ma went all deadpan. She was patient, never raised her voice, never so much as raised an eyebrow. Only in the long visits toward the end of Gram’s life did her equilibrium finally give way to self-defensive anger. Gram was pure bitch those last years – it was the only talent she’d ever had and at the end, she reveled in it. She pushed, prodded, criticized, condemned, and it was constant, without let-up, without escape. I think that was the only time in my life I saw Ma truly mad – furious, in fact. You could practically see the steam exploding from her ears. Her face was red, her muscles were as tight as steel bands, and her eyes shot flights of razor-sharp arrows every time she looked at her mother-in-law.

But that was Ma pushed past her limit – everybody has one – and into country where she didn’t really belong. It wasn’t that some hidden darkness inside her, some chained beast of the id, had finally found an appropriate target. It was just that the power of the survival instinct had kicked into high gear. Anger wasn’t part of who Ma was but who she became when threatened with utter destruction. We all retreat into our ancestral savage when death is the only alternative to a fight. It didn’t mean anything.

Unlike those flashes when a totally alien Ma, a woman I’d never known or even suspected, would materialize for a few seconds like an alternate personality in a schizophrenic and then vanish just as quickly without explanation or warning.

It was unnerving.

I’m two years older now than Ma was when she died, and though I think I understand a lot more about who she was than I did then, the flashes still baffle me. Where did they come from? If they were an integral part of her personality, why did they show up so rarely and so briefly? It was as if you’d spent your life with Martha Stewart only to discover she’d been hiding Carl Jung and Buckminster Fuller under her apron the whole time.

My mother had only three passions in her life (four if you count my father, only I’m not sure I should): her kids, baking, and classical music. The first two were up front, obvious, no bones about it major drives. The third, however, she for some reason kept hidden, as if it were a guilty pleasure she was ashamed of and didn’t want people to know about.

Which makes no sense. My father was into classical, light classical anyway – except for Beethoven, the heavier stuff left him cold – and she was always encouraging us to put that damn rock’n’roll away and listen to some good music. Put Tchaikovsky or Haydn or especially Chopin on the hi-fi and Ma would appear at the living room door with her eyes shining and her head nodding in approval. “That’s better,” she’d say.

I was 17 before I caught her alone, just sitting in a chair and listening to Van Cliburn play the Nocturnes, her legs stretched out and her eyes closed, her head moving slightly with each tempo or key change. And that was the first time it dawned on me that for all her badgering, I’d never seen her just sitting and listening, alone, for the pure pleasure of it. Not in 17 years. Up to that moment I’d always thought that, like reading – something else she rarely did except for the local paper – she went after us over classical music because she thought it would be good for us. I’d never seen anything personal in it.

And yet, there she was, transported, a tear trickling down her cheek. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I said from the same doorway where she’d so often stood to nod at me in approval of Sibelius or shake her head in despair at Miles Davis and Chuck Berry.

Well, you would have though I’d caught her masturbating to a porn movie. At the sound of my voice, she leapt from the chair, beet red, open-mouthed, stuttering incoherently. She rushed to the hi-fi and switched it off.

“What’d you do that for?” I asked, a little stunned by her odd reaction.

“I have to get dinner started,” she said, brushing past me and heading for the kitchen.

I followed her and tried to talk to her about it but it was no dice. She wouldn’t discuss it. Along about the third question, she shot me a look I knew well. “Don’t you have some homework to do?”

I took the hint.

Maybe I shouldn’t have. In the years since she died, I’ve often wondered what would have happened if I’d pushed her to explain herself. But then I realize that nothing would have happened. Once my mother decided to clam up, you couldn’t get hers jaws open with a crowbar.

Sometimes I think I should have asked her right before she died. Because there came a moment when she knew she was dying, knew she wasn’t leaving the hospital this time, and was more open than I’d ever seen her. She reminisced, told me things about our old neighbors she’d kept to herself for decades – the mess of Donna’s divorce, Cathy’s son getting arrested and thrown in jail for selling drugs, Carol’s abusive husband, Gil’s affair with his secretary; it was astounding how much she knew that she’d kept locked away – and she might finally have told me why she felt so guilty about listening to classical music that she hid it from everyone, even the family.

But I didn’t ask her. I forgot, I guess. Or it didn’t seem very important next to her dying right before my eyes. I had enough trouble dealing with that. Solving old mysteries must have seemed like a waste of precious time when there wasn’t much left.

Now I wish I had. She’s gone and the answer to the riddle is gone with her. There’s something about a guilty secret where there’s no conceivable reason either for guilt or secrecy that makes it feel like a shuttered window in a room full of unknown truth. How could my mother be both of these people at the same time? The simple, unadorned, guileless woman I knew so well and yet a woman with a love, even passion, for complex, multi-shaded music that she was for some reason afraid to share? I must have missed something in her, my own mother. And it wasn’t some mild, insignificant little something, an unseen corner of a room I was otherwise intimately familiar with. It was something important, maybe crucial, to knowing who she really was.

So this morning I didn’t feel like reading the news and I do what I always do when I feel that way – I start trolling blogs for anything surprising or provoking – and I run across a post by John McKay at archy on cooking (yeah, I know, but bear with me through what only appears to be a non sequitor) and I read this:

I’ve often heard that there are two types of people in the kitchen: bakers and cooks.

Bakers are not necessarily limited to people who make things out of flour and put them in the oven; a baker is anyone who cook[s] in [a] precise, meticulous way. A baker knows what they want to do in the kitchen and does it exactly, and often spectacularly. They are the classical musicians of the kitchen. They can read sheet music.

A cook is a jazz musician. Cooks take the same old material and try to do something new with it. Cooks often have no plan when they enter the kitchen; they just start opening cabinets and checking out what they have to work with. Cooks are not always the best at following recipes. They want to substitute and improvise.

A baker will make you a flawless soufflé: light, firm and filled with flavor. A cook will make you the best hangover scrambled eggs you’ve ever tasted.

A light went on in my decaying brain. Ma was an indifferent cook – basic, fundamental, simple to the point of being a kitchen minimalist – but a spectacular baker. I didn’t realize it until I lived on my own and had to buy the stuff but Ma put professional bakers to shame. Her cookies were manifested dreams, her cakes were somehow chewy and light all at once, her Congo bars were sinfully rich without being gooey sweet, her pies were in a class by themselves, and no one – NO ONE – has ever made a better whoopie pie.

So there’s a connection between two of her passions, baking and classical music, that I hadn’t suspected, a link to her interior reality that didn’t exist before. It must mean something. It must be a clue. But to what?

Sheet music.

Discipline, yes, but also inspiration. The beauty of classical music isn’t just in the notes but in the way they’re played, the inflection, intonation, character. It isn’t about raw feeling blasted out, blown apart, bleeding and brand new like Trane or the subtler piecing-together of confused emotions into a surprising harmonic whole like Bill Evans. Classical is the expression of individual emotion through structure, of your own love seen through the love of another, of universal pains and joys given eloquence by the beat of a single heart reverberating like a tuning fork not to what we each experience alone but to what we share, as a society, as a species.

That’s when something came back to me, a memory I hadn’t thought of in many years.

Ma’s sister was a Sister – a nun. A remarkable woman who went back to school in her 40’s to become a geriatric nurse and gave up being Mother Superior of a convent (sort of like president of a college) to move to Brockton and work with seniors who needed care but refused to leave their homes for nursing homes or old age condos, my Aunt Lil was always as much a friend as an aunt and I visited whenever I could.

One time, after she had retired and moved to an old nuns’ convent in Maine, I went to see her and she gave me lunch. I don’t remember what it was but I remember how I felt about it. I took a bite of whatever it was and told my aunt, “There’s a lot of love in this.”

She seemed startled. “You can tell?”

“Sure. I can taste it.”

She leaned across the table and peered at me strangely. “How do you know what love tastes like?”

I shrugged. “Ma, of course.”

“Cecile?” Her eyes widened. “Cecile’s a cook now?”

That was her gentle way of alluding to Ma’s…disability in the kitchen. “Not really, just when she makes cookies and stuff. But then you can taste it.”

“Love.”

“Yeah. Look, I know this sounds weird, Aunt Lillian, but I’ve known what love tastes like since I was a kid, I don’t know how.”

“And you can taste it in that?” Pointing to my lunch.

“Yeah.”

Turned out I was right. The Sister who cooked at the convent and had made my lunch when Lil asked her to, had dedicated her vocation, overtly, to cooking with love. The other Sisters all knew it but I was a stranger and not, as Lil had warned them, terribly religious, so my saying that set them back on their heels a bit.

Finally, I remembered that tiny tear on Ma’s cheek when I caught her listening to Chopin, and my old puzzle started coming together to make a picture that was almost recognizable.

The key was love. Emotion.

Like most of the generation that survived the 30’s and 40’s, Ma was not demonstrative emotionally. We knew we were loved but not because she ran around telling us or hugging us or demanding that we acknowledge her love. Physically, a kiss on the cheek or a pat on the head was about as far as it went. She showed it in other ways – taking care of us, baking for us, listening to us even when we were complaining. You know, the nurturing thing. She wasn’t a crier, not even at funerals. She was calm, polite, restrained. When her father died I was 14, and it seemed to me that even though it was a surprise – he dropped dead of a heart attack in the driveway though he hadn’t been sick a single day in 30 years – she was as controlled as if she’d been expecting it and had had months to prepare herself.

The Depression. The War. You didn’t show your emotions. You gritted your teeth and got on with it. To show emotion was to show weakness, and with everything on the line every day, including the lives and well-being of people you loved, weakness was a luxury you couldn’t afford.

The war had been over for 20 years, the Depression for 25, yet the habit of hiding her emotions had stuck with my mother all that time. She hid her love for classical music because she couldn’t control her emotions when she listened to it. Someone would see. Someone would know.

I was born in Boston because they lived there while my father went back to college on the GI Bill. In summer, the Boston Symphony used to play concerts on the Common every week. My mother would put me in the stroller and walk from Hemenway Street to hear them. She once said, smiling, that that was why I was smart. She had read an article in one of the women’s magazines that were ubiquitous after the war that said babies absorbed their surroundings like sponges and advised mothers to expose their infants to music and painting and theater.

Maybe it’s true, I don’t know. As a baby, Ma made a point of taking me to museums and street fairs and those concerts, and even though I grew up in New Hampshire where art was considered a frivolous waste of time at best and Communistic propaganda at worst, and even though none of my sibs ever showed the slightest interest in becoming artists or musicians or actors, here I am, drawn like a magnet to all three from the time I was old enough to know what they were right up to this very moment, closing in on 60, and I still can’t seem to get over it.

But what is true is this: if I know the flavor of love, it’s because Ma gave it to me.

And I don’t hide it.

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