Long Ago Mom


My mother is a difficult person in a lot of ways. Difficult to be with, difficult to understand, difficult to quantify. Tonight, after a hurried dinner, I’ll bring the kids downtown to her art show opening. I’ve been to dozens and dozens of them throughout my life and there hasn’t been one that I looked forward to. Not necessarily because of her but because they require me to stand around like a light pole, looking at stuff I’ve seen a million times, and watch other people have conversations. They do it so effortlessly. It’s a mystery to me.

My mother always, but especially in these situations, is all about her and so I was never taught how to talk to people – strangers or otherwise. I don’t know how to not say the wrong thing, or the weird non sequitur. Random shit comes out of my mouth because it knows I’m supposed to speak but my brain never opens the right doors. So, I generally try to say nothing.

Dealing with a raging narcissist in the best of times is challenging but in a situation where they are on the throne, wearing the crown, and still finding ways in which the adulation is inadequate, creates anxiety and dread in me. She’s tried numerous ways in the past couple weeks to ensnare us in her crazy schemes, making unreasonable demands and just generally being highly annoying, to put it in the kindest terms.

And yet, she’s my mother. And people expect you to be kind to your mother. And I try but it’s not easy or ever rewarded. So. While going through all the recent pre-art show turmoil, I found these photos in the slide carousel. They cover a couple of years in the early 1970’s. And as I look at them, I understand what my dad saw in her. You see it, don’t you? She’s quite beautiful. But often beauty has a sting. So admire but stand behind the line. Don’t get too close.

The first one up top was taken in the summer of 1971. She’s pregnant with my sister. She made that dress. She made a lot of things like that with the same seersucker fabric (I think that’s what it is) and that orange rickrack. I still have a bit of it, believe it or not.



This was taken in a different year because her hair’s curled. But I couldn’t tell you whether it was before or after the previous one. Probably after. Probably during that beach trip I posted earlier. Same empty lovely beach.


The tennis outfit. We were members of the Jewish Community Center for years while I was growing up. We’re not Jewish but they fortunately didn’t care. It had a pool and tennis courts and I took swimming lessons there for a couple years. My parents and another rotating set of adults, played doubles in the tennis courts. I can remember them playing and my sister and I would hang around in the pine needle covered grassy area outside the fence by the parking lot delineated by railroad ties just…wandering with nothing to do. There was no one to watch us. We just played under the trees, bored, until the adults were done. Pretty sure she made this top, too.


A companion to the first. Clearly pregnant. I wish she’d kept her hair just like this. Instead, by the late 70’s she’d permed and crimped it to death. I don’t know what anyone was thinking back then. But perhaps the divorce unhinged her and she took it out on her hair. I get it but still. This is pretty much my hair (and Dusty’s) only blonde. She has never stopped talking about how disappointed she is that I did not get my father’s curls (such as they were). As if this had been up to me. Something I should have been working on in utero. Failed my first beauty test before I was even born.


Christmas time. What a crazy wonderful satiny outfit! I don’t know if she made this or bought it but it highlights the best of 70’s fashion. Kind of Peter Max-ish. Swirls and colors and paisley gone wild.

Actually, I’m betting this was taken before one of the New Year’s Eve parties they used to throw. I don’t know how many years those parties lasted but my mother would hire an older black woman to come clean the house. I was fascinated by her, not only because she was the only black woman who had ever come inside our house (not for any particular reason other than my parents didn’t have black friends by default, not by choice; Richmonders still moved in “separate but equal” circles that didn’t intersect much). But this woman, whose name I’ve forgotten, was all business. I would stand on the landing of the staircase and watch her. I had a million questions to ask her but I barely asked any of them. She didn’t have time for my foolishness and my mother was hovering so I’m sure she wasn’t having a fantastic time in our house (and no doubt wasn’t getting paid very much). There’s nothing worse than cleaning for someone or babysitting their kids while the employers are home.

The Christmas mess would be put away and alcoholic punch would emerge, spiked egg nog, and food, and all the crooked decorations would be righted and 20 or so adults would cram themselves in my parents’ house and get drunk and noisy. Eventually, after midnight had been cheered, they left and I’d come down in the morning to a smoky house with full ashtrays and glasses with inches of nasty smelling liquid in them and crumbs everywhere. Moods were foul and the day would be grey and I’d spend most of it up in my room. Alone. Wishing I had long curly blonde hair.


5 thoughts on “Long Ago Mom

  1. I don’t think the art of party conversation is ever taught… or if it is, no one ever told me about the classes. There are times when I can deal with it, but other times I find it to be worse than pulling teeth. Practice may be the only way to get good at it. Of course, that presumes interest. My wife’s emotional antenna for understanding what people are thinking or feeling is far more receptive than mine. That makes her a lot more adept at it than me.

    “I went to two cocktail parties [in East Hampton] to stop the gossip about my being a recluse. Most of them looked at me like I was from Mars. I shouldn’t have gone; I don’t drink. If you don’t do what everybody else does out there, if you don’t go to the Maidstone Club or join the Garden Club, you’re written off as crazy.” – Little Edie

  2. Your mom is lovely. It’s not just her hair that you and your daughters share. I think all three of you look like her, in various ways. Good thing acting like her isn’t determined by heredity!

  3. The relationship between a mother and daughter is among the most primal of relationships. Something about that biological tethering makes it nearly impossible for us not to have expectations of our mothers to do differently. I’m learning more and more to see mothers beyond their role as mother, and as fuller women, beyond their capacity to mother and/or nurture. I sense you’re trying to do the same here. That is not an easy undertaking, but the further along you go into your own journey as mother, the easier it becomes. You come to acceptance of what is and isn’t; you free up some more with each encounter, despite the longing.

    Your momma is beautiful, as are you!

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