Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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“In short,” he concluded, speaking with great vehemence, “I accuse the prisoner of behaving at his mother’s funeral in a way that showed that he was already a criminal at heart.”
— Albert Camus, The Stranger
She came to me in my dreams last night. In keeping with the way of dreams, she looks different — shorter, peasant looking, with a peasant’s dress.
In the way of dreams, I know it’s her, so I say, “Mum, you can’t be here. You’re dead.”
“No,” she says, “I’m not dead. I’ve just been off in Europe, for the last six months, visiting.”
They’ve placed her in an overlarge dark bronze box, with flowers draped over it, set it on a little stage in front of us.
People mouth the words, the usual words, about how good and generous and wise and kind and alive she was, how she taught classes on the stock market right up to the very last; barely able to move, or hear, and there she was, hunched over, going on about gross and net, price-to-earnings, one- and five-year return on invested dollar, IBM, Texaco, Campbell’s Soup, AT&T, Coca-Cola.
Then they open their mouths in song, as in Handel, the Messiah. It’s always the Messiah. Why not the Beatles, for God’s sake? Why not “Taxman”? She loathed the IRS, spent her whole damn life trying to get out from under taxes.
Then my brother launches into a talk about her life and good works. He asked me if I would write the speech, and give it. Said he wanted everyone to be involved — this wasn’t just his show. After all, I’m the writer in the family.
So I got charged up, wrote a fine funny sweet unsentimental word-shot about Mumsie. Let me tell you about her and stoplights and politicians, I said. The only time in her life that she used what she called “gutter language” was when she was talking about the goddamn stoplights and the goddamn politicians. She didn’t hate them. She loathed them.
But no, my brother decided to do the whole show after all, took my speech and trashed it — all ten pages of it, except for a couple of lines — and came up with a panegyric of his own, speaking of her as if she were a grown woman. And yet we know she had all the reasonableness of a thirteen-year-old juvenile, one you want to shoot up with Ritalin, hoping she will stop trashing everything. That was the point of my speech: what an outrageous, sulky, joyful child she was. Hyperactive, childish, funny. And he talks as if she were a paragon of dry wisdom and maturity.
I think of Mum all packed up in that dark shipping case, ready to go. I wonder what they’ll be writing on her tombstone? How about “I’m hard as nails”? That was what she said, with a sigh, whenever some special stupid burden came down the line, threatening to squash her.
Maybe they should use her favorite quote from Oscar Wilde: Wilde is dying, and his friends bring him to the Hotel Metropol, in Paris. He looks around the gussied-up room, and says, “I’m dying beyond my means.” That would be rich.
Why must you
do this to me?
It was a specialty of hers — always said whenever we kids did something she didn’t like.
“Suppose they’ve gone and put someone else in there,” I think. That very large, very oily, very professional sad-eyed man from Hardy Morticians in his starched white shirt and black suit: he’s quite capable of it. He knew what a heller Mum was. Maybe he slipped a spare pickled-in-a-jar wino into the box — just for protection, just in case she were to wake up, jerk back the cover, and say, “I’m not going to put up with this nonsense.” (She didn’t much care for funerals anyway.)
My psychiatrist is going to have a field day with this one. He’ll write in his notebook, “Patient imagines that someone else has been substituted for his mother in coffin, thinks that she is going to rise up, take leave of her own funeral.”
They couldn’t slip just any old leather-skin from Main Street into this high-rent box, though. Four-baths-a-day Mum wouldn’t tolerate a smelly boozer occupying this hutch. She couldn’t stand those guys who lurched about the back alleys, pushing shopping carts, a bottle of Mogen David in their hip pockets. I can’t think of a time when any of them came up to my straight-backed, patrician Mum to ask for a handout. One look at her and they knew what the answer would be. She may have been worth a mill or so, but they wouldn’t dare try to cadge a quarter from her.
I just hope whoever they put in here isn’t as banged up as poor old Mum. Ninety-six years puts a hell of a lot of wear-and-tear on the chassis. “If they’ve stuck another body in that bronze box,” I think, “please let it be someone to her liking.” Which will take some doing. She not only couldn’t stand the IRS and politicians — she loathed Muslims, Indians, Evangelicals, Mexicans, Jews, door-to-door salesmen, bureaucrats, men who smoked cigars, bend-your-ear boozer types, children (especially those who cried, or threw up too much), all blacks (except those who worked for her, whom she cared for in that special Southern paternalistic way), dogbeaters, wifebeaters, psychiatrists. Remember when she went to see a psychiatrist? It must have been forty years ago, when all her children had finally left home. “Damn fool just sat there,” she told us. “No matter what I said, he just sat there.” She never went back.
She loathed weakness for the simple reason that it prevented one from seizing life’s opportunities. In her case, opportunity consisted of being born with a hundred thousand megawatts of pure drive and determination, and a father who pegged her early along as one of the Divine: a daddy who let her drive a car when she was twelve; a daddy who gave her a twenty-two-room mansion on Riverside Avenue for a wedding present; a daddy who adored her beyond all reason.
Lorenzo Arthur Wilson, the fertilizer magnate of north Florida, known lovingly as Daddy. In 1910 he brought home a Hudson Terraplane, the first car in Jacksonville. His beloved twelve-year-old-daughter, Meriel — her friends called her “Mule” — commandeered it at once, drove it from then on. I can see her now, in her white cotton dress and silk cross-stitched blouse, a red sash holding down her unruly hair, sitting straight-backed in the driver’s seat, pushing the spark advance, pulling back on the choke, stomping white pumps on the accelerator, then the brakes, dashing between the horse-drawn carts, driving with supreme surety, going exactly where she wanted, and damn the torpedoes.
I can see Don Lorenzo in his linen suit sitting beside her, hanging on to his straw boater. “Meriel,” he says, the word turning to “Meriyel” in his soft, north-Florida accent: “Meriel — don’t go so fast, now. You almost hit that boy on the bike.” And she says, “Pooh, Daddy.” She always said “pooh” when we complained about the way she drove, which was awful. “Pooh, Daddy,” she says. “Don’t you think I know what I’m doing? If they don’t get out of the way, it’ll be their own fault.” And she sniffs, giving out, early on, one of the great philosophical stones of her life. “If they don’t get out of the way, it’s their own damn fault.” And Don Lorenzo concentrates stoically on the dusty horse trail and road apples before them, bemused by the light of his life, and says nothing more, ever, about her atrocious driving.
Daddy, Daddy. Daddy this, Daddy that. They laid him in the ground in 1936 but for the rest of her days — at least once a day, often more — she would tell us what Daddy had said. “Daddy said never invest in bonds. He said you should only invest in good stocks.” “Daddy said that Florida land would always be worth it. But you have to be careful who you buy it from.” “Daddy said to always mark the level on the liquor bottles. Because of the servants.” “Daddy said never to be afraid.”
And as far as I know, she always bought stocks, invested in good land, marked all the liquor bottles, and never showed fear. She showed her anger, she showed her class; but fear, that great leveler: never.
Never be afraid, said Daddy. And, on the last day, in December 1995, as she lay blind and crippled and almost completely deaf, her heart racing on in anticipation of shutting down forever, her blood pressure wildly out of control — they say that when they asked her how she was doing, a mere twelve hours before she was to draw her ninety-six years of life to a close, when they said, “Meriel, how are you?” she, barely able to speak above a whisper, managed to get out the words: “Fine,” she said. “I’m doing fine.”
Only one day after she exhaled in final, glottal stop, I am on her narrow, lumpy, too-soft hospital bed, with its smell.
To return for the ceremony of death I had to take a twenty-two-hour stitched-together flight from the wilds of Central America. When I arrived, they offered to put me in a motel, but I said, no, I might as well stay with her. I spent a lifetime running away from her. Now that we think she’s dead (although some of us have our doubts), we (being me and all my schizoid selves) might as well spend some time in her bed, doing quality time with her — time we could never do while she was alive.
I expected a whiff of death in that room — urine, sweat, the stink of old ghosts. But there’s only the sweet scent of . . . what is it? Ah, Pond’s Vanishing Cream, which she put on her face and neck and hands every night for most of her life. Just before going to sleep, she would open up the three-pound jar filled with a sweet greasy pink goo and massage it into cheeks, under eyes, along the neck, on the wide, never-furrowed forehead.
It was her stink, and mine, too. I would go to her bedroom overlooking the great wide St. Johns River, to say my goodnights (this is fifty years ago, mind you, and the smell of it still lies richly in the soft bed of my memories). There she is, her unlined face greased down, and she turns her cheek to me, and I touch her cheek with my cheek (ever so lightly), kiss the air just before her ear, and it’s goodnight.
But that’s not all. The smell has a double rich meaning for me. For when I turned thirteen, when I first learned the sweet ecstasy of sweet self-abuse, I turned to Mumsie’s vanishing cream to help my stampeding lust vanish for a few minutes.
While they were downstairs, on the verandah, having their highballs, I would sneak into her bedroom and open the jar and get a fingerful of Pond’s and then, hiding the goop in my fist, would run back to my bathroom, shut the door, turn on the lights and the noisy fan (background noise to hide the noise of me too much in love with myself), drop my pants, and watch myself in the shaving mirror as I pulled on this new, mysterious, wonderful extension of me, something that belonged to me, no one else but me, mine and mine alone. And so we (me and it) in a back-and-forth ramble of a gorgeous minute and a half until my eyes clouded over the smell of sweet Pond’s swept my nostrils followed by the richer more exuberant smell as I cast two hundred million of my babies into the cold sink.
We thought it was just temporary, didn’t we? Something we gave up when we grew up, right? Ha. If I could just find that jar of pink Pond’s face cream right now. That would be a fine literary turn, no? Me in the hospital bed of my just-dead Mum, enmeshed in the rites of Onan.
It’s her fault. She never taught me how to love. Too unpredictable, you can lose control too easily. (She didn’t use words, but I got the message.)
I learned your lesson well, Mum. Despite marriage and children and too many lovers, there was only one person I could trust.
You remember him, don’t you, Mum? That half-naked, skinny kid, looming over the sink, reflected in on himself, in love with himself.
Though it seems to be fixed, the world is forever moving below us. They say the core of it is an iron ball, never turning as fast as the crust, but rather revolving slowly, creating huge eddies of magnetic power and heat and (possibly) magic, a massy globe moving tortuously, shifting our worlds ever so slightly.
It’s dark here in Central America. It’s three in the morning, the morning of the winter solstice. The earth may have pushed the sun up over there to the East, where I came into being, but it still remains dark here.
Above me the ceiling fan is rattling round, stirring up the heavy night air, keeping the mosquitoes at bay. My kind love Jesús has lit seven candles and set them under the table: religious veladoras in tall glass jars, with Our Dark Lady of Guadalupe — the Black María — painted on the sides. I have found that having Our Lady casting shadows on the ceiling all night long may not keep the bogyman at bay, but it at least makes him more tolerable.
Jesús is lying next to me, dead asleep, my own chocolate crème pie — dark, and warm, and delicious. Despite my drunkenness, and my fatigue, and my noisy arthritic bones, I have just brought the two of us off to a sweaty fare-thee-well.
Yet I lie awake. (They don’t let us sleep much after we pass the half-century mark.) It is at this very moment that I learn that Mumsie is ready to be packed away into the steaming earth below us. This is how it happens:
I notice that there is a hell of a lot of noise emanating from the other room of the house, what they call the sala. It is as if five or six people had decided — without my specific permission — to embark on a vigorous panel discussion around the dinner table, debating, say, recent trends in the stock market. But the voices are so muddled that I can’t tell if they are speaking Dow-Jones or Standard & Poors.
Later I learn that this otherworldly conference started at the very moment Mumsie checked out. I tell you, she sent her business goblins three thousand miles west to advise me of her departure. I hear them — they could wake the dead — but I’m not about to go out there to check on the action.
I spend the rest of the night with my head under the pillow, wondering why my Prozac isn’t doing its job.
They performed, according to her wishes, “no heroic measures.” She had oxygen, but nothing else, right up until the last few weeks. Then the hospice service started her on morphine. . . . Morphine! Straight, no chaser.
I am now thinking of my old Mum, who never availed herself of the panoply of mind-altering drugs offered willy-nilly to the rest of us — the drugs that changed our lives so profoundly. Puritan Mum was scornful of drugs despite a lifetime of scoliosis (which can hurt like hell, especially at the end of the day, especially after yielding up seven children to the world). She took nothing stronger than aspirin, and only a minimal dose of that.
But finally, at last, under the aegis of the Springfield Memorial Hospice, Mumsie is tying one on with the best of us, stoned on the drug invented so long ago to soothe the beast they call Living, especially when it closes in on the beast they call Dying. And I wish I could have been with her as the morphine began to take effect, when she was saying to herself, as she had to be saying, “Good Lord.”
During the course of her life, I never heard her utter the W-word. It was, if you recall, the code for those of us who partook of the sacraments of the sixties on some shabby couch in some shabby friend’s shabby apartment, our first trip, wallowing about in the waves of the universe, piling up — in ten hours — a thousand years of psychedelic wisdom.
Stoned out of our fucking gourds, we suddenly understood how to talk to God. Is that you God? I’m here too God. I C U. Do you see me too God?
And then we intoned the universal dope mantra,
And then (slowly, very slowly),
And now my sweet old Mum is swept up in the rapture that she never saw before. With this new swelling of perception, she now sees and hears and feels what body-mind is capable of.
Mum’s was a lifetime of body being pushed about from here to there, the body of duty, the body delivering husband pleasure, the body delivering children pain. But now this new feeling, a new special joy brewed by the gods, infused in the soul, shooting her up to the heavens, firing across the ages, a spurt of white heat pushing up from the cold ground below, swamping all senses, and she wonders, How could my body have kept this from me so long? And the sweep of the universe raises her up, and she says, “Wow.”
Lorenzo W. Milam
My mother died on February 9. A few days later, I picked up the January issue of The Sun, which I hadn’t had time to read before then, and opened to Lorenzo Wilson Milam’s beautiful essay “Mumsie.” He talks of “doing quality time with her — time we could never do while she was alive.” That was my mama, too. Hugging her was like hugging an ironing board that wanted to spring open, push you away. She didn’t show much emotion; my joys and disasters were greeted with a modulated “That’s nice, dear” or “That’s too bad, dear.” Going through her papers, I read that she thought I had “no feeling for her generation,” but she shared nothing personal to make that generation come alive for me.
My daughter and I play a tape of her voice, muted by years of disintegration. The last words I heard clearly were in the emergency room in 1992, when Mama said firmly, over and over: “I am not the same. I am not alive.” A good daughter would have shot her then. She would have preferred it.
On February 8, the day before her death, I was in San Juan, crying over some little Mexican bird that reminded me of Mama, and thinking how she would have loved it there. All that day and the next, I wished she could be there. That next night, upon my return, I heard that she had died. The doctor had called my fourteen-year-old daughter and said, “Your grandmother has just expired.” (“As if she were a can of peas,” my daughter said.) She’d picked the only day in years that I was unavailable by phone. The hell with this, she must have thought. I’m going to San Juan!