Until I was in my twenties, I was a Barbara Pym prim and proper young lady. Then, after a series of emotional traumas and heartbreaking losses, I transmogrified into an Iris Murdoch renegade.
October 6, 2000
Port Lincoln, New Jersey 10:15 PM
The phone rang. I didn’t answer, but waited for the machine to record the
It began: “This is Janet Emerald. I live next door to your mother. She’s in the Frenchtown jail. She was arrested for drunk driving after she drove her car into a restaurant.
She called us from jail. We’ll post her bond and take her home. Call me. 901-751-
Immediately, I called her back. Janet sounded totally in control. She explained that my mother drove her Volvo through the side of the Trafalgar Cafeteria around 5:00 PM.
Miraculously, no one was hurt!
After she rammed through one side of the dining room, she backed up and totally demolished a lamp pole. My 81-year-old mother’s face was bruised, but she had no other injuries. Not even her glasses were broken. (Great TV ad for Volvo!)I had been waiting for THE EMERGENCY for years. I had predicted that only a crisis would make it possible for me to move her out of her home and into an assisted-living facility.
When I entered her house—with the help of her lawyer (because she refused to give me a key; I might steal something!)—I was horrified.
The walls were lined with empty half-gallon plastic jugs of cheap Scotch. The handle of each jug was precisely pointed to the right. Even in the throes of alcoholism and dementia, my mother’s obsessive-compulsive nature reigned.
Cigarette butts covered the once beautiful parquet floor in the hallway that I had frequently polished on my hands and knees when I was a child, as she glowered above me like the Colossus of Rhodes. Large black garbage bags filled every room; she never took the garbage out. But each bag was meticulously tied at the top with string. Stains in the shape of inchoate embryos covered the wooden floor and bedroom carpets upstairs. She was incontinent and had urinated everywhere. All of the toilets were stopped up and overflowing with shit. She had been using plastic buckets, which were never emptied.
The kitchen appliances were almost black with filth; the dishwasher had not been used for more than a decade. The rubber and plastic inside of it had disintegrated like the yellowed pages from an ancient library book.
My relationship with my mother had always been strained; I was terrified of her.
There had never been any kind of emotional intimacy between us: no affectionate caresses, no bedtime stories, no nicknames, no birthday parties, no Santa Claus, no tooth fairy, no hugs and kisses, no cuddling, no appearances at the camp horse show or water ballet or school spelling bee, no phone calls, no care packages…nothing—even when I was very young.
Robert seldom mentioned his childhood, but on one rare occasion—the only time he ever visited me alone in New York, he was en route to London to meet a client—he stated matter-of-factly, “My father did everything possible to destroy my self- confidence.”
It was the only personal conversation that we ever had.
We were sitting in Mme. Romaine de Lyon’s restaurant and eating asparagus omelettes by a window with white lace curtains.
Was he aware that he and my mother flawlessly performed the same act upon me?
He also described a recurring dream that he had: He and my mother were standing in the yard of his childhood home in Cotton Fields, Arkansas.
“We’ve killed someone,” he calmly stated to my mother.
I guess he felt guilty about his treatment of me, or rather his infinite indifference. It was his way to apologize, the best that he could do, under his steely emotional armor.
My homosexual father made the decision—from the beginning—to sacrifice me, in order to save himself.
Stuck in Pleasure
Men and women are different and ought to be. Successful romance depends on this polarity. Life is much more pleasant when this is accepted. I so enjoy playing with men…teasing, exciting, disarming, confusing, titillating…
(Of course, when I’m older, I’ll become a fierce feminist and will dislike most men because of their cavalier treatment of women.)
I adamantly refuse to accept Thoreau’s description of life—and my mother’s—as “quiet desperation.”
I love the sensation of a man coming inside me; I feel like Mother Earth.
Howard Lowenstein called today. We met at a party, but I didn’t give him my number. He tracked me down by asking someone else where I worked.
Darwin always wins; the man is the hunter.
In search of understanding:
From Walker Percy’s phenomenal novel, “The Moviegoer.”
“I will also plead guilty to another charge.
We’re better because we do not shirk our obligations to ourselves or to others. We do not whine. We do not organize a minority group and blackmail the government. We do not prize mediocrity for mediocrity’s sake. Oh, I am aware that we hear a great many flattering things nowadays about your great common man—you know, it has always been revealing to me that he is perfectly content so to be called, because that is exactly what he is: the common man and when I say common I mean common as hell. Our civilization has obtained a distinction of sorts. It will be remembered not for its technology nor even its wars but for its novel ethos. Ours is the only civilization in history which has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal. Others have been corrupt, but leave it to us to invent the most undistinguished of corruptions.
No, we’re sentimental people and we horrify easily. True, our moral fiber is rotten. Our national character stinks to high heaven. But we are kinder than ever. No prostitute ever responded with a quicker spasm of sentiment when our hearts are touched. Nor is there anything new about thievery, lewdness, lying, adultery. What is new is that in our time liars and thieves and whores and adulterers wish also to be congratulated and are congratulated by the great public, if their confession is sufficiently psychological or strikes a sufficiently heartfelt and authentic note of sincerity.”
We were hitched in a cheap, fast civil ceremony in New York’s City Hall in June 1973. My sparkling engagement ring was cubic zirconia.
His lovely mother came from Athens. The following December we were married in a more elaborate, traditional Greek Orthodox ceremony in an Athens cathedral. According to custom, both of us wore flowered crowns, as we were led in a circle on a raised platform in the center of the church, while the priest mumbled in Greek.
“The man is the sun; the woman is the moon who circles around him.”
[music: Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”]
It only goes downhill from there. Trust me.
My wedding gown cost fifty dollars. I bought white lace and satin on Orchard Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and hired an elderly woman living in the West 90s to turn the materials into a very simple floor-length dress with long sleeves and a V-neck.
My mother’s explanation of “handicapped versus disabled”:
All women are handicapped by virtue of their sex. Those that never learn to cope/compensate are disabled.
Geez. She was smart.
She had a privileged childhood, but no love. Her two younger brothers
tormented her relentlessly. Her father was abusive, and her mother was neglectful.
Geez. Nothing changes from generation to generation!
I think my mother might have been a very expensive call girl in Manhattan for a while when she lived on Riverside Drive in the 1940s; when I cleaned out her house after her death, I found many designer clothes, satin dressing gowns, and furs disintegrating from age.
My mother never bought anything like that during my lifetime! At home, she lived in ugly flannel pajamas, and did all her shopping at the cheapest discount stores.
She probably hated men, too. There was never a whiff of an affair.
The nurse sent me to a large room, essentially a holding pen, filled with men and women of all ages and all sizes. Each patient would be evaluated eventually and treatment—drugs and/or therapy—would begin. Being a well-bred Southerner, I attempted to make polite conversation with a muscular man, Douglas, a paranoid schizophrenic, who had just been shipped over from a psycho ward in Connecticut.
He started talking about Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in “Midnight Cowboy“… what a cool bus ride they had together.
Five minutes later, I was lying on the cold linoleum floor spitting out large chips of teeth and lots of blood. Several of the male patients came to my rescue; they pulled Douglas off of me and held him until a doctor appeared.
He injected Douglas with a powerful drug and escorted him into a room with a solid, gray metal door.
After Douglas’s door was bolted, his bloodcurdling, scathing denunciations of me penetrated almost every room of that hospital.
Someone gave me an ice bag to hold on my throbbing cheek.
I was eighteen years old and a college freshman before I was allowed to select my
own clothes. My mother “owned” me; I was not a human being but her personal property.
There was a small shop in the “ville,” as we college students called it.
I purchased a blue-and-white polished cotton long-sleeved blouse with white pearl buttons in October of my freshman year.
It should have been framed in ornate gold and hung on the wall for posterity, as though it were an expensive handmade kimono from Kyoto.
“It is, after all, not necessary to fly right into the middle of the sun, but it is necessary to crawl to a clean little spot on earth where the sun sometimes shines and one can warm oneself a little.”
My parents were a lifelong mystery to me. Whenever I was alone in their house, I would go through their chests of drawers in hopes of finding clues to their behavior, which seemed so alien compared with the love and affection I witnessed among my friends’ parents.
In my father’s bureau, I found pills in a small, metal container for treating venereal disease. In his bookcase, he kept several novels by Gore Vidal and a copy of Great Cases in Psychoanalysis, which I found fascinating because of the kinky sexual case histories.
I believe that my father was trying to understand himself and come to terms with his homosexuality. Our WASP culture harshly frowned on the psychiatric profession. Our culture said: Fix yourself. Self-reliance above all.
Many years later, I saw the extraordinary Richard Kiley in “Man of La Mancha,” based on Cervantes’s “Don Quixote,” at an outdoor theater-in-the-round in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. I will never forget the lyrics, and in a strange way, how I identified with Dulcinea emotionally; she accepted cruelty with equanimity, but tenderness she could not bear.
The musical affected me like no other…the cynic/romantic always tilting at windmills and dreaming and hoping for the impossible with a perseverance and determination unrecognized by others.
Years later, she and my father boycotted my wedding and sent a neatly typed note on engraved eggshell stationery: “Mr. and Mrs. Robert R. Smith, Jr., will not attend.”
I waited for an explanation for their absence. I waited for decades, but it never came.
My mother and I were master/slave; Hitler/Jew; shark/bloody leg; Mr. Murdstone/David Copperfield; Johan/Henrik in Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband.
Whenever someone asked about my “Mom,” my gut reaction would have been to answer, Mom? I don’t know anyone like that. Nancy, my biological mother, the popinjay, the vituperative termagant, was certainly no Stella Dallas.
To my mother, every aspect of life was categorized as a bargain or overpriced.
That included me: poor Return On Investment.
I had no siblings. To visit her after I left home for college, a formal invitation was required. Christmas was the only time that I was permitted to return to my parents’ house.