Monday, November 15, 2010


Mother of a one-and-a-half year old son, eight-and-a-half months pregnant with me, my mom was widowed at age twenty-four when her husband, a respected, loved, and gentle doctor (as I learned from reading letters she received back then), died unexpectedly after an operation. (And I went on to become a surgeon!) Years later, she confessed to me how hard that time was, that she had to force herself to care for me, shocked and grief-stricken as she was. In some sort of geometric shape of life which is not a circle, she died yesterday, on my birthday.

Mom married my dad when I was about two; I have no recollection of being fatherless, although I do recall when she told me that I'd had another one. (I think it was in our living room, while I was looking at a book from a low shelf, with a picture above it. The book may have been his. The piano was to my back, and it was daytime. It's like a picture in my head, in black and white, and quite possibly false.)

My dad was a lawyer, a judge, a State Supreme Court Justice, a sort-of politician, a school board member. I remember how my mom gave him advice, helped write speeches, suggested approaches, at a time when "Father Knows Best" was the popular ideal of marriage. At a fairly young age, I recognized that their relationship was unusual for the times, that Mom was an equal intellectual partner and more.

For a time Mom worked in the alumni office at Reed College (having attended there for two years and then transferring to Stanford); she was on the board of the Oregon Symphony and of the University of Oregon Health Sciences Center, the Red Cross, the League of Women Voters. Many, many others. She helped found and support the Cannon Beach Historical Society, through which she met Ken Burns when he was working on his series on Lewis and Clark. And she was a talented painter and sculptor who turned down offers for serious study, to do other things. It always showed, though, in the personal touches in her home and in the little nick-nacks she made for her kids and grand kids. In college, she was on the ski team. (Okay, it was Reed, and I'm guessing they competed against local high schools. Which didn't have teams.)

Like all moms, she loved being a grandma. Until the tragic death of a most lovely young lady, there were three grandkids. To my son, she was loving always, forbearing, and able to draw him out. Like all grandmas, she knitted him things. Many were the hours they spent, at the beach, doing jigsaw puzzles, baking cookies, talking. Her granddaughter, a beyond-brilliant professor of immunology at NYU, and a total sweetheart, looks a lot like her.

Mom raised pie-making to a plane unseen by mortals. It's a common claim, I know; every restaurant would have you believe it of theirs, and everyone, I suppose, makes the attestation about their moms. But if you never believe anything else I say, believe this: hers were the best. Flaky, crisp no matter the substrate, barely sweet, always crimped artfully at the edge and perfectly brown, her crusts were the Platonic ideal. Most perfect were blackberry pies when I and my siblings -- and, later, my wife and son and I -- collected the berries from the vines near our family house at the Oregon coast. Chocolate was good, too. And peach. Rhubarb.

Even as the end approached, she retained her love of chocolate, and until most recently I could please her with something decadent from the bakery by the motel we used on our many trips to Portland. I'd ask if she wanted another bite, she'd say no, I'd put a morsel between her thumb and finger, and she'd pop it in her mouth and smile. And we'd do it over again.

Growing up, my family was never demonstrative or overtly affectionate. Unlike the boisterous love that abounds in my wife's family, in mine there were conditions and reservations, embarrassments. So in some way my mom's decline provided something most often absent until then. As she became more childlike, talking to the stuffed animals we gave her, there developed a rare, if unnatural, intimacy. "I love you" was said. "My little boy..." Affection poured uninhibited, she showered words of love on my wife, admired my hair (of all things!) For that, I suppose I can be grateful. But in her descent through the ravages of Alzheimer's disease, as layers of her essence were relentlessly peeled away, the energetic intellect that lit her eyes dimming into pleading puzzlement, there was nothing good or redeeming about it. Especially during the time when she knew it was happening, after she'd stopped resisting acknowledgment. I can't say which time was worse: it was all bad.

For a while, I could still make her laugh. Her love of wordplay remained until it, too, was finally pulled away from her. (Her kind of joke: woman goes to the butcher and asks for a pound of kiddlies. The butcher asks, you mean kidneys? The woman replies, I said kiddlies, diddle I?) Near the end, my attempts to make her laugh just confused her.

As we gathered at her death bed, my brother recalled a memory that I'd completely lost. About the time we got our first TV, in the fifties, when he was about ten, Joe McCarthy's red-baiting committee came to Portland, to investigate Reed College. He remembers sitting in the basement with Mom, watching live broadcasts of the hearings. He recalled how angry and frightened for her family Mom was, having gone to Reed, and being -- as were so many of those called -- Jewish. Some of their friends abandoned them during those times. A few, including a family of very conservative Christians, did not. (Maybe, in some ways those were better times.)

So, now she's gone. As much as I'd felt, over the past couple of years, that the end would be a relief -- for her and her family -- when it came it was not, exactly. One weight replaces another, and I'll try to force away the memories of the last few years as they threaten to rob me of the rest. Like the one my brother gave me, and so many others disappearing into the mist of my own failing brain. For now, and for too long a while, I'll see her as she died, the woman she was having long since departed.

In the Jewish prayer for the dead -- one of the things I've always liked about the faith of my childhood -- it's said, "They still live on in the acts of goodness they performed and in the hearts of those who cherish their memory." That's the idea of afterlife that resonates with me. In that, my mom lives on, brightly.

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