First publication: March 15, 2012, Connotation Press
I am the keeper of the dreams and the memories, the matrix where the generations converge, the record-book held between familial bookends. I am responsible for passing her life on to him that she may continue to live and that he may understand the consequences of history and culture as common people do.
He is the vindication of hope, his and ours. Her heart is the place were hope started. I can hardly think of my son without also thinking of my mother. They are the two people I love most in this world, though one of them – Mom – is no longer here. So for the record, I’m not sure why, but the pancake breakfasts I had with her at Oscar’s of the Waldorf are on my mind. We had rituals we honored until life had its way with her.
We spent time savoring the hotel before going into Oscar’s for breakfast. The Waldorf was decorated with so much gold color that despite the muted lighting we felt we were having our moment in the sun. The jewel-colored furnishings and plush carpeting invited us to find a place to sit. We indulged in wide-eyed rounds of people watching. The businessmen seemed busy with self-importance. The women fussed with their manifest charm. We always stopped in the ladies’ room with its uniformed attendants continually present. They provided each guest with a freshly laundered terry-cloth towel and double-wrapped soaps, lavender-scented. Mom would tip the attendant a quarter and give me a quarter to tip her too.
An important ritual was a visit to the Waldorf Astoria Clock in the main lobby. I’ve read that it’s there still, all two tons of it. It’s a place where people find one another. I’ll meet you at the clock. Everyone knows that means the clock inside the Waldorf-Astoria at Park Avenue. It’s a towering thing, the actual clock sitting below a replica of the Lady Liberty, hope of immigrants, and above some bronze carvings and an octagonal base of marble and mahogany. Standing near the clock gave us the sense of a history of which we were not a part. It offered the illusion of privilege, the true secret spice that made the blueberry pancakes at Oscar’s so delicious. The famed maître d’hôtel, Oscar Tschirky, Oscar of the Waldorf, was no longer there. He died in 1950, the year I was born.
My mom loved the Waldorf and Oscar’s blueberry pancakes as she did everything she felt characteristic of culture and good breeding. Being well bred meant you recognized quality in a person or product: women who wore pearls, men who always tipped their hats in greeting, and dresses with wide hems. Well-bred meant you didn’t swear or use colloquialisms. It meant that if you were a boy you never cried. If you were a girl you didn’t display your intelligence. You didn’t run. You didn’t shout. You never went out without wearing hat, gloves, and girdle. You sacrificed sports and ballet at nine. You didn’t risk turning any tidbit of excess fat into unseemly muscle.
Given my illegitimate birth – which occurred when my mother was thirty-six – combined with our roots, peasant not patrician, and our working-class status in this country, it seemed Mom was forever posturing. Nonetheless, over time I convinced myself that my mother was indeed a most cultivated person. Hence my birth had to be a virgin birth. That would explain my father’s absence, though there was no kindly Joseph to lend an aura of respectability. Mom advised me never to kiss a boy. Kissing could cause pregnancy. Well, yes, if one thing leads to another, but how would Mommy know?
Mom’s interest in culture was insatiable. What she viewed as high culture other’s would label popular culture. We consumed it regularly and with religious fervor. We were fickle about our temples of worship. We opened our hearts at the Harbor Theater on Wednesday night, the RKO on Saturday afternoon, the Loew’s Alpine on Sunday, and for whatever reruns were on television at any given time. Because of movies we knew what to dream. They were our world; their luminaries our goddesses and gods. Audrey Hepburn, goddess of fashion. Cyd Charisse, goddess of posture. Katherine Hepburn, the great goddess of elocution. Grace Kelly inspired us to wear pearls, however faux our own five-and-dime pearls were. We did our best to meet the standard. Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Jimmy Stewart were the gentlemen gods who shaped our expectations of men.
Our home back then was a one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment on the top floor of a six-story four-section complex that was built in the 1920s before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Each of the four sections had an elevator, often in disrepair. Our apartment had French windows, which we found romantic and from which we could see the lights of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge at night. The bridge didn’t open until 1964 and so it came to our landscape late. The requisite fire escape was outside the kitchen window, the only window without a radiator below its sill. It made a fine place to sit and read, write stories, and watch the cars below and the clouds above.
Our apartment, D61, was often blessed with rain in the form of leaks. Manna dropped from the ceiling in the guise of paint chips. If the people downstairs were too noisy, we tapped on the wood floor with the end of a broomstick. When there was no heat or hot water we consulted with the landlord’s wife, a common woman whose carelessly open closet displayed a frowzy collection of cotton housedresses and limp lifeless sweaters. Mom always sniffed as we walked away, her sensibility offended. She said the woman’s hair was entirely too long and youthfully styled for someone of her station and maturity.
I remember my mother as so refined that when conflict arose between us she never fought or yelled or slammed a fist on the table. After a quiet well-barbed soliloquy, she went silent. Silence was her default position. If Mom’s anger was white-hot, she might not talk to me for years. The last episode of protracted silence extended from my fifteenth birthday until after my marriage. I no longer remember my original offense but a rebellious engagement at seventeen and subsequent marriage to someone of a different ethnicity did nothing to serve the cause of reconciliation.
There’s my mother, the little girl on your left. She’s about seven in that sepia photograph – circa 1921 – where she stands alongside her siblings and her own mother. My mother’s mother is pregnant and in her mid-twenties. Eventually out of eighteen births there woud be ten children who survived. Mom told me her parents were married young. They immigrated to this United States of America after the first two children were born, one boy (thank God!) and one girl.
I often look at that photograph of my mother and wonder what she was thinking. What did she long for? As she made her way around the old neighborhood and tried to grow beets in a wooden box on the tenement fire escape, certainly she dreamed of dressing in the latest rage. When, through the aegis of the New York Times Fresh Air Fund, she spent a month each summer at the Muzzi’s farm upstate, no doubt she fantasized about living where the air is clear and the spaces packed tight with solitude and well-occupied with growing green things. She often talked with longing of the fresh vegetables at the Muzzi’s and of a large accommodating farm kitchen.
Mom once landed a part in an elementary-school version of Aïda and got to wear a costume and make-up. Her father had her remove the red lipstick that was provided by a teacher. As an adult, Mom collected lipsticks. You wouldn’t believe how many different shades of red there are and how poetic the names: autumn rose, wild ruby, crimson dew …
Over time, the hope of being valued by a good man, of living in a much coveted garden apartment with something more than an efficiency kitchen, moved slowly out of reach. As Mom grew older, less nubile, and more invisible, she became more artful with her war paint and her dress. She no longer wore what jewelry she had as decoration, but as amulets.
Her decline must have started when she was pregnant with me. Coincident with that, she was diagnosed with cancer for the first time. Through the years and bit by excruciating bit, she lost organs: a breast now, then her thyroid, then her womb, a kidney and finally the second breast and lymph glands. I’m just a shell, she’d tell me before warming her soul by the cold fire of a movie screen. She would fight cancer on-and-off all her life. When the end came, she died in my arms of breast and colon cancer. She was seventy-six.
Mom was a good numbers person, always able to find work as a full-charge bookkeeper. When I was twelve, a particularly exciting opportunity came her way. A prospective employer flew her – a Kelly Girl ®, forty-eight years old – to D.C. for a trial assignment and a job interview. When she arrived, she found the possibility of permanent employment required a full medical exam. The exam, along with work history and evaluation, would be submitted to the board for review. All those men would see it. They might even discuss her lack of womanly organs at the board meeting, complete with board notes for documentation. Embarrassed, Mom declined the interview, packed her bag, and found her way to the airport. That afternoon, she arrived back in New York at Idlewild.
The next morning, without even a nod to the well-bred goddesses and gods of mortal fancy, Mom threw on some clothes and grabbed my hand. An hour or so later we were in Manhattan. We went straight into Oscar’s. We didn’t stop in the hotel lobby for people-watching or give quarters to the ladies’ room attendant. We didn’t pay our respects to the Waldorf Astoria Clock. We just ate. Rather, I should say I watched. Mom ate. She cut her pancakes at punitive angles and made doleful jabs at the pieces with her fork. When she finished her serving, she moved on to mine. By the time Mom gulped her third coffee, paid the bill, and left a grudging tip, even my child-mind understood that our visits to Oscar’s for blueberry pancakes would no longer be part of a wistful dream. Lacking sacred ritual, they would devolve into compulsion. This was the beginning of Mom eating much too much and of me not eating quite enough. While Mom endeavored to bury dreams, I sought to scrap their bones bare and set them free.
© 2012, memoir/family photographs and portrait (below), Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved /the photographs which include my mother are a part of our family album but they’re also covered by copyright. Please be respectful. Waldorf Lobby & Clock courtesy of New York Architecture. Theater seating by Reddi via Wikipedia under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 unported license. Subway station by David Shakelton via Wikipedia under Creative Commons Attritution-Share Alike 3.0 unported license.