Madeleine Blais is a professor of Journalism at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Previously, she worked for the Boston Globe, the Trenton Times, and Tropic Magazine of the Miami Herald from 1979-87 where she won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. She is the author of In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle (1995), which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in nonfiction and named one of the Top 100 sports books of the 20th Century by ESPN; The Heart Is an Instrument; Portraits in Journalism (1992); and Uphill Walkers: Memoir of a Family (2001).
Another Martini, Another Lobster
The last time my mother and I spoke at length was in the late afternoon on the Sunday before the midterm elections in November in 2006. The year's light was fading fast, and I remember putting the receiver back in the cradle as shadows overtook my study. My mother still had her own place, on High Street in Mystic, Connecticut, which always seemed like the perfect address for a hippie back in the 60s, maybe not so perfect for your mother. My mother's hands were gnarled by then, curled up with arthritis she preferred not to acknowledge. Her lungs were barely functioning; she blamed the labored breathing on what she called the smudgy weather, not on permanent congestion and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. She who had struggled for her entire adult life to go from 136 pounds down to 128 was now bird-like, disappearing, yet when she had tea she insisted on Splenda. In my eyes, she was a beautiful wreck, wrinkles and all, thanks to good cheekbones and a still flashing intelligence.
The summer had not been not an easy one on the East Coast. Heat wave after heat wave was followed by rain and by bugs and then more heat and the crankiness that comes with it. The jokes about global warming started to sound not like jokes. The summer was especially hard on my mother: like a lot of people of Irish ancestry, she possessed a low melting point that makes the double whammy of high temperatures and humidity especially disabling. She had fallen in May, not a bad fall, just a short downward swoop from her reading chair onto the floor, but that fall and one a few years earlier, in the summer of 2004—after a swim, on the beach, she had tripped and dropped to the sand, hurting her elbow—took more out of her than seemed either fair or possible.
She still had her belongings carefully ordered as well as her lists of books to get from the library and she had a table filled with her correspondence. But now the notion that she was actually living on her own was just a fiction. For all practical purposes she had moved in with my sister Maureen, and she was housebound except for the occasional trip by car with another sister Christina as the competent chauffeur. (We said she was in a-sistered living, if anyone asked.) She welcomed the simple pleasures in a way that was unusual for her (she did not want to appear to be someone who could be fooled or easily appeased): the sound of a hard rain, a lemon cookie, a burst of music from her grandson Greg at the keyboard. She herself could play music by ear, complicated classical compositions as well as old parlor songs like, “I Don't Want to Play in Your Yard.” She liked coming to my house where, in an injustice, her least musical child possessed the only real piano. She found solace sitting at that altar, and her fingers, not just stiff with age—one which had been broken and it had never healed properly—yet she moved them with miraculous lightness back and forth, up and down. From those curled up hands which could barely open a box of cereal would pour forth the most skilled series of notes you could imagine, each and every one a perfect herald of the next.
Oh, how she resisted some of what she perceived as the more humiliating aspects of aging, all that relying on others for the simplest of things, those bossy questions from strangers in the medical profession about whether she had eaten enough or remembered to take her pills or wanted a nice glass of prune juice.
She aspired to a queenly demeanor even at the end.
When we wanted to get her one of those 911 medical alert necklaces, she declined, icily, “No, thank you. I already have enough jewelry.”
She made it to Election Day that year, but shortly afterwards an attack of pain, perhaps a heart attack, a stroke, some kind of angina, brought her to Lawrence and Memorial Hospital in New London, Connecticut: Eugene O'Neill territory, filled with fog horns and familial drama, a fitting locale if there had to be one.
Tethered to tubes and to beeping machines and caught in a tangle of bedclothes, more than once she tried to make a break for freedom. The mask on her face, the needles in her arms: nothing would have pleased her less, for any number of reasons, not the least being vanity. She had lived to a glorious age, ninety three, but we could tell she wanted more.
There was no real one cause of death, other than the complications brought about by overall frailty. She was swaddled in sheets for six days straight. At one point she tried to scrawl a message on an envelope and the woman who so treasured written communication was incapable of producing more than a squiggle. She was fading but not totally faded. We put water on her lips, held her hands, tried to massage the crackly skin on her feet, the lax flesh on her legs. She was never a toucher and it was hard now to touch her: what if she flinched? What if she thought it was just a lot of New Age nonsense? She never really liked the post Vatican Two custom of the Kiss of Peace in the Catholic Church in which, before the altar is prepared for the Eucharist, worshippers shake the hands of strangers and urge peace upon each other. She loathed fakery in general and fake friendliness in particular, all this pressure for intimacy put her on her guard: what if you did not like the person whose hand you were shaking or you preferred to say inside a private prayerful reverie?
The obituary read, in part:
Maureen Shea Blais, born on May 1, 1913, died Sunday November 12 after a short illness. Daughter of the late Michael I. Shea, former mayor of Chicopee, and Madeleine Mahony Shea, she attended Chicopee High School and Bridgewater State College, graduating in 1934. Her husband, Dr, Raymond Blais, died in 1952. She was the mother of Madeleine Blais of Amherst, Ma., Jacqueline Blais of Alexandria, Va.. Christina Rodgers of Noank, Ct., Maureen Klein of Noank, Ct., and Michael Blais of Madison, Ct. and was predeceased by her oldest child, Raymond, in 1998. She left six grandchildren: Robert and Andrew Rodgers, Nicholas and Justine Katzenbach, and Christopher and Gregory Klein. She lived most of her life in the Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts where she was a member of the Granby Public Library Board of Trustees for twenty two years, including head of the board for six years, a member of the Democratic Town Academy, and a fourth grade teacher at the defunct Ursuline Academy in Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1981, she retired to Mystic, Connecticut where she continued to work as a substitute teacher in the Groton school system and as a docent at the Mystic Seaport Museum.
A seasonal resident of Groton Long Point since the late fifties, people always said they knew summer was here when they saw her in the water long before everyone else. As a Democrat, she was thrilled with the results of last week's election, in particular when she learned that Peter Welch, the son of lifelong friends, was elected to Congress in Vermont. Her favorite writers ranged from Edward Bellamy, author of Looking Backward, who lived next door to her in the childhood home in Chicopee, to Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Maeve Binchy, Alice McDermott, and Anita Brookner. She loved many places, including Ender's Island in Connecticut, Reginald's Tower in Waterford, Ireland, and the Summit House on Mt. Tom in the Holyoke Mountain Range. In a world that insists on dumbing things down, she insisted on smarting things up. A stickler for using the correct word, the correct table manners, and the correct grammar, she deplored lapsed standards such as the custom of older people being addressed by their first names without permission or the lack of formal attire at formal occasions.
We could have been less glowing.
We could have said she was crabby in the mornings.
We could have pointed out that she complained entirely too much about the dew point.
We could have alluded to the cigarettes she turned to for solace, until at the end they got replaced by the portable oxygen tanks she refused to use in public.
The scale of her vanity was breathtaking. She never wore eyeglasses though she read incessantly and I honestly believed until several months before she died that she did not need them and that by some marvel the presbyopia, or loss of the ability of the eye to focus, which is a universal component of the aging process, had somehow bypassed her. The truth is she didn't want anything to compete with her cheekbones and she kept hidden, in her purse and around the house, a standing army of magnifying glasses to be whipped out and employed when no one was looking.
She talked way too much about the place of her birth and her upbringing in Chicopee, Massachusetts, making it sound like Shangri-la.
It was, to her. She remembered it as a safe haven, watched over by her father, a doctor with an ethnic clientele, specializing in the delivery of Irish babies and Polish babies, curing Irish coughs and Polish coughs. The river was clean then, its banks filled with arrowheads. Someone today visiting Chicopee for the first time might find it a hodge-podge of honorable, if humble, working class dwellings and salt of the earth restaurants, which specialize in wiener schnitzel and cabbage and which brag about the chef's pedigree as a sausage-maker, a town that might now be more picturesque without the sucker-punch it experienced during the 60's when urban renewal cut the downtown in half. But if you had never been to Chicopee and you had only one thing to go by—the tone in my mother's voice when she invoked its name, a blend of loyalty, pride, and outright dreaminess—you would definitely pick it over Paris, Nantucket, and the Napa Valley, combined.
We could have also said that she was born on May first, and she was remarkably immature about her birthday. Because it involved baskets and blossoms (forget for the moment all that international nonsense about the workers of the world uniting) and trumpeted, in her mind, the true end of winter in New England, she thought it was the best birthday you could have. We could have said that when she was younger, and not yet old, and we, my younger brother Michael, my sisters and I, were launching our own adult lives, we knew better than to call her at night: at night came the monologues, the regrets, the long simmering resentment at all the doors that shut so long ago, the bottomless sorrow over the way my brother Raymond's life unraveled (mental illness; no good drugs at the time), her lamentation made all the worse if stoked by sherry.
Grief sometimes loots the present, creating havoc in the form of unbidden memories. I think of my mother alone all those years—not much money, marginalized the way single women, especially of her generation, often were—and how she still persisted in being counted. It took the form of red lipstick and pretty hats, of the right word spoken in a modulated tone, of a brooch so striking that when she wore it at the age of ninety two to a chowder palace called Abbott's in the Rough in Noank, Connecticut, a much younger man (oh, say, seventy five), paused to pay her a compliment. He was a complete stranger, “with,” said my mother, ever the reporter of social nuance, “a very refined manner. You could tell he was somebody in this world.”
Her self-respect took the form of holding her head high when she went to the conferences with teachers so smug in their 1950s certitude that my older brother's failures to measure up in the classroom despite his desperate efforts to conform and to concentrate were due to something she was doing wrong, and not at all driven by chemistry. It took the gloss of the elocution lessons and white gloves she forced on her daughters, the education she ensured for all of us except Raymond who never finished high school—his dropping out of school was the first unmistakable sign of Big Trouble—as well as the lace mantillas she saw to it we wore to church. Yet I have long known that the mother who brought me up was not precisely the same woman who brought me into the world. Her widowhood, and the demands it placed on her, was a never-ending shock. When we were little, we would drive to the Quabbin Reservoir in the next town over, to alternately admire and quake at the scenery with a ghost story at its core. When the reservoir was created, the townspeople were given ample time to evacuate. Yet the myth persists: entire villages still exist beneath the surface, pickled in time and in water.
She lived one life, with a shadow life pulsing beneath it, the life that would have been hers had my father lived.
Among the tributes after her death: “She was one of those grand dames who you thought would go on forever. You never expect women like her to leave us. A mighty oak has fallen,” and “Even at the end, she could rule a room.”
The burial took place at St. Patrick's Cemetery in Chicopee, Massachusetts, on November 16th, fifty four years to the day after my father had died. In a novel, if a coincidence of that sort were introduced so late in the game, it would be considered bad writing, as tinny and overbearing as a fraudulent sales pitch.
In life, it is just the way the cards got played.
We barely spoke as we committed our mother to the earth. Overhead, the skies were gray, cloudless, low-slung, and without song. The service was intended to be private, as she would have liked it: sinn fein, as the Irish say, meaning we ourselves or, as my mother translated it, ourselves alone. Yet, even then, someone showed up, an old man named Timothy Murray, a doctor, from Springfield, my father's best friend from their days on the football team at Holy Cross, driven by a young granddaughter. Too weak to even get out of the car, Tim spoke from out the window, rehearsing the old days. He had let his hair, under a tweed cap, grow long, down to the collar of his shirt, and the craggy spotted face had a ragtag nobility. He worried the past as he spoke to us: there were allusions about not enough insurance and how my father's friends figured out a way to juggle some numbers to improve the cash flow in the aftermath (the after math) of his death. (An answer, or at least a glimpse of one, to the question that dogged us in that small New England town so many years ago: How do they manage, after all?) To think of the sense of loyalty that prompted Tim to find us on that day so many years into what became the future after our father had died. How did he even know where to find us and when? “Oh,” he said, “I have my ways.”
He looked away, towards the trees and headstones in the distance, silent, perhaps contemplating that old age-old riddle, referenced in just about every English class I ever took, the one that waylays even the poets: “Who will mourn the dead the dead mourn?”
“Everyone's gone now,” he said, “I'm next.” (Three months later, he fulfilled his own prophecy, dying on his 96th birthday.)
My mother had a poem by Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska posted on her fridge, held up by the distinctly non-lyrical magnet, “Maureen, stick to your diet.”
Life is the only way to get covered in leaves, catch your breath on the sand, rise on wings;
to be a dog, or stroke its warm fur;
to tell pain from everything it is not;
to squeeze inside events, dawdle in views, to seek the least of all possible mistakes.
An extraordinary chance to remember for a moment a conversation held with the lamp switched off;
and if only once to stumble on a stone, end up soaked in one downpour or another,
mislay your keys in the grass; and to follow a spark on the wind with your eyes;
and to keep not knowing something important.
I think of my mother's attraction to the poem as her final effort at plumbing the mysteries that float through every day life whether we bid them attention or not. Life is the time when you can forget you are alive, when you can let your guard down, the time to get soaked in the rain, to stare at the waves, to lose the keys in the grass. It is the time to waste time—to indulge in the moment and willfully forget the pressing matters of the day. To waste time implies the opposite of what we all know to be true. It implies that time is an infinitely renewable resource, that it will never run out. To lollygag, to wallow in beauty, to take forever to sip a cup of coffee, to touch a lover—all great acts of defiance.
The day my mother discovered Szymborska's poem, she tore it from the New Yorker in her usual impatient way so that in the end it looked both treasured (posted dead center on the appliance) and mauled (the ragged edges, the rip in the middle.) She read it out loud more than once and pounced, with positive glee, on the image of the lamp switched off: “Don't you remember how I used to love to do that, how I used to like to turn off all the lights and talk in the dark?” Oh yes, that moment when the company of others really feels like company, when the wine bottle is nearly empty, the dregs of the coffee have gone cold, the candle is now just a stub, when the past is with us, but at an amiable distance, a door that keeps slamming in the breeze, when talk itself is the one thing left. I do remember; she did do that, she did sit in deliberate darkness and hug it to herself while she spoke.
We named my sister Jacqueline curator of our mother's belongings, the word curator possessing the right note of loftiness. Jacqueline, the least material-driven, now owns the barometer our mother used to bang with such fury, wondering what kind of storms the day might bring, the dining room table with the clawed legs, the tea wagon bought in the 1920's from McEnery's Department Store in Brooklyn, and the Sheffield candlesticks. Jacqueline would edit what was left, and decide who got what when.
Now it is my sisters' and my turn to be the grand dame: maybe all four of us, combined, can equal one, if we really try.
Toward the end of her life, I called my mother just about every day. I mentioned this to someone who seemed to think I was overdoing it, someone who failed to see that extreme old age is a planet that requires constant visitors. I can channel my mother's voice now in reaction: “Typical,” she would likely say, “just typical of the kind of muddled thinking that is so prevalent in this world, to treat routine kindness as a disease, to look upon filial duty as a sign of weakness. I'll tell you what's muddled. It's all those people who act as if the worst thing anyone can do is to smoke a cigarette.” (Instead of being proud that she eventually gave up smoking, she could sometimes be aggressively peevish about it.)
I would save up screwy headlines and news stories for when my mother and I talked, knowing she would want to sink her teeth into them as well as whatever gossip I could muster from the old friends in her circle who were still alive, but the truth is the gossip was slim pickings. People in their ninth or tenth decade occupy a demographic not known for its antics. Even now, I often have the wish to call her, to relay family news or to discuss the dew point, at sodden length if need be, or to share some fresh outrage or juicy tidbit. Several years have now passed: several new fall crops of cider at Atkins, her favorite market. She would have been dismayed to learn that DNA testing has proven the Scotch, Irish, Welsh and British are all one people: she thought of the Irish as their own unique race. She would have found Sarah Palin beyond the pale and I doubt she would have ever forgiven John Edwards for the hoops he went through to hide his conniving nature from his wife and everyone else. She would have liked George Clooney in Up in the Air (she always worried about people being out of work) and she would have liked Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, admiring the fictional Olive's perspicacity and her personality, composed of what she would surely see as a familiar combination of irritability and feistiness. My mother's taste in reading leaned to the quiet and the unsung: she would have loved Colm Toibin's Brooklyn, shy and soft-spoken, yet also a heroic tale, the descent into hell and back again, embodied by that most marginal of creatures, a young woman with no means at the mercy of strangers in a new land.
How I wanted to tell my mother about a wedding I went to on the Lower East Side at the oldest synagogue in New York City, where the groom and his attendants dressed in business casual while the bride was Vera-Wanged to the hilt, capacious train and all, and how everyone jived down the aisle to Al Green's “Let's Stay Together” and later the wedding couple danced to “Love and Happiness” written by the bride's grandfather, Sammy Cahn, and how a tiny dog in the arms of a bridesmaid served as the ring bearer. A rabbi presided and an Irish blessing was read. At the reception, Japanese food was served, there were cousins from Ireland, the band played salsa, and the mother of the bride wore red silk trousers; yes, red. So American, we would have agreed. Modern, too.
And then there is the news of the family: Jacqueline took a buy-out, Mike might move to Rochester, Chris' oldest boy is engaged, Maureen's youngest just graduated from Colby.
We would have talked about all these things, and so much else, with the lamps switched off, murmuring, laughing, sharing silence, in the dark, in the hour of memoir.