There is much to be said about my mother that is negative. My brothers and I have talked about a lot of it. And a lot of it has been left unsaid. I, at least, keep my secrets, stories too horrible to share around a reunion picnic table when the nieces and nephews and grandkids are bringing snakes over for approval and babies are crying and being passed from one adult to another like sacks of sugar.
But what I wanted to say was that, despite all of the negatives, there was good in that woman. She had a rich and productive professional life, in her later years, and held a very fine reputation among her coworkers. She was a school counselor, and—apparently—a very good one. She helped many junior high school children who were troubled in various ways. At her funeral, a lot of people came to my brothers and me and told us what a fine person she was. We had difficulty accepting that view of her, knowing her as we had. But, since then, I have thought about her, and about many things she did and things I know about her, and I have come to understand much.
For Easter, when I was almost two years old, I received a stuffed dog. I named him Mac, after the dog next door. I still have Mac. He was my guardian, my confidant, my protector, my soul mate all the way through college. Actually, the Mac I have now is not the original Mac. I threw up on the first one, and my mother was unable to wash out the smell. The second one fell victim to Brother Jim’s reaction to typhoid inoculation: we were supposed to lie still in the lawn chairs, but he took Mac across the yard to the bird bath and rolled him in the slimy green water, then took him to the sandbox and rolled him in the sand. Our mother’s response to my screaming was not fast enough to prevent irreparable damage. The third Mac was the last Mac to be found in the metropolitan Detroit area. Stern injunctions were imparted to Jim and me to never let anything bad happen to him.
Jim had Bear, who was to him as Mac was to me. Mac and Bear, about every three years, would lose all their fur, or what passed for fur, and become pretty threadbare. Our mother never once suggested that we give them up, or put them away. With absolute sympathy, she simply said, “Mac needs a new coat! I will make him a slipcover. You sit here and watch.” And so we did.
The first time she cut Mac’s skin open with scissors I was almost sick. I thought I would throw up. But she was very considerate. She cut on the seams, and she took off only one piece at a time, explaining to me that she would do that so he wouldn’t come apart. She put the piece down on paper, and drew a pattern, which—as she explained—she would always have for the future. Then she put that piece back on Mac, and cut loose the next piece, and made the pattern for it, and so on until she had pattern pieces for the whole Mac, even his ears and tail.
While my mother made a slipcover for Mac, she told stories about her own childhood and growing up. We lived in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan, but she had grown up in Washington, DC. She had lived in apartment houses, and—from the stories she told—that always sounded exciting and glamorous to me. One of the apartment houses was razed, because the U.S. Supreme Courthouse was built on that site. She talked about going to the Montessori school where her mother, my grandmother, taught, and having learned so much there that, when she started regular school when she was five, they had to put her in second grade. …. She almost failed the intelligence test, however, because—among other things—when she was asked what she would do if she found she was late on her way to school, she answered that she would turn around and go home. The “correct” answer was “Run!” But she knew that, if you were late, you had to have a note from your mother!
She talked about roller skating on the steps and in the halls of the Capital Building, and riding the Senate subway. She talked about summer camp, and the rest of the summer at a beach house on the Chesapeake Bay. She told many stories about her life after she and my grandmother moved to Detroit when she was fifteen. She especially liked to talk about her volunteer work in a community center working with a group of junior high age girls putting on plays. And she told the story of going to the summer camp for disadvantaged boys, where she was to be the store-keeper, and how – upon climbing out of the car and seeing an athletic young man, a counselor, across the way – she said, “I wouldn’t marry that man if he were the last man on earth!” Two years later, that young man became my father.
And there was the milk. When I was fifteen, my mother became pregnant with her fifth, and last, child. Concurrently, I was in my last growth spurt—my long bones were stretching almost visibly, and they hurt. At night, the pain was virtually unbearable; I was near tears, and could not sleep. The doctor prescribed a quart of whole milk for my mother, for the baby’s development; it was mandatory, he said. The rest of us drank the God Awful reconstituted powdered skim milk that we had been drinking for the past three or four years. It was my job to mix the daily gallon of the stuff, and I had to hold my head away to do it, because the smell of it made me gag. I couldn’t drink it. The residual twelve cents from my lunch money each week did not go for candy, as did that of my brothers. It went straight back to the cafeteria for extra milk—and it still was not enough. I craved more.
My mother, with misgivings, started giving me a glass of her whole milk every night. We didn’t talk about it; I just drank it, pretty fast, immensely grateful for both the nutrition and the nurturing gesture. One night, my father saw her give me the glass of milk. He became enraged, and—while putting on his pajamas—shouted that the milk was for the baby, he could not afford milk for me, there was to be no milk for me!
I stood, glass in hand, stunned and hurt. My mother stood stock still, then raised her glass of milk over her head and hurled it the length of the room. The glass bounced off the keyboard of the piano and fell to the floor. For just a moment, a curtain of milk hung suspended in midair, arced at the top, single beads in strings at the curved bottom, above and between my father and my mother and me. It was uncommonly beautiful! Then it collapsed and fell, a gift no more.
For a few more weeks, I continued to get a glass of whole milk every night. My fourth brother was born, quite healthy. He is now sixty-six years old and shows no signs of early malnutrition.
Neither my parents nor I ever spoke a word about the curtain of milk.
I finally understand that my mother, who did so many things that were hurtful, also was able to feel compassion and to respond to real needs. I believe she did the best that she could do, given the life she had. Most of all, I feel sorry—for her—that she did not have a better life.