Mary Marcus: Mother in the mirror

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It was hot, the Santa Anas were blowing, and I was having a bad hair day. I told a new haircutter to just “get rid of it!” Now, whenever I look in the mirror, I see my mother staring back at me. I can’t escape her. Why did I do this? It happens every time I cut my hair short.

Poor Mother died so long ago, she never got to meet my husband or my son. She never met our bird or our cat, and she never met Henry. “You sleep with your dog?” she’d hiss, “how tawdry!”

Once in a while, she’d decide my brother (because he didn’t have a father) needed a dog. Never mind my sister and I, who didn’t have a father either. Once in a while, a dog would appear for a couple of weeks then just as mysteriously disappear. I would be the only one who would bond with the animal. Her remedy for anything from a headache to a broken heart was, depending on the time of day, a cigarette, a strong black coffee, or a scotch and soda and some pills. We had yellow pills, we had orange pills, we had black pills, and she took a lot of red pills when she couldn’t get to sleep from the rainbow of daytime pills. When in doubt, take a pill. What a role model!

Still, I loved her. She was funny. She was sarcastic. We had a lot of books in the house. And records. She gave me Oscar Wilde, Beethoven, Bach, Scarlatti, the Bronte sisters, and many influential others. She was spoiled rotten, however. When she didn’t get her way, she took to her bed with the fancy monogrammed sheets and stayed there until she did. I always worried she was going to die as she was always threatening to do (and eventually did do). I adored her, and was also worried about what would happen when each of us then had to go live with my one of the uncles and their wives. In my case, my guardian uncle’s wife didn’t want me. I overheard her saying to my Uncle Earl, “Why did you agree to take Mary?” Carol wouldn’t want her upstairs.”

Carol her daughter and my cousin was actually really nice – much nicer to me, in fact, than my own older sister. All my cousins were rich, and Carol was, in my mind, the richest. She had her own upstairs with a bedroom, a sitting room, and a gorgeous bathroom. We were the poor relations. Still, I didn’t want to live there, nice as she was. So, I would always bring Mama trays of food and beverages when she was in bed. When she wasn’t at her store, she was usually in bed. We had one of those elaborate bed trays you see in movies staring Ida Lupino in satin mules and many other accoutrements of the upper class – but alas no moolah. My mother’s bed tray tilted up for reading.

No, mother in the mirror is not a comforting sight. But I see my mother’s face other places, too. If a friend says something mean to me, there she is, my mother. She tells me I’m too skinny, she tells me my hair looks like a Puerto Rican (to my knowledge I never met a Puerto Rican until I moved to New York City and when I did I was totally thrilled to look like that. Puerto Rican women are gorgeous!)

If I can bring myself to actually drive on the freeway and I’m part of that frenetic speeding along up and down the hills and valleys of Southern California, there she is, my mom. As in, I’m about to die and go see my mother. I don’t have much in common with my mother, and that’s a conscious thing, as I have tried my whole life not to be like her. But I do have her phobia about driving on the freeway; it’s one of the few things I haven’t been able to shrink away, though when I was doing hypnosis, the problem did get better. Not driving on the freeway when you live in LA, is rather limiting, though I have two other friends (both from New York) who feel exactly as I do.

When I watch Downtown Abbey on Sunday night, I see my mom. She’s the haughty Dowager Duchess, played by Maggie Smith. My mother would have liked to have been the ditzy Elizabeth McGovern character married to the idiot lord who won’t change his ways. My mother would have loved being married to a lord and living in some cold dungeon filled with ancestral belongings. She never understood why Lady Antonia Fraser left her lord for a common Jewish playwright who wrote such nasty plays. (Among her many other neuroses, my mother was humiliated by anything Jewish, and until I met my husband I felt the same way, too). A personal maid, breakfast in bed, the Church of England, and silver – now that’s the hot ticket.

I think about one of the many episodes in which she was about to die in the hospital and some visiting rabbi caught wind of the fact that an actual Jewess was in the midst. There weren’t too many of them in our town. He came to her beside and muttered some Hebrew prayers and I believe he even sang some songs. She’s dying, I thought; maybe she’ll derive some comfort from religion. But no, Ma gave me the high sign; as in get him the f—out of here. The day before, when she heard that a handsome Methodist minister was on the floor, she sat up from her torpor and called for lipstick and a bed jacket.

Oscar Wilde once remarked that all women become their mothers, that is their tragedy. No man does, that is his.

I haven’t become her – yet. And that is my happy ending. She wasn’t kind, she wasn’t warm, she wasn’t fuzzy or supportive. Luckily my hair grows really fast and in a month or so I can stop cringing and asking my husband if I look like my mother, which he knows to answer, “Absolutely not!”

In the meantime, there’s still enough to put in a tie on top of my head Woody Woodpecker style.

I can just hear her saying, “Why are you doing that with your hair?”


Mary Marcus

Mary Marcus is the author of The New Me and is hard at work on her next novel, Lavina. You can stay up-to-date on her blog posts at her website.

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On February 12, 2015
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