When we were living in Madison, I spent most of the late seventies pulling snow boots off my son Jacob. When he was about four, he looked and said, “Do you love me or do you not?” I was about to answer when he continued, “You told me once but I forgot.” He pointed out, “It’s not a question, it’s a poem.”
I remembered that when I was sorting through the papers of my mother, who died February 26, 2003, at the age of 88. I had been at the deathbed by phone. The hospice nurse and her caretakers called me and told me to give her permission to go, as if she needed it! What a physical process dying is, I thought, as the nurse informed me that her legs were turning blue, signifying that oxygen was leaving her body. I heard my mother’s labored breath. Hard work, dying, like birth.
“Tell her she can go,” urged the nurse.
“You can go,” I obeyed.
In fact, my mother had left me many years earlier when her mind began to crumble and she turned her frustration and fury against me. After my father died and his will was read, she ordered me out of the room. Later she accused me of stealing the will and drove me from her house. “Get out of my life!” she snarled on yet another occasion, and I pretty much did. Occasionally she would relent and invite me to visit her but whenever I made the plane reservation, she invariably called me up and begged me not to come, a plea I sometimes heeded and sometimes didn’t. In the last year, I couldn’t even make out the words in her incoherent howl of rejection.
She had what Graham Greene called “a writer’s goldmine,” an unhappy childhood. Born the oldest daughter of immigrant Jews from Russia, she was the designated drudge who looked after the three younger children, eclipsed by her oldest brother, the firstborn son and favorite. She was an A student who had to fight to go to college. My grandfather was an Old World patriarch who thought higher education was wasted on women. She worked to pay her own way at the University of Minnesota and graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
But illness blighted and constricted her possibilities. In the letters to my father before she was married, she mentioned black moods, which sometimes could be dispelled by a “long, brisk, walk.” Eventually she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder: alternating periods of anxiety and depression. She also suffered chronic back pain, migraines, arthritis, pulmonary fibrosis, and late in life, crippling osteoporosis. Years of illness and medications took such a toll on her personality that I’d forgotten how deeply she was once engaged with life.
Did she love me or did she not? She did! She’d saved all my letters and memorabilia down to the smallest memento. To be fair, she saved just about everything, in an antique bureau crammed tight with well-organized and clearly labeled folders; shoe boxes full of letters and pictures from the 1930s; long black ledgers recording the finances of the early years of her marriage. Each journal started on my parents’ anniversary, April 14, announced “Cash in Bank—in 1940 it was $350—and accounted for all gifts and household expenses down to the radishes she bought for salads (three cents a bunch).
During the war, she pasted into one huge, unwieldy album all the letters my father wrote to her from Italy and North Africa. After my birth, she kept congratulatory cards, baby clothes, my first shoes, which she had bronzed, and even my milk teeth. She also kept the collars—still smelling a little doggy—plus the tags and complete veterinary records of all the collies we owned going back to 1952.
Throughout her life she filed clippings on subjects she was interested in—and she was interested in a lot of things. But most revealing were her diaries, dramatically labeled, “A Strange Resumé!” or “When I Left Home Forever!” or, my personal favorite, “The Last Terrible Days!” evoking the fall of the Roman Empire. Most of the entries were written in drugstore notebooks, but if she got the urge, she was not above pouring out her heart on the backs of grocery lists, dry cleaning receipts, or in one case a cocktail napkin.
“A Strange Resume!” begins with a house that my mother claimed talked to her the first time she looked at it on a Sunday drive. It was a dilapidated 1890 farmhouse on five acres near a railroad track in rural Minnesota. The Erie-Lackawanna chugged by, rattling the windows in their wooden frames. I don’t know if the house really talked to her, but I remember that the train whistle screamed like a cow in labor. The property included a henhouse with laying hens, raspberry canes, a cornfield, a meadow and a stable. My parents had lived on the immigrant Jewish north side of Minneapolis all their lives. They were first generation immigrants, who learned English as a second language in big, poor, nosy families. They were ready for a country adventure.
They bought the place in early December 1951. Twenty miles west of Minneapolis on Old Route Seven, they felt thrillingly far away—especially in snowbound winter—from the parents, brothers and sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins who all lived within walking (and snooping) distance of each other. My mother had been struggling to finish her Master’s thesis in psychiatric social work. Instead she threw herself into remodeling the house. She finished in June, just in time to start a large vegetable garden from which she stocked our freezer. She always loved summer foods more than any others—asparagus, dead ripe tomatoes, corn, watermelon.
The remodeled house turned out so well it became the subject of a photo shoot for Capper’s Farmer Magazine (October 1955) under the terse title, “More Space—Fewer Rooms.” My mother had grown up in grinding poverty in small houses she described as overcrowded, shabby, gloomy, cold, and loveless. What she did with the rabbit warren of fusty rooms that would have discouraged many a new owner was knock out walls and put in French doors, large windows, a sundeck, a screened porch, and a greenhouse. The living room had a great fieldstone fireplace and sweeping views of the meadow. My mother built floor to ceiling bookcases and painted the walls sky blue. She thrust fresh air, space, and sunshine into our lives.
A year later she writes:
The Time of Unknowing: IT happened and I knew but I didn’t know what. On July 8, my 39th birthday, got a slipped disk on the garden tractor and everything went to hell. The rest of July in the hospital. In September 1953 I found out. It all exploded.
She found out that my father had fallen in love with his secretary. He agreed to stop the affair and work on the marriage. It was a rough time: he felt pulled in two directions, she felt betrayed. The slipped disk, for which she was in traction all summer, continued to bother her. My parents attended counseling. Neither thought it helped.
Our collie, Gentleman Jim, was murdered. We found him one November morning on the snowy front lawn where he’d dragged himself home to bleed to death. He’d been castrated. My mother suspected the secretary’s husband of sending a murderous message to my father. The couple abruptly moved to California. And though my father would stay in the marriage until he died forty-five years later, he faded away emotionally. The house my mother had designed to be our happy home must have seemed a sad mockery of all her dreams and expectations.
At my mother’s insistence, they sold it only two and a half years later and bought a small, cramped cottage on Lake Minnewashta, where they gave me the only bedroom and slept on single beds lined up like army cots in the living room. My mother eventually remodeled this house too, and it was also featured in a magazine, Household (“New Ways to Old-Fashioned Comfort”); it never seemed very comfortable to me. My mother was miserable. She tried psychotherapy but discontinued it in April 1955 and tried to heal herself through exercise: swimming in the lake and gardening.
On August 2 she had a complete breakdown.
I tried to live with this two years and two months and broke…at home a week and to Milwaukee San [Wauwatosa Sanatorium in Milwaukee] on August 9 to November 22, 1955. Back home with problems unsolved and everything to learn over again.
My father had had another affair during the time she was hospitalized. And sadly, she learned it from me. My father’s girlfriend had helped take care of me while she was gone, and I innocently inquired, “Where’s Shirley?”
Nothing had changed. Still, my parents decided to celebrate my mother’s return from the “San” with a family vacation to the Bahama Islands, the first they’d taken since a road trip to the West Coast to visit relatives when I was two. Now I was nine, and my mother worried about me and with good reason. Most unhappy, tightened up, tense, not understanding, can’t concentrate in class, she wrote about me. When she got home, she devoted herself to teaching me at least the multiplication tables so I could pass math, my worse subject, and I did. Then it was Christmas vacation, and I could put my academic failures behind me for a couple of weeks. The plan was for my father and me to drive to Miami, where we would meet my mother, who was taking the train there. Then we would all fly to Nassau.
At the time I thought my mother was avoiding me, angry with me for blurting out the name of my father’s girlfriend. I would learn the truth from her diary: she took the train so that she could rendezvous in Chicago with Trudie, her friend from the San. Trudie had been released at the same time as my mother from the place she called “that goddamn hell.” Like my mother, her husband couldn’t afford to keep her there any longer either. Trudie was the one person who could make her laugh.
When she rejoined us, my mother characteristically kept a diary of that 1956 trip to the Bahamas. The trip was a sensory explosion for someone who’d been anxious and depressed for three years and institutionalized for three months. Whatever the future would hold, my mother was determined to enjoy the present and to reconnect with her child. In one photo my father took of her alone, she looks happy, excited, and a little avid: a dark, petite woman in a cotton shirtwaist dress and big floppy hat. In another, she and I are stepping into a swimming pool and she is cradling my head between her hands like a tender fruit.
The diary is a vivid account of those two weeks. It rarely mentions my father. He had a cold, and I remember him as a rather muted presence. On the first day, she wrote, we had a swim in the pool and then dressed to hike into town one mile along the beach. Margo and I excited by the ocean, shoes off, skipping rocks and finally splashed wet by waves. Margo loves me when I’m easy this way and like to do things with her. She recorded everything we ate that night for dinner – and what it cost – a meal begun with Planters’ Punches and a sherried conch chowder followed by a fancy lobster dish with fried plantains, rice and black-eyed peas, and probably my favorite part of the meal, coconut sundaes. Total cost: $4.00.
The next day we visited Mr. Edwards’ Garden of Flamingos, a highlight of the trip. I impressed Mr. Edwards by asking how many vertebrae the flamingos had while my mother scribbled: They march out of the pond in army drill, halt, reverse, and attack on order! She had a kind of goofy endearing fascination with performing animal acts. On road trips, before freeways replaced two-lane highways, she’d cry, “Sike, Sike! Pull over!” and we’d know it was another carny sideshow featuring a snake act or trained chipmunks. We went to see the flamingos three times. While my father nursed his cold in the evenings, she went out by herself to cafes and bars and talked to the locals. We all sailed to a place called Paradise Island, got up before dawn to attend the Bahamian Mardi Gras, visited a Benedictine Monastery. The social worker in her took me to the poor parts of town away from the tourist glitz to show Margo how people really live. We traveled to Harbor Island on a mail boat with a couple of missionaries and a lot of baby chicks. On the day before we left to go home, we went deep-sea fishing and my mother caught a large grouper. A picture shows her posed next to her fish. We ate it for dinner with fried onions.
She was too busy living the trip to reflect on the meaning of it until she was in the plane heading home. She wrote wistfully:
It was a dream vacation, so wonderful, it almost hurts in retrospect. I still have a touch of the me that was me in the Bahamas. The magic is still part of me, telling me I can be a whole person and enjoy, with all my senses, a kind of fulfillment. And this when I have unhappiness within me. That’s the strange part, to be me, to feel free and ready to sense beauty, to enjoy good food, to crave new experiences every day and know they’ll be good, to feel easy, not in a hurry, not tense, not full of an expectation which can’t be met, just to be able to enjoy, and to enjoy in the midst of my own personal tragedy, that is the greatest triumph. I feel—I feel as though, could I live in the Bahamas, I would grow beautiful and easy and charming—It’s like the atmosphere would just make it happen. This is the dream I left.
The “Record of Depressions” documents “ten precious years of no depression” from 1954 to 1964. She finally found a psychiatrist, Allan Challman, who was warmly supportive and empathetic. She returned to social work at the Minneapolis Society for the Blind, but her interests were turning more and more to conservation and wildlife. She became a birder, joining the Minnesota Bird Club, the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union, and the National Audubon Society, for which she conducted research in locating eagles’ nests. In 1960, we moved to a house on Lotus Lake, in a 25-acre maple forest, which was designated a Minnesota State Tree Farm. She took a university course on tree management in order to work out sound conservation practices. She also attended clinics on maple sap farming and forestry conventions and made congenial new friends.
In her spare time, she volunteered as a book club leader at the Shakopee Women’s Prison, buying all the books herself. She was a voracious reader, who’d taught me how to write my name at the age of three so that I could get my own library card. I was recruited as her assistant, and going to the prison with her and meeting the inmates opened up a whole new world for me. Our common enterprise drew us closer. We befriended a tall, shy woman named Gladys, doing time for check forgery, who came to visit us after she was paroled.
Here were women, none of whom had more than a high school education; many had been dropouts. Yet they wanted to read good books, and their comments were often surprisingly mature and sensitive, and they could relate to fictional characters so as to see the problems they were creating in their own lives. I think much more rehabilitation in prison could be accomplished with an upgrading of prison libraries and an active program stemming from it. She believed in the transformative power of the written word, that it could change your life.
In 1962 she read Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring, which inaugurated the modern environmental movement. The book opens with “A Fable for Tomorrow.” It projects a possible future spring in which no birds sing and no crops and vegetation grow. Carson’s critique was a call to action. My mother responded. She gave up social work, a problematic calling for her—too much human misery—to become secretary of the Minnesota chapter of Nature Conservancy, a national organization that finds and purchases unique, wild, or untouched natural areas. Early in 1963, she returned to the University of Minnesota to take courses in biology and journalism.
That March, when she was flipping through the newspaper for something to write about for her journalism course, she read a skimpy paragraph on an inside page about an oil spill in South St. Paul. A routine class assignment blossomed into an investigative article that was eventually published in Audubon Magazine. My mother hadn’t been a lifelong reader of detective fiction for nothing. She traced the spill to a crude oil pipe, which had broken on December 15 at the Richards Oil Company near the junction of the Minnesota River and the Mississippi. The ice held up the oil until the end of March when thawing released it into the waters just as ducks, geese, and swans were making their spring migration up the Mississippi flyway. The timing was catastrophic: scores of game birds alighting on the river, as well as the beavers and muskrats swimming in it, became coated in the deadly oil.
A call to the state conservation department led her to a family who lived near the spill. George and Dorothy Serbescu and their young son John had started their own home “duck laundry” in the absence of any state or federal help. My mother drove eighty miles daily for four days to help the Serbescus wash and feed the oil-soaked birds and animals. She traveled by boat and clambered up and down rocky riverbanks to view the devastation. In a photo of her taken for the article, she looks Huck Finnish with her cropped hair, jeans, and slight figure as she gazes sadly down at a pile of dead ducks.
The stench was overpowering. It looked like a countryside in hell. Flames and smoke were coming from an oil-filled ditch. Pools of black oil were scattered among the dead grasses. Tree trunks were covered with the black deposit. Here was pollution, death, and decay of America’s wildlife.
The scope of the disaster finally pulled Governor Karl Rolvaag as well as biologists and state and federal personnel (and many volunteers) into the rescue operation. Birds and animals were saved, but the final death count was still a staggering 10,000 creatures. My mother’s article, “Operation Duck Rescue,” ends with a call for new environmental policies:
Minnesota’s water pollution laws are far too weak. The maximum punishment for breaking the law is a $100 fine. In this crisis, governmental action was sincere but agonizingly slow. Why didn’t we log boom off the Minnesota River and siphon off the oil before it reached the Mississippi? Since the Mississippi River is of national concern, could we not have a federal law by which immediate action could be taken to close up any waterway entering that river when pollution on a danger level is discovered? What might have been a relatively simple operation on the Minnesota River became so complex and financially difficult that the engineers were still discussing the problem while oil flowed down the Mississippi, bringing disaster to waterfowl.
Her article did help change environmental policy, leading directly to the passing of a state Clean Water Act. Libraries around the country asked for reprints, and Robert Paul at the Secretary of the Interior gave it to Representative Dingel to use in the hearings for his bill on federal water pollution. She proudly sent a copy to her psychiatrist, Dr. Challman, who warmly congratulated her in a letter addressed to “My Dear Little Oily Duck…”
The balance of the letter takes her to task for having more compassion for waterfowl than herself; he was convinced that both her mental and physical health depended on her leading a peaceful life of light gardening and reading, fulfilling or not. But she was too elated with the success of her first journalistic effort to heed dire warnings. She’d been free of depression for years; maybe she’d beaten it. She was almost free of the responsibilities of motherhood: by 1964, I had graduated high school and was accepted at the University of Minnesota. I got a summer job as a waitress in Grand Marais, on Lake Superior near the Canadian border. The Minneapolis Institute of Art had its summer program there and I hoped to take a few painting classes when I wasn’t waiting tables. I was probably a better artist than waitress, as I managed to get myself fired from the swanky Shoreline Motel after two days and turned out of my boarding house. I cried, got a job at Lucy’s Rustic Inn, found a new room, then called my parents. When I settled in, my parents drove up to see me, and took me out to dinner.
My mother would always claim afterwards that I gave her the idea, at the restaurant, to leave my father. Though none of us remembered the exact phrasing, I observed with the tact of a seventeen-year-old something like “Boy, you guys seem bored with each other.” After dinner they took me back to my room and went to their rented cottage. They had chosen it because it was remote feeling, separated from the others, high on a glacial rock going out into the lake, a horizon of water meeting sky, sunshine and color of green shoreline and gray crags of stone, and sound and sight of gulls swooping and song birds who thought July 2 was spring on the North Shore…and now I lay in the ugly bedroom with the beauty waiting outside, tears sliding down my nose…
Midlife: my mother was fifty, her only child would soon leave home. The spirit of the sixties whispered, “Do your own thing.” So she wiped her eyes and reflected on her days ahead: A quiet house, Sike coming home, watching the ball game on television, falling asleep, finally going to bed…one of us went to bed earlier or later than the other. It was easier that way. And myself? Enough outside interests to quiet an aching heart—or is sublimation a better word? Does sublimation equate dullness and death-in-life? So the intimation of death was there, staring at us, daring us to look at it squarely.
Look they did…and decided to separate. My mother was in limbo for several months. It was one thing to decide to leave and begin a new life, quite another to figure out what kind of new life she wanted. We quarreled a lot. I was sad she was going but at the same time impatient for her to be off. How dare she have ambivalent feelings and concerns about finding herself! I was the teenager after all! I found it confusing to be with both my parents at the same time, because we were not quite a family anymore.
“The Last Terrible Days” begins: Much time has passed and I’m still here. From a peak of elation to paralysis. Finally she formed a plan: go to California, get a job, write a book on Great Blue Herons. What I’d like to do is live in a little house on the ocean somewhere for a year and really see if I can write…
The snow was falling, she notes in “When I Left Home Forever!” as her station wagon rolled west with a collie, two dachshunds and a cat. She rented a tiny cottage on Stinson Beach. It was a little primitive, but she repainted furniture, covered rusty pipes with copper paint, sewed curtains, matted pictures, and planted the patio with shrubs and an acacia tree. She took courses in botany and Spanish and planned a trip to Mexico. She wrote two articles.
In the spring of 1965 she became engulfed by depression. No precipitating cause except that I could not write. Dried up. She fled to Berkeley. She rented an “in-law” apartment from a large chaotic hippie family who adored her. It helped to take a break from the self-imposed pressure to write by working as a research assistant at the Oakland Museum of History, a job she loved and did well, setting up a catalogue of ecological literature of California. She joined a singles club and made new friends, both men and women. Gradually she was putting down roots.
Then lightning struck a second time. Felt good about everything, so—April 1966, in depression and panic so bad I telephoned Sike to come get me. Knew I could not travel alone, three dogs, one cat. Also I was afraid to be hospitalized there without anyone outside I could trust. Sike was reluctant to come but did.
He had found a serious girlfriend and resumed the marriage only because he felt he had no choice. My mother needed him.
So the great experiment ended in defeat. She was brought back to Minneapolis like a prisoner of war and went directly to the hospital for the month of May, with Dr. Challman clucking over her and probably muttering, “I told you so” under his breath. If he expected her to settle into a life of gardening and serene boredom, though, he would be disappointed. No sooner was she released than she found a job at the Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota. She described her relationship with my father as “an uneasy peace,” from which work must have been a welcome refuge. And it was uniquely cut out for her skills.
All her life she had been an enthusiastic foe of dirt and disorder. She writes in her diary of the satisfaction she took in whipping my messy room into shape or pulling scraggly weeds from her garden. At the museum she inherited a big juicy mess: the so-called ecology library had lapsed into a mere repository for books and periodicals, many of them in sorry condition. The library moldered in a space of 32 by 18 feet without files, furniture, or even a telephone—a neglected stepchild of the university library system.
My mother’s achievement was to get it accepted on the same basis as other departmental libraries, and with funds flowing in, to build up an important collection in the fields of ecology, conservation, and ornithology. The physical set-up expanded to an additional room with all the amenities and a part-time assistant, under the direction of a woman who wasn’t even a professional librarian. One fall day in 1969 she called me up in New York where I was newly married and in graduate school.
“Do you think I’m too old to go to grad school?” she asked.
“Hell no!” I said. “How old are you anyway?” She laughed. “Fifty-five. How old are you?”
In her application she describes her work at the library. In one year I have completed an inventory of the collection…and its contents are now up-to-date.
Now up to date. It’s a dry, straightforward phrase. There’s no reason it should disturb me. The next document I look at is my mother’s 1970 letter of acceptance from the graduate school in library science. She never went. I turn over the letter and scrawled on the back in shaky writing is the comment, No time to pursue it.
It was time for another depression. All her life, self-destructive forces were held in abeyance by the desire to finish some creative task; she’d remodeled a house; she’d raised a daughter; she’d moved cross-country to start a new life; she’d moved again; she created a working library out of chaos, and it was now up to date. Those forces had bided their time for long enough. July 1970. After four years, into depression so paralyzing I quit my job giving only two days notice. No precipitating cause.
She recovered as she always did, but with a little less bounce. With age, she was losing her resilience. The depressions now cycled so regularly it seemed like she was in them more than she was out of them. In between she tried to live: she enjoyed her grandchildren, she traveled with my father, she was a good neighbor. But she never tried to write another book or article or hold a job. That year my parents moved once again, from the Lotus Lake tree farm to a house my mother designed on the Mississippi River, her last house. She remained active in Nature Conservancy, raising funds and contributing her own money to establish a Great Blue Heron Rookery in St. Cloud. Even if her heron book didn’t get off the ground, she found a way to help the birds she loved for their awkward grace and majestic flight. With this land, she wrote, we preserve the mystery and magic of primordial days when huge winged creatures roamed the earth.
Gradually, through arthritis and dementia, she lost the lifelong writing habit that kept her connected to the world and to herself. As I pore over the pictures of her young womanhood, snapshots in which she is happily riding bicycles or sharing picnics with her brothers and sisters or her social worker friends, I find her smiling face shockingly encircled in heavy black ink as if a noose had been thrown over it. In the margin is the word, ME, or sometimes a puzzled “?”. In her decline, she must have looked at those photos and been afraid she would forget who she was.
I was born in Minnesota and have lived in New York City; Guilford, Connecticut; Madison, Wisconsin; Berkeley, California; Albany, Oregon and Israel. I earned a PhD in English literature from City University of New York and have taught composition and literature in the U.S. and in Jerusalem. My short stories and essays have been published on three continents–America, Japan, and Great Britain–and I have received prizes and honors including First Runner Up in nonfiction for a book length memoir in the 2006 University of New Orleans Writing Contest. I published my second book, WARP and WEFT: STORIES and ESSAYS last year. I’m now working on a YA novel. I have a son and daughter and four grandchildren and two Tonkinese cats. I live in a cottage with a garden in West Berkeley and never want to move again!