My wife, Elizabeth, frowns and demands to know why I am so calm, so unconcerned. “Your mother just died!” she says.
I find it odd she thinks she has a right to interrogate me about such a highly personal matter. No, not odd. Intrusive. Inappropriate. Apparently Elizabeth has forgotten my mother had been in the advanced stages of dementia for a long time, and recognized no one. That my step father, Bully, had been taking care of her himself, rather than putting her in a nursing home. That I had visited them in Youngstown two months earlier. Most especially, that—before she lost her mind—I’d made peace with her. And with Bully, too.
I explained all this.
“Oh,” Elizabeth said. “That’s different.”
The next day, when Elizabeth left for work, I put a CD on the stereo. A compilation of Irish music, evocative of my ancestors’ small village in the Maum Valley, to the west of Lough Mask, in the northern part of County Galway.
Couragie. Gravelwalk. Beardance and Lamentation. Boulavogne. And I wept at all the sadness of Irish history, especially in Boulavogne.
I thought about my life-long inability to relate to my mother beyond the superficial. Did I ever permit myself to get truly close to that woman? No, I kept her at a distance, even though I played the role of caring son, and invited her to visit frequently and become part of my family, to be a grandmother to my daughter Lara, and to my son Stephen. Which, thank God, she did.
Old photos, with shaky handwriting on their back. My God what a melancholy, distracted look on her face. It’s clear she does not want to be where she is. That poor woman is so terribly unhappy.
Then here’s one of her resting her head on a pillow, looking off into the darkness that surrounds her. Does she know what’s ahead?
Here’s a photo of Frank Joyce—my great-grandfather—at the front of a shed. He’s the one on the left. The notation on the back says “New York Train Station.” Frank isn't waiting for a train, obviously, so maybe he, like his buddy, is a rail employee.
Then my grandfather, Jack, and my grandmother, Edna.
Then I look at my mother rising up, confused, either startled out of a deep sleep or maybe she’s just drunk. Bully has the same befuddled, stupefied expression. Groggy lovebirds. Maybe they were sleeping off some raunchy sex.
When I first saw this image I felt a powerful rush of jealousy. Sexual jealousy. I couldn’t bear the idea of Bully having sex with my mother. Because she was mine. Wasn’t she? Christ, that’s so totally fucked up. No, listen, I would never admit to having sexual feelings for my mother. OK? Never.
Summertime, when I was 12 or 13, she took me to the public swimming pool on the west side. She came out of the dressing room wearing a tight black bathing suit. Her breasts were full and they bounced slightly as she walked toward me. She spread a blanket on the grass under a tree, and sat down. My eyes were drawn to the wisps of pubic hair that peeked out from beneath the cloth of her crotch. Extremely fine black lines against the whiteness of her inner thigh, like a steel engraving in an old book.
I have a vague memory of rummaging around in her attic a week or two later. It was stifling, hot, humid, and I was covered with sweat. Or was that the attic of my father’s house? Maybe I masturbated up there, thinking of what I’d seen at the swimming pool. Or was it just an erotic dream that I tried hard to drive from my mind?
Those early sexual stirrings were enormously troubling to me. I had no idea how to deal with them. Seems in those days I was always an instant away from a complete shutdown of my cognitive apparatus. In other words, a seriously fucked up little boy.
My mother loved Verdi, Puccini, and the rest of those Italians, which was one important thing we had in common. But our discussions of music never went anywhere. It seemed to split us. I claimed Beethoven’s symphonies conveyed as much drama as any opera. She disagreed. No way. Operas have stories. Symphonies don’t. Maybe I projected onto her a sensitivity or intelligence that she didn't have. I idealized her. I wanted so much to believe she was exactly like me. But she really wasn't. Which meant I was alone in my perverted craziness.
One of my cousins told me, “Betty could never think of anybody but herself.” This was not a criticism or a judgment, rather the words of someone close to her stating a simple biographical fact.
“But she always loved you, Johnny,” my cousin added. “And your two kids. She talked about them all the time. Always showed their pictures.”
I don't think I ever came to truly love her. Rather I felt sympathy, and also felt her deep sadness. All her life she suffered the enormous consequences of her actions, her choices. I had nothing to do with it, other than being the child she abandoned.
How could I love someone who, until I was nine or ten, simply did not exist? I thought she was dead. That’s what my father told me, and I believed it. But, no. There she is. That amazingly beautiful woman in the light blue dress. Who is serving my father and me a dinner of roast beef, peas, mashed potatoes and gravy and apple pie and ice cream for desert. On the record player is Bellini’s Norma, an aria sung by Maria Callas. My father demands still another crème de menthe. He’s getting ugly drunk, and he’s flashing evil glances at me. Which I try to ignore when after desert I sit on the couch next to my mother—my mother!—and she gently overcomes my resistance and pulls me toward her, and I close my eyes and feel the warmth and softness of her breasts, and the scent of lavender. My mother! That music!
I've cultivated a love for the image of my mother as a young woman, both as she appears in those early pictures and also how she speaks and acts in the short stories I create about her. I remain indifferent to the “real” woman, the late Elizabeth Jean Joyce Palcewski Orzechowski.
Who came to New York to see my daughter, Lara, when she was born. To my surprise I didn't like my mother at all. She was too impulsive, too impatient, and what’s more she had vulgar mannerisms. Far, far short of the ideal I held in my mind. Reality always mocks the dream, eh?
But I always go back to when I was eleven, in my mother's embrace for the first time, inhaling her warmth and her perfume, my head swimming with a vision of a calm, peaceful life with her. On Saturdays there will be Milton Cross and his live broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. There will be gilt-edged books on the shelves. Herotodus and Homer. Ulysses, and Portrait of the Artist, and Finnegans Wake by Jimmy Augustine Joyce, our distant Irish relative.
There will be more of that tender and delicious pot roast and peas and mashed potatoes and gravy and hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream. A new bicycle! Clean underwear, clean socks. Five pairs of brand new Levis, fourteen pristine white tee shirts. For school a lunch box with a thermos filled with hot home made chicken soup. A ham and cheese on rye wrapped in heavy aluminum foil. A spear of dill pickle. Chocolate chip cookies. A five dollar bill, folded in thirds, in my pocket. Summertime. Swimming at the West Side pool, her sitting on a blanket in her black bathing suit. Red polish on her fingerails, toenails, bright white cigarette, her deep inhalation, and impatient exhalation.
Me bouncing on the end of the high board. “Hey, mom!” I call out. “Look at me!”