My mother loved Verdi, Puccini, and the rest of those hot-blooded yet elegant Italians, 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. Mom 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 craziness.
“Betty could never think of anybody but herself,” one of my cousins told me. 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 everybody the pictures she had of them.”
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 consequences of her hurtful actions, her bad 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 always thought she was dead. That’s what my father told me, and I believed it.
But, no. There she is. An amazingly beautiful woman in a 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 the Cara nome aria, from Rigoletto, 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.
I've cultivated a love for the images of her as a young woman, as she appears in those early pictures, and also how she speaks and acts in the short stories I write about her. I remain defensive and 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 at Lenox Hill Hospital. To my surprise I found the more I learned of my mother, the less I liked. She was too impulsive, too impatient, too loud, too...vulgar. Far, far short of the ideal I held in my mind.
Reality always mocks the dream, eh?
But nevertheless I always go back to when I was nine, in her loving embrace for the first time, feeling her warmth and inhaling her perfume, my head swimming with a vision of a calm, peaceful life. 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, 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.
My bouncing on the end of the high board. “Hey, mom!” I call out. “Look at me!”