My mother died just before Christmas, and of course there’s sadness about her being gone. Since the mid-eighties, we’d been spending a lot of time together, and we’d become way closer than when I was a kid.
But mostly this is not a sad story. Instead, it’s a story about what makes a good life in these weird modern/post-modern/pre-apocalypse times.
Certainly my mother had a good death, the kind we all dream of: in her sleep, at age ninety-seven, in the apartment she’d occupied for the past dozen years, surrounded by her favorite objects and furniture, following an afternoon of chatting and joking with her good-natured, affectionate, and effective caretaker. She’d been bed-ridden for the previous year, after a bad fall, and her mind had faded somewhat. But there was no pain, and the cognitive short-circuits were limited and mostly funny–to her as well as the rest of us, because although she lost some real memories, she also gained a set of vivid fakes, which she would humorously defend against my critical queries. Many had to do with driving, a skill she learned late and gave up early, without complaint. Who knew that all the while it had such a central place in her psychic life?
But otherwise she wasn’t that different, even in her last bed-ridden year. She still enjoyed her friends’ visits and news, had questions and opinions about world affairs, and indulged her appetites for dark chocolate and creme sherry. Anyway, she’d been playing the twinkly-eyed eccentric-little-old-lady role for years, so the last, bed-ridden version of it wasn’t really such a big change.
The course of her life had the same exemplary quality as her death. She was born at her grandparents’ farm in the southern tier of New York, and except for a couple of brief interludes lived the rest of her life within ninety miles of that spot– first at the farm her own parents bought in the same town, then in Rochester, where she became a nurse and worked at the main local hospital. Even then she remained connected to the farm– her parents lived there until they died, and she kept it for another decade after that. Various cousins still live in the area.
My father provided the only big disruption in this long tranquility. He was a non-practicing Ethical Culture-ethnic Jew from New York City who arrived in Rochester for medical school, fell for her, and insisted they get married. She thought it was a mistake, as did her future mother-in-law, who lived on Central Park West and prided herself on big-city sophistication– and of course they were right. In the end the marriage lasted fifteen years, but they’d already split up once before the final ending. My sister and I moved away with my father and his new wife, and my mother went back to work at the hospital. The next year she moved into a nearby duplex, which she bought when the owner died, and she lived there for the next fifty years; the retirement home where she died was a half-mile away.
You get the idea: farm childhood, strong family ties, decades of meaningful work for a single employer, a tranquil old age, a half-century in the same house — could you get any closer to an archetypal American life? Of course my father’s arrival and departure shook up the picture, but even they fitted one of the great American story lines. It was World War II, lots of people were being thrown together who otherwise would never have met, the ensuing relationships could be seen exploding all over the 1950s landscape. After it was all over, my mother’s life resumed its tranquil course, with the unexpected addition of her ex-mother-in-law. They became great pals, and spent a month together most summers.
So there’s an American Archetype version of my mother’s story, but it leaves something out, namely, the 1960s–because NYC-meets-farm girl wasn’t the only fault-line in her life. There were also the fault-lines that came from coping-in-suburban-America, and they may have been the bigger deal. Not for my father, who eagerly engaged with all aspects of suburban life, and never considered returning to the big city, even when that would have been the sensible move. But my mother could never quite make it work. She never got the codes, didn’t dress or talk like the other wives, became stiff and shy at strange moments, did too much at others. She was trying, but she just didn’t look or think like the others, and there were occasional meltdowns when she sensed my father’s dissatisfaction with her performance.
And then there was the question of work, which she gave up on marrying and only took up again after the divorce. Of course that’s what marrieds did back then, and she never expressed regret or talked of going back, at least in my hearing; probably both she and my father would have seen that as a humiliating sign of failure. Which in fact was strange, because her backwoods parents had a completely different idea– her mother was a teacher, kept teaching all through my mother’s childhood, and believed strongly that her daughter needed a profession of her own. It was my big-city father who took my mother out of the workplace and locked her up in new-growth suburbia.
I only understood what all this meant when I saw her back in the worforce after 1960, both at the hospital and hanging out after work with her fellow nurses. Of course they were a pretty rowdy crowd, having spent their days with naked bodies and big-time physical troubles, and my mother fitted right in. After fifteen years as a klutz-out, slightly off-kilter suburban wannabe, she had returned to competence and to socializing on her own terms. It was much the same back home at her duplex– not that she ever stopped being a little weird, but once she was out on her own, she started having a good time with it. (My daughter gives a terrific description of this mixture here.) The meltdowns had been a regular feature of her fifties life, but they pretty much disappeared after 1960.
I’ve made it sound like a feminist morality play, and that’s pretty much how I came to see it. My mother lived out many of the sixties liberationist themes, and she benefited from all of them. Her work, her own house, her own rowdy friends– suddenly she was a happy person. But the interesting thing is how she used all that sixties liberty– mainly, to get back to the life-tracks that had been laid out for her early on and that fitted her ideas of comfort, fun, and competence. In her life, it was the great fifties suburban enclosure that was the weird deviation; sixties radicalism allowed her to reconnect with her oh-so-traditional-looking past.
Were her experiences and emotions typical? Certainly not– suburbia keeps growing, faster than ever and world-wide, so people must be getting something out of it, as my father did. But maybe my mother’s experiences were typical in another sense, in what they show about the real dramas of the suburban/American way of life. We’re so accustomed to seeing suburbia as an effort to recreate small-town life that we don’t see its revolutionary force, the many aspects of ordinary life that it disrupts and reconfigures. The standard labels– preserving versus transforming, conservatives versus radicals– are even less help here than they usually are.
For my mother at least, the American Archetype story and the feminist morality play were pretty much the same thing.