- memoir: about this series
- magical thinking
- sharp things
- Lincoln Park Zoo 1959
- men in bars
- The Bat, the Knee, the Bicycle, and Dick, the Doctor
- what came before; what’s coming
- Mathematician Update and Statutes of Limitation
- Irritability and the Mathematician
- the anniversary of my mother’s death
- islands in the storm
- the mother-granddaughter (dis)connection
- the inbetweens
- 25 years ago just before Halloween
have a first cousin on my mother’s side, a few months older than I am. Katie (that’s what I’ll call her for now) was a nervous, energetic kid always up for an adventure. She had a tremendous imagination and a dramatic streak a block wide. Katie loved to tell jokes and stories, especially family stories that often left me puzzled. Did I know that we were direct female descendents of Pocohantas? Did I realize that calico cats were always girls, but her calico cat was a boy, and how valuable he was for that reason? Her cat, the coin she found in the grass, a comic book — some one thing was always right there, promising wealth and good fortune. Wasn’t I aware the the State of Virginia was named after one of our great grandmothers? How about the fact that the grandmother we had in common had invented apple butter? We were an important family in the history of the country; we were intelligent, exacting, uncompromising visionaries. We spoke proper English. We had a flair for color. We made good lawyers and judges.
When I expressed doubt — even at that age was a bit of a cynic — some of the other cousins would jump in to testify on Katie’s behalf. Of COURSE we were direct descendants of Pocohantas, and how sad that nobody had bothered to tell me before. I learned to listen to the stories and keep my doubts to myself.
Of all the cousins, Katie adored my mother most.
In the days after my mother committed suicide, the cousins were around the house a lot, as family will be when there has been a death. Katie was there when my older sister brought home new clothes for my mother to be laid out in. I don’t think I had even heard the wordcremation at age fourteen; it was just a given that there would be a wake and at the wake you would have a chance to see the dead person’s remains, carefully made up. There would be gladiolus and mums and maybe lilies or roses. There would be organ music, and everybody we knew would troop in and out of the funeral home to file past the coffin in a single line, whisper among themselves, and sign the guestbook. All the kids from my class, all the nuns who had taught me, all the neighbors.
After so many years of trying to keep the secret of my mother’s alcoholism quiet, I hated the idea. But there was no escape. Having the cousins around was comforting, but I avoided Katie because I had no idea what to say to her.
We were fourteen, a difficult age in the best of circumstances, and we had a long history of competition which didn’t stop with my mother’s death. In fact, it seemed to ratchet up a notch. Katie loved her Aunt Mary and wanted everybody to know she was in mourning. I agonized over the need to appear in public because I had nothing to show except relief. I hated the very idea of having to see my mother laid out. Her hair would be carefully styled and she would be wearing new clothes, but I had done my time and I was shut of her, no need for long goodbyes. I just wanted to move on.
Katie spread out the clothes on the dining room table with great reverence. They were nice things, as I remember. Apricot in color, the underwear silky to the touch. Katie folded and refolded them. She said, “If only somebody had bought her such nice things when she was alive, maybe she wouldn’t have killed herself.”
My anger at this was so large it seemed to come up from my heels to fill every cavity. I remember still how my body first flushed and then went cold. I don’t remember what I said to Katie, but to this day I can call up the anger of that moment when she wiped my mother’s history clean on the basis of insufficiently pretty underwear. Because she knew. Katie knew. She lived in an alcoholic household, and she knew what it meant. And somehow, in spite of her knowledge, she was taking the other side.
It was at that moment that I came to understand some things about Katie. She had constructed a world view in which my mother was a victim, and it was a world she was trying on for herself. I couldn’t have put it in those words, but I knew, deep down, that Katie had chosen that path for herself. I did not and I still do not entirely understand how she came to that place.
For the next ten years I didn’t see much of Katie, but I thought a lot about her. Then in my mid twenties I began reading about the psychology of alcoholism and alcoholic families, and how grandiosity becomes a bulwark in the face of shame and insecurity. Gradiose plans fail, and the cycle perpetuates itself.
Katie has been in and out of rehab and treatment facilities for many years. I haven’t spoken to her since the early 80s, when she called to talk and spent a good amount of the time screaming insults at her husband. She sounded, just then, so much like my mother. I had no choice but to let her go.