Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mama Said: Millie's Agony

My son was here for a visit a few weeks ago and he mentioned to me that I really should write down all the crazy things I can remember my mother saying and doing. She is legend. Honestly, you can't make up this stuff. So I started writing. And I thought maybe I'll start a feature about her here on my blog. If that guy can become wildly successful writing "Shit My Dad Says" about his outrageous father, then I can write "Mama Said" about my outrageous mother. So this is the introduction to my mother. This is a piece I wrote about her a few years ago, before my father died. She's older now, but the stories just keep coming. And I'll post continuing slices of Millie-isms here from time to time.

Millie’s Agony

Millie is like a rabid butterfly, bumming cigarettes from her grandchildren in backless plastic purple shoes, sequined daisies wrapped around her big toes. Her hair color changes from day to day, varying from magenta to blonde, sometimes permed, sometimes in a spiky punk style. She may be wearing one of those dime store hair attachments that has no relationship to the hair color de jour. Millie is my mother; she is 76 years old, trying to stay current.

It’s not just her appearance that changes—she redecorates weekly. It’s hard to imagine that when we were growing up we had a comfortable Early American décor rambler with braided rugs and a pine hutch in the dining room. My parents now have an elegant two-bedroom condo. “Elegant” is my mother’s favorite word. The condo is very clean with white upholstery and white wall-to-wall carpeting. It’s like a builder’s show house except it has the accessories of four show houses crammed into one. Silk flowers, gilded angels, porcelain dolls, beaded throw pillows, a nearly life-size brass greyhound, a marble Venus in the corner. There’s a picture frame containing a photo of a young woman. It’s the photograph that came with the frame, but it is signed, “with love from Jenny.” Millie signed it herself. Jenny is my daughter—Millie says that Jenny could look like the model in the photograph if she worked on it. Maybe she could loan Jenny one of her hairpieces.

My father, a living saint, is legally blind now, but when he still could see, Millie had him repaint the walls every month. She changes her mind a lot. Now she just changes pictures. The pictures still have price tags on the back so she can return them when she changes her mind. She uses the discount home furnishing store like a public library. Pictures everywhere—walls, doors, even in the bathroom. The bathroom doesn’t sound that unusual, does it? She has an “original” Monet hanging over the bathtub in the guest bathroom, hole drilled through the tile. The lily-of-the-valley-theme guest bathroom is for display purposes only. Incidentally, she claims that all of her little finds are original works of art and were very expensive. I can’t figure out how she can afford this art on a modest retirement income. Last year she gave me a Picasso in a plastic frame. It’s an original Picasso, of course. Priceless. So is Millie.

Every year on my birthday she has to recount for me in gory detail the events of my birth, the full recitation of what she calls “the agony story.” The opening line never varies, except to accommodate my current age,  “Fifty-five years ago today I was in agony,” she whined last month on my birthday. The story usually continues with, “They tore me up. Your head was huge and it had two enormous lumps, almost like three heads.” Details I never want to hear about hours of labor and forceps and stitches. She usually includes the bit about how her mother shopped all over town with a grapefruit in her purse to find a bonnet to fit a newborn. When my grandmother brought the bonnet to the hospital it fit only one of my three heads. This year Millie threw in a new twist. She called a week before my birthday to tell me that 55 years ago she was simply miserable because it was hot and she was very pregnant. I was the first of five children—she doesn’t have an agony story of the same magnitude for the others.

I can’t recall when she started the agony story tradition, but I know for certain it was at least 20 years ago. At this point I can recite it with her. Sometimes she will find a reason to hit the play button on occasions other than my birthday. For example, a mere reference to my birthday could prompt a full recitation, which seems strangely out of place at Christmas.

It never worked to try humor to divert her from the story. “Mother, give it a rest, I know the story now better than you do,” I would say, followed by a recitation of the first few lines. She continued. So I tried understanding, empathy, “Mom, I know that it must have been really hard for you, I apologize for being such a difficult birth. I was just a baby, I didn’t know better.” That didn’t work either.

Last year I finally made progress. On my birthday I sent her flowers. In the morning, before she had a chance to call me, the florist arrived at her apartment with a bouquet of irises and roses, her favorite flowers. The note said simply, “Thanks for having me. I love you.” That worked. She called me, crying, unable to recite the agony story. When I reminded her that she had to go through the ritual or my birthday wouldn’t be complete, she started, “Well, okay, 54 years ago today I was in agony.” But then she started to cry again.

I am past all the Freudian psychoanalytic pap; I am tired of examining my childhood and blaming my mother for her frailties. It’s her humanity, her goofy, loving, flawed existence that I am learning to celebrate and appreciate. She is outrageous, but she can be hilarious. She can be frighteningly shallow yet staggeringly profound. She drives me crazy yet I truly love her and she has an unfaltering love for me, despite the agony.

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