How It Was When My Mother Died: Chapter 6

FRANCES, AND HER MOTHER EVA

Frances speaking…

I was putting another bit of butter in the pan. My daughter Valerie said, “No! No! No! Now I know why I’m not a good cook like you and your mother.” Valerie skimps on things. I never thought of myself as a good cook like my mother. She cooked like an artist. She’d use real butter. Nothing was too good. I cooked for a family of eight kids, which means you have baked spaghetti. I may have picked it out [what Valerie said] subconsciously. She doesn’t give compliments. It came out accidentally.

[My mother’s] emphasis on good manners was very important in that she instilled in me a real consideration for the feelings of others. That’s what I consider real manners, not the formal observation of which fork or which knife. Never eat in front of anybody else unless you share with them.

Years later, if I was in a park or subway, I wouldn’t eat unless I offered something of what I had. You never, never have anything in public unless you share it. In this day and age, it might be called social concerns. This was during the Depression. My mother never, never turned anyone away, and she sent them away with a sandwich. It must have been the era. Everybody helped everybody.

She was an incredible disciplinarian. Every Saturday morning I had to simonize the furniture. You had a job to do and you had to do it. She bent over backwards to make sure I wouldn’t be spoiled. She took care of all the important growing-up things. You always stood up when your elders came into the room. It was almost a Victorian graciousness. It was also contributing to the belief of the times: subjugating oneself to other people’s needs. When you have company, you don’t take the last piece of something. I remember coming into the kitchen and there was a breaded pork chop on the plate. “No, Daddy. Mum said you can’t have it.”

We had a gardener and a man who did heavy work. I was always told you must be very, very polite. I had long, long golden curls, my mother’s pride and joy. The gardener would always tease me, “You gonna give me one of your curls?” I went into the house and cut off two of my curls and stuffed them into his pocket somehow without him noticing it. I thought I was being nice. When my mother brushed my hair, she nearly killed me. I thought she was absolutely going to die. She was horrified that I would do that.

She was talking to a friend about one of our neighbors. “Poor So-and-So…” I overheard her and my understanding of poor was that she had no money. I took a huge wagon load of old magazines off the porch and brought them around the neighborhood, selling them for a nickel to help Poor So-and-So, whose sister called my mother and said, “How dare you spread such lies about my sister.”

I must have been a mischievous child because I remember my mother saying, “I hope you have five daughters as bad as you,” and I did. I used to do things like when you’re practicing the piano and turn the clock ahead an hour and think she won’t know about it.

Between my mother and father it was wonderfully hectic. My mother was a scrapper, a fighter, and my father was kind of laid back and mellow. My father died when I was 15; I guess I got more rebellious then. I wanted to do what I wanted to do.

I went to Katharine Gibbs in New York City. I chose to go there because it was only two years instead of four years at a Catholic college. I met a nice girl who lived in Virginia. I went there over Easter vacation and that’s where I met Stephen. I was immediately intrigued by his air of mystery.

I only met him one night and he shipped out to the South Pacific. We wrote for two years. My mother was impressed because he came from a good Catholic family in Westchester. She thought it would be a good match. But when he came back after the war, her immediate reaction was negative. She said, “There’s something about him,” which reinforced my idea that he was perfect. That widened the chasm between us. I remember her crying, saying, “Please don’t marry him.” I can still see her sitting there saying, “Don’t marry him.”

Stephen’s family was upset too. The wedding day was a complete horrible strain. Neither family talked to the other. The omens were everywhere. My mother cried. I was her baby being taken off by this guy she didn’t like anyway. It was 1946.

When I got married I moved to New York. I was disillusioned with Stephen the first year. My main objective was not to let my mother know. It was a combination of my pride and sparing her knowing she was right. I know that in her heart she knew. “When I get your letters, they’ve already been opened,” she said. I didn’t believe her. I paid no attention. She kept worrying about the children, always sending them packages. But the chasm was between us.

She died 28 years ago on the twenty-ninth of January. I guess she had a heart attack. One of my stepsister’s sons had found her in the kitchen. She was staying with my stepsister in suburban New Jersey. My first feeling when I got the phone call was, now I don’t have to worry about her finding out. Of course she did know, but I wouldn’t have to face the reality of telling her. It’s as though I was relieved.

There were many times I thought of leaving Stephen, but I had all these little kids. I couldn’t think of descending on my mother with all of them. At the time, being a Catholic and committed to raising a family with both parents, you just didn’t get divorced. I couldn’t even write a check. There were many times I didn’t say my piece just to keep the peace.

My second feeling was grief. Unutterable sadness that I had lost the last part of my childhood. I had my stepsister and stepbrother, but they were far away, not only geographically, but spiritually and intellectually. I didn’t feel about them as family. I liked them. There was never any dislike. They were always good to me. Sadness that in the last years we couldn’t be any closer. The marriage kind of kept me from visiting her.

I went with Stephen and the babies to the funeral. Valerie stayed home with the other children because I couldn’t bring them all. I just remember looking in the coffin and thinking, my mother’s in there, and feeling absolutely dead. I remember feeling guilty, family and friends looking at me. “Oh, you’re the daughter who went away and left her.” That’s why I kept saying, “I’m sorry I’m not a better daughter.” Guilt was the strongest feeling at the funeral.

My mother gave me the first opportunity to be independent. She left me a thousand dollars. To me that was a terrific amount of money. I opened a savings account. It was the first independent thing I had ever done. I said, “I want to save it for birthdays and Christmas.” I was determined he was not going to touch her money.

I find myself saying and doing a lot of the things my mother did. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” whenever I’d complain about a kid. “Talk is cheap.” “If the shoe fits, wear it.” That was typical of her whole attitude of not being brusque but not overly sympathetic. She was a sharp, non-self-pitying kind, a real take-responsibility kind. I remember my son saying [to me], “A person could die around here and you wouldn’t notice.” I’d say, “Okay. You’re hurt but you’ll be all right.”

She had beautiful, long, thick, wavy chestnut hair. And she always smelled of talcum powder. Soft skin. Graciousness. Anytime anyone would come, she’d run to the store and it would be a feast. That’s the Hungarian. Sitting in the rocker with a rosary. Every time I’d come home, she’d be sitting in the rocker with a rosary.

Frances was 64 at the time of this interview and 35 when her mother died.

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