Sunday, March 30, 2014

My Mother

One of the reasons why I don't enjoy most fiction is that few writers are able to portray characters in a manner that captures the actual complexity and subtlety that exists in people. More often than not, characters are framed by a few examples of their behavior, and they become trapped in simple stereotypes. As someone who is always trying to understand the dynamics behind the exteriors of others, I find most fictional characters either unconvincing or lacking in interest sufficient to warrant a position of prominence in a work of fiction.

To some extent this failure may be the result of fashion. Post-modernism has popularized stylized writing at the cost of realism. From a writing and publishing standpoint, it is easier to produce and sell stylized fiction than realism, because it takes no more effort to write than comic books and imparts an unearned aura of the cutting edge on lazy or ignorant readers. Even so, most writing before post-modernism wasn't penetrating either. I have been reading Proust intermittently for a few years and find him psychologically uninformed. The narrator's early interests in Gilberte and Albertine, for example, are never examined, nor is Charles Swann's infatuation with Odette explained. I think Proust's skill does not extend beyond the providing of detailed descriptions of his milieu and how he reacts to it. He was lucky to have lived in such a rich culture and to have had the leisure to describe it in a manner that suited him, but the impression I often get is that neither he nor his readers are any the wiser beyond a sort of historical record-keeping, while thousands of pages accrue. Although he writes in the tradition of realism, his faithful exploration of surfaces almost makes him a stylist.

In this context, I thought I would try to describe my mother, in an attempt to see whether I myself am up to the task of doing what I find lacking in most fiction. This will be a short version of what I consider to be an adequate description of a person, and I think any protagonist, in the course of a work of fiction, ought to be portrayed this well at a minimum.

* * *

My mother was born into a prosperous Armenian family in Athens in 1925. She had an older sister and a younger brother. Her parents spoke French at home, and she attended a German school. Their life took a turn for the worse during World War II under the German occupation. Food was scarce. Her mother became seriously ill, and her father nursed her back to health by feeding her what was available: onions. During the worst times people would die of starvation on the street and a cart would come by to pick them up.

My father was a British officer stationed in Greece after the German retreat, and the British  were supporting the government against communism during the Greek civil war. They met at a dance and fell in love. They had an elaborate wedding in Greece, for which my father's parents traveled from England in December, 1946. In March, 1947 they sailed to England, and on that voyage my mother became pregnant with my older sister.

In England they initially lived with my father's parents, and she and her mother-in-law didn't get along. She had led a sheltered life and considered my English grandmother crude because she made vulgar jokes. One morning, my grandmother confided to my mother "Bill was good last night." There must have been a rivalry. It was probably then that my mother began a technique that she used throughout her life. She probably buttered up my grandfather and disparaged my grandmother to him. He was no fool though, and when she became too theatrical and animated he said "Can we have a modicum of decorum?" Later, my mother never had anything nice to say about my grandmother, though she was a relatively pleasant and harmless person as far as I can tell.

My parents soon bought their own house, which was modest. I was born in 1950, and my younger sister, possibly an "accident," was born in 1954. Even though my father's career wasn't going well, he always wanted to make a good impression, and he somehow managed to use my grandfather's credit to buy a better house in Purley while my grandfather was away on a trip. Then in about 1956 my father traveled to the U.S. and became enchanted by Manhattan. He was particularly impressed by the fact that there was "music in the elevators." That phrase came to haunt him a few years later when my mother used it sarcastically in reference to his lack of success in America. We moved here in March, 1957.

At first we lived in a rented house in a middle class neighborhood in Pelham Manor, New York. Being English there at that time bestowed on us a certain social benefit, and we were popular. My mother joined women's groups, and my parents socialized a lot. In about 1960, the rental house was sold to someone else, and we moved into an apartment in another part of town next to the country club. We belonged to the club, but not the golf portion. My parents played tennis, and we spent our summers at the pool. During the winter my father bowled, and I played ice hockey on the pond next to the 18th green. Living in an apartment somewhat diminished our social rank, and my father's lack of success in business and increasing alcoholism didn't help either. Up to about age 12, my identity was attached to my mother, and I listened carefully to everything she said. Our apartment was near Interstate 95, which was then under construction, and, after walking high up along its elevated walls, I knew she would disapprove and dutifully reported it to her. However, after that I began to grow up, and she rapidly receded in importance in my life. She had done her basic mothering and thereafter had little of value to say. She was spontaneous and unintellectual, and I had no use for that during my period of mental development.

By the mid-1960's my father's income was proving insufficient, and my mother began to work. She first worked at a jewelry store called Ciro's on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. I think Paul McCartney or some other pop star came in once looking for a wedding band. She would occasionally meet my father at the St. Regis Hotel after work for a drink. One day, Salvador Dali, who lived there, was coming out while she was going in, and he thought he recognized her. He gave her a deep, extravagant bow.

My mother was short, small-boned and very attractive. She had long, black hair, but her skin was lighter than that of her sister, and she did not resemble an ethnic Armenian. She looks stunningly beautiful in her wedding photos at age 21. She was also meticulous about her appearance. Although she grew up in Greece, she understood German and French, and English was her fourth language. She had an accent, but, unlike Arianna Huffington, whose family came from the same part of Athens, Kifisia, she was perfectly intelligible. She was sociable and charmed people easily. Before she began working she met, probably through my father, a man named Dick Smith. Dick was so awed by her that he took photographs of her and socialized with my family for some time.

When she left Ciro's she worked for many years as a receptionist at 225 Fifth Avenue, which was an office building housing the headquarters of several wholesale gift companies. Chief among those was Waterford Crystal. At some point - I'm not sure when - she had an affair with her boss, the president. I don't know much about it, but apparently his wife put a stop to it. I think this had a devastating effect on my father and accelerated his decline. During this period, my mother was exposed to more financially successful men than my father, and she became merciless in her berating of him. They began with fights that involved throwing objects and spitting, but by the time I left for college, they grew worse. One day my father shoved my mother to the ground and kicked her, breaking a rib.

My parents had a grueling commute to and from work every day. This involved driving to the last subway stop, Dyre Avene, in the Bronx, and then taking the IRT subway line all the way through the Bronx to midtown Manhattan. In 1969, with only one child left at home, they moved to 320 East 58th Street in Manhattan. However, my younger sister apparently developed some problems while living in the city, and they decided to move to Connecticut in 1971.

In Connecticut, my father continued to decline. I think he may have been further demoralized when the family attended my wedding in Richmond, Indiana, on February 2, 1974. My father-in-law was relatively wealthy and hosted the kind of event that would have been beyond my father's means. A few weeks later, on March 15, he dropped off my younger sister at her job at a restaurant and said cryptically "You contributed." Later that day he picked up my mother, who was returning from work, at the train station. On the way home from the station he intentionally rammed a Volkswagen and continued on without stopping. At home he went down to the basement and shot himself in the head with a rifle that he had purchased at a local discount store. Luckily he didn't shoot anyone else.

My mother's life changed after that. She stayed in Connecticut initially but then moved back to Manhattan, where she lived in an apartment at 7 Park Avenue until she entered assisted living with Alzheimer's disease years later. During that period she took a course in word processing and subsequently worked for many years at the Sumitomo Bank. She was working in their office at the World Trade Center in 1993 when it was bombed but wasn't injured.

She maintained a few friendships from Pelham, Connecticut and Manhattan, but, as far as I know, had only one boyfriend during the remainder of her life. He was a wealthy Harvard graduate who had started his own market research firm and owned a brownstone on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and a summer house in Southampton, Long Island. When they met, his wife was still alive but was dying from cancer. His wife, I think, was an American who grew up in France. My mother was a good fit for him, because he liked European culture, and she was very attentive in a way that American women generally are not. He loved going to Paris and visiting the museums, and she often accompanied him. They were both extreme cheapskates, which added further to their compatibility.

My mother's most negative characteristics became pronounced toward the end of her life. Some of this may have had to do with the adoption of New York City behavior. She had always been a vocal critic, and "bastard" was one of her favorite words. When she went on a rant, she took no prisoners. It is difficult to say now how much of an effect she had on my father, but there is little doubt that she demoralized him significantly. He killed himself because he thought he was a failure. After my father's death, she did not play any role as the family leader. Rather than act as a unifying force, she used a divide and conquer tactic repeatedly. She always went behind people's backs and defamed them in a misguided attempt to strengthen her position. I think she got carried away drawing on her innate skill as a confidante. She never organized any family events, and when she called one child she always criticized the other two. The only family gatherings after 1974 were at my sisters' weddings in 1982 and 1994 and at my older sister's house after her marriage. I saw very little of her after 1974. I visited her in 1986 and 2003, and she visited me in 1981, 1987, 1992, 1993 and 2002. The 1992 and 1993 visits were probably because she had been excluded from her boyfriend's family and had nowhere else to go for Christmas. My younger sister arranged the 2002 visit. We spoke on the phone, but it was always her monologue. I don't think she understood me at all as an adult, nor was she genuinely interested.

Her invective was the most destructive I have ever heard, and she spared no one. When she had it in for me, she made clear that I had wasted my life, chosen a stupid career in printing and was stuck living in a godforsaken hick town where I didn't belong at all. She had little education, no understanding of business, no intellectual inclinations, and little to offer. The only career advice that she ever gave me was that I should become an engineer, and that was just because her brother was an electrical engineer. I became immunized to this over the years, and I think it has made me much stronger psychologically than most people. However, there was a cost to her, because she unnecessarily alienated a lot of people who thereafter became hostile toward her. Chief among them was her boyfriend's family, which effectively banned her as a potential spouse for their father. Because of this, instead of becoming a housewife with a successful businessman for a husband, she was treated more like a mistress and continued working in an uninteresting job until she was 75. It must be added, though, that this arrangement suited both of them. He paid her bills and she accumulated a large sum of money, and he was free to do whatever he liked most of the time. After my mother died, her boyfriend's attitude may have been revealed when, in 2010, at age 95, he was conned by an apparent Gypsy woman who disappeared with $350,000 of his money.

Although my mother was effervescent socially, and in that context most people loved her, she always had a miserly dark side. We didn't realize it at the time but, when my younger sister was married in 1994, Alzheimer's symptoms were starting to appear. My mother was livid about spending money on the wedding and went through an episode of unexplained crying. Later on there were major confrontations with my older sister, in which my mother would first offer to let my sister keep her silverware at her house, and then, for no reason, retract the offer and demand the silver back immediately. The last time I saw her was in 2003, when we visited her at her apartment. She had left her apartment door open and had become quite thin, apparently because she didn't buy groceries or cook. I think she must have eaten occasionally at restaurants, or perhaps someone gave her food, but she had forgotten her way around her neighborhood and didn't know where anything was. In 2004, she was sent fighting, screaming and cursing into assisted living, where she went into a rapid decline and died in 2007.

My view of my mother is neither negative nor positive. Many children have unrealistic expectations of their parents, whom they unreasonably expect to be omniscient, conscientious and caring at all times. At the instinctive level, my mother was fine: she raised three children who have met life's challenges satisfactorily. She was not at all intellectual and never read much, which limited how closely we could relate to each other when I reached adulthood. Living in the emotionally repressed Midwest for 40 years, I came to appreciate my mother's expressiveness and passion, which is something that I rarely encountered there. I also think that my mother was much stronger and more practical than my father, and she may have kept the family from disintegrating up until my father's death.

My sisters take a less charitable view of her, perhaps because they had more exposure to her as adults than I did, and they were more involved with her than I was during her Alzheimer's period. Moreover, there was a rivalry between my older sister and my mother that predated the later problems. I think both of my parents were pampered and immature when they married and neither was fully prepared for adult life, but then who is?


* * *

I hope the foregoing provides some sense of what my mother was like. Summarizing her life is much simpler than writing page after page of dialogue and developing a detailed plot, but it may be more difficult to relate to her in this pre-digested characterization. Besides simply writing a sketch about my mother, I am hoping to show something that seems missing to me in most literature.

4 comments:

  1. You might enjoy this: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/117146/inside-flannery-oconnors-universe

    I particularly like this from the article:

    "The ground of art is always in the particular. No use to talk to the novelist in abstract words like hate and love and greed and death and the "meaning of life." He will put the meaning of life in a story by showing you the way the old man takes out his false teeth at night and drops them into the glass on the table, or even the way he forgets to take them out and loses them in the bed clothes and sends them to the laundry by mistake."

    My experience vis-a-vis your opening paragraph are polar opposites, though your description of your mother reminds me in many ways of my own.

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    1. I had seen that article earlier and didn't find it conclusive one way or another. It seems like a rehash of what Tim Parks has been saying for a while in the NYRB: fiction depends on local culture and doesn't fare as well in globalized markets.

      To your point about the particular, that does add authenticity and makes for better writing. But in my post, I am referring to myself, and authenticity isn't enough. I have lived in stupid hick towns and observed the inhabitants carefully, and what they are about doesn't interest me much any more. I didn't find much merit in Flannery O'Connor, but liked Carson McCullers.

      My model writer is George Eliot, who met my requirements better than anyone else in "Middlemarch." The author of the article misrepresents her as a provincial, when in fact, intellectually speaking, she was as well informed as anyone writing novels during her lifetime. She was able to weave in an authentic portrayal of rural life, while being informed of the latest ideas in circulation among the intellectuals of her day.

      For me, and not necessarily for others, it is important to know what a well-informed person would do under the circumstances that arise in fiction, and I don't necessarily care what an uninformed person, rural or otherwise, might do in the same circumstances. Ultimately I am more interested in ideas than aesthetic experiences of words and colloquialisms, which seem to be what drive many readers of fiction.

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  2. As Ribeyro puts it somewhere or other, "escribir es inventar un autor a nuestra medida." That is: To write is to create an author made to (your) measure.

    John

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    1. I agree with Ribeyro (and always seem to). Probably under different circumstances I would be a writer myself, which might distract me from what I perceive as the inadequacies of other writers. But my point of view would be even less fashionable than Ribeyro's, and I would, like him, end up writing mainly for hypothetical readers.

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