I was walking down 42nd Street in New York City last week and I suddenly missed my Mother.
That was strange, on so many levels.
First of all, my Mother never went to New York. She loved Musicals, but only when done by MGM in the 1950’s, She always talked about going to New York to see a live show, but never did. She preferred a controlled environment- preferably one controlled by herself. She instinctively knew, New York, in reality, was not for her.
She didn’t like to travel or go places that challenged her points of reference. She liked to keep her world small, controllable and peopled with people she knew who were as much like her as possible.
She would not have liked New York….
She loved the glitz and polish MGM gave to New York and had no wish to see the reality. To her, there was the MGM New York of “On the Town” and other movies of the 1950’s. That was the New York she wanted to see. Not the New York she saw on the news. Not the real New York. She much preferred the movies on the Turner Network, shot on the MGM back lot in the 1950’s. She really had no interest in the reality of an energetic, multicultural and diverse real New York of today.
I loved the MGM films she introduced me to but, even as a child, they didn’t seem real. I think I always really liked the Warner Brothers version of New York better. The one I saw on the 4 o’clock “Dialing for Dollars” set in the 1930’s. I always liked “The Gold Diggers of 1933” or the movie of “42nd Street” with a grittier New York. Movies where it was clear if no one put on a show soon, the Chorus Girls were going to have to become Hookers. It was much more real.
I knew, even then, reality was an important concept….
But reality really wasn’t very appealing to her….
I thought of all this last week in New York as I walked down 42nd Street on the way to the theatre again. I recalled a time a few years ago when I was walking down that same street in New York when my cell phone went off. It was my Mother, Lou, who launched right in….
Lou: “They came to install my new dryer today and, for some reason, some code or something, the vent doesn’t work and they won’t hook it up. You need to come up here and straighten this out. Can you come up here tomorrow?”
Me: “Lou, I’m in New York.”
Lou: “What are you doing there? That place is so dangerous; you have no business there. You need to get back here and fix this dryer thing. I need to wash clothes.”
Me: “I’m walking down 42nd Street to see a show at an off-Broadway theatre. I have a business meeting tomorrow and I’ll be back in Greensboro in a couple of days. I’ll call you then.”
Lou: “You are on 42nd Street! That’s where the drug dealers, prostitutes and homosexuals hang out. It’s very dangerous there. You need to go to your hotel and stay there until your meeting and get out of there as soon as possible. It’s just not safe there. I can’t believe you are walking down 42nd Street in New York by yourself…”
Me: “How do you know so much about 42nd Street? And by the way, you are about 20 years out of date. It’s all owned by Disney now and it’s just like when we went to Disney World in Orlando when I was a kid. There are people with children in strollers all over the damn place. It’s disgustingly safe now. Unfortunately”
Lou: ” I saw all about it on Fox News. It’s a cesspool. All those foreigners and criminals and drug addicts. You don’t know what you are doing. You really need to just get home and help me fix these dryer issues. No one cares about me.”
Sadly, this was a repeat of a conversation we had had many times….It was always all about what she needed someone to do for her…
I have probably been to New York 30 or 40 times. I know and love New York. I take the subway, eat in places the locals eat and look down on the tourists like a native. But my Mother would never trust my judgement or experiences or really care about them. She never had and never would.
She believed what she believed in the context of her small town, Southern world: New York was dangerous because it wasn’t homogenized and predictable. People didn’t play the same game in the City and she never played outside her comfort zone.
I remember talking to her right before my partner, Steve, and I made one of our first trips to New York together, early in our relationship. She did not think it was a good idea. I told her, again, that I had been before, that New York was safe and that Steve and I were going to be together the whole time, so I wouldn’t be alone.
She looked at me with her meanest, hardest Southern Baptist Church Lady expression and said: “You never know what might happen in New York.”
Knowing her and her subtext, that sentence said so much. She meant that as a warning. She was also implying our relationship was illegitimate, open to corruption and that we would probably end up having kinky sex in some underground sex club with hundreds of strangers. At least that’s how I saw her envisioning it….based on her Fox News perspective.
She also thought that all Black people and all Gay people knew each other. She was convinced that since there were so few of us in her world, it only made sense….
So she then said: “I hope you aren’t going to see that Harvey Fierstein person. He’s just awful. So obvious….I saw him on television. It will ruin your reputation if you hang out with people like that…”
She didn’t know we would just go to some shows, museums and have a few drinks at piano bars. I always said, I sometimes wish I had had the wild times so many people thought I did….
Well, we did see Harvey at a table at the FireBird during a show on that trip, so….
A few years later, my partner Steve was having one of his plays read in New York at the Schomburg Institute in Harlem. We took the subway uptown and got off in Harlem and I immediately whipped out my cell phone.
Steve said: “Who are you calling?”
Me: “My Mother. I have to tell her I’m in Harlem. If 42nd Street freaked her out a few years ago, this will really put her over the edge. I can’t miss the chance to tell her I’m in Harlem!”
She didn’t answer, so I left a message: “Lou, I just wanted to check in. I’m in Harlem. In New York in Harlem. You know, where the Black People like Lena Horne live….I’ll call you when I get home or you can call me back on my cell.”
She didn’t call back….
I thought for sure she would and we would go back and forth and she would say crazy things and I would feel good for having escaped all that…
But she didn’t call back…
I was surprised and a little annoyed, but soon forgot it as we had a great time in the City the next few days…
I remembered the message when I got home and called her to see if she missed it and we might be able to have a delayed fight, uh, conversation….
Me: “I just got back from New York and wanted to check on you. Did you get my message? Are you okay?”
Lou: “I got your message. I’ve just given you up to the Lord. I don’t know what you might do next. It’s beyond my control. I don’t feel good. I have a head cold and no one comes to see me or cares about me anymore. Have I told you about…..”
Translation: “Giving you up to the Lord” is the Southern Baptist way of saying “I’m not dealing with you anymore.” And she went on to stories about my sister and nephew and her world in small town Virginia. It was clear that nothing mattered to her anymore outside that world.
She was shrinking her world to a place she could control it and understand it. She was shutting out anything that was outside her sphere of reference or that she couldn’t control.
She was instinctively, I think, preparing for the final battle.
That was when first I realized I was losing my Mother….or that she had left me behind so she could go on.
You have to understand, that my Mother lived to fight. She would take on anyone and everyone who got in the way of what she wanted or she thought was right-no matter how idiotic the battle.
Surrender was not in her vocabulary, but here she was giving up….
Like most Southern women of her generation, she was a great actress who manipulated men-including me- to get what she couldn’t get for herself.
I had seen her use everything from convenient tears to the Bible to get her way. She was a fighter. A dirty, below the belt fighter. She was the last of the great Southern Belles and she was suddenly not using all the massive tools, honed over a lifetime, at her disposal.
Something was not right…
But she had always had an instinct for self-preservation…
I think that may have been when she had her first mini-stroke and that was the first sign of her vascular dementia.
She was slipping into the madness of dementia, but I didn’t know it then…I was just pissed that I had lost my sparring partner.
My Mother no longer knows who I am. I am a stranger to her…
I realized this last year when I went to see her at her Assisted Living home.
I walked into her room and she used her best manners to receive me. That was the first clue something was wrong. Over the last few years, her usual greeting was to tell me I had gained weight or she hated my haircut…instead, it when like this:
Lou: “So nice to see you.” Confused pause. ” Are you married?”
Me: “No. Don’t you remember? We can’t get married. It’s not legal.”
I was hoping that would get her going…
Lou: ” So you are single. Do you make a lot of money?”
That’s when I realized she had no idea who I was and was looking at me as potential next-husband material to spring her from the Assisted Living joint. I must say, it is extremely unsettling to realize you are being hit on by your Mother who doesn’t know who you are….
That’s when I really knew she was gone. My Mother may still be technically alive, but “Lou” was gone….
And I suddenly realized I missed her….for purely selfish reasons.
Fighting my Mother had given a balance to my life. It had been a defined, predictable part of my life for so many years that it was a dynamic I took for granted and, subconsciously, I relished.
Our battles were legendary and epic….
I was every bit as strong and unprincipled as her in our battles. We both prepared for our fights like champions and fought ferociously to win our points.
Her surrender upset the balance of my life in ways I am still adjusting to….
It’s like when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed…
All my life, she had tried to make me become a plastic leading man in a MGM version of life in a small town while I had really been a more complex Warner Brothers character actor trying to find the reality of and embracing life on a gritty, real 42nd Street.
And the question had suddenly become: How do you fight when your longterm foe surrenders? When you suddenly realize you have made parts of your own world small and petty so you can fight on their terms?
In a sudden, guilty awareness, you realize you are free….You don’t have to fight those battles anymore…you can let so many things go…..
And you have so much more positive energy you didn’t realize you were missing…
But you still feel a little guilty…
But you are free….
That’s the most important thought in your mind….
I thought of all this as I walked down 42nd Street in New York City last week. I thought of that last phone call on 42nd Street all those years ago and the fun of upsetting her…
And I missed her….
I thought of the battles won and lost….
I thought of how she was such a strange, often unhealthy, but always challenging dynamic in my life…
And I realized again that I missed her. Probably more than I had until that moment….
Fighting her had made me strong, made me think, made me survive….
It had made me really become me…
I have survived her. I have grown my world and my mind in ways that would have scared the hell out of her. I am free in so many ways that she never was or, in reality wanted to be…
That may not have been her intent, but it worked out that way…
So, goddammit, I won….
And that was the last thought I had before I walked into that theatre on 42nd Street last week….
And let it all go….