It's Sunday, an early Mother's Day, and a mean cold front has blown through New Jersey leaving us in a chilly funk. When the seas beyond Sandy Hook get rough, ring-billed gulls come up to the lake for a breather while the vultures hunker down in their thick trees. It's supposed to freeze up here tonight. Oh joy. Mothers aren't supposed to worry about unregulated electronic trading or Greece's national debt, Pakistani terrorist camps or crude oil spreading across the Gulf of Mexico. Mothers' worries stay close to home -- can I feed my children? Do they have a place to sleep tonight? How will they survive in a world as cold as this one? She looks out at the garden, riotous green after three weeks of uncommon warmth, hydrangeas blooming, even a day-lily showing its first flower, the weedy lawn so thick it cannot be cut with a hand mower. She thinks to herself, how will any of them survive if I'm not here to look after them? As the poet told us, a mother is an infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing, marked for high purpose, every mother a doomed queen.
I remember when a bunch of us got together in the basement with our mikes and amps, our tape deck and guitars. Oh mercy mercy mercy. D. took a long drag on some bad shite and coughed up a little post-adolescent wisdom, "Effin music is the mother of us all." Pass me the gin, dear. We tried to make a song out of a James Agee poem, the same overly sensitive and self-destructive American writer who penned "A Mother's Tale," about a calf listening to its mama tell an apochryphal story featuring The Man With The Hammer. You think they're still teaching that one in school, poot? We tried switching from D minor to A minor so the fellas could sing high harmony but it just wasn't working. Instead, we started in on Yeats. Shy one, shy one, shy one of my heart. She moves in the firelight, pensively apart. Upstairs, mom was making ice tea and listening to us wail. She carries in the dishes and lays them in a row. To an isle in the water, with her would I go. We were her boys, so we couldn't do one wrong thing in that house. Lemme tell you what compassion is, poot. It ain't cooing over cute puppies. It's a sick mother suffering through her teen-age son's raging hormones, self-absorption, and eventual leave-taking without complaint. Maybe she knew who we were singing our love songs to even if we didn't.
My mother embarrassed me. She would let people cut ahead of her on line, she drove too slow, she wore ugly shoes, she was a housewife. She let my father make the big decisions, content to go along for the sake of the family. It's hard to imagine how many dozens -- hundreds -- of small sacrifices she made each day for her boys. She had no voice but she knew how to harmonize. And I took her for a mouse.
My mother died in 1974. I don't visit her grave and have a devil of a time remembering her features. When I look at old photographs her face looks like it belongs to someone else. Those photos are not her. Occasionally I'll hear her laugh when I'm in the theater and it'll make me cast a quick furtive glance around to see where it came from, but I've never found out. So what. The other day at lunch I ordered a meat loaf sandwich on rye at some Greek joint in midtown. Gravy on the side, along with cole slaw and a couple of slices of pickle. The meat loaf was dry as dust so I poured some ketchup on it and took a bite. There I was, tasting my mother's meat loaf all over again, after nearly forty intervening years, and I almost choked on it. I flushed and went momentarily dizzy.
Go on, poot, laugh at me, roll your eyes, call me a poor man's Proust, I don't care. I never doubted my mother's love for a single second. Sometimes I believe it is only the strength of her love that has enabled me to survive for as long as I have, almost against my will, on this cold planet, far too cold to hold her any more.