Monday, August 4, 2008

Exploratory Soul Surgery

The elderly mother of a childhood friend died over the weekend, and I went to the reception/wake that was held for her. I hadn't spoken with my friend for a couple of years, partly because she moved out to Arizona, and partly because when she did come home to visit she always wanted to reconnect with 20-30 friends at the same time, in a celebrity/paparazzi kind of gathering, which, in my opinion, isn't really about reconnecting with any of those people - it's about stroking an ego and feeding an exhibitionist's jones for attention. Maybe I'm just inflexible, but I just can't stoke that bonfire of vanity.

Walking into that house took me back to 10 years old. I instinctively looked to see if there was still a curtain by the entrance to the screened porch to hide behind. The energy of her life, the deceased, was still palpable in every room, or maybe it was just my vivid memories. I stood testament to so much in that house. A stream of folks wandered in and out of the reception. I recognized some, but others were too transformed by time for me to easily recognize them. The big elephant in the house that day was the absence of my friend, at her mother's memorial. Her older sister made excuses for her absence, explaining she had to attend a yoga workshop out west, but her rolling eyes added an editorial I understood too well.

The story, the dynamics that set this scene in motion, go much deeper than a simple power struggle. Despite having several sisters, my friend was, in many ways, an only child. She was a post-40 Whoops child, and her sisters were all but grown up and out of the house when she came along, so she enjoyed and suffered the full brunt of her mother's attention and neglect. Her mother was a very bright woman, both academically and artistically, but she was also extremely competitive and often angry at the world around her. Her marriage broke up when my friend was about 3 or 4 and she never remarried, choosing to live and raise her youngest daughter alone.

I don't think I can effectively summarize the myriad stories of my childhood that played out at their house, that are part and parcel of my friend's no-show. Some are good stories. Little girls playing dress up with a box of antique petticoats, riding side saddle on almost as antique Schwinn bicycles, transformed by imagination into glorious steeds. Dazzling late night parties peopled by local celebrities and politicians, where we were introduced as a pair of precocious princesses, and oh, how we loved to play the part! I enjoyed a rarified upbringing in that house, exposed to books, art, theatre, politics, and the then burgeoning feminist movement, and I owe all of that to my friend's mother. But there are darker stories of her influence as well.

Some are downright nightmares; cataclysmic storms of misplaced rage, apathetic neglect of both her child and her home. In my mind images of spacious rooms with elegant furnishings; a baby grand piano in a room full of windows, antique portraits of ancestors hung above family heirlooms, are juxtaposed against images of a refrigerator full of spoiled food, a basement crawling with almost sentient mold, and a woman whose variable moods and deadly temper made me grateful for my own batshit crazy parents, and the fact I could go home at 5 o'clock. We were never quite sure what would tip her off; a dirty towel on the floor, a broken ashtray, but we knew, once she got going it wasn't going to end until someone was shredded and in tears.

My friend told me once about a bad experience she had while partying - that she had all these really traumatic images of her mother and her grandmother boil up and she couldn't tell where it had come from. She thought it had all been a product of her inebriation, but as she described the images to me, I was horrified. They weren't fabrications, they were suppressed memories of her childhood. I knew what they were because I had been present for many of them, and it is not my luck in life that I can forget, though I wished I had, so I could have feigned ignorance for her sake.

I can't say with authority why my friend wasn't there at that memorial/wake/reception. All I can tell you is what I know of what came before, and even then, I feel like there is a ghost who wants to shut my mouth.

13 comments:

thailandchani said...

Given all you've said, I can understand why she wasn't there, too. I wouldn't have been.

~*

hele said...

A powerfully told story. I can't help but hope that your friend found a measurement of peace at her yoga retreat that she might not have found at the memorial.

catnip said...

Life is messy indeed. I can only hope she didn't attend out of strength of conviction rather than fear and fragility. Well written.

flutter said...

((you)) oh, girl

liv said...

you have a gift for telling that story. it was swirling and visceral at the same time.

Kelley said...

"Maybe I'm just inflexible, but I just can't stoke that bonfire of vanity."

Best. Line. Ever.

Sorry about the rest though. Sounds like you weren't really in a better place than I was...! Here's a hug for you...

Maggie, Dammit said...

Amazing, that's what I think.

There's no stranger feeling than being present at a funeral for someone you aren't sure you mourn; you've captured that nebulous feeling perfectly.

Chanda (aka Bea) said...

Hele said something that made me think a little more about why "she" didn't show up for the memorial. Perhaps she did use that Yoga retreat to make peace, say her good bye, and mourn in her own way. Who's to say you have to be "there" to be present

FairiesNest said...

Well written kid! Yeah I remember too...nuff said.

Vodka Mom said...

That was very, very well written. :-)

Ben & Bennie said...

Holy shit!!! I don't know whether to cry, put my fist through a wall, or applaud. Look for some linky love for this post!

Ben & Bennie said...

Dammit! I lost your e-mail. E-mail me at benwaddell@bellsouth.net.

I have a "flavor" to ask.

Gypsy said...

This was wonderfully written. Deep, insightful, dark. Loved it.