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.