The Ties that Bind

I am terrible at remembering birthdays, and sorry about it.  Really. 

Oddly, I am really good at remembering death dates.  Although I never knew my maternal grandmother, I always knew that she died on Dec. 31.  We never celebrated New Year’s Eve in my house.

My father left on Friday, Sept. 13; it would be hard to forget that.  This last anniversary, a month or so ago, was the 20th.  I thought about him, exchanged some emails with my sisters, and noted happily that The Abandoned One had changed his FB profile picture to one of the two of them — one 5 years old and one 80 — squeezed into a recliner and wearing coordinating red plaid shirts.  I wished, as I always do, that I had covered more ground with him.  And then I set to work for the rest of the day.

Today, Oct. 22, is a Saturday.  Because of that, it’s harder to put aside the fact that it is the 10th anniversary of my mother’s death.  It’s a beautiful day, a better one than the day she died.  I’m determined not to drown in work this weekend, as I have for the last several (it turns out that you can take the girl out of New York, but you can’t take NY out of the girl), so I have a list of stuff to do around the house.  Store my summer shoes and get the boots out.  Organize the bathroom closet and drawers.  Wash the windows.

I finish my coffee while updating my FB status.  I make mom’s picture my profile and I wonder what she would have thought about me living in Alabama.  Silly.  If she had lived, she’d be in her late 90s.  There’s no way I would have moved to Alabama.

I summon Mr. NYer.  He joins me, but I can tell he doesn’t think there’s a pressing need to clean windows.  He doesn’t object, though, because he’s happy to see me doing something other than work.  I know the windows need  to be cleaned — we’ve been in this house over a year and have never touched them.  My mother would die … well, she would disapprove.

I know this with certainty.  When my middle sister’s first son was born — a full year after she had moved into her new house —  my mother went there to help out for a week or so.  Mom took care of household chores so my sister could take care of her new baby.  She laundered and ironed my brother-in-law’s shirts.  She dusted, vacuumed, and cleaned the refrigerator.  She made dinner.  Having taken care of the basics, she decided to wash the windows.  Taking down the curtains, she discovered manufacturer’s labels still affixed to the glass.  I don’t remember whether my mother actually told me this herself (which would have been rare — she didn’t tell tales and almost never complained about one child to another) or whether my sister did, after my mother made it clear that this wasn’t how she had been raised.

These are the kinds of things one thinks about when setting out to do those chores that you learned to do in childhood and that you do infrequently enough that they don’t become routine.  They unleash memories.  We lived in a three-story house in Brooklyn, where my mother’s bi-annual “general cleaning” included a death-defying window routine.  It required her to raise the lower sash as high as she could, poke her head and upper body out of the open window, turn around and ease herself onto the sill. There she sat, her legs inside the room and the  rest of her outside.  As if this wasn’t bad enough to the child inside the room terrified that mommy was  going to fall way way down, she then lowered the sash until it hit her  thighs, and proceeded to wash the outside.  Passersby would scold  her for doing something so dangerous.  This was  before tilt-in windows.

She liked to have the antiseptic sun streaming into the house through sparkling glass.  Her attitude towards clean windows was almost theological — it was what the moral code required, like going to church and taking communion.  Letting them get dirty was akin to avoiding confession. She was a fervent believer in the adage that cleanliness was next to godliness.

I had thought that the window cleaning, like being at work, would keep me busy enough to avoid the thoughts that percolate up every year on this day.  But they are inevitable.  As I assembled the window-cleaning supplies, I looked at the clock and thought, She was probably leaving the library now, on her way to Top Tomato.

A little later, This is around the time I got the phone call. … By now, I was in the town car I’d called and picking up my sister at her office downtown.  … By now, we were talking to the trauma doc. …

So mom was on my mind as I sprayed Windex and scrunched up the paper towels.  Rubbing in circles on a pane, I thought about the fact that I am a thousand miles away and I have not visited her grave since leaving NY.  I feel guilty and I think, “Well, I’m honoring my mother by cleaning windows today.  It’s appropriate. She’d be happy.”

And that’s when I started bawling, surprised by the emotion that hadn’t been there five minutes ago.  I realized that I didn’t want to honor  her by cleaning windows, or think that was what it meant to know her. Is that really what she wanted? 

I remembered the line from her obituary that I had thought was perfect, a bit tongue-in-cheek and yet, oh so true!  I had remarked to the reporter that mom could have written a book about cleaning.  My sister (same one) didn’t like it.  It was okay to joke privately about mom and cleaning; but not in the obit. 

Or maybe she realized that our mother’s cleaning wasn’t really the defining part of her;  maybe my sister had already decided — long ago — that she would honor mom in some way other than by cleaning windows well. (Doing it well was important — “Make sure you get in the corners, and keep turning the paper so that you’re using a clean surface. If the sun is on the window, you’ll have streaks.”)

Was this the choice?  Relive the day in my head or evoke her by doing what she did almost constantly? (I mean cleaning and chores in general, of course.  She didn’t do windows constantly.)  I never like to think about the other path — Asking myself what I would have  said to her if I’d had the chance?  What did I miss saying to her?  What did she miss telling me about herself?  That’s just pointless.

And what was it about the cleaning?  All my mother’s three sisters shared the mania to some extent.  They talked  about how well their mother — the grandmother whose too-early death ruined New Year’s Eve 15 years before I was born — did everything well.  She sewed their clothes, knitted, crocheted, did embroidery, ran the house, cooked dishes from the Old Country that they had no idea how to recreate.  And, I imagine, she had high standards of cleanliness.  They had to have picked it up somewhere.  In their narrative, none of them matched her, but each did one or two things well.  Mom cleaned, crocheted,and managed a household masterfully.  Aunt Alice cleaned well, too, and was also,  according to my mother, the better cook.  Aunt Anna knit better than mom, and cooked well too.  Aunt Phyl sewed, and was a happy soul, the way they said my grandmother had been. 

And then, for the first time in my life — can you imagine? — it occurred to me that, like me, my mother probably thought of her mother when she cleaned, cooked and knitted.  Did she do those things so fervently to connect with her mother?  With the clarity that comes only when you’ve been stupidly blind, I realized that, of course she did. 

I used  to get angry with my mother for never having time for me because she had chores to do.  After dinner, my father would take us for a summer drive while Mom stayed home, cleaned up after dinner and then took up items from her mending pile (and probably got the only peace of the day!)  One of the two vacations we took when I was a child was without Mom — my father took my his three daughters to a cottage colony in Sullivan County.  My grandfather’s failing vision meant that he could not be left alone; Mom stayed home to take care of him.

Today I realized, in a way I hadn’t before, that the care-taking was a way for her to massage her loss and be close to her mother.  It was, as well,  in her mind the best way for her to take care of us as well.  The honor and love were expressed in duty and went both ways, up to her parents and down to us. 

My mother became more human to me today.  Which means I miss her even more.

By this time, we were in her house, making phone calls. 

 In just a few more hours, it will be Oct. 23.