May 2, 2002
My Mommy Dearest
As an unintended consequence of writing this column, I am in my mother's dog house. I have reported in these pages on my own failings, my father's shortcomings, my sister's eccentricities, the foibles of two cousins and the generally bad behavior of several friends. To date, however, my only reference to my own mother has been that she thinks ski clothes make you look fat.
"That woman," as we lovingly refer to her, has thus far escaped my journalistic opprobrium, and she is deeply disappointed. She hates to think that there is a party going on somewhere and her invitation got lost in the mail. She is hurting for ink. I want to do right by her. She is, after all, my mother, and I've known her practically all my life.
I could paint a caricature of her as a Jewish mother stepping out of a Woody Allen movie or a Philip Roth novel, complaining and controlling in equal doses, but that's too easy. Many jokes have been made about these people, but I don't think they are funny. Not one bit. I am going to delete all those e-mails, and so should you.
My mother does not disapprove of things. She is much, much better than that. She doesn't have to say a word. Instead, she gives "The Face," which consists of several muscle groups working together -- lips purse, nostrils flare, eyebrows arch, eyes widen and brow furrows. All of these happen instantaneously and simultaneously when something is "not right," often accompanied by a telling nod of the head, the kind one might use at Sotheby's. My sister swears she once saw mom raise her right eyebrow completely over the back of her head. Anything is possible with that woman.
The Face brooks no disagreement. The Face is not open to appeal. Save your breath, Perry Mason. Tell it to the hand, because The Face ain't listening.
I'd love to get her in a poker game.
I am not necessarily seeking my mother's approval but, much as I hate to admit it, The Face turns out to be right a disproportionate percentage of the time. Like 97 percent. The problem is that she seems to be getting right more often as I get older -- and I know she ain't getting any hipper. The only good news is that everyone I've talked to about this says their mother (or wife) has a Face. If misery loves company, I take solace in knowing I am not alone.
She's getting better, sort of. My sister was house hunting recently and mom went along. They saw a dozen places, one of which was a possibility. Julie asked her opinion. "I don't want to be judgmental," she began.
"You? Now? For 40 consecutive years you were remarkably free with your opinion. I didn't necessarily want to hear it -- in fact I never wanted to hear it -- but now that I'm asking for your opinion in a life-altering situation, you suddenly don't want to be judgmental?"
You will believe me when I tell you she's a bit of a nut job, but a loveable one (think of Gracie Allen). Mom let Keith Richards try on one of her diamond earrings at a dinner. Today, my mother gave me a can of chicken broth and a mango. She practically threw them at me as I beat a hasty retreat to my car and yelled, "We have chicken broth in the 323 area code, mother!"
I recently met a friend who had just come from seeing the ballet. I told him, "I don't get the ballet. It's not like a basketball game; no one is trying to stop them. There's no opposition; there's no enemy." My friend took a moment and explained that, "the enemy is ugliness. The opposition is gracelessness. Look around you."
Ballanchine famously said, "Ballet is women," but I think he specifically meant my mother. My mother is the ballet. She is graciousness personified. Her political platform is beauty. Her religion is kindness. You don't want to challenge that woman to a gracious face-off. She writes thank-you notes to people who send her thank-you notes. She has been known to give presents to people on her birthday.
She is the first to arrive when someone is in the hospital, armed with flowers and a smile. If someone passes away, she shows up like Mary Poppins, with a platter from Nate 'n' Al's. She is an army of one, a friend in need and in deed.
A friend of hers has Alzheimer's disease. It is, of course, a terrible thing to see this person deteriorate. Mom turned to me and said, "if it comes to that, please shoot me."
"Okay," I said, nonchalantly. "I'm free around 3 o'clock."