My mother emerges from the chrysalis of wifedom.
By Cynthia Kaplan
A couple of Thanksgivings ago, while my 80-something father, my husband, my brother, his wife, and our assorted teenaged children slumped on the living room sofas in a post-dinner fugue state, my mother cornered me in the foyer. She spoke in a low, ominous tone, just above a whisper, as though she were proposing the kind of large-scale drug deal that takes place in an empty airplane hangar.
“I need you to take a look at the jewelry and tell me what you want.”
“When?” I asked.
Now, there is jewelry looking and there is jewelry looking. My maternal grandmother, Lillian, was an advocate of the former. Every childhood visit to her white-carpeted Florida apartment included a complete inventory of cocktail rings in the shapes of flowers and snakes, bangles to be worn in stacks with cunning three-quarter-sleeve jackets, and earrings with garnets or topaz that could choke a medium-sized dog. The selection, laid out on my grandmother’s bed, never varied, yet I was thrilled every time, particularly by the grand finale, a gold and ruby encrusted necklace and bracelet set straight out of The Borgias.
“One day,” she would say with glee, “this will be yours.”
My mother and I partook of no such activities. Her jewelry was boringly tasteful, and I had plenty of other things to do at home, such as memorize the lyrics to “American Pie” and bake inedible cakes in my Easy Bake Oven. The only time I saw my mother’s jewelry was on her actual body or when I sat on her bed on a Saturday night and watched her dress to go out. She kept everything in soft leather cases, lined up like sleeping dachshunds in her top dresser drawer, and while she took the hot curlers out of her hair I would open them, unzipping each pouch to feel the cool metal links of her bracelets and snapping and unsnapping the long leather noodles that held her rings.
There was only one reason I could imagine that might incite an emergency viewing of this bounty, so when I got home, I put our Thanksgiving leftovers in the freezer and called my father.
“What’s wrong with Mom?” I asked.
“I can’t tell you or she’ll kill me.”
This was just the response I was hoping for. While my mother will take a secret to her grave, my father never met one he couldn’t spill.
“She’s got a little thing.”
“What kind of thing?” I asked.
“A thing. We’re waiting for some tests to come back. She doesn’t want you to know.”
“You can ask her yourself about it, but don’t tell her you heard it from me.”
I did ask her, and she said she was fine. Of course, my mother uses the word “fine” as a synonym for an assortment of moods and conditions, up to but not including death. Just like there’s jewelry looking and jewelry looking, there’s fine and there’s fine.
“I have a little thing,” she said. “Don’t tell anyone.”
Every few years now my mother has the impression that Death may be imminent. Either hers or my father’s. She does not share her concern with us but instead issues a flurry of tense directives. Arrangements must be made! These include, of course, the future ownership of her jewelry, and the question of who wants the plug pulled and when (my mother, immediately if not sooner; my father, Not so fast, mister!). There is also a list of further directives written in her looping, illegible cursive on college ruled paper and stowed in her night table drawer. My father is mostly concerned we will be able to decipher the Alan Turing-worthy enigma of his many and varied computer passwords: the grandkids’ birthdays in chronological order and in reverse chronological order. Mom’s birthday with two asterisks. Their anniversary plus their birthdays minus something he doesn’t remember.
There is little warning for these occasional forays into estate planning. One reason for this is that my mother’s code of parental ethics includes not troubling one’s children with sad and sorry tales. Another is that both of my parents are old-school hush-hush about mortality. Someone had a procedure, maybe a smidgeon of surgery, a pinch of cancer? Why should everyone worry? Who wants to make a thousand phone calls?
A week later we knew. They’d examined the thing, and she was going to be fine.
“Do you still want me to look at your jewelry?” I asked her.
“I guess it can wait.”
I called my brother, whom I had secretly told about the thing.
“The death is off for now,” I said.
This past Thanksgiving, once again, my mother pulled me aside. “I’d like you to take me to look at cemeteries.”
It turned out that my mother’s interest in purchasing graves for my father and herself, unlike the viewing of her jewelry, stemmed, for once, from a well-founded foreboding. In three weeks, my father would go into the hospital to have a Thing with a capital T removed. This latest Thing was potentially dire. My mother was admirably composed while we awaited test results and contended with the prospect of unexpected complications.
“There’s a cascade effect,” said my mother. “You go in for some big problem, and they fix it, maybe. Either way it gives birth to other problems, some that were there already and get worse, or brand new ones. Your father isn’t young.”
Someone should tell all the old people they don’t have to say they aren’t young.
You might wonder how it is that two old Jews never got around to getting cemetery plots. For now, chalk it up to the fact that my father, despite his various infirmities, doesn’t think he needs one. He wants to be cremated and have his ashes sprinkled on a golf course or on the sidewalk in front of a Nathan’s hot dog stand. My mother has another theory.
“He doesn’t think he is ever going to die.”
My father has a thousand doctors for this express purpose. Paradoxically, my mother seems to have outrun death thus far by having no doctors at all.
Willowbrook, Ferncliff, Woodlawn. The names of the cemeteries my mother suggested were practically identical to the names of the all-girls summer camps she and my father took me to see the summer after I turned eight. This was just the kind of disconcerting switcheroo people say occurs as our parents age and we become involved in their care. And yet, the conjuring of happy times playing field sports on a verdant Maine camp-scape added an unseemly excitement to the prospect of touring green spaces. Then my mother said she’d like to be buried (stowed?) in a mausoleum. A simple, engraved marble square on a wall of other marble squares might be nice. Preferably Carrera, like the kitchen counters on Martha Stewart’s old TV show. Ah, well.
One morning, however, before the field trip was to commence, the phone rang. At 5:15 a.m. Anyone who knows my family or knows some Jews knows they don’t call each other outside the hours of 7:30 a.m. and 10:30 p.m. Crack of dawn and dark of night are strictly reserved for ill-tidings.
“I’m at New York-Presbyterian, in the emergency room. Dad woke up in the middle of the night delirious, and I had to call the ambulance.”
I got dressed in the dark and told my husband I’d call him when I knew anything. I got in a taxi. My cell phone rang.
“It’s on 71st and York.”
When I got to the hospital I walked through the waiting room and the triage area. My mother was standing by the entrance to the nurse’s station.
She led the way to my father, who lay on a gurney in a narrow, glass-walled room, hooked up to a variety of tubes. He was asleep, or unconscious, I wasn’t sure which, and very pale. I put my hand on his forehead. “Hi, Pop,” I said.
“The doctor has been wonderful,” said my mother. “He’s young. Thank God someone is.”
“What happened?” I asked.
Basically, he didn’t take to the chemo, developed an infection, and now he had sepsis.
“They’ve asked me if Dad has a do-not-resuscitate order.”
“No. He wants them to do everything they can to save him. Listen,” she said, “when my time comes, no tubes, no machines, no nothing. Just set me on an ice floe and push.”
“You got it.”
“And while we’re on the subject,” said my mother, “he’s not getting cremated.”
Just when I thought I had a handle on the directives, came this whopper.
Over my father’s prostrate body, I defended his right to determine his own, post-mortem future.
“Nope,” said my mother. “It’s my turn to decide.”
This was irrefutable. She has earned a say in her future. She has always been a feminist at heart but not necessarily in practice. She applied her practical abilities and intellectual rigor to raising two children and supporting her husband through the highs and occasional lows of running a small business. I believe her when she tells me she has no (well, few) regrets—she was a product of her time—but I have always believed her gifts were not put to full use as a mother, housewife, and helpmate. My mother possesses the rare ability to be both pragmatic and kind when everything is going to hell, and she would have been an excellent social worker or first responder. She also would have made a terrific lawyer, possibly personal injury, because she can really hold a grudge.
The truth is that my mother is not that concerned about her dachshunds of jewelry. She knows I don’t even want them. I wear earrings from Claire’s and a silver ring made for me by a friend and tied to a piece of black string around my neck. I’m not even sure my mother cares that much where she is buried, so long as it’s not with her in-laws. Rather, she is making her wishes known, in all the ways she can, that when the time comes, when it all goes to Hell, puh puh puh, everyone will be alright, and everything will be in its place. Including her and my father. And, if she says that she does not intend to lay in the cold hard ground/marble drawer alone, so be it.
I take back what I said about respecting my father’s wishes. My mother has emerged from the chrysalis of wifedom, and I am brimming with pride.
A few days after we bring him home from the hospital, I lay on the bed with my father, looking at animal videos on YouTube, while my mother is in the kitchen making us grilled cheese sandwiches. We watch one with fainting goats and laugh. These are the goats that when you frighten or surprise them, their legs become rigid and they fall over onto their sides or backs. Moments later, they hop back up, as though nothing happened. Sure, it’s a metaphor, and you could say my father is the goat.
But you’d be wrong.
Cynthia Kaplan C’85 is the author of two books of essays, some films, and a bit of TV. You can find her at www.cynthiakaplan.com. Her father is Jack B. Kaplan W’53.