Our Lady of 231st Part II
So, there my mother was in Elmhurst, an elegant grocer’s wife, taking her children in to Manhattan weekly for music lessons, where we were always on scholarship with the best teachers (my mother did her research). My sister was a violinist, I a pianist. She took us to concerts to hear the greats (Carnegie Hall, at which I had performed at age 4, became our second home), Broadway shows (my first was “Lost in the Stars”, a Kurt Weill musical about apartheid in South Africa), and, in the summer, the concerts at Lewisohn Stadium on the grounds of City College, where I fell in love with Leonard Bernstein. My mother befriended an usher, who would see to it that we had seats up close to the performers, rather than the bleachers seats we had paid for, and after the concerts, she would manage to find a way for us to go backstage and meet the musicians. I became adept, through my mother’s tutelage, at wangling invitations to their homes, so that they could hear my sister and I play. I even managed, to my mother’s delight, to secure an invitation to the Park Avenue home of Leonard Bernstein and his wife, Felicia Montenegro, who graciously listened to us, and served us tea.
My father, a homebody, had no interest in joining us for these events, so it was the unholy trio of me, my mother and my sister who attended them. They were wonderful romps that we all enjoyed. We knew the names of all the musicians, classical and jazz, and could sing all the Broadway tunes. At night, before we owned a television, we would gather around the piano, where my mother would play show tunes, and she, my sister and I would sing, as my father joyfully listened. To this day, I have no great love for TV, as it really ruined that part of my home life.
My mother had a hard time separating from my sister and me as we grew into adolescence and started living our own lives with our own friends and boyfriends. We had been her playmates, and now she was home with my father, who was content to come home from work, watch the news and a few shows on TV, and go to bed at 9PM. I remember the moment that I knew that my mother was no longer in love with my father. We were taking a bus back from Far Rockaway to Elmhurst, and, descending the bus stairs at a rest stop, my mother, following up on a conversation we must have been having, said to me, “It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man.” My stomach lurched…she had never said anything like that before…and I knew. She tried working at a few sales jobs in department stores but, for one reason or another, they didn’t work out. She immersed herself in craft hobbies, made beautiful jewelry and beaded bags, but those endeavors didn’t satisfy her need to be part of the world beyond Elmhurst.
When I had already left home, and was in graduate school, my mother became quite depressed. She would take the car and go for rides in the middle of the night when she couldn’t sleep. She would also raid the refrigerator on nights like those, and became more obese. Her life became increasingly diet focused…she had always had a tendency to seesaw in weight. I suggested that she see a therapist, which she did for about a month, until she received his bill, which functioned as a kind of shock therapy. She left at that point, and seemed much improved.
When she finally prevailed upon my father to retire (he was 80, and she 70), she convinced him to move to San Francisco, where my sister and her family were living. They rented an apartment in Oakland, and my father became President of the Senior Citizen’s Club there. I felt at the time, and still do, that their move was a gift that they gave to me; the knowledge that it was never too late to make a major change in one’s life. I’ve used that gift, and still do.
My mother died of a heart attack 2 years after the move to San Francisco. It was sudden, and that was good. My mother could never have led a restricted life, and she never had to. The tragedy of her life was that she had the smarts and energy to run General Motors, and it all got focused on two small children.