Jana-Anika: Our Mother

IMG_0323I had said I was going to talk about folie a deux today, but I don’t feel like it.  I might not be ready for that.

I woke up thinking about our mother.  My brother and I were adopted.  Our biological parents were very young, and when our biological mother found out she was pregnant, it was quickly arranged that my biological father’s cousin and his wife would take us in.  We always knew our biological parents and that side of the family, and stayed with them for a week or two every year.  But when I mention our mother and father when we were children, I mean our adoptive parents unless I make it clear otherwise.  Our adoptive parents are both gone now, so if I’m talking in present day terms, or actually anytime after May, 1983, I usually mean our biological parents, because they were and are the only ones left.

So I woke up thinking about my adoptive mother.  She was a very complicated person and full of paradoxes.  My father was a wonderful person, and my brother and I were much closer to him, but he was so straightforward, solid and predictable that in some ways he doesn’t make for a very interesting “character” in a story.  There is a lot less to say about him.  It’s as Tolstoy wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  The same could be said about people.  Our mother was an unhappy person, and so she makes for a more interesting character.

I don’t know for certain whether our mother is alive.  She left home the day after our father’s funeral when we were 16, placing us into the guardianship of our father’s law partner, Mike Fingalsson, and signing over a bank account and the house and everything in it to us with Mike as trustee.  Mike felt terrible about being one of the catalysts for our mother’s disappearance, but he couldn’t tell us against the wishes of his client (our mother) until the time she designated.  He came to the house and handed us each a fat envelope with all the legal and financial documents and suggested we should read them someday, but all we really needed to know was our mother had left and was not planning to return but that we were well taken care of and had nothing to worry about.  Mike was our father’s best friend, and he was a lot like our father.  If he said something, you knew it was true and could be relied upon.

I am certain that we must have been shocked, but I don’t think we were completely surprised at our mother’s departure.  She saw her position in the family as our father’s support, and that’s all.  She was not maternal.  Any mothering we received came from our maternal grandmother and our Aunt Mary.  Our mother was more like a polite long-term house guest than a regular mother.

I don’t mean to say she was cold or unkind.  She was always kind to us and she loved us in her own way as best she could, but she was never our caretaker and took no interest in our lives except where they intersected with hers.  My brother and I came along when she was thirty and our father was forty, and she was already completely frozen in her manners and ways to adapt to our presence.

Her one paradox that fascinated my brother and me more than anything was that she was extremely introverted, possibly autistic, and yet the most social person in town.  She spent most of her life by herself in her room, but she threw the most lavish and celebrated parties around.  Her room was originally intended as a storage room in the basement, so it was not very large and had only one small window that she had covered over.  She also had the room professionally sound-proofed so that she didn’t have to hear any of the outside world, especially music.  She hated to hear music, even though she had been a concert pianist.  However, at her parties there was music everywhere, usually a live band or ensemble, sometimes more than one because the parties were so large.

Our mother was an alcoholic.  She was not a sloppy drunk who did stupid things or stumbled around the house, knocking over lamps.  Nor was she a mean drunk.  She was always completely composed and almost infuriatingly well-mannered.  She simply drank all day long every day.

She was painstakingly meticulous in her drinking.  She never accepted a drink offered by anyone but herself.  She drank Tanqueray gin and Noilly Prat vermouth martinis with a single olive.  Even today when I attend a cocktail party and detect the mixed scents of gin and Chanel No. 5 perfume, I will turn my head expecting to see my mother (except that she never drank at parties or in public).  The Tanqueray she had shipped to the house from the local liquor store.  They didn’t stock Noilly Prat, so it had to be shipped in wooden crates from Boston.  The water for the ice was shipped in large green glass bottles, also in wooden crates, from a certain spring in France.  All of the equipment and tools such as the cocktail shaker, ice scoop, and even the pipes of the ice-making machine were lined with a thin layer of gold, so as not to react with the liquid as stainless steel or silver would.  She never measured and rarely made a mistake, but if she did, she would toss the entire drink out and begin again.  The shaker had to have just the right number of ice cubes and be shaken for precisely the right amount of time, and she had a small glass eyedropper to add exactly 3 tiny drops of the olive juice.  Again, one drop too many, and the whole drink went down the drain.  The olives were also specially imported, from Turkey.  Watching her make a martini was like watching a great chemist working in her laboratory, but much more entertaining.  Starting at noon, she had exactly one martini every ninety minutes, no more, no less.  I don’t remember ever seeing her look at a clock for guidance, but she innately knew nearly to the second when those ninety minutes were up.

We did not see much of our mother, because she was always in her room.  She called it her sewing room, but she never sewed anything.  However, our father insisted that she join us for dinner every night, so we saw her for at least those thirty minutes each day.

Viggo navyAnd it was exactly thirty minutes.  Our father came home from his office at 6:00 PM, and dinner was served from 6:30-7:00, after which he went into his study and worked until 10:00 when he went to bed – every night, unless he had a meeting.  On those nights when he couldn’t make it for dinner, our mother did not come up to join us.

One might have an image of our mother as a cowering mess, locked in her soundless room with her gin.  But not at all.  She was always beautifully dressed and made-up.  She had a room-sized closet full of beautiful dresses and shoes, and piles of jewelry and make-up.  She had her hair and nails professionally done every Friday morning; the stylist, a flamboyantly gay man named Mr. David, came to the house weekly.  Our father used to say she was so regal that she could be the queen of a small country.  Then Kalfi and I would respond by saying, “Small!?  She could be queen of the world!” and we would all laugh.  She was in many ways a rather imposing and majestic person.

She was very beautiful, tall and thin with bright blonde hair, ice-blue eyes and milky skin.  She was quite vain about her physique, and her appearance in general, and loved getting compliments from men, including those of us in the family.  If we went an evening without telling her how stunning she looked, she would have been deeply wounded.

Her parties were legendary.  We had two or three dinner parties a month, and twice a year she threw enormous Great Gatsby-style bashes where everyone was invited, literally.  She mailed formal invitations to friends and our father’s business associates, but everyone knew he or she was welcome, whether we knew who they were or not.  It seemed there was a staff of dozens: caterers, waiters, musicians and entertainers, car valets and drivers for those too inebriated to get home.  In those days, almost everyone drank and smoked heavily, and being the 1970s, they smoked more than tobacco.  My brother and I loved these huge parties, in part because it was hilarious to see all these supposed grown-ups in formal clothes behave like fools, and in part because it was the only time we saw our mother laugh.  Laughing was difficult for her.  Entertaining was our mother’s job.  It was hard work for her.  It was her way of helping our father establish and build his law practice.  She was his social and marketing director.  Then once the last party guest had departed, she would retire to her room and not come out for days.  We knew not to bother her.  On these days, she was excused from dinner.  Our grandmother or Mary, both of whom did all the cooking, brought plates of food down to her sewing room.

She told us a number of times that she got herself through these parties the same way that she got herself through being on stage back when she was actively performing as a pianist.  It was simply playing a role.  It wasn’t she who was laughing and chatting with her guests; it was a character she was playing, the Charming Party Hostess.  It wasn’t she who was playing the piano on stage; it was some unknown third person.  It was just a play, and none of it was real.  We always felt it was sad that she saw the only two ways in which she was accomplished as nothing but shams.

She gave up playing the piano when she married our father.  Or more accurately, she married our father in order to give up playing the piano.  They both were originally from the same little town in Vermont, but they didn’t know each other as children.  They were ten years apart.  However, they knew of each other’s families.  Our father was an attorney at a large law firm in New York City when he heard that she was going to perform in Manhattan.  He sent flowers and wrote a note, and she invited him backstage after the concert.  For him, it was love at first sight.  For her, it was a lifeline.

She had been a talented and successful musician, and graduated from the New England Conservatory in Boston.  For some reason, she was not happy being a musician, and despite her role-playing, the stage fright was terrible for her, yet she knew nothing else.  She came from a middle class family, and had to work, but had no real skills outside of music.  To deal with the growing pressure, she began drinking.  Our grandmother used to say, “At first the drinking helped.  And then it didn’t.”  It began interfering with her ability to perform.  Then when our father appeared, a handsome successful young lawyer who had ambitions of starting his own law practice back where he grew up in Vermont, she saw a way out.  She would be a housewife.

She did nothing around the house.  She didn’t cook or clean or pay bills.  Our grandmother and Mary did all those kinds of things.  Her idea of a housewife was as the loyal behind-the-scenes impresario of our father and his business.  Thus, in her mind, once our father died, her job was done.  No reason to stay around and burden us as she grew older and frailer.  She would have been convinced that my brother and I would be better off without her.

That may be true from a practical standpoint.  Her health was beginning to fail, probably in large part due to years of drinking, and she never did anything for us that was concrete or useful.  Nevertheless, we certainly didn’t want her to leave home and never return without a word.  We spoke with several private detectives, but they all told us the same thing.  She didn’t fall down a well or get herself kidnapped.  She obviously intended to disappear, and people who want to disappear can.  It would cost us a fortune and still would be a miracle if we found her.  We didn’t try, but always hoped perhaps one day she would contact us.  She never did, at least not in the way we hoped, with a letter or phone call.  However, she may have contacted me again many years later, but in a very different way.

Before I describe that event, I will have to first explain a few things about our mother’s childhood, and about Moonstone and Amethyst.


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