Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Every morning until she turned ninety, my mother —wearing a sleeveless, silk nightgown and nothing else — stood at the kitchen counter, sharpened a #2 pencil with a full eraser, studied her appointment calendar, and then neatly printed the day’s “To Do” list — a list she would complete “come hell or high water.” My mother was a planner who believed that order and structure could fend off life’s messy surprises. She’d apparently been caught off guard and greatly disappointed often enough that she’d vowed to try to control the future, thus controlling her fate.

Over the years, I’d gotten used to my mother’s “To Do” list; in fact, I thought them so handy that I’d taken to compiling my own. My lists were never properly printed but scribbled on the back of grocery bills, torn envelopes, or, when nothing else was available, on paper napkins, often adorned with lipstick blots or remnants of lunch or dinner. I felt a sense of accomplishment when, at the end of a day, I could look at a list with nary one item left to do. Funny, but I think I lost my love of lists around the same time my mother stopped bothering with them all together. By then, she had trouble seeing, difficulty hearing, and her memory was a shred of what it used to be. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Flashback to one of my visits to my parents who by then had long been retired, living first on Longboat Key, Florida, in a condo fronting the Gulf of Mexico and then in an apartment across the bay in Sarasota. The latter two-bedroom was situated on the eleventh floor in what was a state-of-the-art senior living facility with swimming pools, a dining room, theater, work-out room and all kinds of other amenities for those lucky enough to use their social security checks as chump change, not as their major source of income. The developer of the complex had turned the interior decorating over to his wife who, in my humble opinion, must have been on a bad acid trip when she picked out the furnishings, mixing as she did striped and plaid couches with flower-patterned carpets, fake plants (in Florida, no less!), statues of dancing children (attempt to remind the seniors of their youth?), and garish chandeliers dangling from ceilings in every room. The trek from the front door, through the lobby, up the elevator, and down the long, the value of wearing dark —very dark — sunglasses.

My parents and I had returned from dinner at a local seafood restaurant on Highway 41, the main drag leading in and out of Sarasota. My mother, still dolled up in her designer mid-calf black skirt and matching long-sleeved jacket, handed me a copy of something called a “Guaranteed Security Plan” — some Madison Avenue brander’s gimmicky name for a funeral and burial insurance policy.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” I said as I stared at the folder.

“Well,” said my mother, “this way you guys won’t be burdened by making decisions about coffins and head stones after we die.”

The ‘you guys’ referred to my two younger siblings and me. As the oldest, I was burdened with hearing this nonsense before the others and for making sure that the funeral primer was followed down to the last shovelful of dirt heaped on my parents’ coffins.

I stared out the windows facing north and west. A sliver of a new moon hovered against a dark sky dotted with a host of twinkling stars. “Isn’t this a bit premature? I mean, you’re in your early eighties and hopefully have years left before you . . . “

“We aren’t going to live forever, you know.”

My mother seemed so cavalier about it all, as if death weren’t a big deal. But it was a big deal to me. It had taken years for me to move forward after my brother’s suicide on his thirtieth birthday. I wasn’t ready to face my parents’ deaths, unable to imagine life without them. I counted on them for too much, moral and emotional support and sometimes some extra cash when things were tight or a free trip to Florida in the middle of a tortuous Chicago winter.

“So,” my dad said. “I’ve got a joke for you.”

“Oh, not another one of your off-color ones.”

“No, this one is fine for the whole family.”

His bushy white eyebrows accented the top of a long, narrow face, the shape of which both my younger sister and I had inherited. There was a twinkle now in those blue eyes. He loved telling a good joke, almost as much as he loved playing a round of golf.

“There's an old rabbi who wants to try pork before he dies. But, being an Orthodox rabbi, he can't eat pork in his community, so he goes to a restaurant 50 miles away. On the menu is a dish called ‘Suckling Pig’ so he orders it and they bring it out on a beautiful tray with an apple in its mouth. Just as he's about to take his first bite, in walks Goldberg, the president of his congregation.
Goldberg says, ‘Rabbi, what are you doing? What are you eating?’

The rabbi replies, ‘Goldberg, can you believe this restaurant? I order a baked apple and this is how they serve it to me!”

“Very funny,” I said, laughing despite myself. Leave it to my dad to turn the conversation from death to rabbis eating pork. He was as uninterested in discussing burial plans as I was, probably even more.

Still, I had some questions. “You went along with this?” I said, pointing to the folder sitting in front of me.

“You know your mother. When she sets her mind on something, there’s no way out.”

“Oh, Mor,” my mom said, dismissing him with a wave of her hand. “That’s not true.”

The truth was that my mother almost always got her way. She could be relentless. I pitied my dad having to live with such a force of nature, all packed into a woman not quite five feet tall in her stocking feet. But he seemed resigned to taking orders from her and hadn’t yet begun to put up much of a fuss.

“Here,” my mother said, handing me a manila folder. “I want you to keep this in your files.”

I flipped open the folder and glanced at the “Guaranteed Security Plan” my parents had signed. “Mogen David casket with an oval top.” You’ve got to be kidding! “Poplar wood exterior with a walnut stain.” Jesus. My parents had chosen their “merchandise” as if they’d purchased a new car, selecting various packages to upgrade the basic product. Maybe the policy would make for a seamless funeral and burial. But I had my doubts. Even a planner like my mother couldn’t always have things her way.

I continued reading. A two-inch by one-foot by six-inch granite grave marker to “match that of Robert Mersky in Space 1.” Space 1? Is that what we become? Spaces? That was my brother, dead now for over twenty years. I slammed the folder shut. I was sick of having to be the responsible one. I’d played that role all of my life and yearned to let go and let someone else pick up the slack.

My mother reopened the folder. “Did you see this?” she said, pointing to a document titled “Travel Care Plus +.”

“No,” I mumbled.

I hated talking about death. But maybe I needed to buck up. Face the inevitable. After all, I was a grown woman in my fifties. As my mother said, she and my dad weren’t going to live forever. But when they died, I’d be the matron of the family, the one supposedly in charge of keeping us all together. My mother was so good at that. There wasn’t a happy occasion or a funeral that she didn’t miss and to which she didn’t try to drag the rest of us. To her, family was everything. And she wished more than anything that my siblings and I would be good friends and get along long after she was gone. I’d never be able to promise her that. My sister and I were good buddies. But my surviving brother and I had had a rocky relationship ever since I could remember. He never approved of me, my middle class lifestyle, my choice in men. It was if he saw in me a replica of my mother, and nothing I could do or say changed his mind. I’d given up trying.

“So,” my mother said as she closed the folder and pushed it in my direction. “Put this away for safe keeping.”

When I returned to Chicago, I stuffed the thing in a larger red folder marked “Parents” and didn’t open it again for eight years.

1 comment:

Ann said...

Can't believe I couldn't stop myself from reading "just one more" of your blogs! Now, I have to stop or I'll miss my yoga class. Am going to trat myself to at least 1 blog a day. Looking forward to the next one. I thought Robin was 13, not 30, when he passed.