You Can Go Home Again

At the end of her life, my standoffish mother finally let me in.

By Marcia Menter
The author and her mother, Bernice Menter, in front of their house.
Photograph: Photo by Philip Menter.

She was the oldest of eight children, growing up in a tiny, crowded-to-the-rafters house in Wilmington, Delaware. When my father first came to visit her—he did his medical residency in Wilmington—he thought he had walked in on a party. (“That’s what everyone thought,” Mother said.)

Dad proposed after their first date. She said no. He persisted. When they finally became engaged, in 1940, she traveled to Syracuse to meet his parents, Orthodox Jewish immigrants who ran a dry cleaning plant. (Her people were Reform Jews who had come from Germany a few generations earlier.) At my father’s urging, she married him on the spot—to her family’s eternal chagrin—and remained in Syracuse for most of the rest of her life.
The transition couldn’t have been easy. My father was a thoughtful, literate man who worked tirelessly to take care of his family, but that meant he was absent a good deal of the time: office hours, hospital rounds, house calls. He was also emotionally reticent to the point of being withdrawn—bottled up, my mother used to call it—whereas everyone in her family was legendarily outspoken. She and her siblings were all happy to tell you exactly what they thought without sugarcoating it, and Mother was particularly unsweet. She was, to carry the metaphor as far as it ought to go, extremely tart. It may be that my father was attracted as much to her blunt candor as to her good looks. He was shy and sensitive; she wasn’t.

But of course that’s not true at all. She was shy and sensitive, worse than Dad, worse than me, but she hid it so well I simply had no idea. Nor did I understand, until I was quite grown up, how lonely she was. A few months after my father died, when I was 36, she told me that, in 1943, when she’d been pregnant with my oldest brother, Julian, Dad enlisted in the army without consulting her and went off to war for 31 months, leaving her feeling abandoned, frightened and incredibly betrayed. That she waited this long to tell me was very much in character, as was Dad’s silent, inflexible sense of duty. For the 49 years of their marriage, he worked as though work were the only thing that mattered, while she spent her enormous energy and intelligence trying to shoehorn herself into the role of homemaker and doctor’s wife.
I never had the sense that she loved this life. In fact, aside from my father, whom she clearly did love, it was impossible to pin down what she really cared about, and I spent my childhood trying. If she mentioned a favorite song or a favorite food, I’d be determined to love it too, only to have her say she could do without it. Apparently there was nothing she couldn’t do without. It came as genuine news when she said she loved me.

This happened on one of our visits to Syracuse toward the end of her life. Mother had stayed in the house after my father died, years longer than she should have, and by the time she reached her late eighties my brothers and I had become increasingly worried about her. Of course she insisted she was fine. She didn’t say it with a Kindly Old Mom voice, which she didn’t have, but with that sharp, exasperated edge she used to scare us when we were kids. Mother basically had two tones of voice: clear and forthright (green light, everything’s OK), and sharp and angry (red light, back off now!). You could be having a perfectly cordial conversation and suddenly, somehow, go a little too far and cross an invisible border into the red zone.

If I hadn’t been her child, I might eventually have caught on that this was her way of setting boundaries, and that somewhere in her distant past she’d learned to speak sharply as a way of standing up for herself. But I’d grown up being snapped at and jumping out of my skin. It took me decades to begin to understand her, and even as a grown woman, I tried to avoid riling her. My mantra was, Just give her whatever she wants.

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