Next to every fire hydrant in Syracuse, New York, there is (or used to be) a six-foot-tall sign with a picture of a fire hydrant on it, so in winter the firemen know where to dig. Syracuse averages well over a hundred inches of snow a year, most of it in small increments—an inch, two inches, three inches, day after day. In my memories of childhood, it’s always snowing, and I’m always slogging through it to school with red knees, a dripping nose and frozen mittens, muttering under my breath. Snow is piled in crusty, increasingly dirty drifts by the roadside, and you can tell where the neighborhood dogs have been. (This was before leash laws.)
Or I’m riding in an overheated car with the windshield wipers pushing away endless clumps of fat gray flakes spilling out of a white sky. Cars had rear-wheel drive then, so there was a certain amount of drama involved in making it up the hills. To get out of our garage, you had to back out over what was usually a sheet of ice, negotiate a curve and race up a steep incline before the ice realized you were there and tried to stop you. From all over the neighborhood you could hear the buzzsaw whine of spinning tires. Winter music.
My father was a physician who made house calls, day and night, in his tiny yellow-and-white Nash Metropolitan. He would leave me sitting in it next to some enormous snowbank while he went into an unfamiliar house carrying his black medical bag. Both my older brothers and I went on calls with him when we were little. It was his way of spending time with us, though I mostly remember sitting by myself in the car. Also lying awake at night—my bedroom was over the garage—hearing his tires spin as he left, then waiting for him to come home safely. I have never been able to kick the worried-waiting habit.
We lived in the same house the whole time I was growing up. When my parents moved there in 1950, three years before I was born, it was the only house on an elm-lined block, a 1925 colonial with a Tudor-style brick front. (My mother had the brickwork painted white. She once told me the painter had protested, “You can’t paint tapestry brick!” And she’d said, “Watch me.”) By the time I was 10, the elms were dead and gone, and both sides of the street were lined with tiny ranch houses over which our place loomed like an old church. My friends lived in ranches or split levels with finished basements. We had a cellar with a cracked cement floor, a big red furnace and those scary long-legged spiders that live only in basements. And we had an attic that was freezing in winter and stifling in summer and smelled like someone else’s past. The attic had real stairs going up to it and full-size windows. It was meant to be living space but had never been finished. The floors by the windows were thick with dead flies every summer until Mother swept them away.
We had ancient radiators that clanked and sputtered and occasionally leaked but gave off plenty of heat that enveloped you when you came in from the cold. I’d put my mittens on the hall radiator to dry, and the house would smell of wet wool and whatever Mother was cooking. She was a butcher’s daughter and a good, if impatient, cook. I’d open the oven or lift the pot lids to get a good whiff of dinner, but not if she was standing there. The kitchen was her territory, and she didn’t want me messing with it. I learned to open the fridge quietly so she wouldn’t yell from some far corner of the house to ask what I was taking. All my friends have the same memory of eating cookies over the wastebasket so as not to leave telltale crumbs.
Actually, the whole house was Mother’s territory. She always seemed to be telling me to get out of her way—out from under her feet, as she put it. She would tolerate the little-girl clutter in my room for only so long before powering through it and getting rid of things. The night my favorite stuffed animal went missing and I went ballistic, she denied all knowledge of its whereabouts, but I was convinced for years that she’d orchestrated the abduction of the Orange Dog. Or maybe she’d just thrown it out without realizing it, which would have been worse. I had a great big bedroom and plenty of time to myself, but somehow, no privacy. Only recently did it occur to me that Mother, too, had no privacy as a child.
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.
What she seemed to want in her last years was to rattle around in that old house, even though most of her friends had died and she complained bitterly about being alone. When my brothers and I pointed out, gently, that perhaps the house and the hard winters were becoming too much for her, she would lash out and say, “I’ll know when it’s too much for me, and that’s when I’ll do something about it!” This, I knew, was not going to happen. Mother was getting increasingly frail, and had a form of chronic leukemia that wasn’t severe enough to treat but made her very tired all the time. And her mind was beginning to go, though this was hard to tell, because she presented the resolute appearance of someone who had all her marbles. She’d had the good sense to give up driving (which was more than could be said of her legally blind nonagenarian neighbors), but when the furnace broke down, she was unable to describe to me what was wrong or remember the word thermostat.
So I called every day and found someone to grocery shop for her while my brothers and I worked out a long-term strategy. I was 200 miles downstate but still lived closest, so my husband, Ted, and I made frequent trips north for weekend visits that were too short but seemed to last forever. Mother wasn’t able to do much at this point: even walking around the mall made her legs hurt, and restaurant meals had begun to make her cranky. So we spent most of our visits in the house, sitting in the living room, whose spare furnishings were still as my father had first arranged them more than 50 years before. (He had a knack for arranging things, Mother said.)
After a breathtakingly early dinner, Mother would sit up way past her usual bedtime—till nine or even 10—and talk to us. Mostly she’d talk about her childhood in Wilmington, the crowd of kids in a house with one bathroom, where she and her next-younger sister, Leanore, would share the tub when they both had dates. (“Your grandmother didn’t approve, so we got into the tub with our underwear on and cracked her up,” Mother said.) Or the times she and Leanore were invited to New York City in the 1930s to visit their cousin Richard Himber, who had a society dance band and lived at the Essex House. She spoke as though these visits were the most fun she’d ever had. Sometimes she’d talk about her years with my father, who arrived late to every dinner party she ever gave. Ted and I would sit and listen to these stories for the fourteenth time, too stupefied to contribute much.
It was during one of these one-sided conversations that she got around to saying how happy she’d been when her daughter was born. I was a late child, an accident—Mother at first mistook her morning sickness for a recurrence of hepatitis—so I’d never thought of myself as a bundle of joy. But evidently I was. “I’d always said I wouldn’t have another child unless I knew it would be a girl,” Mother said. “I loved my sons, but I really loved my daughter.”
I’d been nodding off, but this jerked me awake.
I was still sitting in one of the two big living room chairs, looking at the dust on the coffee table (Mother’s cleaning lady had developed sciatica and had not been replaced), and Mother was saying she loved her daughter—that is, me. It’s not that I thought she didn’t love me—I’d come to believe she did—but I couldn’t remember her ever actually saying so. Later, upstairs, I said to Ted, “What was that? Was that not the strangest damn thing?”
I’d gotten used to Mother being the way she was. She was my first great unrequited love, the nut I couldn’t crack. I have almost no memories of being held or cuddled by her. I do remember once sitting with her in the big chair when I was three or four. I used to suck my thumb and knead a piece of fabric with the same hand, and I was kneading her apron and drooling all over it, and I knew she could not possibly be liking this, but for some reason she was letting me do it anyway. The anxiety I felt—as though I were stealing comfort and would have to pay for it later—is what stayed with me.
Most of us spend the bulk of our adult lives getting over our childhoods. Coming to terms with how we were loved is some of the most important work we do, arguably more important than what we do for a living.
When I was little, I was furious that Mother wasn’t the kind of mother I wanted. Also heartbroken. But the fury and heartbreak have had their uses, and I don’t regret them. Besides, Mother may not have been cuddly, but she wasn’t clingy either. She was smart, lively and, lord knows, honest. She never expected me to take care of her or accused me of not spending enough time with her or prodded me to give her grandchildren. (I sometimes think I carried out one of her secret fantasies by refusing to have children of my own, though she’d have been horrified by this thought.) She seemed happy to have as much of my company as I was willing to give her. By the end of her life I understood that she was in a great deal of emotional pain and probably always had been—but that she’d still managed to live on her own terms and have a pretty good time.
In the end she refused to make the decision to leave the house, so life made it for her. She’d gotten as far as admitting she might consider moving to an assisted living facility near my brother Robert in Virginia Beach, and Robert, a prince among men, had gone ahead and visited every facility in his area, interviewing the staff, sampling the food. By the time Mother fell and broke her hip, in June 2004, we already had a deposit on an apartment even though she hadn’t yet agreed to go. She fell in her bedroom while emptying a wastebasket and managed to slide herself over to the phone but couldn’t figure out how to dial it. So she sat there for three hours till I called. I phoned the neighbors, they phoned 911, the ambulance came and whisked Mother out of the house. She never saw it again.
She was a trouper through surgery and five weeks of rehab, although the anesthetic and pain medications increased her dementia, and she was frequently agitated, especially at night. She knew she couldn’t be in the house anymore (indeed, she never learned to negotiate stairs again) and professed to be relieved when we sold it. For the last 13 months of her life, she was determined to appreciate her new place in Virginia, which was as elegant and gracious as a place can possibly be where people are waiting to die. “It’s very nice,” she would say, “but it’s not home.”
It had always seemed to me that a house as well built as ours—large rooms, plaster walls, high ceilings—would be worth significantly more than its smaller, flimsier neighbors. But it actually fetched less, after languishing on the market for months. People seemed daunted by the steam-heat system and by the amount of work needed to spruce the place up. Mother had maintained the plumbing and heating and roof, but it had been years since she’d made any cosmetic improvements, and the ones she did make had a slapdash feel. The floors were a crazy quilt of mismatched carpets and linoleum, the kitchen appliances were on their last legs, and the curtains and window shades were falling to shreds and harbored generations of dead ladybugs.
We finally found a buyer in December 2004, after we’d reduced our asking price several times. The buyer wanted to close by February, so I took on the job of emptying the house, not that there was much to empty. Mother had systematically gotten rid of stuff for years. She’d given us most of her jewelry, the antiques, the silver, the good china, the glass candy dish whose lid we used to replace as quietly as possible after sneaking a gumdrop. The closets were nearly empty. There was nothing at all in the cellar, and hardly anything in the attic except for some boxes of papers belonging to my brothers and me, and my father’s black medical bag.
I knew how exceptional this was. Ted and I had been house-hunting a few years earlier and encountered any number of little old ladies who’d kept everything they’d ever owned and the box it came in. Not Mother. Once she left in that ambulance, there was little trace of her. There wasn’t even enough for a tag sale. Mother had seen no reason to spend money on anything new, not even a new mattress when all the old ones were rock hard and hurt her back.
So my brothers and I sorted through what little was left and removed the few things we wanted (I took Dad’s black bag), gave away a few more things to friends and left the rest for the family we hired to empty and clean the house. The whole process took less than a week. Just as it began, a storm came through and dumped two feet of snow. Which seemed fitting. If I hadn’t had to scout all over for somebody to plow the place out, it wouldn’t have felt like home.
Walking out of the house for the last time was awful, surreal. Snow was falling, and the crew was packing everything, backing a pickup truck to the front door, washing down the walls. But I couldn’t let go of it yet. Two days before the close, I hired a young photographer to go in and shoot the place, inside and out. She had to trudge through more fresh snow to do it, but she was game, and fascinated by the architectural details. She shot the fireplace tiles, the wrought-iron banister, the swirled-plaster walls, the magnificent porcelain pedestal sink and six-foot bathtub, the naked windows letting snowy light into the huge, empty rooms. Looking at those photos, I didn’t recognize my own bedroom without the furniture in it. It seemed dark, the windows smaller. It wasn’t mine anymore. But, oh, it was.
Originally published in the November 2009 issue of MORE.