Sunday, February 3, 2019

394. Must Gay Sons Hate Their Mothers?

File:Tennieldumdee crop.jpg
Who are these characters?  To find out, and to meet
Mr. G. Whiz, a recipe for amorous attachments, and
"Silly," click here.
          The Eye That Never Sleeps Hustle

     If you want my new novel, The Eye That Never Sleeps, and can wait until the release date, May 2, pre-order it now from the publisher, Black Rose Writing, at a 15% discount from the retail price of $18.95; it will ship on May 2.  The e-book will be available soon after that date.  The more sales I have online, the better.  I will sign copies later on request.  If you can't wait, buy a signed author's copy from me now at $20.00 + postage.

 The Eye That Never Sleeps eimage.jpg

Did you ever have a friend who at times acted like your enemy, or an enemy who at times became your friend?  The Eye That Never Sleeps tells the story of just such a friendship.  To be released May 2, this is fourth title in my Metropolis series of historical novels set in nineteenth-century New York.  Detective Sheldon Minick, one of the two main characters, is already known to readers of my novel Bill Hope, for characters in the series turn up in more than one novel.

Summary: Hired by the city’s bankers to track down and apprehend the thief who is plundering their banks, private detective Sheldon Minick develops a friendship with his chief suspect, Nicholas Hale, an elegant young man-about-town who is in every way the sober Methodist detective’s opposite. They agree to a truce and undertake each to show the other the city that he knows and values.  Further adventures follow, including a cancan, a gore-splattered slaughterhouse, and a brothel with leap-frogging whores.  But when the truce ends, the inevitable finale comes in the dark midnight vaults of a bank.

This is not a standard detective story.  Sheldon Minick is a bit scared of women, wears elevator heels to add to his height, and loves to belt out Methodist hymns at church (though he leaves the praying to his wife).  He is fascinated by Nicholas Hale, who is young, dapper, free-spending -- a risk-taker, deft with women, bisexual.

Must Gay Sons Hate Their Mothers?

         “You old fuck!” he screamed into the phone and slammed down the receiver.   Well, we all have bad days charged with tension.  True enough, but he was talking to his mother. 

         This incident my late partner Bob recorded in a journal entry dated September 2, 1988.  (For more on Bob and his journals, see post #391.)  Bob was not given to grossness or profanity.  In a moment of anger or frustration I would yell “Shit!” but he would murmur “Sugar!”  And like many a gay son, he had always been close to his mother, going to the opera with her, lunching with her, and giving her memorable gifts.  Hearing Parsifal at Easter at the Met, the two of them would sit in silence, holding hands, entranced by Wagner’s music.  More than once, when they were lunching together in Jersey City, the mother’s friends would stop by their table and congratulate her on having such a dutiful and attentive son. 

         Bob often joined his parents during their summer vacation on Nantucket, and when his father had to return to Jersey City and his job, Bob and his mother would stay on a few more days.  Recorded in photographs, those days with his mother were special.  In the father’s absence he would encourage her to smoke, which in his father’s house was strictly forbidden.  Alone together, they indulged in forbidden pleasures, they were free.  It was almost a honeymoon, and photos of him on those occasions have, to my mind, a distinctly sensual look.  Shades of Oedipus!

         So what happened?  Bob and his mother lost his father in 1982 and she grieved intensely.  Bob then came out to her, and after she had had time to absorb this, she phoned me and said, “Welcome to the family.”  All was fine here in the city, but when they went to Nantucket, where she had vacationed so often with Bob’s father, Bob had to be spouse as well as son.  As a result, if I joined them for a few days,she was jealous.  By my mere presence, I disrupted their intimacy and, for a few short hours daily, stole her son away.  
         Over the next few years Bob’s mother, now living alone in her Jersey City apartment, deteriorated physically and mentally at an alarming rate.  His journals of the late 1980s tell a grim story.  He came regularly to buy her a week’s worth of groceries; to take her to her doctors’ appointments and the outfit that made her hearing aid; to escort her to a beauty parlor; and on her good days, to accompany her to a restaurant where they lunched together and sometimes were joined by me.

         By 1987 the situation was serious.  She fell repeatedly in her apartment or on the street, began forgetting or losing things, and relied on him more and more.  On Christmas Eve of that year, when the two of them were drinking beer together, she had a few too many and slid off her chair to the floor.  Unable to lift her up, Bob phoned the police, but they were slow in coming.  So at his mother’s suggestion he grabbed her legs and, with her lying on her stomach, pulled her across the floor to her bedroom, an experience that he deemed worthy of a Samuel Beckett novel, Beckett being one of his favorite authors.  But if the whole scene was grotesque, he also saw in it a certain dignity stemming from the honesty existing between a mother and her grown son.  The police finally arrived, lifted her off the floor, put her to bed, and departed.  But since she failed to realize that, at her age, she couldn’t drink beer as she once did -- meaning several beers at a time -- Bob phoned the liquor store supplying it and stopped their deliveries.  This she resented, seeing in him the father who had tyrannized her childhood in Germany, and the American husband who had forbidden her to use makeup or smoke.

         The journal entries of 1988 record the worsening situation.  On May 12 he insists that his mother “is integral to my daily breathing.”  He is embarked on an odyssey, perhaps the most important of his life.  What his mother means to him is at stake.  That morning she was a tearful child, totally relying on him, and he didn’t fail her.  His heart is drawn to her.  Or is he deluding himself?  There have been some frightening times of late, when his inner resources seemed nonexistent.  To say that his current relationship with her is of positive value “smacks of a vague insanity.”

         June 17, 1988.  His mother seems to be aging significantly week by week as he watches helplessly.  “An incredible sense of mortality is invading my sensibility.  For Mom, there is a ponderous despair.  She never speaks of the fucking religion she at one time espoused so wholeheartedly…. There is, for her, quite nothing.  A vacuum of awesome contours.  In a way she is waiting – waiting – for the end.  My own mother, wasting physically, devoid of interests, excruciatingly bored.  And I, each week, observe and my sadness deepens.  If this is to be one of the profound periods of my life, I scorn the wisdom I may eventually acquire from this extended pain.”

         For me, reading this now, his words have a chilling authenticity.  The contrast with the AARP Bulletin, whose contents address seniors, is striking.  In Bob’s journals, no photos of smiling oldsters mixed in with ads for stair-lifts, wheelchairs, and easy-to-use cellphones with zippy names.  No triumphant articles on how I overcame bipolar, or tips on how to add healthy years to your life.  Bob is now in the world of Samuel Beckett, the chronicler of despair, decay, and death.

         The entries show a progressive hardening in his tone.  His respect for her has vanished; he tells her pointedly that he feels pity for her, but little else.  Her lack of resources – an interest in literature, art, dance, and music – troubles and depresses him, for it leaves her at the mercy of her mood of the moment.  He, on the other hand, is attending concerts and ballet, and lunching or dining with friends, even while seeing to her needs.  Exasperated by her ceaseless demands, at one time or another he calls her – sometimes to her face – a child, an actress, a nuisance, a liar, a Frankenstein, a grotesque.  “My abuse toward my defenseless mother continues unabashed,” he confesses on August 26, “and I’m growing increasingly afraid of myself.”  She has drained him to the point of exhaustion. 

         And now we come to the incident of September 2 mentioned earlier.  “Ten minutes ago I called my mother an ‘old fuck’ and slammed down the phone.  I’m trembling.  This was appallingly dreadful of me, and yet the words leaped spontaneously.  No need to detail the motivation.  Worthless.  All related to her increasing lack of mind.”  Then, having stocked her up with provisions for his absence, he escapes for a few days to Nantucket.

         September 27, 1988.  “I do not wish my mother dead.  I refer rather to when she dies -- then release for me.  I wish finality for no human being despite moments of fitful anger when I may utter profanities of this ilk.  My heart, in its most honest, enduring contours, is a kind, concerned heart….   Yet I know I am capable of heartlessness, cruelty, indifference, and vengeance.  Inescapable.  Getting worse, with respect to Mom.  What, what, what can I do?  (Later.)  The final stages of everything I now share with my mother are at hand.  Quite frankly I believe I’m moving into the finality of a life.”  Even as he writes this, the memory of the famous jockey with whom he had his first sex experience 31 years before flits into his mind. 

         Anyone who has been a longtime caregiver will recognize these feelings: the intertwining of resentment, explosive anger, and regret, the dismay at moments of indifference and cruelty, and even intrusive memories of sex.  I was aware at the time of Bob’s difficulties with his mother, but only now, while reading the contents of his journals, do I appreciate the depth and intensity of his feelings.  He too -- in spite of concerts, friends, and hours-long meals in restaurants -- was desperate and alone in his suffering.  And finality would be a long time in coming.

         November 29, 1988.  “Mom looked extraordinarily frail in her thin, faded nightgown.  The strong bones of her face contrast strangely to the bird-like frame that is now her physical abode.  I was again reminded of the limitations of human existence as I helplessly surveyed the ruins of what was once a strong, healthy body – and of course I reflected on my own demise somewhere down that not-so-long road of life.”

         December 7, 1988.  “Tonight, I entered the apartment and heard her talking to herself, stating over and over again, ‘I’m all alone.  Nobody wants me anymore.’  I listened in utter sadness before I made my presence known.”  But he then went on to rant against religion, asking why didn’t J.C., an alleged miracle worker, converse with and console his mother.

         “Nobody wants me anymore.”  When I first encountered them, those words went straight to my heart.  But it’s also true that Hedwig Lagerstrom always harbored a streak of self-pity.  Even when she and her husband were both alive and in the best of health, she was capable of “down” moments when she would say dejectedly of older people, “Heart attack, they say.  But it isn’t heart attack, it’s heartbreak, and nobody cares.”  Implication: such is the fate of the elderly at the hands of an uncaring world.  And this when she was having Bob and me over for a turkey dinner, maybe in a living room cluttered up with a decorated Christmas tree, miniature illuminated houses on a mantel, a jolly little plastic Santa and Mrs. Santa, and sumptuously wrapped presents for everyone – what Bob, in his unsparing journal entries, refers to as “Christmas shit.”

         February 12, 1989.  “These recent years have destroyed any illusions regarding Mom.  I view her in a clear light.  She offends me, and often disgusts me….  I am incapable of admiring or loving someone who is ignorant and shallow.  I say this in full knowledge of her sacrifice in helping to raise me.”  In his journal he is determined to be honest, and brutally honest he is.

         Especially maddening was his mother’s habit of losing things: her keys, her glasses, an important check or bill, her $800 hearing aid.  She would then “rave and flail,” while her son stayed calm.  Sometimes an item disappeared for days, then mysteriously reappeared, retrieved by her from what hiding place he would never know.  And sometimes, delusional, she would accuse her home-care aid, or even Bob, of stealing the missing item.  Once when she was missing her keys, he didn’t raise his voice but said quite calmly to her, “Maybe you stuck them up your ass.”  Whether she absorbed this and other remarks isn’t clear, since at times she was lost to reality and immersed in a world of her own.

         A journal entry for April 11, 1989, tells how, just when he had dressed her up for a Sunday dinner in an elegant restaurant, she couldn’t find her costly hearing aid.  After a half-hour search he recovered it, but now she couldn’t find her glasses.  “I started to erupt.  For a minute, I raged.  Yelled out 'Bastard!' and realized, on the instant, that my profanity was aimed at the outrage of aging and not specifically at Mom.  I cooled down.”  They then left, but fearing “indelicate” table manners, he steered her to a less elegant restaurant.

         Her life now was joyless.  The apartment that had once hosted splendid turkey dinners with all the trimmings now harbored a “Samuel Beckett atmosphere.  The furniture, the wallpaper, all is dying.  Strange, sometimes dank odors come and go.  The rooms are in twilight, dim illumination.”  

         Mother’s Day brings out the worst in him.  His anger erupts “like a tornado,” and he takes the lovely yellow carnations that he brought her, crushes them, and throws them on the floor.  In his journal the next day (May 15, 1989) he deplores “such a rotten, dastardly thing.” 

         The mother maintains what he calls her end-of-the-world act, but she is not always a passive sufferer; on one occasion she throws a pocketbook at him.  But an entry of September 25, 1989, reports that “I found her sleeping in a fetal position on her bed, blankets drawn close around her aging, shrinking body, her head resting on a tissue-thin pillow.  I saw a sleeping child.  I was deeply stunned.”  No matter how depressing the sight, his descriptive powers are unimpaired. 

         She pursues him even into his dreams.  On September 17, 1989,  while vacationing in Maine, he records one.  In it she meets him in front of a Baptist Church.  Diminished physically and barely able to speak, she seems to have no bones or blood.  She pleads to be taken to a hospital, but he slaps her to bring her back to “herself,” then drags her to a bus stop.  When she collapses on a bench, he tries again to snap her back to the person she once was.  He wants her to wear her bright pink dress for church, but she escapes him and tries to enter another church across the street.  When he picks her up and carries her back to the bus stop, she weighs nothing, seems to be air, her face a piece of pink tissue.  He scolds her for not trying to look her best, but then realizes he must get her to a hospital; his attempts to revive her are futile, even immoral.  People gather around them and someone phones for an ambulance; end of dream.  Deep in his psyche, he concludes, he still doesn’t believe she is declining.  This is his dilemma, “the thistle that burns through the night and which I’m unable to grasp and dispose of.”

         In time he will get her into a nursing home, thus relieving him of some of his responsibilities, but phone calls will come all too often from the home reporting yet another fall, or some other cause for alarm.  But at least she won’t be alone.  I visited her there with Bob.  Though she lived in reduced circumstances, being allowed only a few personal items in her room, on that occasion she seemed fairly content, and with the other residents feasted on TV.   For better or for worse, finality was still in the offing.

         Mother/son relationships have been much studied, often with differing conclusions.  I offer Bob’s story, told with brutal honesty, as yet another account of these entangled emotions, rarely soothing or heartening, mostly painful, even shocking.  Personally, I feel deeply sorry for both of them.  They were locked into a situation that neither one wanted.

          Bob's journals, correspondence files, and photo albums are a rich archive of gay life and cultural history in New York from the 1950s on.  So rich a collection that I am looking for a home for them after I too depart this luscious earth.  (Not imminent --   I'm a tough old bird.)  At the moment I have three possibilities.  If necessary, I shall query them each in turn.


For my other books, go here and scroll down to BROWDERBOOKS.

Coming soon:  Gay slang of the 1950s, plus thoughts on camp.

©   Clifford Browder   2019

No comments:

Post a Comment