01 November 2016


My mother died at 92 about 18 months ago, almost 20 years after my father succumbed to complications from Alzheimer’s Disease (see "Dad," 20 June 2010).  My Dad died almost exactly one month after my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, though he didn’t know that and Mom wasn’t in much of a disposition to celebrate.  Mom’s death came about seven months before what would have been their 70th anniversary. 

Officially, Mom died of pneumonia, sepsis, and something called metabolic encephalopathy, a catch-all term for general brain malfunction.  In truth, Mom died of dementia, from which she’d been suffering increasingly severely for about two years with milder symptoms extending back several years earlier.  By the time she went to the hospital for the last time, she’d become entirely non-verbal and I don’t know how much of what was going on around her she perceived.  In essence, my mother had become a living ghost, a vacant shell.  Even before that, she’d lost any pleasure she might derive from life because, I believe, she knew she was becoming separated from everyone around her.  She couldn’t keep up and didn’t understand why—or maybe she did and that contributed to her sense of separation. 

One by one, she stopped doing all the things she had enjoyed, even taking walks around the grounds of her assisted-living residence, Maplewood Park Place in Bethesda, Maryland, and though her neighbors were unfailingly solicitous and attentive, delivering invitations to dinner or coming by for visits, she began blowing them all off.  I couldn’t even get her to go down to the dining room with me; she preferred to eat in her apartment—when she ate at all.  Mom had been a wonderful cook all my life—my dad had taught himself to be a gourmet and Mom kept up with him in the kitchen as well as at the table.  She was known as a terrific hostess and good food was one her greatest pleasures—both partaking and serving.  She had stopped cooking a year or more before the end—what few meals we prepared at home, I made for her.  By the final months, food meant almost nothing to her—not even sustenance. 

I suppose this isn’t an uncommon tale.  As Bette Davis is supposed to have said, “Old age ain’t for sissies.”  Only the very luckiest among us escape its ravages.  But what for me has been the hardest blow is what precisely my mother—I—lost in her descent into mental oblivion.  My family had fun, from my youngest memories to my most recent, and Mom was a fundamental part of that—if not as the instigator, then as an avid participant.  My parents were polar opposites in many respects: Dad was an intellectual, a thinker, a raisonneur—Alzheimer’s destroyed an essential part of his persona, too—and Mom was a romantic, a sentimentalist.  Dad experienced the world through his mind; Mom navigated it through her emotions.  (I inherited some of both, which is a helluva conflict.  I thought it’d make me a better actor, though, but apparently it wasn’t enough.)  Together, however, they always knew how to make fun.  I’ve been missing that lately.  I mean, I’ve been thinking how much I’ll miss that from now on. 

It’s shortly before Thanksgiving as I write this, and my parents and I, and later just Mom and I, were always together on that day.  When my brother and I were little, it became a family tradition to spend Thanksgiving and sometimes Passover with my father’s family, rotating among our house in the Washington area, Aunt Kris and Uncle George’s home in Trenton, and the house of my dad and Kris’s baby sister, Mac, and my Uncle Herb in Haverhill, Massachusetts.  In the past couple of decades, it was our usual practice to spend Turkey Day with the family of Aunt Kris, who was one of Mom’s oldest friends, going back to the World War II years (Kris introduced Mom to my dad).  That visit was always a chance for them to be together and catch up and reminisce.  My folks, and later just my mom, would come to New York on Tuesday or Wednesday, we’d cross the river on Thursday to the house of either my aunt and uncle (who’d moved by this time to Princeton) or one of my three cousins for the holiday meal, and then my parents would spend the rest of the weekend with me in New York City.  Mom continued to follow this routine after Dad died, and last year was the first time I went over to Princeton alone.  This is one of the times when the now-missing piece of my life is perhaps most palpable.  (The other is my birthday, which falls on Christmas.)

Our family fun wasn’t all just brief incidents, an hour or a day of planned pleasure like a party or an outing.  Some were, of course—and some were pretty mundane, too, as you’ll see—but others were whole chunks of our joint life.  The biggest was the period we lived in Germany, a grand adventure that lasted from 1962 to 1967 about which I’ve written more than once on this blog (see, for example, “An American Teen In Germany,” 9 and 12 March 2013).  Dad initiated this, certainly after discussions with Mom, when he joined the Foreign Service in 1961, leaving his private-sector job as an executive at District Theatres Corporation in Washington.  I’d always known that Dad had been inspired to make this move by President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, particularly the famous plea to “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”  What I hadn’t known until he told me many years later was that he and Mother had long harbored a dream that they could take the family to Europe to live for a time but hadn’t figured out how to accomplish that.  Now here was an opportunity for Dad both to answer JFK’s call and to fulfill his and Mom’s hope for the four of us. 

Early in Dad’s training he was informed that a Foreign Service Officer’s spouse was 50% of the job—and he imparted this bit of wisdom to all of us.  Thenceforth, Mom became “Mrs. Fifty Percent” among the three of us boys (one of several nicknames she acquired during our European sojourn)—and she threw herself wholeheartedly into the process of moving us abroad, supporting my father’s work in Germany, and making the whole undertaking a momentous experience for us all.  Whatever success my dad had as a diplomat in Germany was due in large measure to Mom’s entertaining and socializing talents.  Her graciousness as both a hostess and a guest ingratiated her—and thus, my dad and, by extension, the United States, which he represented—to all strata of the community around Koblenz, the small Rhineland city where my father was posted in 1962.  Her gameness to try to speak German, even haltingly, delighted our German hosts, and her willingness to go anywhere and try anything prompted the people among whom we were living to seek us out and welcome us into their homes.  (Socializing was part of my dad’s job and Mom hosted lunches and Kaffeeklatsches at home as well as going to Frauennachmittage at Koblenzers’ homes.  My folks also occasionally arranged what I’d have to call “play dates” for my brother and me with the sons of some of the people they were meeting.  Our hosts, both the parents and the boys, were always welcoming and sometimes an acquaintanceship grew out of it.)  They wanted to show off their town and their country, but Mom made it easy for them.

My brother and I made our first trip to Europe at Christmas vacation in 1962 and our parents surprised us with a trip to Paris for the holidays—and my 16th birthday.  We returned to Koblenz in the summer of 1963 to live and the Paris trip was only the first of many we’d make over the next five years, from day trips to sights near Koblenz and later Bonn or overnights in West Germany; to holiday trips to places like London (my 17th birthday), the Austrian Alps, and Copenhagen; and three-week driving tours of Italy and Spain.  In Italy, where we saw so many paintings and statues of Mary everywhere we went, usually named the Madonna of This or the Madonna of That, Mom obtained another of her family names: the Madonna of the Blue Shoes—or, often, “die Madonna von den blauen Schuhen”—because she bought a pair of teal-blue low heels for walking around the narrow and often cobbled streets.  (Dad, by the way, got a nickname in Spain—based on the official signature of the kings of Spain, “Yo, el Rey”—but it’s too silly to enshrine here.)  

One of the most fun places we went was Zermatt, Switzerland, for skiing at Christmastime.  We loved that so much—the little train up the mountain, the pension where we stayed (with the miniature chalet that was room of my brother and me and where we all gathered for our morning cafés complets), the view of the Matterhorn looming over the town, walking around all day in ski togs, and the way the village looked at night like a giant Christmas tree because of the lit-up chalets and hotels climbing up the mountainside—we went back year after year.

These trips were the products of joint conception and planning by both my parents, of course, but Mother was always right at the center of almost everything my family did.  Oh, sure, there were the usual father-son things—scouts and school stuff mostly—but most of what we did was a foursome.  After Dad’s death and my brother’s permanent move to the West Coast, Mom and I continued to do things together either in New York or Washington, and we traveled together at least once a year, including another Christmas/birthday trip to Quebec City in 2000, until Mom couldn’t manage it anymore.  Our last trip together was a six-day visit to Istanbul in May 2010 (on which I blogged on 24 June 2010).  Mother was 87 when we went to Istanbul, by far the oldest in our group, but despite being slowed some by age and a persistent heart problem, she still derived great pleasure from the sightseeing—which involved considerable walking and even a little climbing—and indulging in the foods and drinks of Turkey, just as we always had back in Western Europe more than 40 years earlier.  Only the flights and the airports were stressful, nearly ruining the experience altogether, and Mom declared as we trekked across Kennedy Airport on the return voyage, racing to make the connection back to D.C., “This is the last time I’m doing this.”  I don’t think she meant it quite the way it turned out, but it was indeed the last time she traveled farther than New York City. 

I said that Mom was an excellent cook, and planning meals and entertainments at home were an immense pleasure for her.  With deference to Perle Mesta, my mom was the ultimate “Hostess with the Mostest.”  Food and drink was a pretty important issue in our house: as I said, Dad had taught himself about good food, wine, and beer so Mom learned as well.  (Like people used to say of Ginger Rogers that she did everything Fred Astaire did except backwards and in high heels, Mom did everything Dad did as far as food and drink were concerned, but she also learned to make it.) 

In addition, my brother was a picky eater all his life, and I was an adventurous one, an incipient foodie, I guess.  (I reported in “Pulling Wagons and Playing in Sand,” 31 August 2013, a post derived from some pre-school evaluations I found among Mom’s keepsakes, that I was deemed above average “in trying new foods” even at 4 years of age.)  So accommodating all our culinary needs and quirks was Mom’s challenge.  She would say that while it was tough to get my brother to try something new, she could get me to eat anything just by giving it a fancy-sounding name.  It must have worked because half the fun we had in Europe, and later when we traveled anywhere else, was trying all the local specialties from the kitchen, brewery, and distillery wherever we went. 

Many of the things we discovered that way became part of our own cuisine; Mother even learned to make her own taramasalata after our trip to Greece in the ’70s (when we also acquired a taste for ouzo).  She found a store in Washington that specialized in Mediterranean foods and tried several recipes to get the best results for our taste—until, violà, we had a new hors d’oeuvre for us and for guests.  I daresay that you could introduce Mom to almost any dish and she’d eventually figure out how to make it at home, as she did with venison in Germany, where game is readily available in restaurants and at butcher shops.  A Spanish housekeeper in Bonn also volunteered to teach her how to make paella for which Mom had brought back paella pans from Spain.  (Mom never figured out how the Germans made those tiny, crispy fried onions that came with Leber und Zwiebel, though.)

Exciting meals at our family dinner table were only one thing Mom was great at.  She knew how to make terrific parties, too—both for us kids and for her and Dad’s grown-up friends.  Children’s parties, teen parties, adult parties, formal or casual—she was clever and innovative at all of them.  I remember one party for my friends and me when I was pretty young—middle school, as I recall (making it sometime in the late ’50s).  Mom came up with the idea to lay out a table with all the fixin’s for ice cream sundaes for our refreshment and we all made our own.  It was such a huge hit that Mom, who’d volunteered to chaperone one of my middle school hops, did the same thing there to even greater appreciation.

For Dad and their friends, Mom was no less inventive.  At one get-together, instead of the usual cocktails or even a bowl of spiked punch, Mom came up with the idea to scoop out a watermelon, make melon balls of the flesh, serve the punch in the hollowed-out rind, and freeze the melon balls to replace ice cubes.  I can still picture the mob of guests engulfing the table set up in the living room with the cups and the napkins and the booze-filled watermelon!  (My brother and I got to hang around parties like that sometimes.  We served as greeters, coat-checkers, and cocktail waiters until it was time for us to have our dinners and go to bed.)  Other parties were costume do’s and come-as-you-are’s.  (Dad went to one costume party dressed as a baby doll in a pink silk-like dress and bonnet, carrying a huge lollipop.  He was a big hit, of course, and that outfit hung around the house for years; I even wore it for something years later—but I don’t remember what for.  I also remember a couple who got the invitation for the come-as-you-are when they were in bed . . . so they arrived at the party dressed in pajama and nightgown with cardboard beds on their backs.)

I went to college at my dad’s alma mater, Washington and Lee University, so Mom and Dad were both avid W&L Parents during the years I was a student.  Dad was a popular visitor at my frat, of which he’d also been a member, because he recounted tales of the pre-World War II days, but Mother was a favorite in her own right . . . because she’d almost always arrive with a stash of “Judy K***** Brownies” which were coveted by my brothers.  (She also used to send care packages which included the brownies and since I got my mail at the frat house, everyone knew when a new batch had arrived.) 

At the end of my senior year, my apartment mate and I threw a big party for all our frat brothers, school friends, and professors.  (We had a rep for throwing really great parties—a knack I may have picked up from Mom.)  When I told my parents of our plans, Mom asked, “Would you like us to come down and cater it for you?”  My roommate and I readily agreed and on the day of the party, my folks arrived from Washington with a carload of hors d’oeuvres, party food, chafing dishes, platters and trays, and so on.  After we set up the apartment for the party, my folks disappeared upstairs, and I thought they’d just come down later and join the party.  What we hadn’t anticipated was that my folks also drove down with black slacks and a white jacket for Dad and a black dress and white apron for Mom and just before the guests arrived, they came downstairs dressed as a butler and a maid and proceeded to serve the party as if they were a waiter and waitress!  People who didn’t know my folks thought my roommate and I had sprung for professional help for the affair—as if we could have afforded that!  

After most of the guests had left and we began cleaning up, Mother suggested she could make a meal out of the leftovers (which included Swedish meatballs, a very popular hors d’oeuvre in those days), so we agreed to do that rather than go find dinner somewhere.  After Mom fixed up the leftovers and we were all sitting in the living room, eating off plates in our laps, Mother and Dad joined us.  One of the remaining guests who didn’t know my folks leaned over and whispered, “Why is the help eating with us?”  She still hadn’t tumbled to the fact that these were my parents!  We all cracked up and finally told her who the mystery couple were.  Our farewell party, which may have been the best-catered student party ever held in Lexington, Virginia, became the talk of the town until we graduated.  
(Speaking of “mystery couple”: back in June 1959, Dad had purchased a part-interest in a radio station in Little Rock.  It was transitioning to a top-40 rock ’n’ roll format and doing a lot of publicity, including PR stunts.  On one visit to Arkansas, Dad brought Mom along and the station manager recruited her to be the Mystery Shopper for a day.  Mom said she had a ball spending the day downtown in Little Rock as the radio broadcast her  whereabouts, until someone finally spotted her and identified her as the Mystery Shopper.  Mom said she was as thrilled to be discovered as the contest-winner was to find her!)

Later, there were also special and unique parties for Mother’s benefit that she didn’t plan—Dad wasn’t a slouch when it came to fun ideas.  For Mom’s 50th birthday in 1973 (while I was still in the army in Berlin), Dad, who by this time had become the volunteer development director of the private Museum of African Art on Capitol Hill, arranged a surprise party for her among the exhibits after hours.  Talk about your Night at the Museum . . .!  (I wrote an article about the MAA for ROT, published on 19 January 2015.)  Ten years later, when Dad had become a member of the advisory board of the Folger Theatre Group (forerunner to Washington’s current Shakespeare Theatre Company), he once again arranged for a special accommodation—this time for Mom’s 60th birthday (and I was present this time).  After the performance of John Dryden’s Marriage a la Mode that evening, the cast and production company, theater staff, and Dad’s invited guests were ushered into a long, oak-paneled Tudor hall (the Paster Reading Room, I believe) of the Folger Shakespeare Library, then the home of the theater company, for an elaborate buffet accompanied by music from a small ensemble. 

I even occasionally got into the act, on a much more modest scale.  For instance, at Christmas 1985, which was my 39th birthday, my parents drove up to New York and then we all drove over to New Hope, Pennsylvania, for the holiday.  We stayed in New Hope for several days and then drove down to Washington for New Year’s.  Now, my parents’ anniversary is 6 January, but I was in grad school at NYU in ’85-’86 and also teaching undergrad writing, and I had to get back to New York City before then.  So I worked out a little celebration on me in my absence.  I’d bought a bottle of Perrier-Jouët Champagne in New York and had lugged it across New Jersey and down to D.C. hidden in my suitcase, keeping it out of my parents’ sight for the week or so over Christmas.  In D.C., I went out one afternoon just before I left town without telling my ’rents where I was going and bought some fresh caviar.  Now, my folks lived in a townhouse in Georgetown then and there was a wet bar with a small refrigerator off the living room and family sitting room on the second floor.  I stashed the caviar and Champagne in the fridge and left my parents a card with instructions not to open it until the 6th.  Inside was the first of a series of clues leading to the “hidden treasure” where there was a final note instructing my mother and father to invite a couple of their choice to join them in their 40th anniversary celebration.

I said that seeking out interesting food was one of the enjoyments we shared, and one of the things we always did when I came for visits over the years, along with seeing shows and going to art exhibits, was try out new restaurants Mother would find and save for my trips to D.C.  I did the same for her visits to New York.  I still have dozens of reviews I clipped for her.  A particular favorite was trying out new places that offered mussels.  (These restaurants weren’t necessarily in Mom’s immediate neighborhood.  One place she wanted to try after reading about it was in Alexandria, Virginia, about 9 miles and a 30-minute drive south along the Potomac.)  Mom had a couple of spots in Washington we liked, such as a Belgian restaurant on MacArthur Boulevard that also served waffles at Sunday brunch, but we were always on the look-out for new ones.  Unfortunately, the last place we tried, a new bistro that had mussels as a weekly special on Mondays, had opened in my Flatiron neighborhood in New York in 2006, but was a great disappointment (and ultimately closed in 2013).  There were other cuisines we liked, too, such as Greek and Indian, but mussels were a treat we savored especially.

After Mom became a widow, she got closer to several women around her age, most of them also widows.  They’d make a game of going out to eat, often connected with taking in a movie together as well.  Mom and her friends played several bridge games a month—not all the same foursomes.  Within each regular game, the practice was pretty much the same: they’d play for a few cents a point for each hand, but instead of the afternoon’s winner taking the pot at the end, it would be pooled.  When there was enough in the kitty, they’d find a film they all wanted to see, go to a late-afternoon showing, and then go to dinner somewhere interesting afterwards.  The bridge-winnings paid the tab for dinner for all four ladies—either at someplace new one of them wanted to try or a favorite spot they all liked.  (Not all the ladies were as adventurous as Mom, of course, so there were always plenty of restaurants Mom kept in reserve to try out when I came down.  Plus, we had our faves, too, of course.)

Unlike play-going, I seldom joined Mom and her friends for these dinner-and-a-movie jaunts—though Mom and I and often a friend of hers would take in flicks once or twice during my visits south.  (We went to movies in New York City, too, of course; my neighborhood has grown into a restaurant-theater-entertainment zone over the past couple of decades and we could walk to several moviehouses near Union Square.)  Mom liked movies in general, but she especially enjoyed old movies.  She was a devoted fan, for instance, of Turner Classic Movies, the cable channel; the week before we saw She Loves Me, the 1963 Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick-Joe Masteroff musical, at the Arena Stage, Mom and I sat and watched both the 1940 Jimmy Stewart-Margaret Sullavan movie Shop Around the Corner, on the source of which the musical’s based, and then the 1949 film musical adaptation, In the Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland and Van Johnson, on TCM.  

Then on a visit to Washington in 1998, I took Mom to see the theatrical re-release of MGM’s Gone with the Wind, which had been digitally restored and its sound remastered so that it resembled the original print of almost 60 years earlier.  Part of the treat was that the theater where the restoration was playing in D.C. was the old Avalon on Wisconsin Avenue near Chevy Chase Circle, our neighborhood moviehouse when my brother and I were growing up in Chevy Chase and Barnaby Woods—just up Western Avenue from the circle.  It was sort of a double step back in time: a movie Mom first saw when she was 16 in a theater we all went to when she was still in her 30’s.

Something else Mother enjoyed was browsing in new or fun stores.  Not necessarily buying, mind you—she was not a shopaholic and shopping for necessities like food or household goods was an errand not a pastime.  (Dad liked to do this, too, but his browsing inclined to bookstores and hardware stores.  Given his proclivities, the books were an obvious choice, but his interest in tools wasn’t.  Dad was the least handy person I’ve known—even I’m better at home repair than he was.  He used to say of himself that even after changing a light bulb, he’d have parts left over!) 

In New York, I took Mom over to the Chelsea Market, which is directly west of my apartment, just so she could poke around in some of the kicky food-related outlets.  (We didn’t actually waste the visit on just sightseeing: one time we bought dinner in the large seafood store in the market, the Lobster Place, and on another trip, we compiled an Italian antipasto meal—Italian tapas, you might say—from Buon Italia to take home.)    More recently I took Mom to another new shopping experience, this time a different food market: Eataly, hyped as the largest Italian marketplace in the world.  Opened with a lot of press attention in 2010, Eataly happens to be located on the ground floor of 200 Fifth Avenue, across from Madison Square.  Not only is this just up the street from my home, but 200 Fifth, known as the Toy Center South, was the headquarters of my maternal grandfather’s doll company—Mother’s family business.  (The company’s gone now: it was sold it in the ’70s and the buyer eventually liquidated it.)  So I knew Mom would love to see the place: great food on display, right nearby, and at a family-connected address!  What’s the downside?  Not a thing.

Another store I thought Mom would get a kick out of because it was truly unique at the time, was Shanghai Tang, a flashy new department store from the People’s Republic of China.  It opened on 61st and Madison, to considerable hoopla, in 1997 and closed, after 19 months, in 1999.  I took Mom up to the East Side mid-town location soon after the November opening—maybe it was over the Thanksgiving weekend that year—as a detour on our way uptown to the Met, as I recall.  That visit was just for sightseeing, needless to say; not only wasn’t the merchandise much to Mother’s taste—the clothes were pretty gaudy—but they were outrageously priced.  But it was well worth a gander.

Mother loved going to Trader Joe’s, but for actual buying.  She introduced me to the store in the Washington area more than half a decade before the California chain opened its first outlet in New York City—in 2006 on East 14th Street in my own neighborhood.  Mom got such fun out of shopping at TJ’s that I gave her gift cards a couple of times as one of her birthday or holiday presents.  (A related treat I used to buy for Mom was a box or two of TJ’s Pfeffernüsse Christmas cookies.  We liked the kind with powdered sugar, not icing, which I used to be able to find in a few stores, but they all stopped carrying them.  When I discovered that the Trader Joe’s brand, only available between Thanksgiving and New Year, were the same spice cookies we loved in Germany all those years ago, I started bringing a box or two with me when I went to D.C. for my birthday.  TJ’s Pfeffernüsse were one of the last treats I bought for Mom, for the 2014 holiday, but by then I don’t think she knew what they were anymore.)

As I said, Mom and I continued to travel together after our family dwindled down to just the two of us.  That was because we were each the best travel companions either of us knew.  We shared mostly the same tastes in not only food and restaurants, but what we were interested in seeing.  We liked almost everything—the traditional tourist sights, local cuisine, out-of-the-way curiosities, historical spots, cultural focal points, museums, shops, natural wonders; we were pretty much omnivorous when it came to sightseeing, and we could never be certain anyone else would indulge us in that pursuit.  (The same was true of restaurants, movies, and plays, which is why each of us often saved some of those kinds of things for a visit by the other.)  In addition to places like Istanbul; Taos, New Mexico (May 2002); the Inside Passage, Alaska (August 2003); San Antonio, Texas (April 2005); or San Juan and Ponce, Puerto Rico (January 2008), we did other kinds of trips as well. 

I took Mom for a long late-birthday/early-Mother’s Day weekend in May 2003 to Staunton, Virginia, to see the Shenandoah Shakespeare perform in their new reconstruction of the Blackfriars Theatre, Shakespeare’s indoor winter home (see “Blackfriars Playhouse in Virginia,” 18 November 2009, and “Shenandoah Shakespeare,” 21 November 2009).  At Mom’s behest, we took another long weekend in July 2004 to attend the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia (“Contemporary American Theatre Festival (2004),” 8 July 2015), and we traveled together for a week in August 2006 to the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada (see “The 2006 Shaw Festival,” 8 and 11 December 2015, plus “Design for Living (Shaw Festival, 2006),” 29 March 2012, and “The Heiress (1976 & 2006),” 24 November 2012).  Other jaunts included Winterthur, the DuPont family estate museum near Wilmington, Delaware, combined with a visit to the Brandywine River Museum, the showcase for the art of the Wyeth family of painters in nearby Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, in April 2004 (“Winterthur & The Brandywine River Museum,” 15 June 2014), and, in August 2007, the Barnes Collection in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania.  The Blackfriars visit was my idea and I made all the arrangements, but the others were based on Mom’s suggestions and initial research, after which we made the plans together or divvied them up.

Of course, we traveled when my father was still alive and there were wonderful trips and outings then, too (Christmastime trips to New Orleans and Mexico, a Caribbean cruise, a stay in the Yucatán).   And Mother and Dad took many voyages together after Dad left the Foreign Service, both around the U.S. and abroad.  (Mom and Dad went on not a few art trips as members of the Smithsonian Associates and even organized a trip to “Shakespeare’s Italy” for the Folger Theatre Group.)  In fact, several of the trips Mom and I took after my father’s death were to revisit places he and Mom had gone and which she wanted me to see as well.  That was the impetus for the visits to both San Antonio and the high desert of New Mexico.  (The target for that last trip, which included stays in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, was Taos and the art community that’s developed there.  My own interest, though, also included the Taos Pueblo, about which I’d read extensively in the years before that visit and on which I blogged in “Taos & Taos Pueblo,” 24 and 27 May 2012.)  Sometimes travels combined both, such as a trip to Greece in fall 1973, while I was in the army in West Berlin, when I flew to Athens to join my folks.  We toured the peninsula together for a week, after which I returned to Germany and they boarded a Greek cruise ship for a journey around the Aegean.  On another occasion, my parents came to visit me in Berlin for several days and then continued on their own for a visit to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Some trips were just day-trips to sights near Washington.  For instance, even though I grew up in the Nation’s Capital, I’d never been to Theodore Roosevelt Island.  (The island wasn’t actually dedicated to TR until 1967, years after I no longer lived in D.C.)  So Mom and I drove over there one fall afternoon in the early 2000’s and walked around the little (less than 90 acres), forested island in the Potomac River near the Virginia bank with its Theodore Roosevelt memorial and views of the D.C. skyline across the river.  A favorite drive was farther down the George Washington Memorial Parkway to Alexandria to roam around the old city.  One place Mom liked to wander through was the Torpedo Factory, a local art center (converted from an actual torpedo factory) near the Potomac that opened in 1983.  Today, the Torpedo Factory Art Center is home to nearly 200 artists who create, exhibit, and sell their art in little shops and studios that are fun to poke around in.  Other times, we’d just go over for lunch in one of the many restaurants and taverns in Old Town (18th- and early 19th-century buildings) and then stroll along the old streets.  We were even known to go over in the evening for dinner at some restaurant Mom knew or had read about—including one that served goat on one day  month.  (Remember I said we were adventurous and curious eaters.  Mom had had goat before, but I never had.  It tastes like gamey lamb or mutton, by the way.)  

We used to do this back when Dad was still alive and I had a dog, whom we’d take with us on our strolls through Old Town Alexandria—much to his delight.  We occasionally varied our day-trips to Alexandria with visits to Leesburg, Virginia (about an hour west northwest of Washington), and Frederick, Maryland (1¼ hours northwest), both colonial-era towns of some historic note—but mostly just pleasant places to walk around on a nice day and have a meal in an old tavern.

Mother had other interests in addition to food and travel which I shared as well.  I guess it’s pretty obvious that she, too, loved theater—otherwise why make those trips to so may theater festivals?  (Mom and Dad had also traveled to the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario.)  My own love of theater was certainly influenced by—if not entirely derived from—my folks’ interest.  Theater was one of the interests my mother and father had in common when they met.  (Mother told me more than once about the time her father wanted to take her to see Pal Joey, considered a risqué play in 1940-41 when Mom was 17 or 18.  The ticket broker with whom my grandfather did business refused to sell him a ticket for my future mom because he deemed her too young to see such a scandalous play!  Dad also told me often that one of his first dates with his eventual bride was to Oklahoma!, which was still running between their first meeting in January 1945 and their wedding a year later.) 

My folks took me to my first performances as a child in Washington, including Shakespeare plays and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas at first and then Broadway fare, in either post- or pre-New York tours.  (I’ve written about my early theater exposure in “A Broadway Baby,” 22 September 2010.)  We went to lots of shows together over the years and my parents subscribed to several theaters in D.C. along with concert and ballet series.  By the time my mother was a widow, she and I went to the theater often either when I came to Washington or she came to New York.  (In the days when I was trying to become an actor, my folks came up for every show I was in—even if I said I’d rather they’d skip this one or that one—including my grad school performances.  When I taught in middle school and high school, they even attended the school shows I directed.)  If Mom had a subscription show while I was visiting, she’d always get an extra ticket so I could join her and whichever friend with whom she regularly went to that theater. 

But one of our particular theater practices was at New Year.  Neither of us much liked New Year parties and the enforced merriment and often heavy drinking on which those gatherings usually centered.  So we looked for a play that was running on New Year’s Eve and went to the theater that evening, returning home in time to lay out a small celebration—occasionally a friend of Mom’s or two would join us—and uncork a good bottle of wine (we also weren’t fond of Champagne), and saw in the new year by watching the Times Square ball drop on TV.  If there wasn’t a suitable play on that night, we’d look for a good movie, but going to a show was our favorite activity for the evening of 31 December and we did that most New Year’s Eves.  It was a wonderful way to see in the new year.  (If you troll through my blog reports of shows I saw in Washington, you’ll find that a number of them were New Year’s Eve performances.)

I took Mother to several special stage shows when she visited me in New York, too.  In 1999, when she was coming up between her 7 April birthday and Mother’s Day on 9 May, I decided that she’d really enjoy seeing the wonderful puppets and masks of Julie Taymor’s stage adaptation of Disney’s The Lion King.  It’s not that we frequently went to family shows aimed at pre-teen audiences—neither of us had seen the animated film—but I knew a little about Taymor’s work (The Green Bird, Juan Darién) and I was sure Mom would appreciate the theatrical spectacle of the production irrespective of its origins.  I was dead-on right, and when Mom got back home, she couldn’t stop talking about this fantastic show and even took several of her friends to the National Museum of Women in the Arts to see Julie Taymor: Playing With Fire, a retrospective of her designs that opened at the Washington, D.C., museum in November 2000.  She spoke of these experiences for years to come, which gratified me immensely.  (As part of the Mother’s Day treat—we went to the show at the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street on the 9th—I took Mom for dinner at a new restaurant on Restaurant Row, 46th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues: the FireBird, a recreation of the splendors of a Romanov-era St. Petersburg mansion. The lavish restaurant débuted in 1996, but closed in 2014.) 

Later, when Mother’s mind began to deteriorate, she had trouble following complex stories or challenging productions—which I discovered in September 2014 when I took her to the Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland, to see Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love and then, most pointedly, Belleville by Amy Herzog at Washington’s Studio Theatre, the last theater to which Mom subscribed.  (I had renewed her subscription to the Studio for 2014-15 over the summer without then realizing that by the fall, Mom wouldn’t be able to manage theater.)  At Belleville, I was sitting across the small thrust stage of the Studio’s Metheny Theatre from Mother, and she got agitated near the end of the performance and had to be calmed by her neighbors, who were kind strangers, until I got over to her.  That was the last show Mother attended in Washington, but I had taken her to two shows in New York that year: Disney’s Newsies in February and, our last theater outing, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder in September, a week after Belleville.  I chose these plays because I didn’t think they’d be challenges for Mom—Newsies because it was an old-fashioned musical based on a children’s movie and Gentleman’s Guide because it was just for fun, all silly nonsense with no subtext.  Both were delightful and perfect shows for our needs and circumstances; I guessed right and Mom seemed to enjoy both performances.  I suspect, though, that her pleasure was more because I took her to the theater than because the shows themselves were especially meaningful to her.  That’s all right, though.  (I reported on all these later performances on ROT, though I didn’t discuss Mom’s difficulties.  Fool and Belleville were posted on 6 and 11 October 2014, respectively, and Newsies and Gentleman’s Guide on 26 February and 16 October 2014.)

Art shows were just as special to us as theater, as you may have gleaned.  My mother and I always tried to check out the local art museums when we visited new cities, and we often also made the rounds of the commercial galleries as well.  (More than once, my souvenir of a trip was a piece of art.)  We used to have a regular benchmark for art shows we especially liked: we’d judge the exhibit from the perspective of how many pieces we’d come back for on a “midnight shopping trip.”

One of the last large exhibits Mom and I saw before she had descended too far into dementia to enjoy going to a museum or gallery was Washington Art Matters at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center on Ward Circle, near where Mother had lived before moving to Maplewood.  We used to go to AU frequently when there was anything of interest because it was so close and we could essentially drop in on the spur of the moment, but Washington Art Matters (reported on ROT on 5 September 2013) was entirely focused on the art scene of my hometown from its inception after World War II to the 1980s and included works by a number of artists my parents had known (Lila Oliver Asher, a printmaker my mother had known since they were children; Sam Gilliam, a member of the Washington Color School of whose work my parents owned three pieces) or art they’d been familiar with for years (Jacob Kainen, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis).  Mother was still capable of experiencing art this way, though when we weren’t focused on the exhibit, like at lunch beforehand or on the drive back to her Bethesda apartment, she slipped into a sort of netherworld where my father was still alive, along with Mom’s parents (who had died in the ’60s and ’70s). 

(In addition to the blog report on Washington Art Matters, I’ve reported on exhibits of many of the other artists mentioned above: “Morris Louis,” 15 February 2010, and “Picasso, Bearden, Gilliam, and Gauguin,” 26 June 2011, which also contains a passing mention of Noland.  I posted a profile on Rick On Theater of Lila Asher on 26 September 2014, prompted by a small show at Maplewood the previous year in which Asher’s prints were featured.) 

The last art showing to which I took Mother outside her building was The Washington School of Color at the Marin-Price Galleries in downtown Bethesda in 2014, nine months before she died.  The gallery’s proximity to Maplewood suggested that she could manage the outing and the subject of the art meant she might still get some pleasure from it, and she did (see my article posted on 21 September 2014).  She engaged the staffer on duty that August Monday afternoon in a conversation about Gres Gallery, the gallery of which my parents were part-owners in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and the art she collected with my father.  Mother used to know modern art, especially American painters and sculptors, pretty well for an amateur all of whose knowledge was accumulated by going to exhibits, reading reviews, and assembling a small collection (about 40 paintings and sculptures). 

She and Dad got interested in modern art when Dad made the impulse-buy of shares in Gres in 1959 and they both threw themselves into the operation of the gallery—though Mother was the principal activist (Dad had a day job, of course).  Even I got into the act, going with Mother to the R Street gallery near DuPont Circle to help stuff envelopes or hang paintings.  (I was only 12 when all this started so I was too small actually to hang the often huge canvases, but I stood back and guided the women—it was the wives of the couples who did this work, plus Beati (Mrs. Hart) Perry, the managing partner—to get the frames straight and the heights right.)  Most excitingly, the partners shared entertainment duties so that the vernissages rotated among the six or so households, and Mom, as hostess-in-chief at our house, was in charge of this.  As always when my folks had parties, I assisted and since the décor had to include displaying some of the artist’s (or, sometimes, artists’) work in our home, once again I “directed” the set dressing.  So not only did I get to see “real” art at the gallery, courtesy of my Mom and Dad, but I got to have this art in my home, at least temporarily—it was like actually having taken one of those imaginary midnight shopping trips—and what’s more, I got to meet actual artists.  This whole venture was an art education for all of us and an adventure for me, and it lasted well beyond the demise of Gres Gallery to the end of my parents’ lives.

It also branched out.  Trips to China, Thailand, India, Nepal, and Japan spawned an attraction to Asian art (China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200-750 A.D. at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art over the Thanksgiving weekend in 2004) and Dad’s stint as Director of Development for the private Museum of African Art on Capital Hill, precursor to the present Smithsonian Institution museum, generated an enduring affinity for sub-Saharan African art.  Visits out west and to Mexico and Central America resulted in an interest in Native American and pre-Columbian art, too.  (My folks’ art holdings included a bronze by Fritz Scholder, whose two-part retrospective, Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian, we attended at the National Museum of the American Indian both in New York City and on the Mall in Washington in 2008; see my post on 30 March 2011.  Due to our pre-Columbian attraction, Mother and I took in The Aztec Empire at Manhattan’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya at the National Galley of Art in Washington, both in 2004; see “Theater & Art,” 14 August 2014.)  But modern Western, especially American, art remained my parents’ main focus and Mother continued to explore this area after my father’s death, even though she stopped buying art then. 

The last exhibit to which Mother and I went was Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe at the Guggenheim in June 2014.  I arranged for a wheelchair at the museum (which, you may know, is a giant inverted cone accessed by a spiraling ramp) and we took a cab directly from my corner to the Goog’s entrance so Mom wouldn’t have to take her walker and navigate the ramp on her own.  (I maneuvered the chair from the top level down to the lobby.)  Like attending Newsies and Gentleman’s Guide, I think what pleased Mom more than seeing the art, although Italian Futurism is fascinating and provocative (see “Italian Futurism,” 15 July 2014), was that I took her.  I didn’t fully recognize it yet, but Mom was already beginning to feel left out and lost and when I brought her to New York City for a visit and took her out to do things—eat at a restaurant, see sights like the High Line Park, take in an art show or a play, or even just go to a movie—she would tell all her neighbors for days afterward.  It was always “Rick took me to an art show” or “My son’s taking me to New York.” 

My parents and I had a few exciting experiences together.  (One or two were even a little frightening, like the time I almost didn’t get out of the Soviet Union in 1965 or the cruise in the Mediterranean in 1973 when my folks nearly got caught in the middle of the Yom Kippur War.)  But most of our times were uneventful as far as high drama is concerned.  But we had fun together.  A significant facet was lost when Dad died; he always supplied the historical, academic, or intellectual perspective to our experiences.  (I was always astonished how he could connect history—sometimes pretty ancient history, too—current politics, and local culture together to make a coherent narrative explaining why something is the way it is.  He’d have made a terrific teacher.)  Mom always went with her emotional response, and that continued while she could still sort out her perceptions.  Right up till then, we were still each other’s best travel, theater, museum-, and restaurant-going companions.  Even when each of us did those things on our own, we could share the experience with one another; I always knew Mom or Dad would understand it the way I did, see the same specialness, and vice versa.  That’s gone now.  We used to talk regularly a couple of times a week, and I’d tell Mom about the last play I saw and she’d tell me about a new restaurant she’d discovered.  I don’t know anyone else who’d be that interested.  Perhaps predictably, the thing I missed most palpably right after Mom died and I returned to New York, was the regular Sunday-morning telephone call, a ritual that went back to my college days.  It was a sort of echo of the pleasures we shared and can’t anymore.

No comments:

Post a Comment