Monthly column appearing in the local Hampshire Gazette today.
Reflections on my mother’s life
(Published in print:
Shall I write an obituary? Obituaries “close the book” and give those who use words like “closure” a warm, unexamined satisfaction. No, I can’t write an obituary and wouldn’t even if I could. From where I sit, it’s too disrespectful, not to mention being untrue. As my Zen teacher’s teacher once put it, she has “joined the majority.”
My mother died one day after having been moved from her
apartment to a hospice where she could receive 24/7 morphine if needed for her
apparent pain. She was largely unresponsive to the people around her and so her
desire to die at home was not honored, but she didn’t complain, even if she
knew. As agreed, her ashes will go to Ashfield and there will be no service.
Others may be wracked and riven and saddened by the death of a mother, but I am not yet sure what I feel. A piece of my whole cloth has been revised and perhaps the emotional shift will hit me harder as time passes.
I would like to think of her as whole and contradictory. Like a lot of self-aware people, she could be astoundingly unaware. But my point of view is just my point of view, fractured and half-told at best. She taught me to drive. She was a good writer. She thought sins of commission were more informative than sins of omission. She was the only “den mother” who organized a spitball-shooting contest for the Cub Scouts I belonged to. She ....
At the moment, I remember her anti-intellectual intellectualism — a courageous and sometimes searing capacity that led her to decline an invitation to join Mensa, a coalition of very bright people whose brightness dimmed my mother’s expansive and curiosity-driven view of the human experience. Likewise she dropped out of an attempt to get a Ph.D. in English after she realized that the love she felt for tale-telling was being segmented and freeze-dried and ... well, grad school was sort of like dissecting laughter and she was a person who preferred to laugh.
She was born
31, 1916. Her mother died in the flu epidemic of 1918 and her
father, who had joined World War I by enlisting in Canada
before the United States
joined the fray, later committed suicide. The strangulation of the white,
well-to-do WASP-dom that surrounded him in Cincinnati,
where my mother was born and likewise felt strangled, was too damned much. My
mother adored her father and wished unendingly for the Good Mother who died
when she was 2.
Like going to college in the East, marrying my father, Alfred Young Fisher, one of her English professors, was yet another step away from
Cincinnati. I was their only
child. My mother married and divorced twice — once to my father, who worked and
basked in an academic world that drove my mother nuts, and once to Martin
Harris, a more loose-limbed fellow who helped photograph World War II. She joined
the Communist Party when it was fashionable, but found soon enough that its
strictures were another narrow enclosure.
And after college, she wrote. “The Horizontal Man” and won an Edgar award for that distinguished bit of mystery writing. Later she would write “The Fool Killer” and “Mr. Death and the Red-Headed Woman” and a book of short works entitled “The Captains and the Kings Depart.” She wrote for the then upscale magazine, The New Yorker, and once withdrew a submitted story in which she had used a word like “scrunch.” The New Yorker said it was not a dictionary word and she replied she didn’t give a (uhhh) hoot — it was her word. She gave up writing magazine articles when it became fashionable — or agreeably sissified — to make no assertion without adducing “expert” support.
During her writing years, she hobnobbed with the likes of Truman Capote and Carson McCullers and a collection of other wingnuts who were also very good writers. She also hung out with cops.
It was during her writing years that she sent me to a boarding school. From the fourth-and-a-half grade until grade eight, I went to
Country School Lake
On the first night there, realizing I would not “go home” in any literal sense, I cried and cried as any child might when his worst nightmare — the nightmare of abandonment — had been realized.
Shortly after I left
and lived at home, she began to drink and pop pills addictively. Living with an
addict was no picnic. She drank and sent me to pick up her “prescriptions.” It
was only after I joined the compulsory army of the time and went to a Europe
that she hit the addict’s bottom and joined Alcoholics Anonymous.
Through it all, her mind was her playground. She remained intellectually gutsy. It was she who introduced me first to Hindu Vedanta and later Zen Buddhism. She was not beyond exploring the god or gods she could not, in the end, embrace. The fact that I got involved in Zen was not beyond her understanding, but it was not compelling enough for put her bets on: There were always hills in the distance.
All of this, and a host of other minutiae, cluster and whisper in my mind. It is arrogant and unfair to mention them, in one sense. Too limited. Too limiting. Descriptions of anyone living or dead are convenient to the one doing the describing. They are vastly incomplete as far as the one being described.
No doubt there is so much more to say, but I cannot, at the moment, say it. Maybe I should add, “the apple never falls far from the tree,” but I’m not sure.
People aren’t books and there is no closing them.
I do wish her a loving and peaceful journey.
Adam Fisher lives in
. His column appears on the third Wednesday
of the month. He can be reached at email@example.com. Northampton