Lost in the Woods 7/26/06
In her sixties, my mother got lost in the woods near her house in the beautiful Connecticut countryside. Her husband called the police when she didn’t return for several hours. It wasn’t Alzheimers, she just wasn’t used to hiking. She laughed about it afterwards – that was Betsy, always taking things in stride.
She was like the sister I never had. She felt for me, I think, being an only child, having been the youngest of three herself. But I don’t think she ever regretted ending that one pregnancy my father told me about – the one that would have given him a son. She didn’t think she had parenting skills with me, so what was the use of bringing another
child into the world when she also knew she would end her days living under her husband’s roof (actually it was the house her own father had paid for).
Try as I might, I could never get my mother to write a chronology of my first ten years, the years she was married to my father. One of these days, when I delve into stored boxes, I think I’ll be able to piece together those years from my own letters which she never threw away and from her’s which I never threw away.
1939 to 1949 are the years in question, which included the war years and the recovery years when her father was often featured in the newspapers meeting with his Washington constituents and being part of delegations in San Francisco to create a United Nations.
I have pictures of my father during that time working in their victory garden in Forest Hills and later on, clearing out their backwoods’ property on Long Island from which he got a case of poisen ivy that hospitalized him. On that one day, not only did he pull up the poison ivy, he burned and inhaled it. He had the virulent pustules inside and out! I
have a professionally- shot picture of him in his hospital bed, head and neck perhaps whole body under the sheet, covered in bandages, droopy eyes peering out from a face dark with stubby beard. The only picture I have of my Burt Lancaster-look-alike father lying prone, incapable of action.
Actually, I do have another picture of him looking vulnerable – when he visited me in Japan, his 6′ frame stretched out on a tatami mat at a low table holding up a piece of dried fish with chopsticks, looking like he was about to get sick.
Since he spoke no Japanese, I was the one in charge when he visited me in Tokyo. In retrospect, perhaps that is the very reason I moved there – to be out from under his never vulnerable, opinionated, energetic self.
I love the Greek Tragedy sense of my parent’s lives, now that I can look back on them from a great distance.
Now eight years after my mother’s death and 22 years after my father’s, I want to somehow piece together those years when we were together and make sense of the years when wewere apart.
My dear mother, if living today, might tell me “Just forget it!” but I can’t. In spite of her deliberately not writing that chronology, here I am, 60 years later still wanting to.
Betsy always tried to take things in stride, from her father’s nomination for the U.S. presidency, to her piano performance at age 18 before both Houses of Congress, to her divorce from my father (when divorce was a rarity), to the blindness of her beloved second husband, a gifted baritone singer with whom she gave many concerts, to being mother of me.
Given all the personalities involved, life didn’t revolve much around me – except for my arrivals and departures from my parents’ lives. I was always greeted enthusiastically andalways felt loved (while at the same time felt there was something in me both parents hated: that part of the other!). I grew up amazed when sometimes my tiny voice stood out like being Editor of the high school year book, President of my sophomore college class, a voyager to Japan, who learned Japanese!
I look back now and wonder if I had any influence on my mother. I started using mascara in my teens, she started in her fifties…was that my influence, much delayed? At 65, she went hiking alone in the Connecticut countryside. Was that because a few months earlier (at one of my “arrivals”) we had hiked together?
I think I also influenced the last utterance on her death bed. Through the nurse on the phone, because I was 200 miles away, I told her I loved her. She whispered to the nurse”I’ve been a bad girl.” That was all she had strength for. When the nurse relayed those words to me, I interpreted them as “I’m sorry.”
Then and now, I say to my mother’s spirit “There’s nothing to be sorry about. You lived the life that was given to you and taught me to take life as it comes, to walk the mountains and valleys and to get lost – and to be found – in the woods of the world – in my own stride.”