How is Your Mother?

by

09/06/2020

Neighborhood: Featured, Greenwich Village, West Village

“How is your mother?” they’d ask with a friendly smile. The stationery store manager with the club foot from whom she bought her cigarettes, the Eurotrash guy at the shoe store with whom she spoke German, everyone at the Jefferson Market. The shopkeepers up and down Sixth Avenue loved her. She made them feel special, interesting.

“Fine,” I’d say. “I haven’t seen her in a while…,” they’d press on. “She’s been sick,” I’d tell them. She was, in fact dead, but I couldn’t say it.

I hadn’t known they were aware of me, us, the children. When my mother died in 1976, my sister Lisa was sixteen, I was fifteen, and my brother Scott was twelve.

I began avoiding these shops. I couldn’t bear to be the one who told them. The messenger of news that would hurt them, or at least cause them regret or discomfort. The streets and people in the neighborhood were the same, but now everything was different.

On the morning my mother died, I was sleeping in the maid’s room off the kitchen with my boyfriend Michael. We’d come home late the night before from a party on East 10th Street. I was awakened by the buzzing of the house intercom at 7:00 am. I ignored it. Let someone else get it, I thought. It’s Sunday.

My sister knocked rapidly on the door. “Jen. Get up, get dressed, the police are on their way up.”

I immediately thought my father had been busted for drugs. Was he going to be arrested? What was going to happen? When I came out of the room, she told me that our mom was dead.

Suddenly there were several uniformed police officers in our living room. We were just standing around staring in disbelief as my father cried and pounded his fists against the counter of the stereo cabinets.

My mother was 44 years old. She had fallen during a massive seizure while walking to the bathroom, and her heart had stopped. She’d been sick for a couple of weeks, recuperating from minor cosmetic surgery to remove the bags beneath her eyes, and had been having a hard time recovering.

Silently, I wondered if she had stopped taking her pills on purpose.

Later, it occurred to me that it was likely that the general anesthesia mixed with the anti-seizure medication she took for her epilepsy had caused a bad reaction. The chemical combination had set off a prolonged bout of multiple seizures that just wore her out.

This is what I preferred to believe.

My sister Lisa believed that our mom had an aneurysm burst in her brain.

Later that morning, the phone rang in the living room. I remember being hesitant to answer it. I wasn’t at all ready to tell anyone what had just happened.

“Hello, is Judy there? It’s ‘Big Tex’,” said a man jovially with a deep voice and cartoonish Texan accent.

I was relieved that it was someone I didn’t know.

“I’m sorry, but Judy passed away unexpectedly this morning.” I told him.

“No, no, that can’t be.” He didn’t believe me. “I’m sorry,” I repeated and hung up the phone.

My father’s parents, Harriet and Mortimer, came downtown from the Upper West Side. His sister and brother came from the Upper East Side and Long Island. I couldn’t remember ever seeing any of them in our apartment before. They sat on the sofas looking uncomfortable. We were uncomfortable too.

Finally, when they got ready to leave, my grandmother picked up a pair of tortoise shell sunglasses from the table and said, “someone’s forgotten their glasses!”

“I’ll take them,” I said reassuringly, as I put them in the pocket of my bathrobe. They belonged to my mother. Naturally, there were signs of her all over the place.

We hadn’t thought to tidy up for visitors. I was suddenly aware that the place needed a good dusting and vacuuming. I was still in my nightgown.

The next day platters of deli food arrived courtesy of my boyfriend’s parents. I hadn’t even noticed when Michael had left our apartment that morning. Everything was a blur.

On Wednesday evening I got a call from Brian, my old boyfriend from St Luke’s School. He was crying and apologizing over and over again. I couldn’t understand him at first. He said he’d spent the day crying in the chapel. He had heard about mom’s death from some of the younger kids as he walked through a throng of them on the school grounds.

“Poor Scott,” they said.

“Scott? Scott who?” he asked them.

“Scott Marcus.”

“Why, what happened to Scott Marcus?”

“His mother died,” they explained.

Brian confessed that it was he that called on Sunday disguising his voice as ‘Big Tex’.  He was only joking around and didn’t believe it when I told him that Judy was dead. He thought I was joking too. We cried together on the phone for a long time that night.

My father left us “house money” to take care of our day-to-day needs. Initially, my sister was in charge, until she went off to college. After she left for school, Scott and I would go shopping in the neighborhood for household supplies. Grape juice and fresh fish for my dad, and whatever we wanted.

Sometimes we would just roam around the Village, people watching and looking in the vintage shops on Christopher Street. I found some great 1940s velvet dresses. We found a shiny silk white blouse with colorful floral and dragon embroidery at a shop called Amacord. It reminded Scott of something Jimmy Page wore on stage in concert. He still has the shirt.

At the apartment, Scott and I spent a lot of time listening to music and selecting our favorite guitar solos, which we could “sing” a cappella. Eventually, we made a cassette tape of our selections. We’d smoke pot together and go out to lunch. Chicken and Burger World on Sixth Avenue or the Elephant & Castle on Greenwich Avenue. We giggled about everything we saw. Then we’d people watch over chocolate eclairs and milk at La Lanterna or Café Reggio on MacDougal Street. The milk was never cold enough so we always asked for ice on the side.

I liked to sit in the cafés and look out onto the street imagining what it was like when my mother first arrived in the Village in the early 1950s.

***

Jennifer Marcus grew up in Greenwich Village during the 1960s and 70s. She has been a communications professional in book publishing and in scientific and medical research. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

 

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§ 9 Responses to “How is Your Mother?”

  • Tsb says:

    This is very beautiful. Hit me very hard. I guess the subject matter. Just the evocation of the lost feeling. The shock. All the dislocation of routine. The way grief merges so fluently with city life. In a way, it’s a very 2020 story.

  • Stephanie says:

    This is heartbreaking and lovely. Since I remember your mom and all the people in this story, it really hit me hard. You also perfectly capture the village at that time. It makes me want to hug the 15 year old you (and the you of 2020) Congrats on bringing this piece into the wider world
    . XXoo
    Stephanie

  • julie carthy says:

    … A tale of brave, resourceful children simply but movingly recounted.

  • alice hartman says:

    Jennifer, this is soooo beautiful and soooo sad… I think about Judy often and what a very special woman she was. Judy and Wayne gave us all three wonderful amazing gifts named Jenny, Lisa and Scott. I love what you wrote and I love you all ! xoxoxoxoxo

  • Toni Wheeler-Nicholson says:

    Hi Jennifer, greetings from Northern California! Your byline caught my eye when the Mr Beller’s Neighborhood column popped up in my FB feed. I don’t think I’ve seen you since the days on 19th Street, but those memories are lasting ones. ~ Toni

  • Lauren Gabor says:

    Poignant, evocative— people, places from long ago will forever echo in our hearts. I’m glad you are sharing your story, and your gift of a deep and moving voice.

  • Michael says:

    This is beautiful, Jennifer, and it evokes so many memories for me. It breaks my heart all over again to remember Judy’s death and the days that followed. You and your family are so wonderful and will always be special to me. I hope I was supportive and fully there for you and your family after Judy’s death, but I suspect I wasn’t. I wanted to be, but at age 17, I probably didn’t know how. Thank you for this very moving remembrance of those days.

  • Ilene Kahn Power says:

    Jennifer, This is a very moving piece. It brought back memories of my own mother’s sudden and shocking passing from a screwup in the hospital at age 50. You feel adrift. That’s the feeling you evoke in your story. Well done. Let’s see more.
    Warmest, Ilene

  • Dalia says:

    Beautifully written and heartfelt. You have led a full and interesting life.

    Would love to hear from you sometime.

§ Leave a Reply

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