you start dancing
you might never
(Jessica Hagedorn, “Sorcery,” 1975)
After my mother died in 1997, I had the queasy job of rummaging through her cupboards of stuff, giving away or throwing out ninety percent. While culling a lifetime of photographs I found an image of her as a young teen in a dance outfit that snagged my attention. She has fire in her eyes and a steady gaze. The photo is tinted and attached to wood. On the back is my scrawling signature, done when I was a kid. Somehow, during its sixty-five year journey from mantelpieces to storage boxes, her feet have broken off.
As a child I was very close to Eileen. She was one of very few women that I knew intimately during my youth. I grew up in a house of men – my sister is much younger than I am. I was educated in all-boys’ prep and high schools, and in an all-male college. Men also were all my teachers, from puberty in the early 1950s in northern England through grad school at radical Berkeley in the mid-1960s.
Before my dad made and lost his fortune, Eileen was a hands-on parent, not yet wealthy enough to disappear behind go-betweens, as she did later with my sister. In my teen years she became a double agent in Shakespearean family dramas, a buffer between the patriarch and rebel son.
Later, everybody in the family moved on while she stayed stuck in place. At the age of 21, I left home, region, country and hemisphere when I immigrated in 1963 to California, to what then was the other side of the world. Not long after, my brother Steve left home, first for Chile, then Scotland. My sister Sue followed our example, first for Paris, then Israel. In the early 1970s, Monty, my dad, “buggered off,” as Eileen memorialized the event, scared of drowning in the boredom of suburban bliss that he himself had created and would soon recreate with wife No. 2 in Monte Carlo.
By the 1990s, all of Eileen’s immediate relatives, except one, were dead or had left Manchester. Only her mother, my grandmother, remained nearby, living the last decade of her long life in a home for elderly Jews, fifteen miles away. In 1995, Edith made her century and died. Two years later, my mother moved into the same retirement home, living her last weeks a few yards away from the room in which her mother had died. With her death came the end of my family’s 100-year association with Manchester. My grandfathers arrived in the 1900s from Poland and Rumania to hustle work in the margins of the textile industry. Three generations later the diaspora has taken us to northern Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East.
“Each generation grows into its grudge,” observed filmmaker Oliver Stone, reflecting on his own dark past. My mother didn’t waste time growing into her grudge. She grabbed it full-blown when my dad buggered off and carried it proudly for some twenty-five years, day and night, like a comforting shroud until her death on August 12th, 1997, when she was buried with it under her skin.
For most of my adult life, my relationship with my mother was strained. Maybe she blamed me for starting the exodus that took everybody away from her. And no doubt I reminded her far too much of Monty. I in turn resented her for giving up on a third of her life, settling to stew in resentments on a very low light. What could I, a doer always with a plan at hand, have in common with such a bitter quitter? Much more than I imagined.
I got to know mum better near the end of her life when I helped to take care of her during a slow, awful death from lung and throat cancer, the culmination of some 600,000 Players inhaled “down to her boots.” Her illness gave us something to do together. It also allowed me to give back some of the comfort she gave me when I was a child. I even tried to put my judgments on hold and see the world through her experiences as a divorced, middle-class suburbanite who had side-stepped the new woman’s movement of her youth and was too set in her ways to catch the feminist waves that beckoned invitingly in the 1970s.
As a teen Eileen was overshadowed by her formidable matriarch of a mother, who unconditionally adored her ungrateful son, with little to spare for her only daughter. “I don’t remember mother ever loving me until she needed me.” As a girl Eileen aspired to be a dancer, but Edith put a quick stop to that: “Nice Jewish girls don’t go on the stage.” On the eve of her wedding, Edith told her virgin daughter to take a spare sheet on the honeymoon, and grit her teeth and bear it. And when she suffered from constipation during the first year of marriage, Monty put her bowel movements on a schedule. “Can you believe that,” she asked me in the last year of her life, as if these excavated memories explained everything.
It’s a wonder that Eileen left her mark, given these omnipresent minders, but she did. Self-educated and socially engaged – from her stint as a young commie to charitable good works later in life – she made politics a part of my everyday upbringing. My organizational skills, which can be obsessive at times, must have been passed on genetically from my mother. She had a great knack for finding “horses for courses” – getting people to do what they do best, even if they don’t know it. In the last year of her life, she had my sister assigned to finances, my brother to communications, and me to questioning doctors. When I visited her a few months before her death, she set up an appointment with her GP, which she never intended to keep. “Oh no, dear, not me, you go.” My job was to check up on the doc’s check up of my mother, and bring back euphemisms. “He says you’re doing as well as can be expected.”
My athletic ability and interest in sports clearly came from Eileen, not my wimpy dad. And my love of non-fiction owes a great deal to her, though she was a much more accomplished performer and storyteller than I’ll ever be. Despite her thoroughly middle class upbringing and marriage, her vocabulary never abandoned the working class slang, oral traditions, and Yiddish humor that were so much a part of her formative years in the industrial heartland of northern England. She talked like a cross-class polyglot, here a pretentious je ne sais quoi phrase, there a riff of street slang. “Do me a favor,” she’d ask politely when she was getting the worst of an argument. Pause, two beats. “Fuck off already.”
I remember my mum as the life of the parties my parents used to throw in the 1950s for the Jewish petty bourgeoisie that had made it beyond the suburbs to “the country” with its faux Elizabethan pubs and anti-Semitic golf clubs. The fancy dress soirées, amateur nights, and dances to live music always bordered on the risqué and no doubt got raunchy later in the night. Eileen thrived on social vivacity and took center stage for once, while Monty-with-the-two-left-feet kept the booze flowing. Inevitably, she would agree to do her star turn: a campy rendition, sung and danced in the style of a gawky schoolgirl, of “Painting the Clouds with Sunshine,” with an encore of “Tip Toe Through the Tulips,” long before Tiny Tim’s revival made it popular.
If you like long silences, it was best not to visit my mother in her last decade. When she was not chatting, entertaining, or telling stories, the house still throbbed with sounds. The television in the living room blasted away for most of the day and night, especially for sports. In the kitchen she turned on an old-fashioned radio as background noise. Upstairs, she had a radio and television in her bedroom, and another radio in the bathroom, one of them always on even if she was reading or doing a crossword puzzle. And it was a rare broadcast that didn’t get mum to comment. She didn’t so much talk back to the machines as with them.
She was a talker my mum, a real talker. “Right you are, To luv,” she’d say when I took out my notebook and pencil, ready to write down her stories and dance to her words. The last time I saw my mother, a week before her death, she tells me about a dream she’d had the night before. “I’m driving around in yenna veld” – Yiddish for the next world or nowhere – “trying to find my way home. I’m lost. Each time I keep coming back to the same place where I started from. Over and over again.” Pause, her timing and pacing are still first-rate. “Who knows what that means,” she says. Shrug. Black out.
Eileen Platt (1920-1997)