“Benji” My mother, Frances, always said my name with a kind of double octave, low to high sing-song: “Benn-Gee.”
“Why did Nina put strychnine in my coffee?”
She said it in calm, even tone as she looked right through me.
We had spent the last ten years together, mom and I living in our small, slowly deteriorating bungalow in the ‘low rent’ section of a wealthy, tree-lined suburb of 1960’s Oklahoma City. Since the divorce. Nina, our maid, stayed on to help out, doing her best to raise me through the ups and downs of my mom’s life. Sometimes my mother was a sophisticated, warm-hearted woman of poise. She earned a Master’s Degree in Music in the 20’s in Kansas City before many women received higher degrees. Later in life she was president of three different organizations.
She was a real champion of the underdog because she saw herself in the reflection of that role.
She would take me to synagogue on Friday nights kicking and screaming. Grabbing me under the arm with a strong motherly pinch, she would plant me in front of a group of smiling elderly men and women with tattooed numbers on their arms. “Be nice Benji.’ They’ve been through a kind of hell no one could imagine. “
She was my cheerleader, feeding every one of my interests. One time she was having one of her women’s group meetings in our house when I leaped through the living room window with a garden hose, dressed like a fire fighter, thoroughly soaking the room and everyone in it. Other times she would lend me her old Cadillac with weather instruments hanging out the windows so I could chase tornadoes as they danced around Oklahoma City. It kind of looked like a Ghost Busters’ mobile. She made sure I went to the finest prep school in Oklahoma City when she could barely afford it and a Jewish boxing camp in the Ozarks for male companionship to fill the hole in my heart my father’s absence left.
She had squandered half a million dollars in inheritance and alimony trying to buy the love she sought her whole life, giving it to charities so she could prove to the world she wasn’t crazy. When she was thirteen she saw her mother, hopelessly depressed, leap to her death out of a window of a psychiatric hospital in Kansas City. Kids at school would tease her. Sometimes they accepted her. That’s when they called her “Francey Pants.” But, most of the time they called her “Jew Baby.”
Her father-a very kind, caring man, raised her with the help of a spinster aunt who told her she would become pregnant if she kissed a boy and she would die if she got pregnant. Her first husband and her father died within two weeks of each other. She married my father in her thirties, and after thirteen years the relationship went south. My mother’s fear of physical intimacy and my father’s philandering became a formula for a nasty divorce. I used to lie in bed between them and put their hands together as a sign of peace. One night the fighting was particularly bad. My father was not a physical man but this night he became so angry that he threw my mother down a flight of steps. I put my little hand on his ass as I said, “Stop hurting my mommy.” He sat down at the kitchen table, put his head in his hands and began to cry. He told me later that was the moment when he knew he had to leave.
She struggled and thrived as long as she could. Plagued by her own demons of fear and depression, the demons finally prevailed. She couldn’t fight the downward spiral into paranoia, overdoses of diet pills and alcohol, screaming to anyone who would listen to her tales of my dad’s abuse and betrayal. In my teens I never knew what I was going to get when I came home. One night as I lay sleeping I heard my mother screaming as she ran from house to house, banging on the front doors, “Help’me!” My room was so hot I thought the house was on fire. No. It was poor Francey now delusional.
So when she said Nina had poisoned her I knew we’d hit the bottom. I had become my mother’s parent at sixteen.
“Now mom. You know Nina wouldn’t do such a thing.”
“Mom?” “Why don’t we go for a ride.” “Where Benji?” She stared at me with that far-away, glazed look.
“Let’s go to the hospital mom.” It’s safe there.”
Driving that old black Cadillac, listening to the Moody Blues’ strain of Knights in White Satin. I’ll never forget the refrain: “I love you.” “I love you, Benji.”
“I love you, mom.”
Cold, institutional looking halls punctuated with faint smells of food from a patients’ cafeteria greeted us as I checked my mother into the psychiatric wing. My mother’s one great fear was that people would say she was crazy—that she would be ‘put away.’
Now her fear had come true. And I was the one who completed the act.
I looked at her, looking at me, as they took her to her room. Long black strands of hair hanging down over her face with a last sad and loving glance: she was gone.
As I walked down the hall of the psychiatric ward to the car my body finally welcomed calm, silently sobbing embrace, denied for so long.
I drove home in that old Cadillac with the car windows down, looking at the black sky scattered with the dust of a million stars over the broad Oklahoma landscape. The smell of that plain imbued me with an anxious anticipation of an unknown future.
I drove up the long driveway, parked the car in the garage as the moon rose over the horizon. Walking into that pitch black house I got into bed, pulled up the covers and shed just a few tears. They turned off the lights and the phone and the water. As I drifted into a slumber, longed for over ten years, I smiled. I’ would handle that tomorrow.
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