There is a photograph of my mother standing in front of the chain link fence around the Chevron Oil Plant in Richmond, several minutes before she is hit. It is a beautiful spring morning, sunny and bright. A stiff breeze blowing over the San Francisco Bay brings a lock of curly grey hair across her forehead. She is smiling, leaning on the top of her picket sign, one hand holding a Starbucks cup and the other waving an unidentifiable pastry as she chats, mouth half full, to a fellow demonstrator. It wasn’t one of the causes she felt most passionately about – poverty or racism or police brutality, not even immigration or health care – just an ordinary environmental protest against the excesses of Big Oil. She intended to come home that afternoon, check and reply to her many emails and write letters to newspapers and various congresspersons. Instead, she was struck in the forehead by a brick thrown by a scab-for-hire which sent her to the hospital with a concussion, leaving her with a scar that eventually faded and an altered personality that did not.
She spent two and a half days in the hospital. She didn’t ever recover her memory of the incident although we showed her the ‘before’ picture taken by a friend. It made her smile as if it was a picture from childhood taken long ago at a picnic or on the beach. She didn’t recover her lucidity for over 24 hours. During those hours she kept repeating the same phrases over and over again, wondering if we’d found her car and recovered it (we had) and if we had her bag (we did). My sister and brother-in-law despaired of her ever recovering her sanity but I knew she would and by the next day, she did.
She was, however, considerably subdued. She’d cracked a rib when she fell and she was uncomfortable. She had a tremor in one hand that had been there, but less pronounced, before the incident with the brick, and she limped a little on the left because of some muscle damage when she fell. The doctor said that there might also be residual brain damage due to the temporary brain swelling but he couldn’t specify what that would be. Then again, he said, there might not be any and everything except the slight tremor could resolve itself in time.
My mother was a typical 20th century woman of a certain type. The daughter of impoverished immigrants, she had an immigrant’s true zeal for and untarnished belief in The American Dream and in representative democracy. She saw the great potential for social justice here and she was relentless in pursuing it. Grateful for all her opportunities, she wanted to extend those opportunities to the less fortunate, however she could. She spent her entire life working with the poor, volunteering in inner-city schools and being politically active even when she had three small children underfoot. She took us, in strollers, to Ban the Bomb marches and Free Speech sit-ins and later asked us to help stuff envelopes and canvass neighborhoods.
She was phenomenally social. The old Yiddish saying, “Life is with people” was one of her mantras, a ‘string theory’ that, for her, explained human civilization. She was a member of many organizations and was a great friend to everyone who knew her. Whatever she did, she included others. She would bake, shop, clean for anyone who was ill, look after anyone’s kids if they needed it, drop a note to anyone for any reason, invite anyone over for dinner or if they needed a place, to stay. She threw parties to celebrate events that to others seemed unimportant, things like early retirement, graduating middle school, or recovery from an illness. She wasn’t an especially gifted cook but she always made enough for others or to freeze or to give away. The only servant we ever had was a mentally challenged street person named Frank who smelled of urine, did not return a smile or a hello (even though we were obliged to offer him one) was gruff and rude and came over once a month to clean windows and other things my mother could not do for herself. She made him lunch and a bag dinner and insisted that we help him in any way we could. After we stopped being afraid of him we still hated him and felt that she was endangering at least our reputation with neighbors and friends, if not actually endangering us but she brooked no discussion of him and since my father was 20 years her senior and in fragile health, Frank was a monthly visitor for about fifteen years until he disappeared somewhere in the Bay Area.
Of us three, only my older brother David ended up working for ‘The Cause’. He became a lawyer for the ACLU. If my mother was disappointed in Lucy and me because of our lack of social commitment, she kept it well-hidden. She loved us all equally, in an unqualified, over-arching way. She wanted us to be good people but mostly she wanted us to be happy, and in large part we were.
On the day that she went to this particular, unimportant demonstration in July of 2014, she had recently turned 80. At a small gathering in a local dim sum restaurant (she never wanted to have a fuss made) she joked that since probably more than half of her life had already passed, she was now dedicating herself to being what she called ‘a good ancestor’ for the people who would come after her. Then she thanked pretty much everyone she had ever met for their contribution to her life and also everyone who had inspired her (an exhaustive list of of the liberal cannon from Socrates to Mumia Abu Jamal).
Three days later, she got hit in the head with a brick.
She’d been hurt before and arrested many times but this time was different. Other people weren’t hurt that day, only her, and she always hated being the ‘only’ part of any group. This was no exception. She felt embarrassed by the attention, even by the soups and banana breads that came daily. She had always done these kinds of things for others but did not want them done for her. I came over for the first few days, my own kids were away at college and I was in between jobs. She let me do a few small errands and some tidying up but she seemed to want to be alone and I brought a book and read it while she returned phone calls and emails.
My mother had spent her entire life in a high energy ‘doing’ mode and suddenly she was, I thought, preternaturally still. I called her doctor; he said that it was normal for her to be tired and that I was worrying too much about her mental health. Sometimes people just need to rest, he said. But I could tell that something fundamental had changed.
For one thing, my mother did not seem particularly interested in the newspaper, not even the Op Ed section of the New York Times, which she had previously treated as the secular equivalent of the Qu-ran. She seemed neither outraged nor saddened by the cascade of daily injustices and violations on the TV news I put on and which she watched with little interest. She had tons of books to read and she read them appreciatively but with flagging attention. She enjoyed the little walks we took around the neighborhood, she greeted neighbors warmly but she did not engage in the extended chit-chat with them that had driven me crazy when I was living with her as a young person.
One week after she came home, she asked me to make arrangements for her to go to a private gallery some 50 miles away where there was a Chagall that had never been seen in America before. It involved a good deal of transportation, she wasn’t cleared to drive. She sometimes went to what seemed to me ridiculous lengths in order to take public transportation, primarily because of trying to lower her ‘carbon footprint’ but also because of a long standing private war against oil companies, made more acute, I thought, because of having just being attacked by someone who may have been hired by one. I was wrong. She simply wanted to include the journey as part of the experience of seeing this art. That part wasn’t new, exactly. My mother always appreciated things like public concerts, public parks, public art but she had never been particularly sensitive to the way she got to these works. She’d always seemed more concerned about how to feed all the people she had invited to go with her. Now she wanted to include the ‘getting there’ part of seeing this painting as almost a kind of pilgrimage out of respect for what the artist and this canvas had had to do in order to reach our shores and our eyes. It seemed somewhat silly to me but I had time on my hands and I wanted to be ‘of use’ (my mother’s phrase) to her as she always had been to me and to others.
It wasn’t difficult but this museum was tiny and in a residential section of a wealthy suburb near Palo Alto. It would be costly and take a couple of hours but I went ahead and got tickets for us for the following Tuesday, one of two days a week the picture could be visited.
My mother surprised me by stating unequivocally that she wanted to go alone. Unaccompanied. She smiled warmly as she said it but she was insistent. This woman, who had cooked with others, protested with others, lived with others, traveled with others, raised children with others, grieved and celebrated with others wanted to go to see the painting by herself. It was nothing personal, she assured me, she loved my company but she wanted to do this without bothering anyone or having to rush for anyone or even having to think about anyone else.
My brother thought she was slipping mentally, my sister thought she was depressed and they both said I should follow behind her, maybe without telling her, and keep an eye out. I did. I’m not a very good sleuth though, and she spotted me immediately and asked me to please not follow her, but I continued anyways, walking a few hundred feet behind her.
She walked slowly up the walkway to the private museum, her limp much less noticeable. At the door she asked me to not come in with her and I consented. I sat outside on a long stone bench, looking at the lush garden and a large overly industrial copper fountain that seemed anachronistic in an otherwise 19th century looking English country garden that would be at home in the Cotswolds. She spent about an hour in the museum, which was quite small and dedicated to Russian Artists. When she came out she was calm and happy and offered to take me out to a fancy lunch, one bus ride away, seeing as I was there. We stopped at an overpriced Italian trattoria, California style, which meant tiny plates of strange ingredients made into ravioli and she seemed very happy. She did not, however, want to talk about the art. In our last bus home she looked out the window happily, nodding from time to time as if to a tune that only she could hear.
She was starting to get her energy back and could soon resume most of her activities but she did not seem to want to. She was besieged by friends and invitations and, while she enjoyed having coffee with Eileen and Sylvia, her old buddies and partners in activism, she did not want to do the things she had always done with them. No demonstrations. No lectures. No meetings.
She wanted to go see Art. And she wanted to go there alone. It seemed senseless to oppose her, she wasn’t hurting herself or anyone else.
I began a new job teaching journalism at a local community college and needed the time away from her to prepare my courses.
During those weeks and months my mother went to museums almost daily. She would see one exhibition or one artist’s work at a time. At home she surrounded herself with library books about art, mostly about painting, mostly European, but she didn’t confine herself to any one era or artist. Her tastes were eclectic and there didn’t seem to be a pattern. She loved a collection of massive, beautiful quilts made by a group of poor African-American women in a remote, agricultural part of Alabama. Naturally I assumed that she admired their ability to transcend their socio-economic condition but she didn’t even consider that. She said that the patterns held the same level of mystery as a Rothko canvas and that the colors, made from leftover rags, were ‘magnificent’, ‘resonant’, ‘remarkable’. She said that generations of women had worked on these quilts and that scientists thought they might even have passed on a ‘quilting’ gene and didn’t I think that was wonderful? She was surprised and delighted by discovering the collected works of a Swedish artist that she had never seen before. She thought a David Hockney retrospective was revelatory and that the paths, the arches, the hidden light was a rare, precious insight into the workings of the natural world. She swooned over German Expressionists and American Pop Artists, she went twice to see Andy Warhol’s portrait collection of ’50 Jews’. She saw woodprints and gessoes, murals and portraits, water colored scenery and acrylic images of machines, Buddhas and icons and nudes and trees. She never offered to talk about what she did in her days, she was content in silence and even though her face lit up as she was answering my questions, I felt that I was dragging the information out of her. It was as if she could not, did not want to stop looking.
What does it mean, I wondered, when a person stops being interested in what they were interested in and instead becomes interested in something completely else?
Among my mother’s many friends, was one from her childhood in the Bronx, Esther. Esther has poor health and mobility problems and is mostly at home these days. I didn’t want to burden her with entertaining me but she sounded genuinely delighted when I asked if I could come over one afternoon for tea. Esther’s daughter Leslie and I had been best friends until college and we still keep in touch fairly frequently but I hadn’t been over to the house in years.
I got to her house around 4:00 and she had put out an ample cheese plate from the shop in Berkeley, a mesclun salad from her garden and a delicious pasta dish with walnuts and pomegranate seeds. Esther is a shorter, plumper version of my mother and the second I felt those warm, soft arms around me I burst into tears. She patiently waited for me to stop. Then she patted my shoulder and seated me at the table. Esther has warm brown eyes amid many wrinkles but I couldn’t look at them because I knew I would just cry again. I stared at the flowered tablecloth and told her that I felt that my mother was undergoing a personality change due to brain damage from the brick incident. Some of my friends had already lost their parents. Some had died suddenly, without warning, others had faded slowly over months. It was always awful and my friends suffered terribly but at least their parent hadn’t become someone else entirely.
Esther let the words sit for a few minutes then said, “You know, I’m not going to bother telling you that I think it’s in your head.” Pause. “It isn’t. Something has changed in her. But…” (longer pause), ‘You know, sweetie, I don’t think it was quite as sudden as you think.”
I looked up at her and said sharply, “What are you saying?”
“I mean,” Esther said, “that people don’t change entirely. They never change entirely, they just break in the direction that they were already bending. Maybe she’s not as different as you think.”
I started to feel irritated with her. I drank some water. I drank some tea. Then I said, “I don’t think you and I are looking at the same part of the elephant, Esther.”
She smiled. “No, honey, I am.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Tell me then.”
So I did. I told her about my mother’s retreat from all her usual activities, the conversations, the meetings, the rallying, the marching. I told her how odd it was that mother, who used to go food shopping with a friend now wanted to be constantly alone to do nothing. To just ‘think’, as she said.
“And you think all of that is since the incident, right? The brick?”
I nodded yes.
“I disagree,” Esther said. She smiled. Then she said that she had known my mother for a very long time and that this silence, this reflection, did not, truly not, seem remote from the woman she had always known.
I felt blindsided. I actually wondered if both my mother and Esther had suddenly become senile old women at the same time in the course of a few months.
“Esther,” said, “How can you go from being Rosa Luxembourg one day to being Peggy Guggenheim the next?”
Esther laughed in her deep rolling guffaw and said, “Peggy Guggenheim, she is not.”
“She’s not as changed as you think,” she said. “She’s just looking.”
That was exactly what my mother kept saying, that she was ‘just looking’. Esther had held me and fed me countless times when I was a child, but this time I was not comforted, I felt that Esther was in denial about my mother’s true condition. I also felt chastened, as if I didn’t know my mother as well as I thought I did, or somehow should.
I couldn’t sleep that night for wondering what I did actually know about my mother, both my current mother and my historical one. She had been a wonderful parent. My father died when David was 12, me, 10 and Lucy only 8. She raised us on her own and been attentive, supportive, affectionate, kind. She was 37 years old when Daddy died. She had lived alone for many years afterwards, after we all moved out.
Then she got hit in the head with a brick and she changed. She stopped being who she was and began ‘just looking’ at art.
I couldn’t find the connection. I like art as much as the next guy, I think. I enjoy it, I find it beautiful but I think the difference, no, the chasm that began to separate me from my mother is that I don’t find it particularly significant. Clearly, my mother was seeing something else, something more than I was. I remembered once going to a cricket match with a friend and finding the rules unintelligible and the actions ridiculous. I couldn’t even track what people were cheering and jeering about. It seemed like a satirical sketch about baseball. I didn’t get it. I wasn’t ‘getting it’ now.
We had a family dinner in November, David was in town for a conference and Lucy and her brood drove up from L.A.. I offered to help mom host, if she wanted to, but she seemed content to have me do it all at my house, something she would never have done in the past.
It was on a Thursday evening and my mother was actually a little bit late. She explained that there had been traffic coming back from BART. There was a collection of new lithographs from China at the Asian American museum and they stay open late on Thursdays so she didn’t realize how late it was getting. She didn’t apologize, she just explained. All of this would have been completely out-of-character in her pre-brick existence: the lateness, the prioritizing art over family including grandkids. Only the warm smile, the hugging and kissing was the same.
We had a lovely dinner. I am not a great cook but I have a few good dishes and I made most of them. Lucy’s kids are old enough to be both vegan (Chloe) and gluten-intolerant (Joanna) but I feel completely at home in the hummus – curried tofu – quinoa world and everyone got fed. My mother seemed very happy and animated. She hadn’t seen the girls in months and it was nice to have all of us, except my and David’s children, under one roof together.
Over coffee and cake, David asked my mother, “What’s with all the art, Ma?” in a tone halfway between accusation and a joke.
“What do you mean, sweetheart?” Mom asked back.
“Aren’t you spending a lot of time in the museum?” he asked.
“I am,” Mom replied. “As much as I can.”
She paused and seemed to be searching for the right words with which to reply. I imagined an inner debate between delivering the shortest possible explanation (“I like art”), and a much, much longer one. I felt us all being sucked in her direction by the gravitational pull of my mother’s hesitation, like the overly circular characters in a 1950s family holiday dinner cartoon.
“David,” she started, smiling into his eyes, “Sweetheart. I’m eighty years old.”
He shrugged, “So?”
“I’m not going to live forever.”
No reply, a lesser shrug.
“I’m almost out of here.” She smiled reassuringly at the granddaughters.
“Mom,” he said, “I know you’re old. Nobody lives forever. I got that. What does that have to do with you going to the museum all the time? What is going on with you? Are you seeing a museum guard?”
At some other time David’s sense of humor would have brought a smile to at least one of us, but now it didn’t even raise one of the girls’ eyebrows.
Mom didn’t bite although she smiled.
“All my life,” she said, “I’ve been…involved with people. Looking at them, you know, observing them, trying to understand them, trying to help them if I could, trying to love them, actually loving them. Enjoying them.” She nodded to herself. “Yes, the people, the people…….Fighting for them, alongside them.”
She paused. “All those issues, those fights, all those things…..those are all ‘right now’ things. Immediate things. You know….education….civil rights…fairness…peace…….Those things can’t wait. They won’t wait.”
“But….those things, those ‘right now things’…..they don’t ever get resolved.”
I started to interrupt but she looked at me and said, “No, sweetie. Believe me, I know that things get fixed. I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is that those things….they do not last forever. The next week there will be another crisis, another issue….and that won’t get resolved either. Or it will, but then there is another one. This struggle….this effort, these efforts….they are like, moments, an instant, a second….less. There are a lot of them so they feel real, and that’s a good thing, for everyone.”
“Mom,” Lucy said. “Don’t you always say that nothing lasts forever? I mean, isn’t that your thing?”
“Yes, yes, of course, honey, it’s my thing, it’s my thing. But when I look at a painting, at a great work of art, a piece of something like that, there is a moment of……..infinity. I don’t know how else to explain it.” She laughed. “You guys all know that I don’t believe in ‘God’ “ (air quotes) “or ‘the gods’ or whatever. I invested all my religious beliefs into the People.”
“Mom,” I said, “our whole lives you kept telling us ‘life is with people’, ‘life is with people’ and now you don’t even want to accept a ride with me to BART.”
“I’m sorry, honey,” she said, looking at each of us around the table, “I’m sorry if I’m frightening you, or making you feel bad. Yes, yes, life is with people and I have been with people and now I want to be with myself. With myself and with something eternal. That’s it. That’s all of it.”
What seemed like moments passed with none of us moving, each lost in our own thoughts. Was that really ‘it’? Her life had been a testament to collective effort and she had moved in the course of a very few months from the ‘us’ to the ‘me’. Where was the connectedness? I felt abandoned. I wasn’t the first thing in her thoughts anymore, none of us were. It wasn’t selfishness, it was worse than that, it was the art that came first, the ineffable, the ephemeral, the eternal….
How could any of us compete with that?
I stood up and started clearing off the table, Lucy and the girls followed me through the swinging door into the kitchen. As soon as the door swung closed Chloe and Joanna fell into each other’s arms in crazy giggles while Lucy and I shared confused glances.
“What are you guys laughing about?” I asked and saw them both try hard to reign themselves in.
“Well, uh…” said Chloe mockingly, “Grandma’s a friggin’ hippie, is one thing –“ and Joanna laughed again.
She looked at her sister with sudden concern, “She’s losing it, isn’t she?”
“Of course not,” snapped Lucy. “Just because a person loves” (here she started laughing as well) “art a lot, doesn’t mean that she’s…..she’s crazy.”
I was at the sink rinsing the wine glasses and I suddenly felt a white, hot, burning rage mount up in me. It wasn’t the girls’ giggling, they were just being kids. But I felt defensive about my mother. She wasn’t just some ‘friggin hippie’, she wasn’t ‘losing it’ (was she?). She was my mother, my frame of reference, she was supposed to be fine. Suddenly, being taken to all those meetings and activities as a child, being expected to contribute and participate and having things like my school dances or a friend’s party be ignored in favor of collecting cans for the poor, alI of it, rose up in me like a giant putrid cloud of resentment. My childhood envy of strangers and their ‘normal’ mothers, added to recent feelings of being unappreciated clashed with very old feelings of not being valued enough, not feeling important, or, worse, feeling exactly as important as everybody else’s children. I was furious. She had always represented some kind of moral center for me and now she was just some old lady ‘just looking’ at art. The sacrifices didn’t seem worth it, and I felt like a toddler having an inner tantrum.
Without realizing it, I must have been slamming things around because my sister Lucy came up and put her arms around me and gently held me. I saw in her eyes that even if she didn’t understand exactly what I was upset about, she had also struggled with the change. The girls came up and apologized but I told them, truthfully, that it wasn’t anything they were doing, just me feeling sorry for myself. We finished clearing up together; Chloe started to hum some silly song and we all found ourselves keeping the beat as we put away the silverware.
When we went back into the dining room, Mom was sitting at the table showing something to David in one of my old textbooks from college. Someone had drawn up the blinds and the room was flooded with a smoky violet moonlight that left the corners in a deep maroon shadow. David was leaning into my mother and from the back they formed a beautiful pyramid that reminded me of the one in Da Vinci’s Last Supper. When I got to my chair I saw that my mother had opened the book to a print of one of William Blake’s paintings, a particularly colorful, vivid, almost hallucinogenic picture of Eve tempted by the Serpent. In this picture the Serpent is gigantic, a sensual Loch Ness monster who looks as if he’s been spying on Eve naked for months at least and finally sees his chance to make off with her. He is salacious and she is magnificent. While Adam lies at her feet, improbably asleep, she looks as if she has glided into the Serpent’s embrace. One arm is gracefully lifted towards the Serpent’s small head while the other one drifts gently backwards as if in a summer breeze. Doom does not seem to be impending, but something else, something momentous, does.
“Oh,” my mother murmured, running her finger down Eve’s powerful thigh, “Oh, look, David” she said. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
“She is, Ma,“ he said , putting his arm around her shoulders. “She is.”
* * *