I Saw Two Big Men with Mustaches
“There were two of them, upstairs. They were fighting and I was afraid. I went back to my room and tried to sleep, but then I got up again. This guy was out in the hallway and he told me to go back to my room or else…”
“Or else what, Mom?”
“He was gonna hit me. I was afraid. I don’t think I can stay there anymore. I saw two big men with mustaches. They’re after me. Even when I go downstairs to do my laundry, I get funny looks.”
“Mom, your place is on one floor. I talked to Mrs. Shelton about big men with mustaches fighting. She said nothing like that happened.”
“There were two of them, upstairs. They were fighting and making a lot of noise. I was really scared.”
So I tried to change the subject because I could not convince my ninety-year old mother that what she had was a dream. I didn’t want to say a delusion. I didn’t want her to think I thought she was slipping mentally even though I knew, we all knew, she was.
I look through an album of photos. There she is the age I am now, in her late fifties. She’s all dressed up, ready to go out dancing with Giorgio, her beau of the year. I never know how close those relationships became. I hoped then that she didn’t become close to Giorgio. He had a temper and a certain Italian arrogance that I had a hard time letting be. I was always afraid they’d get into an argument and something would happen. Once it nearly did, and she called when I was out of town, way far away from her.
I phoned a friend and he stepped in between Mom and Giorgio. A few months later, Giorgio had a sudden heart attack and died on the dance floor, just as he was about to cut in on Al, who was dancing a cha cha with Mom. Giorgio’s death got her down, but she continued to go out dancing with friends, always dressed up, always ready for a good time to make up for the hardship she faced growing up in a family of twelve; the youngest girl raised by her older sister. Her was mother blind to the culture and customs of her adapted home. Grandma De Luca’s mind had never left Campagna though she’d married and raised ten kids in America.
Al came after Giorgio. They went out dancing and dining three nights a week. Al was a good fit for Mom. He could do certain things that she couldn’t. She couldn’t drive a car, fix things that broke around the house, or know whom to call when they did. In turn, she cooked for him, even ironed his shirts if he asked her to. They came into a late domesticity that was good for each of them. But then Al, a lifelong smoker of unfiltered Pall Malls, died after months of struggling with emphysema. Mom was heartbroken because she cared deeply for Al despite her sense that her husband, my father, who had died many years before, still had a claim on her heart as her first and truest love.
A decade forward, I flew back to Brooklyn two weeks before spring semester started to close up her house, my boyhood home. She had given a lot of things away, but there still was a lot of kitchenware, Hummel figurines, her bedroom suite, and clothing to decide about. We did this, she and I, a day before the movers came. On that rainy day when she closed the door to the only house she had ever lived in as a married woman, it was as if we were closing the door on the main part of her life. She would live, a duck out of water, the rest of it with us in California. Before that, when we were separated by the length of the country, many was the time that she cried to us over the phone about her loneliness and her inability to take care of the house, which had an upstairs, a downstairs and a basement. But, in California, away from snowy winters that isolated her indoors, she never let us forget that we had taken her from that which meant the most to her: friends and family living in the New York City area. The sad reality was that many of her friends had passed away and most of our family had moved out of Brooklyn to places like Mattawan, New Jersey and Raleigh, North Carolina.
“I did everything for myself,” she would say. “I took care of that house when your father passed away without much help from either of you,”
meaning my brother and me. Yes, it’s true that I left home at twenty-one, eager to see what the world was and what it had in store for me. But, my brother stayed with her until my return, and then he left with his new bride to do his own exploring. There was a lot for her to do, I admit. She had to take care of a house, go out to work and maintain her busy social schedule, which included weekly card games with the women and nights out dancing with friends. She had been widowed at just over forty years old. Then she was still young and full of life, but she had no partner to share it with. Fortunately, her love of dancing and her need to be among friends, meant that she soon attracted men to her side. I doubt that she slept with any of them, but, of course, I will never know, and that’s the way I want it to be.
The cancer came when she was in mid-life, and it hit her hard. She had one breast removed and for a while, it was touch and go whether she’d fully recover and get her life back. But she did, and she made a life for herself that was rich with friends and family. Neighbors became part of her world, especially if they had young children whom she could feed when they came by. Candy was her weapon of seduction, and many’s the child that came to the house to talk with her while making a stab at her candy dish. She was well known and well loved on her block, which in Brooklyn-speak means that she was a neighborhood person of significance. She was the hub of the block’s rumor mill, and an arbiter of right and wrong. All this she gave up when her increasing age, the dying off of her brothers, sisters and friends, and the relocation of their children to the nether suburbs and to the warmer southern weather of the Carolinas, compelled her to come live with us in California.
Food never tasted as good to her in California as it did in Brooklyn. One Fourth of July at a barbecue at her apartment complex, we were eating hot dogs, potato salad, coleslaw, salads, normal Fourth of July fare. “Are you enjoying yourself, Mom?” I asked her. “These hot dogs aren’t as good as they are in Brooklyn,’ she replied through a mouthful of hot dog and bun. My guess is she needed to think that or what had her life in Brooklyn been if things were actually as good or better out here? After all, she didn’t need heat in her apartment and rarely needed a fan in warm weather. The fruit and vegetables were of better quality and more plentiful than they were back in Brooklyn. Although she never took to avocados as her sons did, she certainly enjoyed the fresh fruit and nuts available at farmer’s markets and supermarkets alike.
How does a place become so infused in a soul that the two are near inseparable? What caused such separation anxiety when my mother moved to California from the City? Is it the tug between ancient man the hunter/gatherer and his successor, the stay-put agriculturalist? We are naturally curious. We want to know what’s around the corner, the next block, the next county, beyond the sea. Yet we are also well disposed to making a nest in whichever place we find ourselves. Does curiosity fade as we age and the nesting urge take over completely? I remember reading about an old woman who sat on her porch well into her nineties, weaving, knitting and taking care of her home. The writer suggested that the reason for her satisfied mien and her healthy state was that she was among those she knew in a place that she knew and loved. Did my mother come to crisis in her own familiar home because those she knew and cared for were no longer close by or because the neighborhood kept changing as neighborhoods do? I don’t know the answer. I only know that being close to her children and grandchildren in her old age seemed not to bring her the satisfaction and contentment we had hoped it would do.
What about those two men with mustaches? Why that fantasy and not another? Why not angels dancing on the head of a pin? Why did my mother not entertain happy scenes from her childhood? (There were few.) Why the fear of violence? Even those we love are a mystery to us when it comes down to real understanding. As for ourselves, do we really know ourselves or do we just know what we want in the future, what we like and don’t like, what we tell ourselves about the past? Are our internal lives a highway of memories that come and go, no one memory strong enough to hold its shape over time? When Marcel bit into that petite Madeleine, how much connection was there to his actual past as opposed to one he recreated with the first bite? The past and the future are probably both illusory. The only time is the present. Alpert/Ram Dass wrote “Be here, now.” Now is concerned with doing, and maybe this lack of momentary introspection is the answer we need for a life lived without fear and without fear of change.