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LIKENESS

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By Michael Milburn

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The Montréal Review, April 2013

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Family photo. Circa 1968.

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I.

In our house a hallway ran the length of the second floor, ending at my mother's bedroom. Standing outside my room, I could look down the hall and see whether her door was open, meaning that she was awake and receiving visitors, and whether one of my five siblings was sitting in the chair facing her bed. I would then either decide to join their conversation or wait to speak with my mother alone. These audiences took place several times a day, but the most popular gathering time was five p.m., when a maid would bring in tea on a tray and whoever was home would assemble on the room's sofa and chairs while my mother held court from her bed.

I refer to that room as my mother's even though both my parents slept there: it contained her dresser, vanity, closet, and bathroom, whereas my father's bathroom and dressing room occupied an adjoining suite. My siblings and I would visit them together on Sundays when they were propped up in bed reading The New York Times, but we never stayed as long or spoke as freely as when talking to our mother alone. My father recognized that she was the real reason for our presence and sometimes acted jealous of our rapport. Returning from work to find us strewn around the room and even usurping his place in the bed, he would shake his head and disappear into his dressing room.

W hen she was fifty and I was five, my mother suffered a stroke that left her deaf in one ear and impaired her equilibrium for the rest of her life, causing her to list to one side as she walked . She spent much of the next forty years in bed, first recuperating from the stroke and then resting from whatever modest physical activity had sapped her energy. When I think of interacting with her I am sitting or standing at the foot of her bed as she lies surrounded by newspapers, catalogues, Long Island and Manhattan telephone books, and a bedside table crowded with prescription pill bottles. I have no memories of her as a vigorous woman, though family photos pre-dating my birth show her swinging golf clubs and riding horses, as glamorous as Jackie Kennedy in society page shots from that era.

I don't remember the extent to which the stroke disabled my mother at first, just its permanent effects. I grew up blaming it for her retreat from the demands of daily life, but this may have had psychosomatic origins as well. My father's incessant belittling of her during their twenty-five years of marriage had eaten away at her morale. From my perspective, her semi-invalid state had its advantages-even though she employed nannies and babysitters to look after me, I could always track her down to her room, where an open door invited entry and a closed one signaled her extended afternoon nap. Her combination of frailty and availability probably delayed my adjustment to first grade, as I feigned frequent stomachaches so that our housekeeper would pick me up in time to join my mother for lunch.

One spring day she came to school herself, tacking down the corridor to my classroom in boots and a heavy overcoat with the hood pulled up over her headscarf. Her stroke had made her sensitive to the cold, and she overdressed accordingly, oblivious to her appearance or the awkwardness of her gait. One of my classmates saw her approaching and said that she looked like Frankenstein. She already stood out from the other parents because of her age, having given birth to me at forty-four. She and my father socialized with my friends' grandparents rather than their parents. But I only felt self-conscious about these discrepancies on public occasions such as the school pick-up. At home I thought of her age and infirmity, and even her chronic bedridden state, as normal.

Normal for my mother meant always being tired, almost always being in bed, and often acting put upon by the demands of maintaining our household, which involved delegating duties among the cook, maid, housekeeper, gardener, and caretakers for the youngest of her six children, my sister Nancy and me. She viewed the world's social and physical opportunities with apprehension, an attitude that has unfortunately rubbed off on me. No sooner will someone issue an invitation or propose a trip than I'll hear my mother voicing arguments against it, ranging from too much traffic to too little parking to the exhaustion of a late night return.

She used her partial deafness to enforce her seclusion. Most of what my father said to her consisted of criticism and mockery, so she would literally turn a deaf ear to him and to undesirable seatmates at dinner parties and on airplanes. Whenever she looked blankly into the distance while I addressed her, I would walk around to her other side and repeat myself. Her enviable ability to shut out noise by sleeping on her good ear meant that her children didn't have to worry about disturbing her naps, though she was easily startled if she neglected to close her door and one of us suddenly appeared at her bedside. A terrifying waker, she reacted as if she had been dragged from sleep, presenting a crumpled expression and asking irate questions.

The combination of her deafness and lack of mobility led to her being hit by a truck when I was ten. I doubt that she ever heard the vehicle backing up on the main street in our town, and even if she did she lacked the spryness to jump out of the way. Well-known to local merchants, she must have caused great consternation lying in the street. I didn't witness the accident, but came across her later on a stretcher in our front hallway. When she looked up at me and said, "Poor Michael," I thought she was referring to my inability to think of anything comforting to say, but realized later that she felt bad that I had to see her so broken. But it didn't seem unusual to see my mother lying down or in discomfort, and the weeks that she spent recuperating from the accident did not differ significantly from her typical routine.

After her stroke she took up the craft of decoupage as a form of physical and cognitive therapy. F or several hours each day she sat in bed or at a worktable in a corner of her room, cutting out pictures of birds and flowers, pasting them to the insides of hurricane lamps and painting the surfaces. The clutter of clippings, paintbrushes, and half-finished glass globes was so familiar and her ability to converse while working so natural that I never noticed how skilled she was becoming at decorating the lamps, which sold for hundreds of dollars at local gift shops. When she died, my siblings and I each received pieces that either had not sold or that she had kept for herself. Admiring these now, I wish I had paid more attention to their creation.

When I was six, I told her a trivial lie and couldn't bring myself to confess even after she found out the truth. As punishment, she decided to withhold a new toy gun she claimed to have been saving for me in her closet. Maybe she meant the forfeit to be permanent or maybe she just forgot, but she never mentioned the gun again and I never stopped thinking about it, wondering if it still lay nestled among her scarves on the closet's upper shelf. Thirty-five years later, while helping my parents empty the house in preparation for their move to Rhode Island, I passed through her room where my sister had piled the closet's contents on her bed. There was no sign of my gun, my version of Citizen Kane's "Rosebud," an emblem of childhood longing that I have never forgotten.

To me that closet represented the source of all my mother's outward beauty, producing the gaily colored blouses, slacks and dresses that she wore on her infrequent ventures out of the house. I wondered how such a small space could hold such an extravagant wardrobe, but I wasn't about to look in. Bolted to the outside of the door was a macabre contraption consisting of a canvas chinstrap raised and lowered by a pulley. It looked like a cross between a noose and a vertical torture rack, and terrorized me throughout my childhood, in part because I was never allowed to see it in action. Rather, my mother's physical therapist would arrive at the house and close the bedroom door, leaving me to my fantasies of what she was up to in there with her head in a sling and a strange man presiding.

My parents never spoke about my mother's health in front of me. Perhaps they thought that doing so would trouble me more than watching her languish in bed, or were simply of a generation that believed in shielding children from unpleasant subjects. Whatever their reason, my worst fears growing up arose as much from what I didn't know as from what I did. Not long after my mother's stroke, my father fell off his horse while jumping a fence in the field outside our summer home. Nancy and I, aged eight and six respectively, watched him writhe on the ground before being carried to his bedroom. All morning adults came and went as we waited in the hallway. Their grim expressions terrified us, who would have been better off being allowed to see our father and confirm that he was alive and had merely broken his collarbone.

My father's passion for privacy extended to padlocking his dressing room door each morning before leaving for work. He also kept it closed when he was inside, so I was never exposed to any of the intimate effects-clothing, photographs, mementos-that might have familiarized me with his life. I finally gained access to the room when helping my elderly parents move. Seeing the rows of familiar suits that he had worn to work each day, the dresser lined with yellowed photographs chronicling his youth, was like gathering long-missing pieces from a puzzle. A psychiatrist I saw in college made much of this childhood exclusion, but I shrugged it off-my father's aloofness toward his children made the prospect of intimacy with him inconceivable.

I didn't need a lock to keep me out of my mother's private space. Her bathroom's location in the far corner of her bedroom meant that a visitor never had cause to pass by it and peek inside. In all the years that my siblings and I sat talking with her or watching her TV, I don't recall any of us ever using it. With its waist-high railings encircling the walls and shower stall, it evoked a mother even more vulnerable than the one I sat across from every day. I'd spend hours in the yard below, flinging a tennis ball against the house. Looking up at the bathroom's lone window, I imagined my mother lowering herself into the tub or pulling on the rubberized girdles that I'd see outlined against her pants when she came downstairs. She never parted the shade, but if she had it would have been as terrifying as when Jem, Scout, and Dill glimpse Boo Radley's shadow in To Kill A Mockingbird.

II.

I loved my mother, but she often exasperated me by acting superficial and silly. I didn't think she lacked intelligence-she read a great deal and made perceptive observations-but she played dumb around my father and sat by passively as he ridiculed her, making it hard sometimes not to share his impatience. She was the most judgmental person I have ever known, even more so than her husband, voicing disapproval of her children's behaviors, romantic partners, and appearances: "How can you see with your hair in your eyes?" (to my sister) "All he thinks about is what's going into his fat stomach" (about my brother). At the rehearsal dinner for my wedding she remarked loudly that my new eyeglasses made me look like a dentist. Even if she hadn't directed her critiques at my siblings and me, we would have inferred them from her comments about others.

These intolerances must sound surprising given my earlier portrait of my mother as the welcoming focal point of our household. She did say mean things that made her children reluctant to confide in her, but I still remember constant checks to see if her bedroom door was open so I could spend time in her company. Her natural buoyancy emerged in my father's absence. Unlike his corrosive wit, always wielded at another's expense, hers could be impish, characterized by puns and playful nicknames. Her putdowns were often so outrageous as to provoke laughter rather than horror, and I have her to thank for the dyspeptic world view that fuels my sense of humor. Also unlike my father, she interspersed her criticisms of her children with effusions of pride, albeit ones couched in language so hyperbolic-"Nancy's a genius"; "When are they going to give you tenure" (during my time as an assistant in a Harvard library)-that one came away feeling more diminished than celebrated.

I blame her narrow-mindedness in part on her sheltered upbringing and marriage. Thanks to the support of her wealthy father and husband, she never had to hold a job and therefore could blithely opine on a son's lack of professional success or a daughter's need to find a provider. Her standards and biases were absurd-preparing to meet her future son-in-law, a Princeton graduate from Darien, Connecticut, she deemed him a questionable match for having left Harvard Business School to receive his doctorate from Cornell and run a non-profit environmental organization. Coming from and marrying into a family of East Coast blue bloods, she saw nothing wrong with disparaging servants in their presence, referring to one maid as "it" even as the woman refilled her water glass at dinner. When she occasionally let slip a racist or anti-Semitic remark in front of her children, the effect on us did not trouble her given that she had grown up in the same climate of bigotry in the twenties and thirties.

My parents met under the most romantic of circumstances, aboard a ship conveying my father back to college at Oxford and my mother on a sightseeing trip to Berlin in 1937. In photographs from this period they look happy and optimistic, caught up in the social whirl of the aristocratic set that they belonged to. Studying them in convivial company at polo matches or hunt breakfasts, I search in vain for hints of their imminent descent into marital misery. They even cultivated these images of their past, portraying that transatlantic voyage as an enchanted affair reminiscent of a 1930's screwball comedy. My mother also loved to recall the adventure of living in Cambridge, Massachusetts with a baby while my father attended Harvard Law School in the early 1940's.

By the time I came along in 1957, their sixth and last child, their energy for parenting had waned. My mother raised me as if by proxy, entrusting me to a Scottish nanny and then a succession of babysitters until I left for boarding school at fourteen. As a child, I took my mother's affection for granted, simultaneously preening and cringing as she bestowed her lavish compliments. Entering my teen-age years, I began to sense that she and my father loved me more than they liked me, an understandable reaction given my increasingly dour disposition and scorn for our affluent lifestyle. My defiance spilled over into the poetry I had begun to write at school. When my mother mentioned feeling offended by drafts of autobiographical poems she had found in my closet while I was away, I knew exactly which lines, describing her bejeweled entrances to family dinners and ever-present glass of wine, had pained her.

It surprised me to realize how much my teenage negativity wore on her. The summer between my junior and senior years of high school, she had to address the board of the Rhode Island property that she and her siblings had inherited from their mother. Devoid of self-confidence after years of my father's humiliations, she spent the days before the meeting fretting about her speech. I told her of my own difficulty talking in groups and made some suggestions for handling the ordeal. Afterwards, I overheard her marveling to my father about my show of compassion, the surprise in her voice revealing how much my sullenness had come to define me in her eyes. She never recovered her old fondness, nor did she and I achieve the kind of adult friendship that she enjoyed with my sisters until the end of her life.

My mother's social life dwindled after her stroke until she mainly kept company with her family. Occasionally she would dress up for lunch with her old friends at a private club, but for the most part if one wanted to see her one had to come to her bedroom. Her oddest post-stroke bond was with Kitty Kelly, the Irish woman who served as our live-in maid, housekeeper, and chauffeur for twenty years. Her treatment of Kelly alternated between contempt and kindness, as she berated her for minor housekeeping lapses only to flatter her with inquiries about her family. Kelly seemed not to take the rebukes to heart-long after retiring, she continued to visit my mother, sitting opposite her bed and reminiscing like an old friend.

Relationships like this one, with people who came from neither my mother's family nor her social class, helped me to see her without the filter of filial love or resentment. Even as she continued to infuriate her children with criticism in old age, outsiders adored her. After my father died when she was eighty-seven , a succession of live-in attendants cared for her with a devotion that transcended employee deference. The longest-serving of these aides, Frank, whom she teasingly referred to as "my boyfriend," always included a long-stemmed rose on her dinner tray. When she developed a liking for raucous television comedies, Frank made sure that re-runs of "Three's Company" and "Golden Girls" played at full volume while she ate.

Looking back on that five-year period between my father's death and her own, when the effects of her stroke had blended with those of old age, I realize that even during my childhood she was more of an enfeebled, grandmotherly presence than a maternal one. And as much as I continued to seek out her company as an adult, I still tended to see her as a pitiable anachronism, so rigid in perpetuating the prejudices of her class and so exaggerated in her appraisals of me that I was never able to find a trustworthy reflection of myself in her words. This essay is in part an attempt to create that likeness, while doing justice to her many contradictions.

Today, seven years after her death, two images come to mind when I think of her. The first is from a photograph taken on my parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary and reproduced on the program for her memorial service. She sits on the deck of her house in Rhode Island holding my three-year-old son's plastic juice cup. Her relaxed, slightly self-conscious smile, the sliver of her grandson's pant leg visible on the bench beside her, and the backdrop of her beloved Narragansett Bay make for a poignant memento. And a comical one, given the forbearing look in her eyes. For all of her proclamations of grandmotherly joy, she had a low tolerance for the boisterousness of small children and was probably handed the cup as an ironic prop for the photo.

The second image comes from my memory of a day twenty-five years earlier when my mother took my sisters and me to see her favorite comedians, Bob and Ray, perform on Broadway. I turned to speak to her and saw that her shoulders were shaking and her face running with tears. It took me a moment to realize that she was n't crying but laughing with uninhibited pleasure. Ever since then I have connected that moment to that feeling, the promise of which drew me down the hall to her room so often as a child and homecoming adult. The last time I visited her, driving up to Rhode Island from my house in Connecticut, I parked and wa lked inside, the loud canned laughter on TV giving way to her laughter as I entered her bedroom and she turned her good ear to the sound of my voice.

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ESSAYS BY MICHAEL MILBURN:

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JACK'S ROOM

My three brothers, eighteen, sixteen, and fourteen years my senior, lived away from home for most of my childhood. Our interaction was limited to their week-end visits to our parents' house, or the occasional longer stay when they would reoccupy their rooms during intervals between schools or apartments... | read |

ON PERSONALITY

There's at least one at every party, in every classroom, commanding attention, enlivening conversation. And invariably, off to the side or in the back row, there's another watching and listening, as withdrawn as the first is outgoing... | read |

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ON INTELLIGENCE

Although I recognized the concept of intelligence from an early age, it wasn't until high school that I realized that being smart meant more than getting good grades, and that different people could be smart in different ways. | read |

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Michael Milburn's book of essays, Odd Man In, won the First Series Award for Creative Nonfiction and was published by MidList Press in 2005.  His second book of poems, Drive By Heart, was published by Word Press in 2009.  A new book of poems, Carpe Something, is forthcoming from Word Press in 2012. You can find more of his work at michael-milburn.com

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"Odd Man In: And Other Essays"

"Not many poets coach lacrosse teams. But it is the improbable connections in his life that make Milburn such a refreshingly unpredictable essayist. Whether pondering the affinity between uncoached athletic talent and untutored poetic genius or comparing his own social status as an oft-stereotyped WASP to that of an oft-discriminated-against African American, Milburn cuts through conventional wisdom to reach fresh insights... An authentic and engaging voice."

-- Bryce Christensen

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