Friday, June 16, 2006

Number 100

Anyone who knows her well knows that Mom regrets at least half her life. At age 36, in the middle of a delayed adolescence and individuation, she handed Dad a divorce—a poorly executed proceeding that cost her custody of her children and nesting rights in her ex-husband’s house, a rare legal judgment in 1968, even for Oregon. So I guess that’s about half her life, if the measure of a mother’s life is raising her children (she didn’t) and living in the house that her grown children and their children come home to on holidays (she doesn’t).

After 17 years with Dad, Mom’s three or four subsequent marriages eventually drove her back to Jesus and into apartment 100, where she lives now, one of a cluster of mustard-colored fourplexes. Some fifteen years ago she lived in this same apartment complex, though in a different unit, one that backed against Kellogg Lake. She liked the foliage just a few feet away from her patio, and the birds, and especially the privacy, but moved out for a reason I cannot remember—probably money, or fear of not having enough of it. Then her last marriage came and went, and she moved into number 100.

One of the few pieces of furniture she retained in the divorce is a darkly lacquered and carved mahogany Japanese chest, obtained by a sailor neighbor in the 1950s, during his Cold War cruises to the Far East. An antique American hutch stands against the living room wall, filled with dishes and goblets and other glassware from Mom’s mother and aunts. Gone, however, is the coffeetable sculpture I remember from my visits to her 1975-ish apartment—a two-foot high nude couple embracing, arms and legs entwined. Inspired by Love Story, symbolic of her own midlife sexual awakening, carved in Taiwan, purchased at Import Plaza.

Decidedly less erotic is Mom’s teddy bear collection. It has grown over the years, Paddington and Poo and their fuzzy cousins now lining a high, wall-long shelf I installed for Mom a few years ago. And her dozens of angels—porcelain, wax, wood—are not something I remember from childhood; she must have started acquiring angels after she left Dad. You can always find a couple or three angels here and there throughout the apartment, but soon after Thanksgiving Mom unpacks and displays all of them in a kind of Christmas spectacular, like the Rockettes. Except that Mom’s angels aren’t leggy—in fact, you can’t see a leg among them—and her Christmas Spectacular isn’t in Radio City Music Hall, but on a cotton snowfield unrolled on the Japanese chest.

Then there’s her penchant for century-old popular art, of the sentimental, maudlin sort. Think the Little Match Girl, The Real Mother Goose, lasses in bonnets and petticoats, tykes in knee-breeches, guardian angels levitating over barefoot peasant children in storm on rickety bridge above angry torrent. You get the idea. Images, I suppose, from her own girlhood longing for A Happy Family, The Good Old Days. God knows her mother’s anxieties and consequent nagging drove her father to the bar at Mac’s Pit, drove Mom's ideal of A Happy Family out the door too, drove her away from home at 19 into a marriage that went bad within weeks of the wedding.

Anyway, here and there throughout the apartment are color prints of—guess what?—angels (female-ish, judging from their golden tresses, their cocked wrists, their beardless faces—whatever breasts or waistlines may lurk under those acres of white drapery are quite invisible) and children (barefoot, cherry-cheeked, seemingly happy despite their humble if not outright wretched conditions).

The effect is vaguely Victorian, Edwardian. For all I know, the ghosts of Christopher Robin and Nanny are hovering somewhere in apartment 100, keeping watch over the bears by night.

What used to keep watch over me by night was similarly Victorian: a glow-in-the-dark, six-inch white plastic version of Heinrich Hofmann’s 1890 painting “Christ in Gethsemane.” Just before clambering into my upper bunk, I’d hold it close to the desk lamp, give it a good charge—it was probably saturated in radium paint—stand it up on the dresser, kill the lamp, climb into bed, and then marvel at the ghostly, kneeling Jesus fluorescing there on the dresser, arms outstretched on the flat-topped boulder, his face tilted up, gazing placidly into the heavens.

(It always puzzled me, even then, why my Baptist church was so fond of such art, in light of the fact that, at least during the decade of my boyhood and adolescence, no one in that church ever prayed kneeling and looking up toward the church’s laminated beams. Everyone knew that the acceptable posture of prayer was “every head bowed and every eye closed,” as the pastor reminded us at three services a week. To the restrained, undemonstrative, teetotaling, anti-dancing folk of my church, such pathos in prayer may have been permissible for Christ—I mean, he was God after all, and God can do anything He wants, right?—but it just wouldn’t be appropriate for His followers. For starters, Baptist pews had no kneelers. Then there was the problem of the congregation praying eyes wide open, a practice that would rob the organist, pianist, and songleader of their chance, during the post-sermon prayer when every head was bowed and every eye closed, to slither silently from their pews—into which they had descended when the sermon started—back into their performance places for the closing hymn. The effect, especially on a child who resisted peeking, was impressive, at least the first few times: the last thing we saw as the pastor began his prayer was just him, there behind the pulpit. At his amen, our eyes opened and—Behold!—the musicians had somehow appeared up there, too. It was the closest thing we Baptists had to transubstantiation.)

Keeping the air swirling around the the bears, the angels, and the art are Mom’s fans. Her apartment is not palatial—two bedrooms, a dining nook adjoining the living room, typical apartment fare—but neither is it particular small, and it is certainly not stuffy. Yet from April through October or so, the electric fans are always on—one by the sliding glass door that opens onto her small patio, an oscillating fan in a corner of the living room, a third in her bedroom. For half the year her apartment becomes a vortex of whirlpooling air, of eddies curling in the kitchen and hallways.

When I visit Mom, I can manage to talk over the rushing whirr of the fans. What I can’t tolerate—what is as distracting to me as a piece of salad in the teeth of a dinner date—are Mom’s electronic pest repellers. These gizmos plug into outlets like nightlights, except they emit not light but ultrasonic waves that are supposed to drive rodents and insects out of the house, like the Pied Piper, or like we hope this November’s midterm elections will do. The waves may be ultrasonic and beyond human hearing, but they still do this hellish clicking—every few seconds a click, first from the one in the dining room, then I begin hearing the one in the kitchen. Then I start anticipating the clicks, the conversation is drowned out in my head by the odious little torturers. I feel like the psychotic narrator of “The Telltale Heart”—the damnable clicks fill my ears, I no longer follow any conversation, I end up getting on my feet and unplugging the loathsome things.

“What are you doing, honey?” Mom whines.

“I’ll plug them back in before I leave.”

“You won’t remember.”

When the time comes, I do remember, and on my way out give her a hug and cheek kiss, tell her I’ll come again soon to the localized whirlwind that is her apartment.