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A Final Conversation in a Life of Confusion

Steve Salerno last wrote for the magazine about his love affair with batting cages

The boxed-up ash that remains of my mother is crammed into a 12-inch hem of earth abutting the fence in San Diego’s Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, where I stand with head bowed, a solitary celebrant of what would have been her 80th year. It is what we call a “nice plot” (an oxymoron, as if any final resting place is truly “nice”), with arboreal shelter and a view of the famed harbor that seemed to please her when she previewed it in life. That is not said lightly, for my mother, in her later years, could be hard to please.

She buried two husbands--my father and the jovial retired sanitation worker we came to call St. Marty, for his godly forbearance in the face of her haranguing. Loneliness, my mother would say, had induced her to “marry beneath” herself the second time around. She had no qualms about saying this to Marty himself.

In fairness to my mother, her treatment of Marty, like so much of her behavior, was the fever that told of the malaise below. To some degree, we are all marked by contradiction, but my mother could’ve been the poster girl for it--a perplexing blend of nurture and nonchalance, charm and chafe. Though an avid lover of privacy, she thought nothing of making the most intimate inquiries of others. (Her very first question for my wide-eyed wife-to-be: “So, who uses the protection?”) Her broad grin and easy, deep-from-the-chest laugh would lead casual acquaintances to think her the life of the party when, in fact, away from the crowd, she often succumbed to despondency and an unshakable pessimism; a freshly cleaned black dress always hung in her closet, “just in case.”

Notwithstanding her casual attitude toward the feelings of the man who waited on her hand and foot, she was a kindly soul who’d do almost anything to help a stranger. Then again, she was woefully uncomfortable as the recipient of largess. Invite her for lunch and she’d arrive toting her own cold cuts.

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“Your mother,” my wife would say, “is an original.”

Kathy never realized how close she came to the truth. My mother, you see, was one of a generation of women who found themselves teetering on the cusp of feminism--a “modern woman” before the phrase gained currency, with unspoken goals that did not reflect those foist upon her by men. Having grown up in a house ruled by a tyrannical patriarch, she allowed herself to fall into a submissive role with my father as well. Besides, that’s what good little Italian girls from Brooklyn did back then: They loved--they honored--their husbands. One supposes this silent clash between instinct and obligation had much to do with my mother’s outward incongruities.

In time, my father decreed that they would begin saving for a place of their own. He gave his blessing to my mother to work, whereupon she launched a clerical career on the graveyard shift at the Federal Reserve Bank in Manhattan. This occurred when I was 6 or 7. By the time I’d reached 11 or 12, she was among the first wave of women management at FRB--New York, reporting directly to one Paul A. Volcker. Some years later, Volcker would go on to glory as chairman of the entire Fed system, a turn of events that set my mother to wistful reverie. “I wonder how far I could’ve gone,” she would say, “if I’d just pushed a little harder.”

At get-togethers, I’d hear her FRB friends describe a person unknown to me: brassy, free-thinking, indomitable. For at home she remained the loyal sidekick, deferring to my father in all matters domestic and financial--even though her job better equipped her for such decision-making and her contributions to the home-buying fund had eclipsed his roundly by the time he took ill.

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After Dad died, my mother’s transformation became complete. Indeed, after playing the quiet supplicant in her first marriage, she must have felt the need to overcompensate with Marty. From Day 1, she was unmistakably The Boss. Whether the topic was their relocation to California or the composition of a salad, she presided over all household issues with the manic heedfulness of a world-class fashion designer at the unveiling of her new spring line.

Generally her bossiness remained good-natured--as long as Marty remained his usual tractable self. But she became notorious in the family for her spontaneous detonations at his slightest “offense.” A traditional Catholic, Marty clung to a belief in purgatory long after the church abandoned the notion. When he spoke of this one day shortly before his death, my sister told him not to worry. “You did your penance right here, Marty,” said Ginny, giving his hand a sympathetic pat. “You’ll be on the heaven express.”

All of which seemed far in the past by the time I flew cross-country to spend some time with Mom “while she’s still able to appreciate it,” in Ginny’s words. Marty’s death had plunged my mother into a hellish downward spiral encompassing bouts with diabetes, heart trouble, cancer. I entered the nursing home and found in place of the drill sergeant I had come to know, a frail, nearly sightless little lady hunched over a walker. Oxygen tubes snaked from her nostrils. I remember thinking, “My God, how hard this must be for you. . . .”

On a bright weekday afternoon in July, I took my mother to an Italian bistro in one of San Diego’s tonier neighborhoods, the kind of place where fellow diners remember the car you drove up in long after the meal is forgotten. We took about 10 minutes to negotiate the 20 yards from the closest handicapped-parking space to the front door--she stopped repeatedly to catch her breath--and during that time several patrons glanced with a scowl at my mother and her assorted medical paraphernalia as if she was a damper on the restaurant’s festive ambience. For once, I was thankful her vision had failed.

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Halfway through her linguine, she looked up. “I’m really enjoying this,” she said. Then, in the next labored breath: “Stephen, I can’t go out anymore.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I blurted. “You’ll have plenty of days out.” She just kept looking at me, breathing heavily through lips set in a weak smile. I didn’t know whether she was too tired to speak or whether there was nothing more to say. I left the restaurant with a disquiet that haunted me for weeks. It would be the last time I saw my mother alive.

Toward the end, as is customary with terminal cancer patients, the nursing home kept her on so much medication that she mostly slept. If my mother awakened when the room was empty, she’d panic. Ginny unplugged the phone so that it wouldn’t ring when Mom was alone; she’d plug it back in again each time she came to visit, and I would call during those hours. My mother lacked the strength or mental clarity to speak much, but at least my sister could supply a firsthand narrative of her condition. And if the ringing startled my mother, Ginny would be there to calm her.

One evening when I called at the arranged hour, the phone rang a half-dozen times. I was about to hang up when, on the other end, I heard a bleary “Hellloooo?”

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“Uh, hi, Mom,” I stammered.

“Oh, hello, Stephen. How are you? It’s so nice to hear from you.” Her voice grew crisper with each word.

“Fine, Mom. . . . And you?”

“Well, about the same today. I guess I can’t complain.” She said this breezily, just as if it were 20 years earlier and my phone call had caught her in mid-laundry on an ordinary Saturday. Then she asked, “Is Kathy there? Let me say hello.”

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I turned to my wife, who stared at me uncomprehendingly. “She wants to talk to you.” This was remarkable in itself, because in recent conversations my mother had forgotten I was married. She also had come to believe I was a world-class surgeon who, in his spare hours, ran the Pittsburgh Pirates.

She and Kathy shared a moment of general chitchat, then my mother asked for me again. She ventured a question or two about how things were going on my job--my actual job, not surgery or baseball. She ended by saying, in an astonishingly strong, clear voice, “Don’t you worry about me now. Just take care of your family. You hear me, Stephen? I’ll be fine.”

That evening, when I recounted the incident to Ginny, she swore the phone had been disconnected from the wall when she arrived later than usual at the nursing home. None of the nurses could recall having hooked it up temporarily.

Even five years later, as I stand above the small patch of earth given over to my mother, the hairs on the back of my neck tingle at the memory. What took place that night defies explanation, but here’s how I like to think of it: My mother wanted to settle my mind about things and so, realizing it was now or never, she willed it to happen.

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Perhaps, she needed to let me hear her on top of things--one final time. She had lived a life of confusion, straining to find her proper place in relation to men. My mother would go out of this world with the last man in her life, her only son, knowing she was in control after all.


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