Sunday, May 13, 2012

Stefanie (But Everyone Knew Her As Helen)



It's true.  My mother's name was Stefanie, but everyone, including family members, called her "Helen."  I'm not sure how this began, but I suspect it was just easier for her co-workers in the B. F. Goodrich rubber factory, where she hoisted mattresses on the night shift.  I found one of her paystubs from 1960.  For a 41-hour week, after putting $30 in a savings club, her take home was $58.39.


My mother learned English in the factory--she was born in Poland and came to the U.S. at the end of World War II from Salzburg, where she'd been working as a waitress.   She apparently learned all the curse words first, for she practiced them often on me.  But there was one expression my mother never did master, to the family's amusement:  instead of "crock of shit," she would proclaim something "cracker shit."

She smoked Camels.  She made pies, always in twos:  apple and lemon meringue.  She had an appreciation for crystal stemware and china--she had three or four sets.  For everyday, though, it was the Melmac.


My parents met at a Polish Falcons dance.  My mother used to tell me that the main reason she married my father was that he could speak Polish, and, second, she was desperate to leave her aunt's house.  She said she grew to love him.  Later she outgrew it.  To say that the relationship was volatile would be a vast understatement.


My mother told chilling ghost stories that purportedly really happened to her own mother in the old country.  They were characterized by archetypal journeys alone through woods and apparitions.  My mother also had her own numinous experiences:  one winter day, when she was hanging clothes to dry in the attic, she turned around and saw the landlady's recently deceased husband.  All I know is that my mother never went up into that attic again.


She liked clothes and was a trouper of a shopper. Once a year we'd take the train in to New York from Connecticut and spend the entire day hitting all the department stores on the upper east side.  We'd walk for miles with our growing booty.  At the end of the day, if I blew my nose, the tissue would be filled with soot.  I wondered how New Yorkers lived, inhaling all that grime.


When I turned 13, my mother bought me a leather Ann Taylor handbag I desperately wanted that cost $100, a heckuva lot of money in those days.  She believed in quality.  


But she was also practical and frugal.  Once, one of my Christmas presents was a box filled with necessities like Tampax and deodorant.

Speaking of Christmas, each year she would create her signature tree by draping it with Angel Hair, a fiberglass web that refracted light and gave the tree a magical glow.  And made her itch for days after handling it.

We liked to paste S&H stamps into the little booklets together using moistened sponges. Then we'd go to the redemption store and pick out stuff.


My mother always wore the same coral lipstick, which she applied with a brush to her perfect lips.  She used to spit into her mascara pad to activate it, which grossed me out.  Her favorite fragrance was Tabu.


When I dusted my parents' room on Saturday mornings, I would sometimes try on my mother's padded bras over my clothes and dab on some Tabu.


My mother was extremely narcissistic.  She felt that she had been cut out for better things and that her side of the family was classier.  She was always the center of attention.  I hated her guts the night she took over my slumber party by telling her stupid ghost stories, enthralling my guests.  I secretly reveled when she ended up in a neck brace after trying to show my cousins and me that she could do cartwheels better than us.


My mother was highly extroverted and social.  If we stopped at the Macy's lunch counter on one of our shopping excursions, she'd be best friends with the woman next to her by the end of the meal.  This drove me crazy with embarrassment, and, perhaps because I also felt ignored, propelled me into introverted sulks.


My mother also had a borderline personality disorder, which I attribute to abandonment issues. As my mother told it, she was deathly ill with rheumatic fever as a girl, and she overheard my grandmother say, "It would be better if she died."  There were about sixteen other children, give or take; she'd have been one less mouth to feed.  When she was 14, my mother left to go to work on a farm in Austria and was effectively adopted by the family who owned it.  I guess that sent my grandmother a message.


As a result of the rheumatic fever, my mother had a damaged heart valve and was prone to spells.  When I was 12, a year after she married my stepfather, Bob, she had open-heart surgery and the valve was replaced with a plastic one.  My stepfather and I spent so much time at the hospital that the staff would let me make toast in the kitchen on her wing.  I loved toast.  It was comforting.


Years later, when I was already grown and out of the home, my mother's doctors feared that she had another damaged valve, and they urged her to go in for tests.  She stubbornly insisted on waiting until fall, wanting to spend the summer with my stepfather at their camp in Maine.  She collapsed on the kitchen floor one day in June 1974; it was a fatal heart attack.  She was only 49.  Although my stepfather had found my mother's affective instability so intolerable at times that he threatened to leave, he never got over losing her; Bob withdrew into major depression and died of cancer in 1997.


My mother's borderline features made her mercurial and terrifying.  Once, enraged that my closet wasn't up to her standards of neatness, she went truly Mommie Dearest, hurling everything out the closet and beating me with the wooden hangers.  When we were moving into the house Bob built for us (in the photo above), his buddies pitched in to help.  One of them nicked a piece of furniture trying to navigate it through the doorway, and my mother lit into the poor guy with every swear word in her repertoire while the rest of us cringed in horror.


Which brings me to how much my mother loved the movies.  We'd go to double features practically every Sunday afternoon.  I remember 50s horror movies in particular--The Blob, House on Haunted Hill, The Brain That Wouldn't Die, and my all-time fave, The Killer Shrews:



When I was 9, my mother took me to see Psycho one evening.  The audience at the Capitol theater in Ansonia was mainly teenagers on dates, and they gave us weird looks that made me embarrassed to realize how inappropriate this movie was for someone my age.  The film scared the bejesus out of me, and we both loved it.


When I was in high school, I took my mother to a performance by The Living Theatre at Yale.  It turned out to be one of those pieces in which the actors run around the audience naked.  My mother ate it up.  She was hungry.  She actually was cut out for better things.  (Certainly better things than The Living Theatre, I might add.)

My mother was an excellent seamstress who taught me the craft.  We'd peruse Vogue and Butterick patterns together at the fabric store.  In my Mod wannabe days, she sewed me a Mary Quant dress with a white collar and cuffs.  I still have--and can still fit into--the Nehru jacket she made for me out of an India print bedspread--replete with fabric-covered buttons. 


I never told my mother that my older (reliable, responsible) friend Frances didn't drive us to Woodstock and that we hitchhiked from her apartment in New Haven instead.  Not because I feared my mother's reaction, but because that experience was mine alone.  And if anyone thinks I should have fessed up, well...that's just cracker shit.


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