Mother’s Day just happened. I’m only three days late. I suppose she was right. I really am just a good-for-nothing kid. Of course I wouldn’t have called her, Mumsie, until she’d been dead for a few years…even though it’s meant as a term of endearment. But she was all business. I have no memory of her ever laughing.
She was a dragon-killer; those fire-breathing, feral beasts she did battle with each day. They never stayed dead, the trucks or buses driven by assassins out to get her, the gonif at the fruit stand with his thumb on the scale, the Italian shoemaker she haggled with over soles and heels, the teacher she fought with who failed my brother, the drunken Irishman who was our super and the landlord holding back on radiator heat. As Tarzan said to Jane. It’s a jungle out there.
Mumsie squeezed some life from my hand when we crossed the street, from imagined trench to trench. I’m not sure we ever got to the other side. She lived in combat doing battle with one Goliath after another. It was her tongue that brought them down.
She was the foot soldier in the family, angry and loud. My father stayed behind enemy lines in headquarters sticking pins in the ruling class, fascists and racists. He taught me how to close one ear, sometimes two. Survival required selective deafness. In his drugstore he might have concocted elixirs which granted him heavy sedation.
Mumsie was eighty-four in 1984 claiming January 1st 1900 as her birthday. I’m told how many immigrants declared that day as theirs as if landing in Ellis Island was new birth in the new century erasing everything prior.
Even at her four feet, eleven inch fearsome height she struck fear into everyone. Everyone except Peggy who got over her initial fright and challenged Mumsie’s loose mouth which issued insults at me I had long stopped hearing. She tamed her.
Mumsie mellowed over her last four years as if she’d been waiting all that time for someone to lovingly welcome her to the real world – to assure her that there are no dragons out to get her, that no one wants to cheat her or run her over. After all, didn’t Murray the butcher put aside the best cuts for her? There was no need to curse God for God-knows-what as she mopped the kitchen floor every Friday night as if some Sabbath ritual.
I never get out, she would say. I would drive her around the neighborhood choosing the pretty streets. Look Mom, at those magnolia blossoms in front of the Tudor–styled house. Just keep your eyes on the road, she would reply from the back seat where did she all her driving. Another ten or twenty years she may have felt at home in this world.