29: A Novel by Adena Halpern

29: A Novel by Adena Halpern
Disclaimer: This book was provided to me as a result of my relationship with www.fromwritetoleft.com. This is not a review of the book.

While the premise of this novel is a 75 year old woman becoming 29 again---for a day! However, mother-daughter relationships are the real focus of the book. One cannot help but reflect on your own mother-daughter experience while reading the novel.

My siblings and I teased Mom by calling her Violet Lee Marshall Sims Sims Bennett Sims Marshall to indicate all her marriages and multiple returns to her maiden name. It might also be an indicator that Mom did not have the luxury, courage or determination to know herself and therefore, even her name displayed the string of changing identities.  Mom stood five feet eight inches tall by sixth grade when she was coerced into playing the bass violin because she was the only child tall enough to hold it. Her auburn hair caressed her shoulders in her younger years and constituted her best feature. She laughed easily but stayed chronically depressed and chronically insecure in adult life.

All mother/daughter relationships are complicated---mine proved uncommonly so. Perhaps we got off on the wrong foot because I was a week old and she hadn’t bothered to name me. Perhaps she’d figured out already with my older brother that motherhood wouldn’t be her strong suit in life.
Mom’s struggle with parenting swelled between marriages. My fourth grade year represented one of those periods. We went to five different schools that year. Working outside the home and being a mother seemed to overwhelm her before the day got started. One house and one job created a situation wherein she had to leave for work fifteen to thirty minutes before we had to leave for school. Jumping from the top bunk onto Mom’s full size bed in the same small room became the fun that filled that short span between her departure and ours. Clueless of the damage possible to children and mattress, we had fun. Then one weekend morning, Mom said she had a secret that related to the box of oatmeal. Disgusted with my inability to guess the secret, she explained the oatmeal brand name Wedding Oats was suppose to impart to me that she intended to marry again.

We had met this guy Elvie and he did not impress me. Lacking enough knowledge for an informed opinion held me back not a whit. At eight, I had already assumed a great deal of authority over Mom, little sister and big brother. I asked myself  “Would this mean one more person that I had to be in charge of?” At that point my authority manifested as more emotional than practical as it would later become. For better or worse, my disapproval and accompanying tantrum waylaid that guy and that marriage---too much power and authority for one so young.

I assumed a parental role so Mother could still be a child, albeit, a charming child at times. We laughed a lot. Played games. Sang songs. But I knew and she knew that I held the power. I didn’t require discipline (okay maybe on one or two notable occasions) so assuming the role of “adult of the household” came easy. It became more difficult when she later married Herman. He didn’t take well to my being in charge.
Through my high school years, I cooked every evening meal, cared for my siblings who now included younger half-sisters Ashley and Vivian, as well as Bill and Margaret. Our whole neighborhood heard the unison groan every time macaroni and cheese showed up on the menu. We either didn’t know about or couldn’t afford help from Kraft, so sometimes I got the cheese sauce right and sometimes it looked and tasted like a yellow sandy substance not intended for human consumption. No one taught me to cook; I just did.

We cleaned house on Saturdays so I got in big trouble if I went to a sleepover on Friday night and didn’t appear on top of my game for Saturday chores…not because I would be punished by a withdrawal of privileges but rather with Mom’s crying and proclamation that my love for her represented lip service only. In retrospect and from my own experience of premenstrual syndrome, I realize Mom probably had severe PMS, mood swings and ongoing depression.

Mom also decided I would be “designated achiever.” I’m not sure why that mantle fell to me rather than older brother Bill except that he was probably learning disabled. Did we even know that term in the Fifties? In autograph books that came with our school pictures one year, Mom sent clear messages regarding these assigned family roles. Bill was in fifth grade and Mom wrote in his book “As sure as the grass grows around the stump, you are my little Bill-Lump-Lump.”

I was in third grade and in my book she wrote “Don’t wait for your ship to come in, go out and meet it.”

I felt hurt that Bill’s message sounded gooey and loving. I didn’t even understand mine. Mom tried to explain it. She made matters worse. Her explanation sounded to me like what she felt for Bill showed love; what she wrote to me showed expectation. Intent or not, Bill and I lived out the truth of those messages in our futures.

By Junior High, Bill created a scrapbook recording my achievements which he titled “What Brenda’s Done.” Did Mom ask him to do it?  I don’t know. I just know we were both playing assigned roles. I would like to think he did it because he wanted to. We were close as children and he inclined toward artistic tasks so laying out a scrapbook might have been fun for him.

Ironically though Mom had no aspirations for me to attend college. Her dream for me did not extend beyond graduating from high school, going to beauty school and becoming a hairdresser. (While I did show early interest in hair and make-up, I would have been inclined to smack a client who didn’t accept what I thought to be her best style. Obviously, this would not have been a good career path.) Mom later said the reason I didn’t become involved in the drugs, music or peace movement of the Sixties rested on the fact that I had blinders on about going to college. Nothing mattered to me as much as getting that college degree. Her analysis hit the target.

At times while I attended college, Mom worked as a waitress and sent me her tips. This may seem like a paltry gesture since my family paid not a penny for books or tuition but it provided loving support for everyday expenses and I needed it. There were, after all, three other siblings still at home.

Multiple factors made motherhood a challenge for Violet Lee but she would have made a fabulous librarian. Reading and books were as essential as the air she breathed. She actually read all the books assigned to me in a correspondence course I once took. I would then sit with her and pick her brain to answer the questions from the written work. Coming from her working class family with an alcoholic father and growing up during The Great Depression and World War II, the possibility of college and a professional career didn’t appear on her radar. Her standard joke about her own siblings went like this “My sister Juanita got all the talent; my sister Bertha Jane got all the brains and I got all the kids.” Though inaccurate, this perception comprised her lot in life. Her vocal talent alone could have led her in a different direction. In the early Forties, while waitressing at the upscale Vendome Hotel in Evansville, she had a fling with a guy who played in the band. They cut a record on which her beautiful contralto voice soared above his band. She also did not fall short on the brains which she ascribed to Bertha Jane. She had a natural affinity for mathematics, consumed crossword puzzle books using ink, not pencils and had such a vast store of history and trivia that it took several years for my son Mark, whose intellect defined him, to reach his goal of beating Grandma in Trivial Pursuit.

Playing games can be listed among her strongest skills as mother. From the time we were very young, we were taught to play all sorts of games especially card games. We played Authors when Margaret was so young she couldn’t say or remember Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, so we all identified him as Santa Claus so Margaret could play. While playing Crazy Eights when Vivian was ten (I was twenty-two and married), Mom would not give an inch of allowance for Vivi not playing the game well. I teased “God sure makes funny people mothers.” We repeated that joke often over the years. We both knew it had layers of meaning.

Mom taught us to play Clabber as soon as we were old enough to grasp the concepts. Clabber is a distinctly Indiana card game---a faster version of Pinochle, so I’m told. Let’s be generous and say, in her own way, Mom taught us logic, math and foresight---all required to play Clabber. Other skills (not related to Clabber) were never taught.  I inquired once as to why she didn’t teach us to brush our teeth. She answered “Buying the toothpaste and toothbrushes and putting them in the bathroom challenged me enough.”

Teaching us her favorite music and singing together are my best memories of Mom. To this day, the music of the 1940’s tops my All-time Favorites List. It was the soundtrack of my childhood when other kids were listening to the Big Bopper, Ricky Nelson and then the Beatles. I could sing every word of the Forties classics right along with her. I have more memories of pallets on the floor next to Mom’s bed than bedrooms or beds and often that pallet on the floor included a radio tuned to the sounds of Big Band Era lulling us to sleep.  

The Reader’s Digest Family Song Book was tantamount to the Bible in our family and a treasured possession. We sang through it so often, we instinctively started the song on the next page without turning the pages or even looking at the book. There was not a weak voice among Mother’s five children. When all of us were still at home, the best sounds would come when we sang in the car. Hymns, classics, nonsense songs, some country and, of course, the Forties popular music. Rosemary Clooney, Patti Paige, Frank Sinatra and the big bands of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey were household favorites. Sweet memories in a sea of chaos. We sang Back Home Again in Indiana at Mom’s funeral service---acapella, just like when we were kids.

A friend, trying to be supportive around the time of Mom’s death, asked about memories of my Mom in the kitchen. Having never lived in the same house two years in a row, the memory of kitchens requires way too much recall power. My mother in the kitchen generates only one blip. Fifties TV shows provided plenty of mother images but the Donna Reed-type did not show up in apron and pearls with a pan of warm cinnamon rolls in our family kitchen. And my mother didn’t even bother to watch the damn show.
One day when I came home from school for lunch, Mother sat at the table eating a can of peas, buttered bread and coffee. I hated that house close to Delaware School and particularly the kitchen. Herman painted the linoleum with a bizarre abstract pattern to cover his bad base coat. When you turned on the light in the dark of night those giant, crusty-backed cockroaches scrambled for cover---hundreds of them. To my nine year old mind, the roaches, the bizarrely painted linoleum, a mother who ate only peas for lunch and the shame of our poverty-stricken dysfunctional family were all inter-related. Surely, if Mom could just pull off the June Cleaver act with diagonally cut lunch meat sandwiches and freshly coiffed hair, our lives would greatly improve. But she sat around in her red chenille bathrobe, smoking cigarettes and working crossword puzzles looking more like a hungover Cher than June or Donna---and she didn’t even drink.

For all her inadequacies, Mom had many redeeming qualities. She intrinsically knew that all human beings had value. As a child I thought racism an historical phenomenon that no longer existed in the United States. I thought people like my Grandma Sims who spoke coarsely about “niggers and Catholics” were throwbacks from another time and place. Dad seemed irreparably backward and redneck when he told my sister Margaret that her car looked so messy he felt sure “five families of niggers lived in it.” In Mom’s world racism didn’t exist. We lived in federal housing projects during the Fifties and black neighbors were friends. We played on the grassless playground with children of all hues never thinking this was unusual.

During my junior year of high school, Mom worked the lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Palmdale, CA. One day a young woman sat at the counter looking at the Want Ads in the local paper. Mom initiated a conversation and learned that the young woman had come to our small desert town to hide away during an ill-conceived pregnancy after which she planned to give the baby up for adoption. Mom brought her home to our three bedroom home which already had seven persons in it. We provided shelter for this young woman during the next eight months. She helped cook and because in her other life she styled hair, she fixed Mom’s ‘do and taught me all I ever needed to know about handling mine. What a gift for a nerdy high school junior with thin, curly hair. Welcoming this young woman into our home showed the generosity of spirit that lay at Mom’s core.
My adult relationship with Mom turned a corner at the time of the death of my second husband. He asked Mom to come over to the house and have a chat with him before he died. He explained to her that he was leaving me with enough money to rear and educate our two boys but that he had asked me not to help support my family members. There just were not sufficient funds for reaching out to them. He bought Mom a new car at that time which she let the insurance lapse on. Then she allowed my sister Vivian to drive it and wreck it. But the most important outcome of this chat Mom had with Bart is that she fully believed I would not follow through on his request. When I did she never forgave me.

To honor Mom at the rehearsal dinner of my next wedding, I read the following poem titled “Violets” because it not only carries her name but captures this quality that I valued most about her.

By Miriam Woolfolk
Used with permission

I picked a bunch of violets
outside my kitchen door;
they never seem to care just
where they grow.
‘Mid garbage cans and weeds,
or in my garden fair,
it matters not to them
if they will show.

I plucked them one by one
from many a different place
and laid them all together
in my hand,
and found I couldn’t tell
which one had come from where—
so it is with people
of our land.

Mom said “Brenda’s just showing off.”

She could not receive my intended compliment. What I wanted was to express gratitude for a quality she bestowed on family and strangers. The incident ended with sadness for me and for Mom.

updated: 6 years ago

TAGS: mother : daughter : relationships : memoir : novel :