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In memory of my Mother, Mildred Kenner (July 10, 1924-Dec. 12, 2004)
It was a year ago today that my mother died. I thought about her today. I think about her every day.
In younger years, she was a woman of easy grace and a range of interests that astonishes me as the foggy anguish of her death recedes and I remember day by day what it was like growing up.
When I was too young to read, she read to me. "The Arabian Nights" (Golden Book version). "Just So Stories." "Raggedy Ann."
At night, after I had gone to bed, she would play “Manhattan Serenade” on the piano. Beautifully. My dad had bought the piano for her to play. She had studied with a student of Liszt as a girl, and she gave me my first lessons.
She used flash cards to teach me reading and musical notes. Paid me a penny for every card I got right. When I got to kindergarten, I was reading stories to the other children. They skipped me three times in K-12. I went to UCLA just after turning 16.
She enrolled me in ballet class and drove me there every week. And to piano classes, starting when I was six. She played duets with me, to my great delight. I loved making music with somebody else. That has stayed with me all of my life.
She had a dry sense of humor and a fine sense of proportion. I was a little know-it-all as a 5-year-old, and she once pulled me up short when I kept saying, “I know” to a friend. “You know, you know,” she said to me. “Is there anything you don’t know?” She so rarely criticized me that that I can still hear her gentle mockery now, half a century later. I don’t believe I ever said “I know!” in a conversation again. I pretend not to know things I do know.
I asked her once if she believed in fairies. “Yes,” she answered, “if you are the fairy.”
Until I was 17, I was painfully shy. It was difficult for me to speak to anyone except very close friends and family. I remember once when I was about 5, Mom left me in the car to wait while she did a quick errand. I hid under the dashboard so that nobody could see me. Mom, however, was the kind of person who connected with others. Wherever we were, she soon knew all the neighbors and gathered them in for parties and socializing. She had a humility about her, a frank directness, that people of all sorts found appealing.
When I was 3, she persuaded our neighbors to form a co-op nursery school at the local park. There, she taught the children folk songs, and accompanied them on guitar: ":Froggie Went a-Courting.” “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” “O Susanna, now don’t you cry for me for I’m going to Lweeziana with a banjo on my knee.” None of us had ever seen a banjo. She had a little old Martin guitar, an exceptionally nice one. When I went yondering as a teen-ager, I took it with me.
I took her spirit with me.
I didn’t realize it until later, but Mom’s artistic sensibility was exceptional. She was inspired by the Japanese concept of the unique beauty in imperfection. She might have picked it up when she spent a year in Hawaii as a young nurse, the year she learned to fly a single-seat plane around the islands.
Mom’s sophistication was particularly strange because it seemed not to originate in her family. It seemed to exist on nothing but air, like the strange bromeliads she liked to grow. Mom’s mother had no paintings at all on her unvaryingly beige walls. Grandma Pearl's taste in clothing ran to stolid dresses, usually blue, with tiny dots or stripes – never, never, never any flowers, bright colors or bold designs. She liked delicate diamond jewelry and glass figurines of shepherdesses and angels. Mom collected copies of "Flair" magazine and made her own high-fashion clothes. She liked big turquoise squash blossom necklaces and dangling earrings. She decorated the house with her own pottery, baskets and oil paintings. Grandma passed on her sense of practicality and Irish humor to my mother, but no artistry.
Grandma Pearl fed me well when I took refuge in her house after falling on my face in the big world. Her cuisine was a basic meat-and-potatoes diet with well-cooked – one might say overly cooked – vegetables. She did not possess the sense of experimentation that led my mother to master ethnic cooking and the "Sunset Magazine" style of beautifully arranged fresh vegetables and fruits.
Mom's only artistic talent that seemed to clearly come from her parents was her green thumb, and that she seems to have had from Grandpa Elmer. Grandma directed the vegetable garden, but Grandpa was a connoisseur of exotic plants. Mom and Grandpa were thick, and they would exchange cuttings, so that the yards of our respective houses in Santa Monica and Pasadena shared a lush, botanical-garden look from the orchids, lilies, tulip trees, hibiscus bushes and ferns that those two were forever buying at nurseries.
My mother was not just an appreciator, though. Somehow she acquired a serene forbearance toward life that translated itself into a capacity for elaborately detailed handiwork. Her natural talent and self-assuredness allowed her to master -- oh, what did she not master?
Begin with sewing. She made my clothes in the room next to mine from the time I was three, stitching bric-a-brac onto skirts, cutting patterns, hemming skirts, sewing in complicated facings. She made my dance costumes -- polka, mice suit, whatever was called for.
I was rotten at sewing – I hadn’t the patience to do anything in a straight line -- but I was entranced by the pictures on the patterns. I would often sit in our patio, surrounded by magenta bougainvillea flowers and the big black bumblebees that patronized the violet flowers of our nightshade plant, under the Concord grapevine, and gaze at a certain picture on a Butterick pattern envelope depicting a magnificent long dress with a fascinating blue-and-white pattern. Some things never change.
At Christmas, the two of us baked gingerbread cookies and special breads shaped like Christmas trees from recipes she found in "Sunset." . Then we made the rounds of Santa Monica to deliver them to friends, to great acclaim.
Where did she find the time? She worked as a nurse for most of my early childhood. Somehow she did. She was an apostle of the handmade long before the handicrafts fairs of nowadays.
When I was 7, my family moved to Glendora, one of the many new housing tracts in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley. Glendora was a sort of wilderness. No plants were in our backyard – just weeds. The environment was tumbleweeds and smog. The only luxuriant plant life in sight of our house was the row of tall palm trees that bordered the golf course across the street. I was terribly lonely, and I named each palm tree after a friend back home in Santa Monica.
The sterility of our new environment didn’t stop Mom. She took it as an affront. She planted trees and bushes everywhere, and redoubled her artistic endeavors.
Her first venture was oil painting. She bought me my own set of oils and applauded my efforts, which were awful. Meanwhile, she copied a Fauve-era Impressionist painting of red and purple horses. Her copy was quite good.
She took up woodcarving. I remember a bowl in the shape of a fish.
In the fifth and sixth grade, she ran my Girl Scout troop. She figured out how to tie the different sorts of knots, and taught us to create tables and chairs out of ropes and wooden poles. (We won a prize at the Scout-o-Rama.) She took the troop on camping trips, taught us to roast marshmallows and shepherded hikes through the California chaparral. The old trees were the oldest things in San Gabriel Valley, and I liked them. Near the end of our stay in Glendora, she put on a fashion show, featuring the girls of our scout troop, and wrote the script.
At school, she helped me develop my odd gifts. She taught me to type. She lent me her Underwood typewriter to put together the fifth-grade class cookbook. I typed a poem about the assassination of Kennedy and read it at a school memorial. The local paper saved the moment, and she saved the photograph of this noteworthy event for 40 years.
Mom had been a competitive swimmer as a girl, and she drove me to lessons at the local high school pool, where I learned the crawl, backstroke, sidestroke and diving.
For a time, she drove me through the smog from Glendora to Beverly Hills every two weeks so I could take a piano lesson from Amparo Iturbi, a Spanish concert pianist. Amparo was a very grand lady. She made recordings and gave concerts with her brother Jose. Her Spanish-style home had a swimming pool in which I longingly wished to swim after those hot drives but to which I was never admitted, a full collection of Nancy Drew books and -- strangeness of strangenesses -- a bidet in the bathroom.
One day, I confessed to Amparo under questioning that I was also taking lessons with a teacher in Claremont. I didn't like that teacher, who never said anything, just benignly nodded -- but it was a violation of her rule, one that my parents had decided to break with the expectation of my complicity. When Amparo followed that up by asking if I liked the way she taught piano, I answered, "No, I didn’t." I found her harsh and hard to understand. I was crushed and humiliated when Amparo asked me to leave and never come back. Mom didn’t get mad at me. But my diplomacy did not improve until much later, until I was lucky enough to receive tutelage from a master of the diplomatic art: Victor Niederhoffer. Some things my mother could not help me with.
She did help me become a star at my little elementary school back in Glendora. In the fifth grade, she and I built a miniature city, with lichen for trees and balsa wood for houses. It looked like a little Glendora housing tract. Mom drove this construction to school in the back of the family station wagon. Soon I was soon placed in extracurricular science and literature classes, which were much more interesting than the public school.
We were all glad to move back to Santa Monica after three years in Glendora. The move was particularly good for Mom. She took classes in mosaics, learning to cut her own tiles to size. A large, mysterious wooden apparatus -- a loom -- appeared in our living room. Mom used the loom to weave elaborate fabrics, including a beautiful black-and-white-and-silver cloth that she made into a skirt. When she outgrew it, it became part of my wardrobe, and I wore it to shreds.
Next was the potter’s wheel. It came home one day and was placed in the side yard next to the lemon tree. It was an old-fashioned kick-wheel, not easy to coordinate. Mom turned symmetrical pots on it. But off the wheel, she began to make asymmetrical ones, and invented her own glazes that she dripped over the pots in uneven, unique ways. “Your mother has so much spirit,” her teacher, an acclaimed artist, told me later.
She continued to drive me to piano lessons every week. And there were tennis lessons.
She still made my clothes. We didn’t have a lot of money, so we always went to after-Christmas sales at Bullocks Westwood. The sales were frustrating, because if I really liked something, it wouldn't be my size. What I wanted so much it hurt was a black blazer like the one I saw in Beverly Hills one time; putting it on was like a breath of cool air in summer. Mom compensated by making me clothes. I wore those clothes constantly. She also turned over to me the beautiful tailored outfits she had bought with her first paychecks as a young nurse in the ‘40s -- plaid pencil midi skirts of fine wool, and a knobby emerald coat with matching plaid lining. They breathed glamour, these clothes. They felt good to wear, satisfyingly well-made and heavy. They made me feel good about myself.
Mom put on elaborate feasts when my boyfriends came for dinner. When Robert Garber came over in 11th grade, she made curry, with homemade Indian breads and chutney. She made shabu-shabu for my Japanese composer friend Paul Chihara, pleasing even that cynic.
I went to UCLA as a French major, without any idea of what I should be doing or even what I wanted to do. I had never wanted to be a music major, as that struck me as a 14-year-old as a sure way to being condemned to the cultural backwater, not to mention financial and social suicide. But I switched to piano because I met an extraordinary person, Aube Tzerko, who happened to be the head of the piano department. I found him worthy of emulation both as a person and pianist, and I have tried very hard ever since to follow his example.
But I ran away from UCLA for awhile after two years. I was 18, and I wanted to see the world, to be a gypsy, to play the music of the people. I traveled with a group of musicians and their hangers-on. I played in little cafes and wrote songs. I was hungry most of the time. Our little group ate only beans, rice and bread we baked from flour we ground ourselves. I remember being so hungry one night in a Laundromat that a makeshift meal of Fritos and cottage cheese seemed like a feast. A piece of baklava was an almost unbearable pleasure. When I came home after 18 months on the road, I was very thin. I wanted to learn how to cook my mother’s way. My mother, then 50, taught me the basics and went through her files to give me my favorite recipes.
It wasn’t until after I had left home that she was able to devote serious time to her artistic side. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that public recognition and awards came to her easily. Her final artworks, the culmination of a long life of working with her hands, were baskets woven of palm leaves, pine needles and other fallen things. She and my father collected materials and dried them in the garage. Her work was shown up and down the West Coast, in galleries and at art shows, featured in magazines. She taught classes. And she sold hundreds of pieces at prices I felt were much too low.
It all ended after she developed cancer and had her larynx removed. She was still capable of doing baskets, of course, and she continued to work for a time in her co-op gallery. But one day, they told her that she wasn’t wanted any more. They made an excuse that one of the women’s children needed a summer job. But mom felt it was because they were afraid that customers found her electronic voice abrasive. She sold her work for awhile at the gallery across the street – mostly Christmas ornaments and other small pieces that sold easily. Then she quit making things altogether.
The next 10 years were painful. My father died in 1999, on Thanksgiving Eve. Mom moved to a small apartment and decorated it with plants and baskets. She managed to make it almost was pleasant. I was stretched beyond the limit in high-rent Manhattan. But she never asked for anything, and was always absurdly pleased at whatever I did do, particularly if it involved creating something for her. She was far more pleased with one of my drawings than she was when I sent her clothing or special foods or money.
I am afraid that my mother, always so sociable, was isolated and alone in those last years. It wasn’t as though people didn’t care. I loved her. Her neighbors loved her, and brought her meals. The ladies of her basket class, long since grown old, came by a couple of times to take her to lunch. A woman who lived for awhile in the apartment upstairs was a pilot, like my mom had been in Hawaii, and took her up to scatter my father’s ashes. But the lady moved, and other friends died or became too feeble to drive themselves to see Mom. And Mom, once so active on the tennis court and in the pool, could barely walk herself.
I think she stayed alive to watch over me. I would call her every night, and she would tell me she loved me.
Months went by without my Mom seeing a visitor. She took to watching tennis matches on TV. She knew all the players and would handicap them when I called each night. That’s how I knew who the up-and-comers were, and how Agassi was doing.
One night, she slipped on a loose rug in the bathroom and broke three vertebrae. She went to the hospital, then to a nursing home. After six weeks, the breaks had healed. But she did not want to walk, and refused to eat. She did not complain; she just smiled and refused food. I visited. I tried to make her comfortable. I badgered the nurses to give her physical therapy so she had a chance of getting better. I sent my assistant to Fallbrook to sit with her, take care of her, and bring her better food.
But Mom continued to weaken. The nurses called it “failure to thrive.” After several weeks, they diagnosed cancer. She was too frail for treatment. But she needed to move.
I flew to LA and visited nursing homes. Finally, I rented and furnished an apartment by Santa Monica Pier, and hired 24-hour care. I was trying to recreate the happiness of our early lives – the beach picnics, the sunsets, the sand between the toes, the friends, the relatives.
She came to Santa Monica in an ambulance in November, blinking in the bright ocean sunlight, flirting with the paramedics and smiling with pleasure.
We fussed over her. We bought her a television. I put cartons of chicken broth in the cupboards. I hung her favorite paintings on her bedroom walls. We put her bed by a big picture window looking out over Santa Monica Bay, the Ferris wheel on the pier and the Malibu hills.
When I tried to adjust a light for her bedside, she told me to point it toward the wall. “That way it will reflect the light,” she told me. Even at 80 on her deathbed, she still had something new to teach me.
I went back to New York. A couple of friends came to greet her. But most of the people she knew were in nursing homes themselves. Dear Aunt Louise visited. Mom’s old flame Tom Filer stopped by. The Dalton girls came.
She lasted only three weeks in her new home.
The night companion had called to let me know that Mom was very close. I went to the airport to catch a flight. I was waiting for the plane when I got the call. It was December 12, and when I hung up, “Ave Maria” was playing on the airport sound system. It’s a song I had often accompanied on the piano and never liked, but for once the singing was pure, without bombast or exaggerated sentiment. Beautiful, direct, like her. The tears came. They do whenever I remember.
I cleaned out her apartment as quickly as I could, letting my assistant handle the details. One sight stays with me: hundreds of recipes cut out from newspapers, piled up by her favorite chair.