By Lisa Heeren
I didn’t recognize the blouse that she wore in her casket, but I immediately knew I hated it. Everything about it. It was peachy-pink with lots of ruffles. She never would’ve owned a shirt like that. My mother was a classic beauty and always dressed in classic styles; straight lines, pencil skirts. Unadorned high heels and V-neck or scoop neck shirts and blouses with collars were in her closet, but never something this frilly. Mom’s sister, Lela, was the one who took the outfit to the funeral director and told him to dress her in it. It was clownish, and the more I stared at it, the more it came to represent everything I hated about her family and how little they knew about her and her disease.
But how could they know her? Mom moved away from her oppressive Mormon upbringing as soon as she graduated from high school and didn’t move home until the end of her life. I think that made her father sad. Grandpa loved my mom more than any of his other kids. Her name, Alberta, was taken from his name, Albert. But everyone called her Birdie. And it was as if she was destined to have wings from the beginning.
She got married at nineteen to a man who served in the Korean conflict, and he was on the front lines, earning a purple heart. But after he came home, he began an affair and ultimately died of a cerebral hemorrhage leaving mom a widow at twenty. She was left with his wallet full of pictures of other women, many questions, and the frayed loose ends of her life to tie back together.
One day, as she plunged into deep despair, she reached for the gun that her husband had kept in a drawer in their apartment, put it to her head and began to cry. She dropped the weapon and checked herself into a hospital This began a decades-long fight with depression, alcohol and most significantly, herself.
Her short stay at the hospital involved electro shock therapy, a treatment she hated so much that she scaled a ten-foot wall around the institution to escape. Mom, I would come to discover, always seemed to be running away from something.
My mother was a beautiful woman, although she never thought of herself that way. She had always been the most popular girl at school. She was a cheerleader, in the Glee Club and was model pretty. She got a job as a stewardess with Frontier Airlines and was the face of the airline in a half a dozen public relations and marketing campaigns, wearing her wings proudly. She was passionate and hell-bent on changing the rules that you had to be a single woman to fly for Frontier. Her dogged determination paid off and several gender-specific “rules” were modified for women in the airline workforce.
This woman never turned down an adventure, a conflagration of her intense and fun-loving nature. She became an exchange stewardess for Hawaiian Airlines, allowing her to fly over active volcanoes and hang out on the beach on her days off.
Mom would tell me stories of pilots doing a barrel roll while they were deadheading a commercial plane and how she was walking up the aisle with a cup of coffee at the time, and it didn’t spill. Another time, she busted down the lavatory door to give first aid to a woman who broke her leg while in the bathroom during an unexpected patch of turbulence. One day on her way to work, she pulled survivors out of the fiery remains of a jet that had crashed upon landing in a field by the airport.
She took chances.
On a childhood dare with her siblings, and a mission to determine whether or not the light goes out in the fridge when the door is closed, mom got into the refrigerator that the family kept in the garage for deer meat and shut the door behind her. The siblings took off as a joke, but forgot to come back until a few minutes later. When they opened the door mom tumbled out, unconscious. When she came to, her first words were, “the light does go out.”
Her charisma was an asset in her job and she struck up conversations with many interesting people, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. As a child I remember her telling me that he was one of the saddest people she had ever met. He told her during a flight that he had “created a monster,” and regretted his work with nuclear energy and its use in bombs, especially as it was used in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. His sadness ran deep and he told mom he was devastated that he was directly responsible for so much suffering.
Because of her job, Mom was able to take her parents to Europe for vacation and it was a trip that she never forgot. Every time she told the story, and laughed about how rough the toilet paper was there, I always saw something in her face that suggested that for this one time, her mom had been proud of her.
My dad, a salesman for Frontier, and mom met on one of her flights. They didn’t exchange numbers then, but later recognized each other at a party. They began to date and then got married. When Dad was transferred to Los Angeles, and then to Minneapolis, Mom gave up her job with Frontier to go with him. Mom always regretted leaving the airline industry. She often let it slip during arguments with Dad. Her career had been the one thing that was solely hers, and she excelled at it. It represented freedom and independence and an escape from her domineering, rule-ridden mother.
But marrying Dad pushed Grandma even further away. Mom and Dad lived large, throwing parties, socializing with many friends and traveling the world. Grandma disliked Dad because she believed that he pulled Mom away from her conservative Mormon family and into a life of drinking, smoking and partying. My grandmother never missed an opportunity to express her disappointment. Her hate extended to my brother, Mark, and me.
During one visit to Grandma and Grandpa’s, Mark and I, four and seven years old at the time, decided that we would go into the front room and make a fort out of couch cushions while the adults were in the other room talking. When Grandma discovered that we had rearranged the cushions and were hiding under them, she went back into the other room and announced to the family how uncivilized Birdie’s kids were. That stung Mom to the core, and her sister, my aunt Lorraine, defended us.
“Mother! They are just kids.”
Lorraine’s daughter and our cousin Linda, only one month older than me, was in the “adult” room when Grandma made that comment. Linda told me years later that she did not understand why Grandma was so hateful to my brother and me, but she recognized that we were treated differently than her. She would have been making the fort too, if she had been in the same room.
My grandfather was torn. He never said a cross word to any of us, preferring to stay quiet in the wake of his wife’s hateful and disapproving stares and comments. The only time he crossed Grandmother was when my brother Mark was born. He flew, without Grandma, from Utah to Minneapolis where we had moved, to spend a week with the family and to meet my new little brother. No one else in Mom’s family came to visit.
I guess it did not matter, really, what she was wearing in her casket. After all, she was being buried in it. It was not as if anyone would see her in it beyond the funeral. For a moment, I considered that this was someone’s way to get rid of this hideous shirt for good.
But the outfit she was wearing was part of the last impression, the last image I would have of her in my mind before I would say goodbye and the lid was closed. It was everyone’s last image of her. Is it possible that this was the way that Mom’s family wanted to see her? Dressing her in this outfit was their way of controlling that which they couldn’t control, which was mom’s quest for the daring; the high-wire acts of adventure, her strong, and sometimes defiant, opinions and most troubling –- her battle with the bottle. As she got drunk, she would have outrageous outbursts followed by sobbing and regret, followed by unmitigated and surprising anger, and then confusion. Her outlandish accusations and skewed logic was frustrating for everyone around her. Whether it was alcohol or adventure, she could not be contained.
The frills and lace on the shirt, with the tiny, shiny buttons were demure and shy, moveable and compliant. The shirt was a label that embodied girlishness and a weak femininity that was not my mom. While she was feminine and beautiful, she was not malleable and had a fierce independence that was always on the lookout for the next journey or experience. Her conservative Mormon family rejected this behavior, but they knew they could not control her any more than they could control a feral cat on a leash, and they took it out on my dad and us kids. This Birdie had flown the nest and became a strong woman with a joie de vivre unmatched only by the love she had for us, and, as a mom to many of the neighborhood kids, who would always tell me about how my mom was the cool one.
She had a brave and kind heart, speaking loudly when injustice took place and was never too shy to jump in and help someone in trouble. While waiting at a train crossing, she pulled a man out of his driver’s window when his truck rolled past the guard arms and under the wheels of the passing train. When a customer at the local Sear’s Outlet store where she worked loudly demanded that a white person help her instead of mom’s coworker and friend Earl, a black man, mom told them that their money was not good there and asked them to leave. She hoped that her manager would not fire her for that. He didn’t.
Dad’s job, now with Air France, transferred us even farther from Utah to the sultry summer air and southern drawl of Atlanta. It was like moving to the tropics.
Mom and Dad loved the new southern language, the hot summers and making new friends. The drinking ramped up and they would throw elaborate cocktail parties. Mom taught me how to eat olives, smoked herring or oysters on Saltine crackers and marinated mushrooms and pate’ — foods that most of my eight-year-old friends thought was “yucky.”
I loved to watch mom get dressed up. She would have her hair in rollers all day, put on makeup with the precision of a watchmaker, pursing her lips after she applied lipstick and then blotted it with a tissue. She would open her jewelry box – in my eyes a treasure chest – and pick out just the right necklace and clip earrings from the sparkling gems glistening up at her.
She slipped on silk stockings, put on a slip and her skirt, adjusting it so the seams ran perfectly down her hips and double check herself in the full-length mirror.
“Never wear a skirt without a slip,” she would say to me.
One final look at herself in the full-length mirror, pressing out her skirt again with her hands, and a spritz of Tigress perfume would top off the ensemble, and she was off. I can still smell the spicy, sweet scent of that perfume.
I wish I had told her more that I thought she was beautiful. She was elegant, classy and the most gorgeous woman in any room. Always the life of the party, with her contagious laughter, her perfectly polished nails, her movie star look as smoke from her cigarette swirled around her face as she held it and a cocktail in the same hand while animating her conversation with her other.
She could hold a rapt conversation with anyone from heads of state to the local milk deliveryman. I have always remembered her advice that if you wanted to be interesting you had to be interested in others.
As time went by, her drinking became more frequent. Martinis at two place settings, family dinners would invariably morph from what my brother and I were doing in school to my parents arguing about money or who was parenting us correctly. Mark and I and our family dog would end up in my bedroom where we did our homework while we listened to our parents’ bottled up resentments thrown at each other at a volume that I was sure could be heard around the block.
Dad had had enough and he quit drinking. Mom lost her drinking partner and she drank more, while dad clung hard to his recovery program. Mom became mean and unpredictable when she drank. Hoping that he could help mom and salvage their marriage, Dad checked her into a rehab center, three times, and each time, she would go right back to the bottle. My hopelessness grew. She drifted further and further away from us. She and Dad divorced, Mom drove herself and all her belongings back to Utah. I was frightened for her future, sad for her leaving, and devastated that I was unable to make her stop drinking.
I occasionally spoke to her by phone and her exaggerated stories were sprinkled with semi-truths and lies and I had no idea what to believe or how to help her. I was twenty years old now and no more equipped to “fix” her than a plumber can wire a house. I would plead with her, “Please stop drinking. It makes you mean and not love us.” In many cases, she was so drunk she would say to me that she did not have anything to live for, no one loved her, and so what was the point?
Or she wouldn’t even hear me.
At the funeral, my aunt Lorraine hugged my brother and me and told us how much we had grown. Now, twenty-one, I looked a bit different since my last visit to Vernal, which had been about eight years earlier. Lorraine told us to wait for a moment while she went to go get someone.
She returned with Grandmother, turned to her and said, “Mother, I want to re-introduce you to your grandchildren, Mark and Lisa. Birdie’s kids.”
Mark held out his hand for Grandmother to shake.
She stood there for a moment, stone-faced, and did not offer her hand or say hello, but what she did say spoke volumes.
“At least she came back home where people loved her,” she said with a scowl.
“Mother!” said Lorraine.
“It’s nice to meet you, too,” said Mark, putting his hand down.
I walked away. The irony of the situation hit me. It was truly them, her mother, father, sisters, brother, and everyone in the town of Vernal, Utah who she desperately needed to accept her. It was not me or my brother or my dad who she knew already loved her. It was her family who, in their failure to let her be who she was and accept her for it, withheld love. They were the reason my mom felt so troubled and trapped and had turned to alcohol to make it hurt less. It was us who would have loved to see her continue to spread her wings and fly. We were the ones who accepted her. Yet, we could not give her enough to fill that yawning void that she felt from her original family.
Standing alone beside Mom’s coffin, I reached over to touch her forehead. It was cold and hard. I pulled my hand back and, as I did, the stiff ruffles on the blouse rubbed against my wrist. It felt like the spiny fins of the fish we used to catch on our previous visits with Mom’s family. I leaned in and kissed her forehead and told her how much I loved her.
Mom was not wearing that sweet Tigress perfume at her funeral or even a nice outfit, just this shirt and some pants, hidden by the lower half of the coffin lid. It had been a long time since I had seen Mom dressed up. Long ago, her airline wings had been put into the box with her jewelry. The wings she had now, no doubt, were spread open wide.
Copyright 2019 Watson