The 38th Day of 2011
Mothers and Memories
The 4th of February was the second anniversary of my mother’s death. It was the fifth anniversary of the death of Betty Friedan, a founding mother of the modern Feminist movement, and author of The Feminine Mystique. Change was in the air as her book was published. Many women like my mother read her words. And new conversations began. My mother and her friends began to talk about and do things not before imagined in my childhood suburban town. Friedan didn’t get it all correct; she didn’t know everything. She wrote what she knew and observed in her peers. She changed the lives of women who then changed the ways in which they talked to their daughters.
I am a daughter of these two women.
In my life, Betty wasn’t the famous or celebrity feminist. She was a dear personal friend — and another mother. Biographies and articles claim Betty thought I was a younger “girlfriend.” She was my friend, and I was much younger, but she did maternal things for me my mother was unable to do.
On the 3rd of February 2006, I was about to board a plane at JFK, on an emergency trip to Southern California to tend to my ill mother. My cell phone rang. I knew how sick Betty was; I was reluctant to leave the East Coast. It was a mutual friend calling to say, “Betty is dying.” I found an airline representative to see if my luggage could be retrieved.
Then, I stopped and was still within myself.
Being at Betty’s funeral or being with my mother was not a choice. I got on the airplane. By the time I landed my mother was much better. The next day Betty was gone. I told Mama she had died on her 85th birthday. My mother (who had me late in life) was thirteen years older than Betty.
“How lovely to die on your birthday. But she had much more to do. I would have given her some of my years.”
My mother and Betty got to know each other after I moved to New York and especially during the years I spent in East Hampton. They liked each other. My mother was grateful to her but not fawning. I have a copy of the Feminine Mystique Betty inscribed for my mother. Betty was proud she had done something for my mother that made me happy.
On the 4th of February 2009 my mother died, peacefully, in my father’s arms. Much was made of the fact that she died a month to the day before her 101st birthday. The moment I got the news my mother died I knew she had done so on Friedan’s Day to make her own statement of solidarity. I was in California when Betty died. And I was in the Infusion Room at the hospital in New York on a chemo protocol when my mother died.
Last Friday, on the anniversary of both their deaths and on what would have been Friedan’s 90th, I was in the Infusion Room at the same hospital having yet another go at a new form of chemo. Friedan was unafraid of my chronic illness because she had her own chronic struggle with asthma and later heart disease. My mother was terrified of my disease because she had lost a son before I was born. But both were brave women in different ways and helped make me part of what I’ve become.
For too brief a time, I had the opportunity to live in a small home on Three Mile Harbor in the Springs of East Hampton. It is probably the only time in my life I was absolutely joyful, most of the time. At a tag sale I found an oil painting by Edwin D. Mott, an unknown painter (as far as I can determine). It is the exact view that I had from the front rooms of this house I called the Harbor Lion. All that was different in the painting’s view and my own were the vintage of the sailboats.
The painting hung over the mantle. Now it hangs in my room. Betty has gone. My mother followed her. And my father left not long after my mother. The house was lost to me. And much else I loved and enjoyed has vanished as well. But that painting endures as a symbol that this time existed and that I have indeed inhabited more hopeful years.
Friday evening I returned home from chemo and lit a candle for both of them. I placed it next to the painting. I was suddenly engulfed in waves of fear and longing. And with the surreal realization that I am now older than Betty was when I met her (and I thought she was old!) A sharp dagger went to my heart reminding me I am alone in my life, yet still stuck with my disease companion.
Then I looked into the painting and was sure Betty and Mama appeared on the canvas.
There they were on the lawn facing Gardiner’s Bay, sitting in the two big White Adirondack chairs.
Of course, I saw them.
Because they are right there – in plain view.
They are not only in the painting, if I look hard enough – they are inside me on each day, not only the 4th of February.
I am hardly alone.
What was I thinking?
©2011 Alida Brill From This Terrace