Monthly Archives: April 2010

More Fun with Claudine

When my mother came to America from Belgium, her name was Fadga, pronounced “Fella” (yeah, and her mother’s name was “Bella.”) Anyone could understand that the first thing she might do would be to change her name to something more…pretty. She chose “Claudine”, which she pronounced, with her lovely and strong accent, CLOWdine (like GLOW). Sort of softer, but close to that.

She couldn’t pronounce her “ths” so “tooth” would come out like “toot.” She considered anything North of the Throg’s Neck Bridge “New Hampshire.” When she got full in a restaurant she would unhook her bra and pull it out through her sleeve and stick it in her pocketbook. She took about 6 sets, one at a time, of little salt and pepper shakers from The Jolly Fisherman where I had my first Shirley Temple and duck la orange. They appeared during Passover and Thanksgiving, my mother’s little “winks” plunked down along sections of the dining room table.

So, for those of you unaware of what happens in manic depression, now called “bipolar disorder,” there are EXTREME ups and EXTREME downs. When you live with someone who lives on these opposite poles, and rarely in the middle, you learn to anticipate these very dramatic shifts. The ups were MUCH more amusing than the downs, both very disconcerting in their own right, but, they brought her happiness, however fleeting.

My mother would either be in bed for days at a time with the shades drawn, or up, painting pretty terrible paintings, going on shopping binges or dreaming up senseless business ideas that never went anywhere. She’d come home from these shopping jaunts with five of the same shirt in different colors, boxes of shoes, and one time, a life-sized stuffed clown for me. I was 16, and everyone hates a clown.

My mother, who was absolutely stunning, became more “adorable” as she got older. She had a cute little 5’5 body and wore mostly velour sweatsuits or tennis dresses. She never went out without lipstick. She didn’t cook much so when it was just the two of us after my parents got divorced we would go to this place that had her favorite dessert–a snowball–chocolate ice cream bathed in chocolate sauce and rolled in coconut. She would start out spooning rather demurely and then duel with my spoon over the last drop. She was incredibly generous with me, never really said no to anything I asked for.

Like her, I love my restaurant time with my daughter even if it is just an excuse not to have to think of something to cook. Oh, and I just “borrowed” two of what my daughter calls “dipper spoons” from a Chinese chain’s wonton soup. 4 more to go for a set.

Asylum Ave

a·sy·lum   /əˈsaɪləm/ –noun
1.(esp. formerly) an institution for the maintenance and care of the mentally ill, orphans, or other persons requiring specialized assistance.

I recently drove through Hartford where I’m always sort of jarred by the exit for Asylum Ave. 28 years ago I took that exit to visit my mother at the “Betty Ford Clinic” of mental institutions–The Institute of Living.

Once called The Connecticut Retreat for the Insane, The Institute was for mostly wealthy “insane” people, many a movie star having gone through it’s doors (I can’t remember if Elizabeth Taylor was there when my mother was or I’m confused because my mother looked so much like her.)

Surrounded by a brick wall and with landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted, it’s a hell of a lot nicer than Bellevue, another place she was admitted during a rather acute manic episode. It was 1982 and I was in boarding school about 40 minutes away. Somehow it was my uncle’s turn to do the admitting, my brothers’ quota having been met. I’m not sure how long she was actually there, records are destroyed after 10 years, but maybe 2 weeks at the most.

When I went to visit her one weekend, she was all cute and giggly, talking about her very handsome, younger tennis partner. Mom loved tennis. It was one of the only things that kept her out of her busy head, and she was rather good at it, her cute little body in flippy tennis dresses darting about the court. Playing tennis while involuntarily at a mental institution seemed kind of fun and the food was good, just like our tennis club on Long Island! She must have felt right at home.

A few days after my visit, she called me at school, and with great glee told that she had gone “AWOL” from the Institute. I pictured her getting a boost over the brick wall by the handsome tennis player and her scampering to hitch a ride. Actually, I have no idea how she did it, or what repercussions there may have been, but she was pretty damn proud of herself (incidentally, after I posted this yesterday, by brother told me that on the NIGHT he proposed to his wife, he got a call from the hospital telling him that they didn’t know where my mother was. He then said to his now-wife, “Oh, let me tell you about my mother.” You CAN’T make this stuff up!)

I don’t remember how many more hospitalizations there were between 1982 and 1986 when she finally lost steam, but I’m sure Asylum Ave was like winning the lottery of “loony bins-” another term used in turn-of-the-century papers. (There is a wonderful book from last year called “Voluntary Madness” by a journalist with her own mental illness who checks herself into three different institutions and it’s fascinating.)

Anyway, this was a tiny piece of life with mom. No reason to feel sorry for me. Again, it’s looking back on it from this 45-yr-old perspective that allows me to see humor in such absurdity, plus it makes for great material. Thanks for that, Mom!

The Fine Art of Scaring Men

The writing was apparently on the wall when in kindergarten I paid boys a penny to kiss me. Or maybe it was when I threw a neighbor into a thorn bush and tied him up with kite string (To be fair, he did choke me with my scarf at the bus stop.)

By 3rd or 4th grade I was reckless with scribbled love notes, perhaps with a too-intimidating vocabulary for boys who still chose grunting over speaking. Maybe it was because I was a bit of a behemoth with size C boobs, towering over the other girls in my class . There were many times I would call a guy over, sit him down, tell him how I felt about him, only to hear things like “I really like you as a friend, but…” My girl friends, trying to encourage me, would say “You have a really pretty face and a great personality.” Awesome. Thanks.

It was probably as early as junior high that some slimy man stopped me while I was in Manhattan and said he knew some “producer” who was looking for “zaftig” girls. REALLY???? REALLY???

Eventually, most of my “bulk” spread out into a 5’9′ frame, curvy in the right places, “pretty face” and “great personality” fairly unscathed. I still blamed not having a boyfriend until 19 on my size, so, I suppose that it helped that my very first was 6’6″ (but skinny as a stick.) I think he sort of stumbled into me without really knowing what he was getting himself into, but, we were suddenly having sex for the first time in our lives, and God knows, a 19-yr-old man is not just going to throw that out the window too easily. In the end, I think I scared his FAMILY more than him.

At 23, I met a lovely, funny, but very quiet man who later became my fiance. We bonded over our love of the Flinstones, language and music. It was the first time either of us had ever been in such a heady, love bubble but, well, he apparently fell in love with someone else and we never got married (he eventually married her.) His two best friends are still friends of mine and I know that he has avoided, at all costs, being in the same place at the same time as me. Worked very hard at it, as a matter of fact. I can just see him, all beet red and tremendously uncomfortable. I don’t understand why because I would love to see him again, 20 years later, and compare lives. I sense it’s fear-based and not his shame over having ditched me for his “soul mate.” I can’t imagine what he would expect me to do if he saw me.

In my 30s I think I scared a man from Oklahoma, already teetering on the edge, to fully come out of the closet. On a more disturbing note, there was a man who very clearly liked young girls and I think realized, after not being able to “perform” with me, that that was who he really was and has sinced moved to Thailand. An English guy who stood me up and left me frantically worried claimed he was in a car accident and in the hospital but after a carefully orchestrated stakeout with a friend of mine, we discovered he was lying.

Recently, a friend of mine was going to fix me up with someone and said before he and I had met “Don’t scare him off!” I was truly insulted by this. It wasn’t because a button in me had been pushed but because the implication was that I was so off-putting that a seemingly strong, funny and intelligent man in his late 40s wouldn’t be able to deal with me. In the end, we never met, but I am pretty confident that he would not have cowered in fear in my presence.

The most wonderful of men have stood the test of time with me and been drawn to me. These are the ones who love that I go in first for the kiss, that I make the first phone call (my ex-husband said that he never would have made the first phone call and was thrilled that I did), that I talk to strangers and make friends with waitstaff, and that I am effusive with my feelings. Certainly, at this point in my life, it’s way too late to change who I am and I have no intention of trying to be something I’m not. I like me and my strengths and hope I pass every ounce of confidence onto my daughter. Perhaps I should advise her though, that throwing boys in thorn bushes is not really the best of tactics and that a good kiss is worth MUCH more than a penny.