Mother And Son


Ruth died of diphtheria when she was 33 nine years old and left an appalling vacancy in Mother’s life. Ruth had been affectionate, mostly obedient, always eager to help—everything I hadn’t been as a boy—and Mother could talk to her. Now that Ruth was gone, she instinctively looked to her son for consolation—or so I gather from her letters— but it was something I could not provide. I was living in New York, then in Paris for a time, and I had a wife whom Mother detested as a Greenwich Village type, irreligious and a bad housekeeper. She was polite to Peggy when they met, but for many years I saw Mother only during brief summer visits to the farmhouse.

One summer when I was eleven, there was a family crisis and Mother left me alone for a month. I could charge groceries but I hadn’t learned to cook.

MOTHER MUST have been starved for affection. Once when she was driving to Belsano, she stopped the car and talked to a miner who was leading his little daughter by the hand. He told Mother that he was going home with her after burying his wife—but to what sort of home, he wondered, and how could he take care of the little girl? “I could take care of her,” Mother said. Having given the miner her address, she drove on with the orphan beside her, thinking all the time of Ruth. The miner reclaimed his daughter at the end of summer after finding a new wife. Forty years later the orphan—she had two grandchildren by then—wrote me a letter full of gratitude to Mother for making her good life possible. Mother found other strays to shelter in the farmhouse, but not all of them reminded her of Ruth. One of them, so I heard, was a lively girl of fourteen who caused a neighborhood scandal by leading boys behind the barn. “Why do you do it, Dorothy?” Mother asked her. The girl answered, “Mrs. Cowley, I like it.”

Nervous energy kept driving Mother into new projects that might or might not earn a little money. One year she raised canaries. I found on a visit to the farmhouse that the big parlor was given over to a free-flying cloud of them. When I passed a window, it would suddenly be filled with canaries—fifty, a hundred, too many to count—all chirping for food with a great fluttering of yellow wings. The following summer they had disappeared. Mother had sold them all and for once had made a small profit on the venture, or so she said. Instead of raising canaries she was making quilts, with the help of Belsano housewives, and was visiting country auctions to collect music boxes and student lamps.

Even though she saw little of her son, I had once again become her hope for the future. I was then betraying the hope by living with Peggy in obstinate poverty. When there was a little money in Popsie’s bank account, she tried to raise my standing as a consumer by making me presents that she couldn’t afford. Once it was a secondhand Chevrolet coupe to replace my fourthhand Model T with a broken top. In a society that judged people by their automobiles, she couldn’t bear to think that a son of hers was driving a miserable jalopy. Another time it was a splendidly embroidered Chinese silk dressing gown. I wore it in the tumbledown house where Peggy and I were living, on Hardscrabble Hill, and I remember how my fingers, roughened by chopping firewood, would rasp the satin lining. The dressing gown was such a bargain that Mother bought a second one for Popsie. She couldn’t resist bargains, though it was seldom that she bought anything for herself.

Our relation changed again, and dramatically, after Peggy and I were divorced in 1931. Mother didn’t believe in divorce, but she was entranced by my new and final wife; here was someone beautiful and orderly in whom she could confide. When we gave her a grandson she was in raptures, and Popsie shared them. I had sent a happy telegram, and Popsie at once wrote Muriel a letter, one that we still cherish. It began:


My dear Daughter,

You have made us very happy by presenting us with a grandson. How we wish we could see him & you. We have been looking forward to this for so long & now our hopes are realized. We can put our thoughts on paper but not our feelings. Perhaps if I had Peter’s [Peter Blume’s] talent I might draw them or if I were a musician I might play or sing them. I am singing your praises inside of me now.