Saturday, October 10, 2015

My Mother, Part 2

My mom never got used to America, but there were aspects of it she found wonderful. EJ Korvette, a department store, was one that fulfilled her every sartorial dream.

In Paris, she’d started a dressmaking salon that she hoped would rival that of Coco Chanel.

Coco had created the little black dress; my mother would lay claim to the little white dress. Her maison de couture never really took off but she remained fascinated by women’s fashions.  Korvette’s, an acre of dresses, undergarments, shoes and accessories, specialized in deeply discounted knock-offs of the major couturiers. My mother would buy these, alter them slightly and remove the labels, and happily accept the compliments of friends who were impressed by her sense of chic.  She wore clothes well, with a certain désinvolture that implied a first name acquaintance with Pierre (Cardin), Christian (Dior) and the other Pierre (Balmain).

She was imaginative; sequins and paste jewelry were her friends but never in an inelegant manner. She was known to accessorize shoes with extra bows and buckles, changing a pair of eight-dollar heels into handmade Italian stilettos.

On the other hand, some things American defied her comprehension. She once brought home a chunk of Velveeta cheese thinking it was furniture polish. Driving was a challenge. I teased her about never having been involved in an automobile accident but undoubtedly causing scores of them. If my mother was behind the wheel when an ambulance approached, she would stop dead in the middle of the street. This, she had somehow mislearned in Americanization school, was the law, and no amount of sirens or horns or flashing red lights would get her to budge.

In her late 60s, she stopped smoking unfiltered Pall Malls and instead took up Indian beedi cigarettes that smelled exactly like marijuana. We were once asked to vacate a pretty good restaurant before we’d finished eating when the maître d’ threatened to call the police.

She painted and had successful gallery openings which she deemed a failure if not every single painting was sold. I inherited many of her works, wonderful scenes of la belle époque, weddings and Parisian neighborhoods and families standing at attention in front of giant automobiles with dogs the size of ponies.

She wrote free-lance reviews of American movies for French magazines, and recorded interviews for the Voice of America. She taught French at a ballet school, which afforded me endless dating opportunities with girls who wore chignons, had deformed feet, and were shamelessly self-involved.

She loved, with equal devotion, Elvis Presley, Jacques Brel, Maurice Chevalier, and the Beatles. She played tennis fiercely but badly, refused to wear a bathing cap when swimming, and once ate twenty-two softshell crabs at one sitting. She adored my father and loved the fact that, even after four decades of married life, her actions still befuddled him.

My mother was an anxious woman, subject, I now believe, to the same type of panic attacks that occasionally lay me low.

She discovered hashish while with the Parisian artists and cocaine in North Africa during the war. She may have experimented with the amphetamines given by the US Air Force to its pilots so they could complete long missions. I think she spent the better part of her life looking for a cure for her anxiety. As such, she soon became addicted to the early pharmaceuticals—Seconal, Miltown and other pills that would calm without stupefying. Where other families might have a bowl of fruit in the center of the dining room table, we had a bowl of drugs. She had half-a-dozen doctors prescribing remedies for her ailments and was always on the look-out for whatever new drug was available. When, after she died, I cleaned out the Paris apartment where she and my father had lived, I found hundreds of boxes of Xanax, Valium, and other benzodiazepines, as well as beta-blockers and anti-depressants. I had known for a long time about her pharmaceutical addiction, but the sheer amount of drugs stashed in shoes, handbags, coat pockets hatboxes, and bureau drawers, stunned me.

If I look back, my mother’s eccentricities were unavoidable.

My great-aunt Thérèse slept with her hat on, and my great-grandfather squandered a fortune buying a candy store for an eighteen-year-old can-can dancer with whom he was enamored. My great-uncle Bertrand, a celebrated French architect, decorated the buildings he designed with gargoyles fashioned in the likeness of his wife. My grandfather was known to use whoopee cushions during formal dinners. Could my mother have turned out any different than she was?




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