Who Was My Mother?

(December 13th is my birthday. Really, it should be my mother’s day. Here’s the woman who became “My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse.”)

Born Anne Fletcher in 1926 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but Nancy Nixon by the time I arrived, my mother was the commanding presence in our suburban family of four during my upbringing in the 1960s and 1970s in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. Talkative, smiling, friendly to strangers and friends alike, she saw herself as a Good Samaritan, a daughter of wealthy New England, who felt it her duty to help others. But to me she was Mom—sometimes bossy, sometimes bold, often busy if not well organized, frequently funny in impish ways, occasionally drunk on those dark nights when she let the demons out, yet always confident that our lives mattered, that we had a place in the world. Ten years after her death, I remember her in many ways: a weekly tennis player with bursitis gnawing at her hip, a backyard gardener (still in her tennis dress) who ripened green tomatoes on our kitchen windowsills, a so-so cook, a car pool mom, a conservative Democrat who supported Henry “Scoop” Jackson for President and never felt comfortable with the tumultuous Sixties, a garden club competitor in flower shows, a fan of The Galloping Gourmet, a reader of overdue library mysteries, an afternoon napper, a devoted follower of local news on WGCH radio, a longstanding smoker (of Parliaments) who finally quit cold turkey without saying a word, a recycling advocate, a tea drinker at 5 p.m. (tea time), a clipper of New Yorker cartoons that she pinned to the fridge, an ordinary woman, I suppose, but not to me. As a memento, I keep one of the name tags she sewed by the hours in my camp socks. “Will H. Nixon” it reads. Formally, I’m William H. Nixon. But I’ve always gone by Will Nixon. Why did my mother hybridize the two? Who knows? She was my mother. She did things her own way.

The oldest of four children, she grew up in a Victorian house in Cambridge with a chauffeur and an air of old New England wealth and tradition. Only once did I visit that house as a boy. Nor am I sure how much it meant to my mother as an adult. Her heart was in the family’s summer cottage in Seal Harbor, Maine. By cottage, I mean a rustic mansion, at least to me on childhood trips, a darkly shingled chalet with three stories of forest green porches and more rooms than I could believe. It had an old-fashioned dumbwaiter, a shady lawn with more moss than grass, and a birds’ nest under the eaves. When I stood up on the porch railing to peak at the nest eggs, the mother bird dove out of the sky for my head like a kamikaze.

What I was too young to understand was that my grandmother, whom we were visiting, was senile. My only memory of her is of a mad woman in a Victorian black dress leading me on a walk into the village. While I trailed behind on the sidewalk, she marched six feet out into the road, forcing traffic to swerve around. I was terrified she might be hit. Truly, she looked like a witch. Yet when my mother died decades later, I received an inheritance from this lady that enabled me to write full time. It’s one of my life’s greatest ironies that the mad woman gave me my freedom.

My mother loved Maine, her vacationland link to her past. In our earliest years we took family camping trips to the Katahdin Iron Works, where her family had owned timberlands for generations, a source of their wealth. Beside a brook a lumberjack cleared a campsite for us with his chainsaw. The forest ranger taught me to hook a fishing worm. They introduced us to Ole Time Woodsman Fly Dope which had a strong odor I secretly liked, though it didn’t prevent no-see-ums from slipping through our tent netting at dusk. One day, while three of us were off fishing, my mother alone in camp watched a moose cross the creek bridge with antlers like black velvet, velvet that turned out to be bugs. My mother had a gift for magic odd encounters that we only heard about later. Were they true? Sometimes I wonder. Yet these first family camping trips excited a love of the outdoors in me that sent my life in wonderful directions.

In later years we stayed at the cottage in Seal Harbor. There was a tennis club nearby, neighbors my mother had known since childhood, our annual dinner at Abel’s Lobster Pound. Back home in Connecticut, my mother scented our couches with pocket size balsam pillows and hung up calendars of lighthouses. She subscribed year round to the newspaper that served Seal Harbor. She bought us all bright yellow rain jackets from L.L.Bean that gave a rainy day in Old Greenwich the romance of a coastal Maine drizzle. We listened often to a Bert & I humor album in which two old salts off a fishing boat trade tall tales from Down East. To get a laugh in our house, we simply had to recite one of our favorite Bert & I lines. “Come to think of it, you can’t get there from here.” That’s “here” pronounced “hee-yahh.”

In 1947 my mother graduated from Radcliffe. As a boy I was impressed that she’d played on the college basketball team. Now, when I open her maroon leather-bound yearbook, I’m struck by the fact that her classmate was Alison Lurie, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist. But I doubt that my mother knew her well, if at all. My mother wasn’t the literary type. She appears in one yearbook photo playing ping pong. In another, more formal picture she sits in a blazer and knee-covering skirt before a fireplace with four other members of the Athletic Association Council. The handwritten notes on the end papers addressed to her as “Fletch” say such things as, “Thank you for a terrific frolic, a million laughs, and your beaming face on 2nd floor.” And: “I’ll see you at our 25th anniversary. Bring all the kiddies!” My mother did indeed become a loyal alumnae. She dressed my brother and I in Harvard T-shirts from the Harvard Coop. (That’s “co-op” pronounced “coop.”) She took us to Harvard-Yale games at the Yale Bowl (enemy territory, even though New Haven was much closer to Old Greenwich than Cambridge was.) She sat in a black wooden chair with the Harvard seal in our TV rec room, a chair stiff enough for a library. Drawn to her world I went to a boarding school south of Boston, but then declared my independence by choosing Stanford for college. Within days of arriving in California, however, I got my comeuppance upon learning that Stanford considered itself the Harvard of the West.

By the early 1950s, my mother had completed the Simmons School of Social Work in Boston and moved to Denver to be a children’s social worker. There she met my father, who’d been stationed at an Air Force base in Cheyenne, Wyoming and stayed on to finish his degree in economics at the University of Wyoming. In 1955 they married at the Unitarian Church in Cambridge. In wedding photos of young men in tuxedos and elderly matrons in hats, I see a final chapter in my mother’s life as the daughter of aristocratic New England. She’d grown up with a chauffeur. I grew up with station wagons, lawn mowers, and dogs.

I arrived in December 1956 while my father was a graduate student at McGill University in Montreal. But I don’t claim to be Canadian. My first memories are of the garden apartments, a small complex of brick townhouse-like buildings with a shared lawn and rear creek in Stamford, Connecticut. My father had found a job in Manhattan in the economics department at what would later become Citibank, a career that lasted until his early retirement in the mid-1980s. Throughout my upbringing, he was a commuter, the man who rushed through his breakfast grapefruit to make it to the train on time, then returned home for dinner with a copy of the afternoon Post in his briefcase for me to read the latest sports. After college, I tried his life briefly: the train, the suit, the briefcase. I hated it. I’ve wound up as a writer in a country cottage in a bathrobe. I rarely eat grapefruit. But I do enjoy the economics column in The New Yorker.

In February 1958 my brother was born. My early childhood was what every childhood should be. Launching bottle rockets on the lawn. Building stone dams in the creek. Sitting behind the steering wheel in our Rambler station wagon and pretending to drive by pushing the gear buttons. Yet I also recall that my mother learned to drive at this time, when she was already in her thirties. Apparently, she’d had a fear of driving that stemmed from a terrible accident at the age of seven. While winter sledding, she’d been run over by a drunk driver and had spent months in a hospital recovering. It wasn’t an event that she ever discussed with me. Nor did she share her other trials and tribulations. Unlike today, when everyone discusses their dysfunctional family backgrounds as a sort of national pastime, my mother came from a generation, or a social manner, that kept their wounds to themselves. She smiled instead, forced as the smile might be. Because of that accident, though, she had a brown mark on her throat that in my earliest years I thought was part of her anatomy, a mark of womanhood. It was a scar, perhaps from a tracheotomy.

By the time I entered elementary school we had our own small house in Old Greenwich. My mother was present, but she wasn’t the manager that mothers seem to be today. With the neighborhood children, I walked through the woods to school, played in yards and streets (the sewer was first base), took my first camping trips in scouts (observing fried spam in our campfire cook sets, the scoutmaster said, “Ah, smells like mom burned it herself,”), and felt stirrings around the school librarian in her miniskirt. Occasionally my mother joined in my play. For example, after I’d gotten a bloody nose from a hardball in little league tryouts, she taught me how to catch by starting with a tennis ball that we tossed underhand until I overcame my fears. But mostly she led her own life: morning coffee klatches with her women’s groups, afternoon naps, late afternoon shopping and dinner preparations. Meanwhile, I had my friends. So long as we didn’t do something foolish, such as throwing firecrackers off the roof, we didn’t arouse her attention.

In the late 1960s we moved to a larger house in Old Greenwich closer to the shoreline. My mother spent the rest of her life in this house, until crippling strokes forced her into a nursing home in 1989 for her final ten years. At this house, perhaps the house she’d always wanted, she had a big kitchen and plenty of storage space on the top floor. She grew tomatoes in back, rose bushes in the side yard. She hung bird feeders on patio poles and dogwood branches. She started a mulch pile beside the garage in back. She crowded the living room and dining area with furniture inherited from the Cambridge estate after her mother died: dark walnut tables and chairs, a grandfather clock, an antique sideboard with fine chinaware stacked inside that rattled whenever we bumped the sideboard by mistake. One thing my mother was not was a feng shui minimalist. There were always dirty dishes in the sink, newspaper clippings piled on the sideboard, a laundry basket waiting on the stairs for someone to carry up to the rooms. (Passive-aggressive would be a therapist’s analysis, or my ex-wife’s, who helped me unlearn some of my mother’s habits.) But this disorganization was a kind looseness, a source of humor and perhaps even creativity. Though she wasn’t a great cook, my mother made killer ice tea, a pitcher that seemed bottomless through the summer, stuffed with a jungle of mint and soggy lemon halves. Every few days she added new ingredients, following no plan. Her ice tea wouldn’t have tasted as good any other way.

Through my teens, I had a hot and cold relationship with my mother, as I suppose many teens do. She could seem prudish and old-fashioned, referring dismissively to the divorcee in the corner house, for instance, as if divorce was the scarlet letter. And the sixties truly unsettled her. Marijuana. Runaway children. (Some might have called them hippies.) The protests. I could feel her unspoken fear that something terrible might happen to her sons. Yet somehow I convinced her to take me to Easy Rider, an R-rated movie that required a parent to accompany me at the age of 13. She sat white faced through the whole thing. And her fear rubbed off, for I never became a very good hippie. I rolled some of the worst joints ever seen.

Yet my mother was my greatest booster. “This is my oldest son,” she proudly told an older clerk at the post office. (My mother befriended everyone.) “He’s in the eighth grade at Greenwich Country Day School. He’s reading Naked Lunch.” I flinched in embarrassment (did my mother know what Naked Lunch was?), yet I loved it. Unlike my father, who seemed limited by his career, my mother had an aristocratic sense of entitlement; even if we didn’t have a chauffeur, we were important in what we did and should do things right. For my citizenship scout badge, for example, I called town hall and arranged to meet the first selectman. I rode over on my bicycle and sat in the austere chambers of the young man in a white shirt who governed our community. He was Lowell Weicker, who within a few years would be a United States senator on the Watergate panel, the sole Republican to challenge Richard Nixon. My mother gave me the right to call anyone.

In the early 1970s I left for boarding school. Looking back, I realize how little time I spent in Old Greenwich after that. In summers I was lucky to travel: a bicycle trip in Europe before twelfth grade, a drive up the Alaska highway before college. Though I kept in touch with my parents through letters and collect phone calls, I didn’t appreciate until years later how much my mother moved on to a post-child-rearing life. In her obituary from 1999, I was surprised to read that she handled publicity for the Federated Garden Clubs of Connecticut in the late 1970s. In the early 1980s she served on the Greenwich Water Management and Advisory Board. She’d been a member of the Riverside Garden Club for more than twenty years and had won many awards in flower shows. She’d become a public person I didn’t really know.

After college graduation in 1980, I spent nine months at home in Old Greenwich, struggling to start a career in Manhattan and suffering a terrible falling out with my mother. Finally, I found a job, took an apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, and rarely returned. I fell in love with a Manhattanite whom I married. Her family became mine through the 1980s and into the 1990s. My mother and I occasionally spoke, but we were no longer close. Still, I assumed that one day we’d have a heart-to-heart talk to overcome our estrangement. After all, we’d had cold spells during my teens, just never one that lasted years at a time. But in 1989 she had a series of strokes that devastated her and any chance of reconnection. At one point my father walked into her hospital room to find the doctor pressing electric shock pads to her chest. She survived, but not as herself.

After a month in intensive care, she was moved to a nursing home in Stamford, where she spent ten years in bed or a wheel chair. Her feet had twisted inwards so she couldn’t walk. Her mind had been so badly scrambled that she couldn’t follow conversations. She couldn’t remember my age, where I lived, what I did for a living. She fell back on saying, “I need my food tray.” Confused, depressed, she was caught in a purgatory of knowing something was wrong with her, but not knowing what or what to do about it. My father visited her daily, the act of a saint. When the food tray arrived, he cut her ham into nuggets and opened the straw for her tea. He reassured her that it was okay to pee in her diaper.

Soon after her strokes I took a day off from my freelance writing in Hoboken to hike in the Hudson Highlands. Distraught, surely more than I realized for I was in the midst of blowing a big assignment, I needed to escape. Coming down Breakneck Ridge, a dramatic thousand-foot-high rocky buttress that descends in humps toward the river, I stopped halfway down a long sloping slab to sit on a natural stone bench, a sort of throne on the mountainside. For the next thirty minutes, I did nothing but sit and absorb the views. Mount Taurus, where I’d had lunch, stood like a companion mountain across the deep valley between us. Down at the river bend was West Point. Two large black birds soared slowly down the buttress, riding the winds like kites no more than fifty feet from me. Magnificent and serene, I knew they meant something. Later I identified them in a bird guide as turkey vultures.

I knew my mother would never go outside again. She’d been the nature enthusiast in my life: the backyard birder, the tomato gardener, the beach walker, the one who’d led our first family camping trips to Maine. Now I felt it incumbent upon me to continue this connection to the natural world. In the coming years I’d shift fields to become an environmental journalist. I’d leave the city in 1996 for a Catskills log cabin. And in January 1999, days after her death, I’d return to this spot to remember the half hour spent on this throne as a turning point in my life. Her crippling strokes had forced me through a sort of rebirth. Now that she’d finally passed, I scattered ashes from my cabin stove in her honor. I tied a strip of red plaid from her favorite skirt to a small cedar tree that stood like a mountainside sentinel among the woody shrubs. I gazed down at the Hudson River’s gray oatmeal of ice floes. I looked up at a crow.

My mother died ten years ago. I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing about her.

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