By Susan Phillips
When the call came—that last, final call—I didn’t even know what to feel. Relief? Annoyance? Anger? Sorrow? Or was it later that all those emotions tumbled through my mind? It’s impossible to think oneself, to will oneself into a feeling. And my feelings for Denise had been blunted for years, for my entire life.
Denise was my mother, but I don’t know—even now, after all this time—what she thought of me or how she felt about me. I’ll never know now. There’s no one to ask. Even if anyone who knew her were still around, I doubt I could get a straight answer.
After the funeral, I went to her apartment to straighten it out, clean up, do what had to be done before giving it up entirely. It had never been my home, and I almost got lost driving over. Inside, there wasn’t much worth keeping. I threw out what little food there was, the empty bottles and pill containers, her garish make-up and sweet perfumes.
I knew better than to try on her clothes. Denise was shorter and thinner than I am. Nothing was my style—not even her scarves or handbags. Most of her jewelry was cheap costume stuff. The few good pieces meant nothing to me. They were gifts from old boyfriends or her second ex-husband. I wondered if there was anything from my father, but I couldn’t picture him buying any of it. Dad’s gifts to me had been exquisite and tasteful. There was nothing tasteful in Denise’s apartment.
As I cleaned and sorted, threw out and packed up for charity, I kept hoping to find something that would move me—to tears, to anger, to anything. I keep looking for something to keep. I found it, finally, hidden away in the bottom of a soiled jewelry case. An old photo, folded on the edges, of a little girl, maybe two years old, smiling and holding out her arms. I turned it over and read “Baby, 1949.” It was me—the only picture of me in the entire apartment, the only thing that showed that I had ever existed for Denise.
I didn’t love my mother. That sounds terrible, but it’s really not so bad as it sounds. I didn’t hate or dislike her or have any ill will toward her. I didn’t resent her. I simply had no feelings for her. When I was young, I missed her and wanted to live with her. But that was a long time ago, and I’ve forgotten what those early longings felt like.
The truth is, I hadn’t thought of her in years. We hadn’t spoken in five years. There was no huge blow-up or final quarrel. We never fought. I used to call her up, dutifully, for years—asking how she was, what she was doing. I invited her to my wedding, my children’s birthday parties or graduations, holiday meals. At first, she promised to show up, but she never came. Later on, she would say that she had to think about it and would call me back. She never did call or show up or let me know anything definite. So there would be no communication until the next time I called to ask how she was, what she was doing or to invite her to a family event.
And then, one time, I just didn’t call. Didn’t call to invite her for a holiday meal or birthday party or whatever we were doing or celebrating just then. Maybe I forgot to call or thought I already had or was just too busy to think about Denise. One year stretched into two, into five—and then she was gone.
So there I found myself—cleaning out the apartment of a woman I barely knew, a woman I had never lived with.
Denise had been raised to marry well, to find a rich husband. With her beauty, she could have won the heart of any man she met. I don’t know why she chose my father. Maybe she decided he was the best catch around—the most handsome, kind, rich, funny man she met. He was all of these things. At least he was to the daughter who lived with him and depended on him and adored him, the daughter who was heartbroken when he died young.
What a life we led! I might have been Eloise, the little girl who lived in the Plaza Hotel in New York City. We went to the theater, the symphony, to dinner in restaurants and supper clubs. I learned to order a Shirley Temple with as much sophistication as a grown woman would ask for a champagne cocktail. I learned to read French from menus at the most exclusive spots in town. I knew which fork or spoon to use, when to open my napkin, how to eat the messiest foods neatly. I knew when to clap at the ballet or symphony, who deserved a standing ovation, how to tip waiters and doormen and porters. We don’t use many of these skills now, but at the time it was very important to me.
Sometimes my father seemed to lose all his energy. He would get so blue that nothing I did cheered him up. But after a few nights of moping, he was ready to go out. “Come on, honey,” he would say. “Let’s go paint the town red.”
That was the signal I waited for. I would rush into my bedroom, put on a fancy party dress, little lace gloves, hat and coat, grab an empty pocketbook and be ready in five minutes flat. My husband likes to say that he fell in love with me because I get ready faster than any woman he met.
Before I was born, my parents’ life was a whirl of nights out, parties, fun. I spoiled that for my mother. I’m not really sure what happened to her. There were many secrets when I was growing up. Did she suffer from post partum depression or have a mental breakdown? I grew up hearing half stories from my grandparents, aunts and uncles. My cousins passed on any information they heard, but none of it explained what had happened to Denise. I lived first with one aunt, then another until my father remarried. After his second divorce, I stayed with him.
I saw Denise at family functions she had to attend, mostly weddings and funerals. Once or twice a year she took me out to lunch and shopping. I would return to my father’s apartment, loaded with packages of clothes and accessories that were never right—too young or too sophisticated and usually too small. “You’ll be able to fit into this once you lose a few pounds,” Denise always told me. “In a couple of years this will look gorgeous on you.”
My father would look over the purchases and then return them to the stores. At first, I cried bitterly over this, accusing him of being jealous because my mother loved me and not him. But he was a patient man. He understood women who cried and carried on. So he would let me keep one thing from those shopping sprees, no matter how inappropriate or ugly. And the following weekend he took me to lunch and out shopping for the wonderful clothing that always fit and always—so he told me—made me look more beautiful than any princess had ever, ever looked.
I don’t remember when or how or why the visits with Denise dwindled down, becoming fewer and fewer. Was she afraid that having a pre-teen daughter made her look older than she wanted to appear? That’s what one of my aunts said. That hurt, but not so much as what I imagined myself: that she was ashamed to be seen with me, because she was more beautiful than I would ever be.
My husband says I was foolish to ever think that. “Denise was clever for a while,” he says. "Yes, she was. Clever enough to find one man after another when she wanted or needed him. But you’re more than clever. You’re smart—smart enough to get what you really want from life, smart enough to hold a useful job. Besides, you’re nice and kind. You could just be, and people would love you. You’re a giver. Denise was a taker.”
I always smile when he says this. I smile and hug him as tightly as I can and kiss him over and over again. How sweet, how reassuring it always sounds. I’m a giver; Denise was a taker. How neat, how simple. But why then, I wonder, have I received so much from life—my husband, our children, our home, our friends, all our silly, crowded family events, celebrated over and over with familiar surprises.
What did Denise get from life? When I was young, I thought her life full of glamour and excitement. I loved her stories—this man, that man, going out here, there, everywhere. The places sounded so exotic that I could hardly wait to grow up and visit them.
I used to want her to love me. For years, I would blow out the candles on my birthday cake and wish, hope, pray that my parents would remarry. I knew that we would live happily ever after. We would go out, play ball, go swimming or on picnics, just like my school friends and my cousins did. Sometimes, when Denise came to get me or when my father picked me up from her apartment, they smiled at each other and said, “How are you doing?” “Fine.” “How are you?” “Fine.” And I would wait, throughout the entire banal conversation—“Do you ever hear from Joe?” “How is Anne doing?”—for the most important question of all. “Will you marry me?” I never heard it, no matter how I strained my ears.
I even tried to trick them, but that never worked. One year, I claimed that a teacher wanted to meet with both my parents and me. After the first time, my father knew that I had made up the story. But every year, at the beginning of the new school term, I tried again. My Girl Scout troop, my Sunday School class, the band—I insisted they all needed a meeting with both my parents and me. I kept hoping that someone, somehow could get them back together. Of course, nothing did.
Instead, I saw less and less of Denise in the future. I never met all her friends; there were years when I didn’t want to hear about them at all. I know now that I should not judge her. During my adolescence, I offered little information and often replied to her questions with two or three word answers. After my father’s death, I told her almost nothing.
For a few years she called me occasionally, took me to lunch, out shopping. I don’t remember why or when we stopped that routine. Maybe she had been lonely and wanted company. Maybe she found a new boyfriend and didn’t have time for me. Or maybe I interested her as little as she interested me. By my twenties I was no longer under Denise’s spell. When I thought about it, I was glad that my parents had not remarried. I was glad they had divorced. Maybe I did have an odd childhood with my father. But he was devoted to me, always proud of me; he always made me feel special and beautiful.
Denise couldn’t do that. I was never thin enough or glamorous enough for her liking. We ran out of things to say to one another. I wanted to talk about books I was reading, my plans for the future. She wanted to find out what the family said about her behind her back or discuss the latest fashions. Even the exciting shopping trips with her became a chore. I hated how I looked in the clothes she picked out, and she laughed at my taste. She didn’t like the symphony or ballet or theater, and we could never agree on a movie to see.
Now I know how petty and unimportant all of that was. There have been times with each of my children when he or she didn’t want to be seen with me or was embarrassed by something I said or did. They grew out of that stage, but at the time it always hurt. Life always returned to normal. “Oh, Mom, I knew you would understand,” they each told me later. And I always did.
But Denise and I had never seen each other much. There was no normal in our relationship. We couldn’t go through the list of “Do you remember when we....” We had gone to lunch and gone shopping; one outing merged into another.
So there came a time when I didn’t think about her. There was nothing to think about. And I was busy all the time. I had so much to do and so many people to please—my husband and children, my co-workers and boss, my aunts and uncles, my husband’s family. For the most part, they appreciated what I did and told me so. Maybe it took all my projects and all these people to make up for Denise or to re-create how my father made me feel. I don’t delve too deeply into feelings like that. I don’t care, especially when I’m happy.
I’m sorry that Denise wasn’t happy. I’m sorry she didn’t care more about me, that she couldn’t love me. I offered her a place in my life, a role in my family that she couldn’t or wouldn’t accept. She would have been happier if she had accepted what I offered her. She would have been happier if I had been more than “Baby” to her—more than a small, wrinkled photo hidden in an old jewelry case. But that was all she really had of me, and now it’s all that I have of her.