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Certainly took me long enough, but finally I realized: Oh! Ri-i-ght! Fifteenth anniversary of my mother’s death! No wonder I’m feeling sad.


To say I had a complicated relationship with my mother is an understatement.

I could write a novel about her first cancer operation. How she set me up for the complete Dickens bedside scene – I can’t remember any of the dialogue now, except that the question, Do you forgive me? featured prominently – and then threw me out of her room: No, no – you don’t have to stay with me tonight! I’ll be fine. You’re working. You have a baby. Go to my house. Get some sleep.

And how, when I showed up at Kaiser at 6am the following morning after the operation, she had somehow escaped.

The RNs at the nursing station were perplexed. Oh – she’s not in her room? Really? Wow!

So then I spent two hours driving back and forth on all the streets between the hospital and her house until I finally spotted her – she’d put on pants but she was still in her hospital gown, trailing webs of IVs and Jackson Pratt drains. She was bleeding. It was pouring rain. And she had gone completely mad. I’d seen her decompensate before, but this was the very worse episode I could ever remember.

Cancer or no cancer, I couldn’t talk to her for a year after that.

Got pounded mercilessly by her sisters, my aunts. Cruel, ungrateful daughter! Turning her back on her own mother in her mother’s time of need!

But the insanity I saw in my mother’s eyes that rainy morning – I had to physically threaten her to get her to get her inside my car – was just too much for me.

We did patch things up before she died, six years later.

But I still have a lot of ambivalent feelings about the whole thing.

My mother had an adenocarcinoma of her salivary gland. When the oncologist advised her on excision margins, he told her that to be on the safe side, it would be wise to excise part of her facial nerve, too. This she absolutely refused to do because it would leave her with a drooping face.

They did not get the entire tumor, and it went on to metastasize.

So, in my mind, my mother’s vanity is what killed her.


There were a lot of good things about my mother, too. She was very bright in a cultural sense. She read a lot, had interesting opinions about books and films. She was an incredibly talented musician.

And, of course, in the end, it really wasn’t her fault that she became the person she was.

Her mother – my grandmother – was a borderline personality monster. One day, when my mother was 16 years old, she came home from Erasmus Hall High School to discover half the furniture in the bungalow at 79 Lefforts missing. And my grandmother along with it.

No explanation. No clues beforehand that this was going to take place. No letter in the months following.

The next year, my mother got pregnant with me.

I've often thought what a shame it was that my mother didn't have access to abortion services.

Though, I suppose that would mean that Max and Robin would never have been born.

And Max and Robin are both great gifts to the world.


I hate family chronicles, but if I ever wrote a fictionalized account of my family, I’d title it: Women Who Leave.


In other news, I’m reading Adam Sisman’s excellent biography of John LeCarré and writing about café life in Bukovina at the turn of the 20th century – this being the bridge at the beginning of Chapter 3 in which Henry and June get married.

Historical fact: June’s obsession with getting married was spurred by the death of her father. So I am making up a background for the father in which he comes from Wiznitz (now Vyzhnytsia in Ukraine.) Interestingly enough – though I didn’t know this when I arbitrarily chose Wiznitz – Wiznitz was a center of Hassidic mysticism. I’d always planned to give June a Hassid lover when we’re finally through with Henry and what other few biographical details are known about her. So this dovetails very, very well.

LeCarré’s boyhood – his real name is David Cornwall – isn’t even in the top 25% of the Most Horrible Childhoods on the Planet. Those slots would have to be reserved for boy soldiers in Africa, toddler ISIS recruits, and infant Untouchables on the Indian peninsula whose parents mutilate them so that they’ll get more money when they use their offspring as begging props.

But I’d say Cornwall’s childhood was about as miserable as mine was – which puts it in the top 10% of miserable childhoods in relatively prosperous, Western, industrialized nations.

It’s very interesting for me to see what he did with that childhood.

He harvested it pretty carefully. He used the hyper-vigilance that all of us neglected, abused children develop to produce a really impressive body of work. I’d rank LeCarré as one of the most important novelists of the latter half of the 20th century. The stress didn’t break him; it rarefied him.


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Every Day Above Ground

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