Last week would have been my mother’s 92nd birthday. Now ten years gone, I miss her comforting presence and protection more than ever. I don’t always like being the grown-up I was forced to become in her passing. After all, what achievement in my life could ever match her insistance, after giving her a hug and peck on the cheek, that when I kisses ‘em, they stays kissed? All the more frustrating is that adding that skill to my resume hasn’t really helped in my current job search.
If you didn’t know her, you were robbed. She was a wonder. Perhaps unfairly, the thing usually first said about her was that she not only gave birth to nine children, but she raised them for much of the time as a single woman.1 While that was a Herculean task, it’s a myopic assessment of her life’s work. It turns a deaf ear to the song of her soul.
One of the keys to my mom’s greatness was that she reveled in what might be called the politics of language: its potential to empower, confine, inspire, and slaughter sacred cows. She loved its plasticity, and she jumped at any chance to subtly twist a meaning or substitute a rhyming word to render a self-important statement either absurd or obscene. (Ideally, both.) Once, when she had allowed our front lawn to run wild, with weeds chest-high in places (her philosophy of home maintenance was, shall we say, passively practical), our neighbors were up in arms. But rather than send one of her kids out with a lawnmower when the block committee formally asked her to tame it, she stuck a sign in front of our house that read,
KEEP OFF THE GRASS.
PROSECUTORS WILL BE VIOLATED!
Her genius wasn’t solely reserved for pissing off the neighbors, though. In the early 70s she helped research and edit the independently published Feminist English Dictionary, which she more ingeniously supertitled An Intelligent Woman’s Guide To Dirty Words. This slender and potent volume had the audacity to expose the entrenched sexism of the work of Webster, Funk, Wagnall, and the whole lexicophallic mafia, literally using their words against them. Here’s a sample entry, from the section titled “Patriarchal Epithets, Section 2: Woman as Whorish”:
EROTIC 1. b. tending to excite sexual pleasure or desire (the erotic power of perfume) c. directed toward sexual gratification (his erotic adventures with prostitutes). (Webster’s TNI, 1966)
The dictionary got some impressive attention for an independently published and distributed book2, but was sadly ahead of its time. In the months before her death Jessie was planning two other books, both of which were built on her playful love of language. One was Stupidity For Dummies, a practical guide that would no doubt have been a bestseller in our culture of chop logic and manufactured reality. The other was The Merchant of Venus, a satiric mashup of pulp erotica and hardboiled mystery. She got the title from a misspelling she saw in the closed captioning on a Law & Order re-run.3 I was lucky enough to have her share some of the brilliantly purple prose with me, the rough sketches of which were built around canny double entendres involving the brand names of candy bars. Unfortunately, her enthusiasm flagged for both projects when a book deal did not appear to be forthcoming.
And then there was her poetry. Like her hero, William Blake, she struggled to find a liberty of spirit in her lines. She railed against hypocrisy and sought to restore balance; honoring the yin and the yang in all things. One untitled poem from her collection, Mothers And Other Losers, is a perfect example:
Men and Women
Rehearse old myths
Building new gardens
To drive each other from
It’s a succinct and keen assessment of the age old problem of sexuality and romance, while another poem found her equally concerned with the individual’s wrestling match between spirit and flesh, the high and the low, straining toward a unification of the sacred and the profane:
Working in dirt
Housewife and hussy and
Crumpled candy wrappers
And old socks
To make it
Like Blake, she illuminated her texts. But she used vintage images of women in burquas and corsets, clipped from old Sears catalogs and encyclopedias. The controlled, almost imprisoned imagery sharply juxtaposed her words of self-awareness and empowerment. Never was she more direct and inescapable in her vision than in her “Ode To Whores”.
Sisters, they robbed us
Of our fire!
of warmth, of heat,
in us. They stole it, then,
To use it. If
They could, they would
Have killed us all. Instead, they
Sorted us into “whores” and “ladies”
Saying, “you, whores,
Keep some of it
Can use it, and
You, Ladies, go
Freeze to death!”
Playing “whores and ladies”
Divide and rule.
It’s not a resigned lament, it’s a punch to the gut. And it perfectly illustrates what a wonder my mother was. The keen observer, the doubter, the trickster. But also the fount of so much love and hope for the world. Indeed, my favorite of her poems is a self-portrait, which I found among her belongings in a series of limericks profiling every member of our family. I can feel her matchless magic sparkling in its words:
There was a Grand Mother
Whose house was a terrible mess.
She loved all her children
With a passion bewilderin’
And they gave her a great happiness.
How do you like them apples? Oh, dear… I’m so sorry. Now I fear I’ve made you miss her, too.
1When, later in life, reflecting on having so many kids, my mom matter-of-factly suggested it was the one thing for which she got real praise as a young woman, the thing she was good at. Damn shame.
2As I recall a few national magazines picked up the story of the dictionary, one of which was Playboy. In a snarkily sexist and all-around dick move, they included with the write-up a photo of a nude woman holding the book up in front of her face. They later forwarded letters of proposal from some men who assumed the model was my mother. I guess we have the answer to the age old question: What kind of man reads Playboy?
3Another great achievement she had under her belt was beating cancer. And it was a hell of a fight, with surgery to her palate and jaw robbing her of the ability to eat solid food for the last ten years of her life and imparing her speech, while the radiation diminished her hearing considerably. But she made the best of it, getting a vicarious thrill by asking you what you had if you mentioned you went out to eat.