Mother’s Day comes a month later in the U.S. than in England. When my parents moved from London to live in New York across the landing from me, my mother always felt mildly irritated when — on what always remained for her a totally unexpected day — the kids and I would burst in on her with a festooned breakfast tray.
Mother’s Day is a much bigger deal here as well. Like every other Special Day in America it’s used as a GNP booster — another opportunity to make us all go shopping for Victoria’s Secret negligee sets, gift editions of Maya Angelou’s poems, and beribboned jeroboams of Estée Lauder scent.
My mother died four years ago and I don’t need the ads to make me miss her. She was far and away my closest friend. I didn’t rebel against her in my teenage years because she was more subversive than any of my peers.
Physically, we couldn’t have been less alike. She was a tall, dramatic brunette with a diva-like presence who always dressed in vibrant Mediterranean colors. When all her contemporaries in the ’50s were wearing pouffe skirts and rollerset waves, she wore austere scarlet sheath dresses and a Maria Callas bun.
It took her a long time to invent this look. In adolescent pictures she towers over her classmates in thick spectacles, a tangled mop of hair, and an expression of watchful displacement. Her own mother despaired of her ungainliness. She used to tell me that she spent a good part of her early life lurking behind curtains listening to my grandmother write her off. “The way she looks, she’ll never get a husb–”
“Shh! Here she comes!” She developed her iconoclastic sense of humor as a defense.
Perhaps some of her sense of displacement came from the fact that her family was always moving house. They had no real reason to, either — her father wasn’t broke or in the Army. He owned garages in West Drayton. It was purely because my grandmother — combative, working class, Irish — was neurotically restless, never quite able to settle into her husband’s suburban way of life. Another reason for her displacement may have been because her father was Jewish. But no one ever discussed that. And she went to a succession of Catholic schools. In the English way, class, not religion, was the hot button issue in their house.
By the time my mother was 18 she was used to not fitting in. But by then she had become a looker, so she didn’t care. England was at war and more socially mobile than usual. She could see there was an exit route from West Drayton.
Without really meaning to, my grandmother showed her the way. She was obsessed with gossip columns and clipped every reference to Brenda Fraser and Vivien Leigh. My mother imbibed it all and realized the way out for her was — glamour. Glamour rose above class. It was drawn from the art of self-invention and my mother had plenty of that. She practiced sophistication on American Air Force officers who took her to the Officers Club or Grosvenor House for dinner and dancing. Americans, mercifully, are not attuned to the subtleties of English accents.
My mother shed her West Drayton vowels somewhere in the powder rooms of Park Lane hotels. She took a job as a secretary at Denham Studios and soon was swirling in the fringes of the real world of Larry and Viv. It was here she met the respected and dashing film producer who became my father. She made him laugh for 50 years.
Growing up I was proud of how original my mother was when she came to collect me from my uptight Buckinghamshire School. She was so tall and exotic looking with her dangly turquoise earrings and raven chignon — so unlike all the Home Counties mummies with their boring upper-middle-class pearls and helmet hair. And she never lost her sense of being a misfit. It made her a great conspirator and ally. It also made her choose odd times to let loose.
Timid acquaintances were startled by the way her personality could change over the course of an evening. She would begin a dinner at a normal temperature of appropriate social poise and gradually, with no help from alcohol, start to expand like a popadum. The more conservative the company was, the more hilariously contrarian she became. It made parent-teacher teas at school unusually tense. “Is it me, or is your mother, um, rather challenging?” my cranky old history teacher once asked me after one of these ordeals, during which my mother, perceiving that he was an ardent royalist, had started slyly trashing the Queen Mother. Her heroine was a fictional William Trevor character called Mrs. Fitch, who always mentioned unmentionable truths at parties.
She was at her best with us — my brother and me and Dad. We were the only audience she really wanted. The kitchen at teatime was her Comedy Central and we would egg her on with “Tell the story again, mum, PLEEEESE.”
Managing my mother’s “over-the-top moments,” as he called them, was one of my father’s great marital pleasures. He loved steering her out of a party with the valedictory cry, “I can’t take her anywhere!” When their key turned in the lock I used to lie awake listening to the jangle of her silver coin bracelet and my father’s unapologetic laughter as they undressed and dissected the evening.
Her secret self, the side of her I cherished the most, was bookish, loving and intensely loyal. The glamour was all an act. She was happiest retiring to bed at 10 with her three cats and a new Muriel Spark novel.
Paging swiftly through the Mother’s Day ads in the New York Times I stop at one from Bergdorf Goodman. The flamboyant coral necklace would have been just right. Plus a book, of course. Perhaps Claire Tomalin’s biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, or a life of some other strong and fearless woman.