I hated losing mom’s books. A writer friend mentioned Portrait of a Lady and I winced. The Henry James classic had lived on her mahogany bookshelves along with Shakespeare, George Eliot and a rotating cast of library novels. Some of them had mom’s name—Estelle, or star—written in longhand on a flowery bookplate. Victorian language lulled her. Classical constructions thrilled her mind and tantalized it with how the other half lived. She sat and read by her French windows, whose top sills curved out from the center like open wings—it’s a style you don’t see anymore. In the next room, her crystal chandelier’s prisms looped up like open teardrop earrings.
When I was a toddler mom read to me. She sat me on a towel in our house’s central patio for sun baths. Words sounded sweet when she said them, her voice a low flute that built its own harmonies. Celestial light and pink geraniums swaddled me. Well-kissed by the sun, I felt happy as a cat curled up with the secret of joy. Soon I read on my own for the warmth. When I got older and asked questions mom shot back, “You don’t know what that means? Well, write it down and look it up.”
Books were her survival strategy
Estelle’s history began at St. Vincent’s High School in Vallejo. The nuns said there was nothing for her in America and she should go back to the Philippines. They told the boy with the second-highest GPA he was the valedictorian. In his speech to the class, he said, “Estelle should be standing here, not me.” Yet she spoke fondly of St. Vincent’s and loved that I chose Vincent for my son’s name. In class reunion photos Estelle was the one who stood sideways like a lady, one foot forward, graceful and lively at the same time. Her swing dress was a splash of color against the whitewashed background. Her bright-burning nature soared.
Mom chose our house in 1958 when it was the only one on the Baden Street hill. This was before there was a Glen Park BART station a few blocks away, and you could buy houses in San Francisco for $20,000. Later she could still remember it nestled in greenery before the freeway took the trees. “Before you were born,” she said. The child I was wondered how it was for her then and traced the length of its walls with my eyes. They glowed harvest gold all the way to the soft cream trim. My early years were warm with amber sunshine.
All my life, my parents promised me the house on Baden Street. It was like cash in the bank as I protected my head from Dad’s kicks and escaped to college. Mom shrank from my father’s violence but stuck up for me in unexpected ways when I wanted to study the clarinet, switch to the piano or go to college in Southern California. My friend Richard said, “Your mom made you a fighter.”
Mom told me, “You’re so lucky you have a mother. My mother lost hers when she was born. You have no idea what it’s like.” I didn’t believe her. I was still mad because when we were watching The Waltons on TV, a daughter on the show asked her Grandma if she was pretty. Grandma replied, “No, I don’t think you’re pretty. I think you’re beautiful.” I had looked at my mom right then. She said, “I know what you want me to say, and I’m not going to say it.” If she caught me looking too long in the mirror, she’d say, “You think you’re so cute, don’t you?”
Mom never talked about pain. Literature was her survival strategy and she skipped the plot points she didn’t like. She waited until her 70s to tell me about when she was a little girl and her mother beat her so badly, neighbors broke down the door to pull her off the dirt floor. If I asked why she never hugged me, she said, “Mommy’s not like that.” But even though she never talked about family directly, she still had Shakespeare for her touchstone. She took me to see King Lear at the Palace of Fine Arts. Its lines lurked at the back of my mind for years.
The only way to write about the end is to rename dad’s sister Aunt Goneril, after King Lear’s power-mad scion. Dementia, diabetes and dialysis had stolen my mom’s formidable defenses. On bad days she called for her mama, like her mother had on her deathbed. My dad put Old Goneril in charge. Auntie G put mom in a chair with no seatbelt, wheeled her down the steep Baden hill and dropped her on her head. Mom died soon after. I moved like a wraith through the funeral, unable to tell if my family’s motives were malice, dementia, greed or all three. I asked the law school dean to reschedule my community property final. For the first time since I was three I wasn’t able to read. Writing an obituary never crossed my mind.
Dad’s friend Edmund, the one with white power bumper stickers, convinced my father to forgo physical therapy even though he’d been falling a lot. The bastard convinced dad that if he went to his doctor appointments, the staff would confine him to a wheelchair. Dad didn’t believe anyone else. His legs got weaker.
“Lenox and Waterford are good names,” she used to say
A stranger’s face got mixed up with my final memory of mom’s books. It was my last chance to retrieve Portrait and the others. I hadn’t expected anyone to be home and startled a big man in the living room. He threw things into boxes like they were destined for the dumpster. I had to reach him somehow. He had a thin moustache, a paint-spattered T-shirt and the buttons on his jeans looked ready to pop. I searched for the phrase from Spanish class, Cuál es tu nombre? His name was Mario. I struggled to say it was my house, those were my pictures on the floor. I picked one up and waved it at him—see, this is my mom! His eyes avoided me and he sat down heavily. Maybe he had a family of his own to worry about. When I snapped photos with my phone, I startled Mario. He ran out to his truck and called someone, probably Edmund.
Mom’s bedroom was stripped bare. So was the dining room. Gone was her cherished china set with brush-stroked roses in teal and magenta. “Lenox and Waterford are good names,” she used to say. I grabbed her Tragedies of Shakespeare and my eyes blurred.
As dad’s mind dissolved, he confused flattery with friendship and bullying with strength. Aunt Goneril filed a restraining order against me in my dad’s name. Cousin Regan blinded the family court judge with pages of perjured figures and took my dad’s Power of Attorney to sell the house on Baden Street. Their henchmen ripped out mom’s prized central patio, chopped up her French windows and wrenched the brown-sugar bookshelves from the walls. Her sunbathing spot became a tiny, dark bedroom to raise the house’s purchase price over a million dollars.
When dad passed, I wove mom’s life into his obituary. From the outside they were the ideal couple. Hank met his wife, Estelle, when she was on stage in a play at International House. They loved to entertain in their Mediterranean-style home with crystal from Estelle’s custom cabinet. Hank was elected Men’s Club sergeant-at-arms at St. Finn Barr and volunteered at parish Pancake Breakfasts. Estelle prepared gourmet meals and showered in-laws with fancy-wrap gifts from The Emporium. They loved to sing, especially standards like “I’ll Be Seeing You.” They enjoyed classes at the Fromm Institute, held museum memberships and appreciated San Francisco restaurants of yesteryear like La Piñata and Celadon. Their generous spirits encouraged artistic achievement in everyone they met. Tidbits from their past recorded family history for my son. In the end our wealth was memory.
Henry James said, “The finest natures were those that shone on large occasions.” Estelle had adapted Victorian work ethics, defeated nun stereotypes and survived. When she was young, her grace helped her sidestep Aunt G’s chaos. She must have cared about me, after all, before my dad’s rage threw her back into the mind of a crushed child. To love her is to see her strengths and to shore up her weaknesses.
All was forgiven when mom’s shade slipped down to earth, hovered by my son’s dresser and protected him while he slept. Her shape had no face and looked more like a faint silvery light than a person. I recognized her anyway. When she was alive, her eyes had lit up every time my son walked in the room. On good days she cooed, “Vinnn-cent,” as happy as the nestling doves outside.
In the last week of her life, I had checked her insulin. The sun streamed through her garden window and she said, “What a beautiful girl.” I looked behind me to see who she was talking about. When I looked back at mom she beamed at me, the same way she glowed around my son.
My writer friend gave me her mother’s hardcover Portrait of a Lady. I’d resisted reading it for years, and it took 100 pages for me to stop complaining about the pages-long paragraphs. Then a Zoom class revealed some of mom’s secrets in the Victorian character sketches. She had leaped into the world like one of Henry James’ belles, in love with the world, hungry for life.
Five miles and four years away from the house on Baden Street, the dog and I checked on new plants one morning in the backyard. Light broke through the fog onto riots of geraniums, Mexican sage and purple-velvet princess blooms. Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments, as the bard once sang. I imagined my mom sunbathing by her Christmas cactus in Mediterranean-patio heaven, then telescoping down to hummingbird size and alighting on my son’s shoulder. She whispers in his ear how to steer through the next stage for the family, finishing her own portrait in the process.