Tag: the new yorker
I was twenty-six when my boyfriend of three years finally ended our relationship, sending me into a reckoning with every un-distilled idea I had about the durability of true love. I called my mother every day for two weeks and sobbed into the receiver. She listened quietly and steadfastly, until one day she interrupted with, “Listen, do you need a subscription to The New Yorker?”
“Yes.” I whimpered.
These days I can afford my own subscription, though my copy of the magazine has been my mother’s gift ever since that day, nearly twenty five years ago. Back then, I was living on the west side of Hoboken, NJ, commuting to my job in Secaucus with a sports television show. I earned an annual salary of $23,000 – a sizable leap from the $18,000 I’d made at my former job as a magazine’s receptionist. Still relatively broke, I paid $375 for a room in a dingy but pleasant-enough apartment that I shared with a co-worker, where, from my window, I watched an able-bodied, young white guy with a ponytail double-park on my block anytime between midnight and 4 AM every few nights. He’d pop open his trunk, swiftly hand off crack to two stumbling, skinny black women, and was gone as fast as he came. You could almost believe you hadn’t seen it.
I spent the next two decades in and out of relationships, jobs, and even careers. I married, had two children, and all the while changed my residence at least every two years. The main constants in my life were calling the Conde Nast “Change-of-Address” line, and conversations with my mother about cartoons, short stories and features in The New Yorker.
My love for this magazine is undying to this day, and was tested really only once, during a difficult moment about twenty years ago when an issue arrived bearing a completely different font throughout its pages. I called my mother in a quasi-hysterical state. “What is this? It doesn’t even look like the same magazine!”
“Get over it, and read the “Talk of the Town” on page eighteen,” she advised, before rightfully hanging up. To me, the font-change served as a metaphor for the rapidly gentrifying city, and it stoked my resistance. I was watching younger, richer people take over New York – people who needed a cleaner font, I supposed. Of course, four issues later, I couldn’t recall the previous decades-long font, so my mom was right.
Of all the essays that my mother and I discussed, our most consistently, mutually adored author has been David Sedaris. His comedic/tragic recounting of his family’s history and events met our dark-humor sensibilities head-on.
My mother’s and my New Yorker exchange intensified over this past year plus, when Covid dealt us a mainly phone-relationship, and we were looking for excuses to be in constant touch. She and my stepdad, her husband of thirty years, were both terminally ill and telling their doctors and anyone else who would listen, that they were racing each other to the finish line. When he won, we invited my mother to come live in Connecticut with our family, for what was predicted to be the remaining two to four months of her own tapering life.
Once she arrived, she settled right in. While at first she was celebratory of our family’s various music lessons, for instance, she swiftly transitioned to complaining disruptively, particularly during my weekly online piano instruction. Somehow she could hear well enough to condemn my plinking, but not well enough to discern my teacher’s voice through the computer.
“Stop, stop, stop – doing that,” she called out from her chair, eyes shut, facing away from me. I completely ignored her requests and tried to compensate by leaning closer and closer to the computer, as if my wide-screen face might drown out her background commentary, but after three lessons of this, I gave up and all but ordered her to stay in her room on Mondays from one to one thirty, stating that I couldn’t focus enough to learn an instrument under such duress.
“I keep forgetting you’re having a lesson, I won’t say anything else,” she sort of, but not really, apologized. When, a few weeks later, the stairs became too dangerous and her confusion transformed to all-out hallucinations, upstairs is where she stayed – and where we all mostly stayed to be with her – until almost the very end of her life.
“Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy…” I heard one morning in a monotonous tone, incongruent with my children’s demanding style. I was used to being interrupted repeatedly, and this particular time I was downstairs getting the kids ready for school while making breakfast. I walked to the base of the stairs in a mild state of alarm, and looked up to see my mother staring down at me, gripping her walker.
“Mommy, I’m hungry. Can I have an english muffin toasted twice with butter?”
I paused, acknowledging to myself only, the real beginning of the end; my independent, wry, D.I.Y. mother was reverting to a childlike state.
“Yes, I’m making it. You can relax in your chair, I’ll bring it up.” I exhaled, returning to the toaster.
“Thank you,” she sang out happily, as she maneuvered her way back to her room.
What followed was not a gradual change, but rather a cascade of her mostly whimsical, and often times hilarious, alternate realities.
“Those birds on your shirt — do you move them around?” She innocently asked, pointing toward my chest as I settled her back into her hospital bed after a trip to the bathroom.
“Well, no…” I began, strategizing a humane answer.
“Oh, I see!” She interjected, “They move by themselves. Well, that’s better.” Satisfied, she relaxed her head back on the pillow, when she noticed Steve, my husband, and father of her grandchildren, pass by her door. Looking up at the ceiling, she mused, “He is so good with those kids.”
“He really is,” I agreed.
“And they’re not even his….”
So when said to me, “I just re-upped your and Steve’s subscription for four more years,” I assumed this to be another figment of her confusion, because four years would’ve been our longest renewal stint to date. Of course it was possible that she, clear about where she was heading, considered the extended renewal an epic send off, but sure enough, it wasn’t long before the magazine stopped arriving altogether. A letter followed, stating that the subscription had run out and would she like to renew, but when I brought it to her attention, she looked at me blankly. I tossed it into the recycling bin.
It was mid-March when we started hearing songbirds in the morning – the first hint of the seasons finally turning, and a wake up call for me. I’d had my head down in her twenty-four hour care for weeks, Covid was still raging across our country and the arrival of spring brought to me an unanticipated melancholy. My mother now spent her final days on our first floor, still and silent in bed – yet within earshot of the piano. Perhaps now she could listen to my piano lesson, I thought, and even enjoy it. After all, my playing had improved in recent months, and she loved “music.”
Three days before she died, I took note of the mail slot’s familiar slam, and there it lay, our magazine, splayed across the floor like a contorted bird, collapsed after a long flight. I thanked her, all the while studying her body for any sort of reaction, and felt, twenty five years later, something akin to the durability of love.
My mother lives in my memory now, and especially so when I read a recent Sedaris essay, “Pearls”, in which he details the pandemic claustrophobia that we all, at some point or another, experienced with our families. He and Hugh, his partner, celebrated thirty years together. In detailing their relationship, he writes that they bought an entire second apartment as a solution to Hugh’s anxiety about practicing piano in David’s presence.
These days, my own piano lessons continue without outside observation or protest. It’s tempting to say that this saddens me, but it doesn’t. As it goes when someone you love dies, the great stuff they’re missing starts to pile up. My younger daughter learned to ride a bike a week after my mother’s death; my brother was recently re-hired at his job after being furloughed the past year. It’s obvious that I wish she were around to take joy in these types of milestones, but what most potently lives on is my instinct to direct her to page twenty of the issue with the girl sitting in the windowsill on the cover, even though she would likely no longer understand why.