It was not the alcohol to which I was addicted; it was she, and together we fed on our affection and rage like buttered popcorn. I suckled on my mother's beautiful fury; it fed me and nourished me. We clung to the silent compact that neither of us would ever abandon the other, no matter what.
Until I did.
I had the audacity to leave New York City for good, to find love and happiness elsewhere. To make a home and family at which she was not at the center. To leave her for another woman.
It had been a choice: my mother's life, or my own.
In my home, we were three: mother, father, daughter. There were books; my father's gold-spined Reader's Digest Condensed Editions lined every shelf, sandwiched between Philip Roth and Henry Miller. Every month from the time I was four, a My Weekly Reader paperback selection arrived in the mail with my name on it. We listened to Trini Lopez and Peggy Lee, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Judy Garland, on my father's teak Garrard turntable, and my mother sang along. We had annual memberships to a local pool club, MoMA, and the Smithsonian. Piles of Vogue, Life, Harper's Bazaar, Modern Photography, and The New Yorker were stacked in every corner of the living room and on the floor in front of the toilets in both bathrooms. My short, corpulent father, possessed of a violent temper that could turn with the direction of the wind, was witty and cerebral, deeply affectionate and clinically depressed, in love with Commentary and Irving Kristol and the perceived safety of intellectual Jewish conservative tradition. He ran twice for local office as an Independent, stumping for unpopular causes, and failed.
My mother had been, for thirteen weeks in 1957, a national television star; she was the fair-haired all-American girl singer on a Saturday night variety show, the precursor to Andy Williams and Carol Burnett, and her job was to step out on the live sound stage and do as her boss, Galen Drake, asked: Sing us a song about this terrible rainy weather, Rita, he'd say, and she would. Her appearance on television defined her and was the focal point of our family dinnertime conversation. As a child, I longed to see her on the other side of the screen, where everyone seemed perfect and happy; I spent every Saturday night turning the television dial, looking for her show even though it had been canceled five years before I was born. She was a myth I searched for and never found.
My mother was elegant, preternaturally thin, pouty, and so radiant— unlike my friends' mothers: older, round, dour women with the trauma of war still lingering in their eyes—that one had to squint to see her clearly, as though her vibrancy made it too dangerous to look directly at her without corneal injury. Propelled through life on the fuel of desire and regret, she was beautiful and stylish in a way that seemed unreal, as though she had stepped out of the pages of a Diana Vreeland editorial feature. She stopped traffic; handsome men I vaguely knew flagged her down and crossed the broad, dangerous boulevard that ran east to west through our town in order to speak to her. While my father carried himself with an air of studied formality, my mother was devilishly, fabulously flirty; even young children can detect innuendo in the set of a jaw. When we walked together down the streets of our neighborhood, I was proud to be hers, to be of her, to be seen alongside her. I held her hand; waiting to cross the street, she lifted it affectionately to kiss mine. We strolled side by side; I watched her closely, as though I were looking at the moon and searching for evidence of life.
My mother said hello to no woman unless they acknowledged her first; only then would she respond to them and stop to talk, placing her hands on my narrow shoulders and positioning me in front of her like a shield. Conversations were warm and friendly and then, inevitably, slithered down the slope of competition; they grew quietly seething and tempestuous. An acquaintance with a new outfit, a new hairstyle, a new boyfriend, a new lipstick could send her into a tailspin for days until, relieved by an impulse unharnessed—a new coat for me that I didn't need, a set of engraved Tiffany stationery for her—she was soothed like a junkie with a hit of heroin. My mother was strategic and gamine; her illusoriness terrified and delighted me, as though she were an automaton at Disneyland whose controls could at any moment go haywire.