Marilyn Monroe, The Virgin Mary And My Mother
My mother’s name was Isabelle but my father called her Liz. No one knows how she got this nickname except that, as I said, my father gave almost everyone he knew an incongruous nickname. For instance mine was Daisy, Lynn’s was Barney Google, Gary was Tex, my son Joel was Jaybird, my son Adam was Atom Smasher, my niece Kelly was Calico.
I loved my mom’s name but almost no one called her Isabelle except for one of my cousin’s from Connecticut who used to call Mom, Auntie Bell, which was at least closer to the truth and very endearing.
My mother was a very sweet, refined and a quiet person most of the time. I don’t think I ever heard her raise her voice, swear or talk behind anyone’s back. She loved to get her hair done, shop for hours for clothes, play golf and pray. As an adult I had wished that she had more serious pursuits because she rarely seemed to understand or have much of an interest in things that I was doing such as writing, getting my bachelor’s degree and traveling.
I have a close friend whose mother participated in the Freedom Marches in the 60’s. Florence was an amazing woman who had tremendous intellect and vitality. She was a social justice advocate, highly educated and expanded my mind as to what a woman could do in the world. She was very kind to me and interested in my life. I loved how she wanted to read my poetry and then give me detailed critiques and asked about the places where I had traveled. I had at times wished my mother was more like Florence and could take an interest in me and give me feedback like that. In the end, I came to deeply appreciate my mother and understand why she made the choices she did, but as a child, I spent years wishing my mother was Marilyn Monroe.
Yes, that’s right, I was head over heals in love with Marilyn when I was a kid. The first movie I saw her in was “The River Of No Return”. Wow, she was amazing! I loved how she seemed wise beyond her years, beautiful yet maternal, as she connected with the young son of Matt Calder, played by Robert Mitchum in the movie. Her character was a dance hall girl trying to better herself in the wild north west of the 1800’s. She seemed tough but kind, smart but forgiving, and full of affection for this little boy. I was mesmerized by the unusual way she spoke. I loved her soft whispery drawl, which for some reason reminded me of cotton candy. I thought she would make the perfect mother. When I saw her in “Niagara” she played another character who was in a bad situation with a crazy husband whom she wanted to get rid of. Was I trying to channel Marilyn as my mother, to help my real mother get her life straight??
All of her later movies were like icing on the cake. They were mostly eye candy. They were fun and frivolous, but always she ended up with the right guy and a good life and usually speaking the truth. I thought Marilyn would have been a perfect mom, someone to show me the way, to be affectionate and make me laugh! I had no idea until years later how deeply troubled Marilyn was because of family issues leaving her very insecure. Elton John said it all with his tribute to her, calling her “a candle in the wind”. That metaphor could be applied to my mom too.
When my mother was two years old, her father died. The story goes that my grandfather, John Franz, hung himself in the orchard behind the family house on an apple tree. My grandmother was nine months pregnant with her ninth child (two others had died early on). She went into labor almost immediately when hearing the news. The implications are huge as to why he did this at that time but the only reason I heard for his suicide was that he worked at Kodak with photo processing chemicals. Somehow the story goes, the chemicals “poisoned” one of his arms, which then needed to be amputated. According to this story he couldn’t bear the thought of the amputation and killed himself. I am not sure if that is the real reason or not.
As a kid I first heard this story at one of my aunt’s card parties. My mother was the second youngest of six sisters and a brother. She use to take me with her once a month to the card parties that each of the sisters would take turn hosting. They were fun, girl talking, raucous gatherings. I was usually the only child there because I was the youngest cousin in the family. I would keep up with my aunts for as long as possible but would eventually get sleepy and bury myself nestling into their coat pile that was usually dumped on a bed or couch near the kitchen.
The sisters were loud and I could hear every story they told while they thought I was asleep and out of ear- shot. That is when I first heard about my grandfather’s death. The sister’s would talk about all the family business that way. I heard about how my mother’s father would come home drunk on Friday nights. My aunts would put him in a rocking chair, smooth his forehead and say nice things to him in Polish to keep him from picking a fight with my grandmother. I heard about Emily’s death this way too. She was the third youngest sister and married to George, who was an alcoholic who beat her up when he got drunk.
Poor Emily, she was also quiet and sweet. She would sometimes take care of me when my mother went to work. I hated going to her house because it always looked grey inside and smelled like bleach. I remember once when I was taking a nap in her son’s room, I woke up and looked outside the window into the back yard and saw a line of yellow and green parakeets sitting in a row on a telephone line. I remember thinking how odd to see pet birds out of their cages outside. Their colors were bright and fun compared to the bleakness inside my aunt’s house. Emily didn’t live a long life either. She took her life one snowy night right before Christmas in 1961. She too hung herself. I had nightmares for months about that. The sisters talked about everything concerning her death and marriage, and for better or worse my imagination grew large with all of these stories.
Not too long after one of these card games, my mother brought me over to my Aunt Phyllis’s house so she could baby-sit me.
My aunt still lived in the original family home where my grandparents lived. I remember going out to the backyard and wondering which tree he had used to hang himself. Because of his tragic death, my mother had an unusual childhood. While she told us kids that she was just a happy go lucky little girl, she also talked about times when she would dance on street corners for pennies and nickels, or how she would have to kiss her mother’s ring out of respect and gratitude.
My mother loved school but was forced to quit at 16 and go work in a seed factory. Working there weakened her lungs causing her to have a life long battle with severe asthma. Her younger sister Janet, who was also in high school at the same time, was allowed to stay in school and graduate. Her stories just didn’t add up to happy go lucky.
My mother found lot of solace and comfort in being a devout Catholic. I remember she would go to 6:00 am Mass daily. Once we moved out to the suburbs, she would take me to mass with her during the week and then drop me off at school. I didn’t mind going to church with her. It was one of the few things she and I did together and it seemed to make her happy.
She also loved going to Novena Masses at St Joseph’s Church in downtown Rochester. These Masses were beautiful because they were dedicated to the Virgin Mary and contained special prayers and hymns that I loved to hear. My mom would go once a month with several of her sisters. It was like a girl’s day out. Mom would let me stay home from school in order to come along. The church was small but elegant, lots of beige and gold leaf colors on everything. There were many statues of the Virgin and an altar dedicated to her. In front of the altar was a black metal stand filled with red glass candleholders. On the left side of the stand there was a metal box filled with sand and long skinny white sticks you lit the candles with. First you would put your quarters in the change box and hear clunk, and then take out a stick, put it in one of the flames, light a candle, then dunk the flame on the stick into the sand which made a slight hissing sound as it smoked out. I loved doing this little ritual. My mother would give me lots of quarters to light 4 or five candles. I thought the effect of the candles looked like little souls flickering.
Later on I would realize how pagan this ritual was and how the Goddess was alive in the Catholic Church! I learned that Mother Mary would never turn down prayers from her devoted daughters. So I prayed more, lit more candles and asked for a lot of things back then. Afterwards we would all got out to lunch, just us girls. After mass I always felt cleaner and refreshed. I think my mom did too.
My mother did not marry my father until she was 24. She said she liked being single. She told me several times once I was an adult, that she was more in love with another guy named Gene whom she wanted to marry but that her mother forced her to marry Henry instead. That made me wonder if she was ever happily married.
I am not sure how their marital years went before I was born but I know that what I saw as a child and as an adult wasn’t great.
My father, who I believed loved my mom, was also very dismissive and minimized her. When she would voice her opinions about things going on in the world or politics or about his business dealings my father would say, “What do You know Liz, you’re just a woman!” Or “Liiiizzzz, Lizzie Lizzie, what are you talking about??” He was very condescending.
My mother, I believe, built a life around coping with her pain. She had a husband who provided material things for her, which she enjoyed, but offered her little comfort or respect. She wanted to continue in school but seemed to lack the confidence to do that. She loved her children, but when our father would flip out and chase us around with his belt, she seemed powerless to stop him. In fact, I don’t remember her ever trying to intercede. This created years of misunderstanding her.
My mother seemed to just burrow into herself and never complained. Sometimes I was aware of how she would try to hurt my father in return, to assert herself. But as a kid it just confused me more.
I remember one Sunday night when my father, mother and I went to 5:00 o’clock Mass. The church was downtown and it took us about 30 minutes or so to get there. My parents were having an argument about something that happened the night before. My father was steaming at my mom and my mom was fearlessly egging him on. I sat in the back seat just watching and listening.
After church the argument continued and my father’s anger escalated. Before we reached home he stopped at a deli, and got out of the car yelling, “God dammit Liz, what were you thinking?? My mother said, “Oh Henry, it was just in fun. I didn’t do anything wrong”. And He said “Horseshit Liz, you made me look like a god damn fool!”
I just slunk lower into the back seat and started worrying for my mother. This did not look good. When he got out of the car I said, “Mom, what are you guys arguing about? “
She laughed and said, “ When your father and I went out last night, some of his friends at the bar started horsing around and making bets about how big my bra size was. I thought it was funny so I let them measure my breasts!”
She started to laugh and almost seemed proud of herself and happy that she had done something that really made my dad pissed off! At the time it didn’t make any sense to me, but I learned that sometimes my mother’s power came from what seemed like very strange strategies.
Over the years my mom just seemed to shut down more and more on the important things like holding meaningful conversations with me or remembering what her grandchildren were up to. I think my sister, brother and I all felt her drifting away as she continued to look her pretty part but having less and less to say. When she was in her early seventies she had a major breakdown. It was due in part to my father and shady business dealings with which he was involved. He told my mother not to tell us what was going on. I think Mom just got over loaded with everything in her life and snapped.
Once she did run away from the situation. In 1971, she unexpectedly flew from Rochester to La Guardia airport and called me when she arrived to come and get her. Evidently a series of events unfolded and she just up and left my father! I was thrilled that she did this, that she finally took a stand and I was supporting her one hundred percent. But once she arrived she got scared. She called my father up and said she was not coming home. He hadn’t even realized that she was gone! He got angry at her yelling over the phone “Liz, you better come home, what kind of stupid stunt is this Liz” and on and on. It got sad and ugly. Mom cowered to dad’s demands and went back home that night.
When my mother was being hospitalized for her breakdown in 1990 she started to come back to life a little once treatment started. I remember visiting her at the beginning of her stay at the hospital. She told me she didn’t want anyone else to come and visit her. She didn’t want anyone, including Henry, to see her. She wanted to be by herself and was adamant about it.
I perked up when she said that. I went home thinking she was finally able to say what she wanted. This was a big deal, I thought. Of course that didn’t last long, but it gave me deeper insight into her. Somehow hearing her declare what she wanted so directly shook up my old thinking of her. Instead of thinking of her with anger because I felt she was always making bad choices in her life, I saw a glimmer of her strength coming through.
I went back home and wrote a long story about how I was looking for my mother’s strength and courage in the wrong places. I realized that all the years I fantasized about Marilyn Monroe as my mother, or had wished my mother was stronger and more involved like Florence, that in fact my mother was strong and courageous in her own right. I got over the hurt that I was holding on to about what I thought I saw and realized it took an amazing, strong and courageous person to live the life she lived. In fact I had no idea how she was even able to hang on as long as she did. I started to see her as a mother who loved her children dearly and that she was protecting us the best way that she could, by just being there by our side. When my head cleared, I spoke to my mom about this. I said, “Mom, did you stay with dad all these years because you wanted to protect us kids?”
“Yes dear, “ she said, “I stayed because it was what women did but I stayed because I wanted all of you to have a family.”
Wow, I had no idea that she was so committed to us. I think she saw herself as the buffer between dad and us. Even if she couldn’t physically stop him from being violent, our mom still wanted to do her best and be a good mother. She grew up with a lot of heartache. She grew up in a time when many women suffered from being invisible, marrying for security not love and being powerless over many forms of abuse. In her own way she survived her own river of no return, but she did it the hard way. She did it in isolation and with out any recognition.
I think of my own parenting when I think of my mother. I think of the mistakes I have made as a mother,
but that I had the best intentions for everyone’s well being. No one ever sees the underbelly of parenting until you are a parent yourself. The sacrifices you make as a parent are often over looked or misunderstood and sometimes just plain wrong. You just do it because you love them and hope for the best with the tools that you have. (I think of my first marriage and how I would have done things differently so that my children would not have had to go through so much pain).
I inherited many things from my mother. I inherited her love of clothes and looking stylish. I inherited her love of all things spiritual and her ability to laugh, be patient and let things roll off her back. I inherited her ability to stay with a spouse who was difficult and demoralizing. I did not inherit her fear of change, her fear of speaking truth to power or her fear of going out into the world and learning from mistakes.
I learned a lot from her and will always be grateful for the moment I was able to put aside my pain to see hers and realize how truly strong and defiant she was in her own way. Its time for Marilyn and Mary to move over and let Isabelle shine as the light she was and is in my life.