The other morning, I walked into my house after working out in the yard. As usual, I was sweaty, my normal state once the temperature rises above 70• F. My standard complaint has always been the same – “man, am I hot.” When Michael was alive, he’d always answer that comment with the same response – “you’re telling me.” A part of me never believed him because I was keenly aware of my physical imperfections. But he really didn’t agree with me. I was lucky enough to spend decades with someone who always made me feel beautiful and desirable. What a great gift to leave me. On this particular day, my son was clacking away at his computer at the dining room table when I came in and spouted my “hot” line. I’ve told my kids what their dad used to say to me so I asked him for the proper reply to my prompt. He refused me, saying he knew the answer but that it wasn’t appropriate for him to say it. I got it. I can see where he’d think that was an off-color remark for a son to say to his mom, even though I was just testing his memory. I said I understood his point, then told him that some day when I wasn’t around any more, he’d still remember what those words meant to me. He looked at me and asked, “and what things did your mom say that you still remember?” I was surprised by the question and initially was at a loss for a response. But I’ve been thinking about this for days.
The phrase “that’s what she said,” is an iteration of a British double entendre implying some sort of sexual behavior. Through Steve Carell’s use of it multiple times in the television series, “The Office,” the expression became popularized in America. But that sexist humor isn’t the connotation that I’m intending in this reflection. Rather, I’ve been pondering what comments, bits of advice, suggestions or instructions stick in our minds as we traverse our lives. The words you never forget, out of all those spoken to you by your family, your friends, your teachers, your mentors. In my case, I’d also include lines from books, movies and songs in that collection of the words that resonate, long after they’re initially heard. I’ve been trying to think of what different people have said to me, words that have stayed with me, which pop up randomly in my mind. And maybe even more significantly, what have I said to others, my family, my friends or even acquaintances, that they still hear in their minds. Isn’t it true that we are composite creatures, made up of input from so many sources we can’t possibly distinguish what got integrated into our perception of self? I remember once I was walking along on a sidewalk, and coming toward me was a woman pushing a stroller with a baby aboard, somewhere between 15-18 months old. As we got close, the baby and I made eye contact which we held for about ten seconds. As I moved past them, I remember thinking that the little moment of recognition we shared is stored somewhere in that person’s brain. I was old enough to remember that brief connection. For the baby who hopefully grew up, my image is tucked away somewhere, in the folds of its brain.
But the words, though. My mind is packed with memories that I’m lucky enough to access regularly. If that ends, I hope I’m not alive. During this pandemic experience which I share with countless people, I’ve turned inward to reflect on my life. Having the ability to recall the places I’ve lived, literally strolling through physical spaces in my brain is fascinating. I’m reminded of the lyrics from the Beatles song “In My Life,” which is an example of the words that stuck with me over these 55 years since its release when I was just fourteen. As I’ve been sifting through my son’s question – what I remember of what my mother said to me, the aural landscape has gotten bigger. I’ve even given it a title – Ancestral Noise. What a surprising study I’m in right now. Both the presence and absence of verbal memories from some people who played a central role in my life, at least for awhile, is a mystery.
For example, I can’t recall a single word my maternal grandfather said to me, despite the fact that I spent as much time with him as I did with my grandmother. I can hear her talking all the time. The insignificant comments of random and mostly irrelevant people that still ring in my head seem absurd. So I decided I had to codify some of them. Otherwise they’ll disappear when I do and although that’s inevitable to a large degree, my historian impulse is to leave tracks of myself in my little universe so that my children, grandchildren and whoever may arrive after them, will have some sense of what influences affected the me I am today. So here’s a sampling of what’s emerged from the verbal past. My ancestral noise.
Mom. I thought about her first because she was certainly the most talkative person in my life, much like I am with my family. At first, I was hard put to think of anything but her stories, the growing up ones of hardship, her small victories over her rigid mother, her love story with my dad, her wretched ill health and her remarkable survival skills. But actual words? That took a bit of digging. Eventually, I dredged some of them out. The Dorothy-isms. “I always wanted to be a dancer.” Mom was always wishing she was something other than who she was. A way of being worth noting for me as her child. I didn’t want to do that. “Never put anything in writing.” Ever paranoid, she believed in leaving no evidence which could be used against you (I guess I didn’t give that advice much weight.) “When I die, I’m never leaving you-I’m going to hover over you and protect you.” That one was interesting because the truth is, I starting protecting her when I was quite young. Everyone is entitled to the occasional illusion. “I could never survive the death of my child.” Another interesting memory for me, as I forced a tough decision on my conflicted family regarding this memory. When my brother died, my mom was afflicted with dementia. I had never forgotten what she said. I was here with her providing care in addition to holding her power of attorney. I wouldn’t let anyone tell her he was gone. A controversy ensued but I prevailed. All I could think of was her unnecessary pain and confusion as this lifelong dreaded event actually happened. She died a few months later. I’ve never regretted that decision. Maybe the most practical advice she ever gave me was to remember to be creative about keeping my marriage fresh over the long haul. Although that was impossibly sexist counsel, I did think a lot about putting my relationship with my husband first, as I wanted to be with him after our kids moved on. I implemented that philosophy. Not much sage advice after spending over 60 years with someone. She had a great sense of humor and could come up with sarcastic zingers. But there’s nothing that earth-shattering resounding in my head from mom.
Ironically, my dad, who wasn’t known for being particularly verbal, said a lot of things which carried me through different periods in my life. Parts of him were utterly childlike and ridiculous. He called the four of us kids “little drips.” “Wake up and go to sleep.” “Why don’t you dry up?” “How about taking a long walk off a short pier?” “What’s the matter with you-you got rocks in your head?” “Did you marry your teacher today?” “Did you do your scientific studies?” “You know your mother’s crazy, don’t you? I could go on. Maybe all these inanities stuck with me because mostly, his head was usually buried in a newspaper so his pronouncements were memorable. But there was serious stuff too. “You have to make a plan and stick with it even if you get offtrack for awhile.” An excellent piece of advice. “You’re going to be smarter than many people in life. The average American voter is uneducated. When you believe in something, stick to your principles and don’t back down, no matter what.” Those words are central in my daily life and always have been. “When it comes to financial decisions, you rarely hit the high or sink to the low. Aim for some reasonable goals and don’t look back.” He explained a lot about how the world works to me. He also called me names like con artist and weasel. I can’t fault him for that. I was a streetsmart kid. A squeamish guy, not as physically courageous as my mom, when he got cancer, he bravely announced that he would beat it “the way Grant took Richmond.” He only got through one round of chemo before quitting. Unable to confess that to my mom, he told me first and asked me to arrange his funeral. A young woman in my 30’s, I did what he wanted. Years later, I figured out how inappropriate a choice that was for me. I also remember how incredible I felt when, while home from college in my freshman year, I was the only person available when my grandmother called early in the morning, shouting that my grandfather had collapsed. I called the fire department and ran a mile through the snow to their apartment, winding up in an ambulance tearing down Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. No cell phones in those days, so I was on my own while my grandmother was sedated and I stayed with my grandfather, being his advocate at the tender age of eighteen. Later that evening when my parents came to the hospital and eventually took me home, my dad said, “do you realize you saved your grandfather’s life today?” I’ve never forgotten that moment. I also remember our verbal war when he threatened to disown my sister if she married a non-Jew. I told him he’d have to disown me too and reminded him that he was the one who told me to stand up for my beliefs. He found me very irritating back then. Finally, my dad was an avid lifelong Democrat. When he was annoyed with Republicans, he’d always say, “death to the vipers.” At my sister’s wedding rehearsal dinner, her husband’s family, who were mostly on the other side of the political spectrum, were treated to my dad’s pronouncement following a few cocktails, shouting out, “the only good Republican is a dead Republican.” Oh my. Those are my most prominent memories of my dad’s voice.
I can hear my maternal grandmother’s voice frequently. An immigrant, she spoke decent English with some scrambled words like saying she was having her description, rather than prescription, filled at the drugstore. She was smart but illiterate, a product of a truly male-dominated culture. She didn’t see her way out of that. But she was sharp-tongued and used a lot of Yiddish phrases, most of them judgmental and demeaning. “Gey cocken offen yom – go take a shit in the ocean.” “Gey avek – get out of here.” “Momzer, schmendrick, schlemiel – bastard, fool and stupid, respectively.” When she thought something was funny, she’d say, “gib a kick,” which meant look at that. She told all of us grandchildren individually that each of us was the only person she could trust while she confided her complaints to everyone. She liked watching baseball because she thought the players were sexy, especially when they adjusted their protective cups. She paid attention to politics and I remember her muttering that Ronald Reagan was a stupid cowboy. She was a compulsive cleaner, plastic covering her furniture which was so sticky and hot in the summer. Perhaps her most famous line was – “you can eat off my floors.”
I barely remember any specific thing that my brother told me. He made up his own alphabet which I recall and I remember discussing world wars and predictions of what the future would look like in terms of superpowers – his money was on China. The only outstanding line I remember from my older sister was her always telling me to “modulate your voice, Renee,” because I was apparently too loud. My younger sister frequently told me that if I died, she would hurl herself into my grave. The sum total of these individual words from my siblings doesn’t sound like much in the overall scope of aural memory.
I can hear my friend Fern telling me she wanted her epitaph to be “she died smiling, if you know what I mean.” I hear my first true love Albert saying, “just for tonight, I love you.” That didn’t bode well for the future. Another boyfriend Dennis, told me that if I’d married him, he wouldn’t have wound up divorced and unhappy. That wasn’t true.
I can’t begin to list all the things Michael said to me over the years, both romantic, sarcastic and funny. “The only place I belong is with you.” “No one has a face like yours-you with the face.” “You’re the smartest person I know.” “We are cosmically connected – I’ll be with you forever.” “Take a hike.” “Life’s a hard road.” “Would you mind removing your feet from my back?” “Everything would be perfect if you’d just stop talking.” “What seems to be the greatest single problem?” “Put a cork in it.” Michael is still so alive in me. The books, music and movies we shared helped us develop a code that bound us together inside and out. He may not be here, but my dialogue with him continues daily. He’s in my head.
So what about me? What have I uttered that my kids will remember when I’m gone? I asked my daughter. Her response was, “run.” When she was driving me crazy as a young girl, there were times when I wished I believed in corporal punishment. But I didn’t. I found a benign way to express my hostility. I held her ponytail and told her to run. She was too smart to do it but it made for a memorable moment. When my son made me want to tear my hair out, I quoted a line to him from the wonderful film, “Diner.” I told him if he didn’t get a grip on himself, I’d hit him so hard I’d kill his whole family. Preposterous, of course. But one day with an uncooperative playmate, he repeated it to this sensitive child. I thought I’d have my kids taken away by the Department of Children and Family Services after he told his parents what he’d heard. Aside from a variety of movie lines that I adore, I do think I’ve said some things of worth to my kids. I told them about the five year rule, the premise being that whatever is happening right now, which feels so overwhelming, should make them stop and think of exactly what they were doing five years ago. Since they can never recall what that was, I remind them that five years from now, they won’t remember the intensity of this moment. Perspective is everything. I’ve told them ad nauseam that the people with the best lives are the people with the best coping skills. Everyone’s life requires coping and the better you get at managing, the better life will be. Lastly, I tell them that when you tackle problems in life, you want to be operating from a position of strength rather than one of weakness. Identifying what’s directing your internal responses and shifting from your worst skills to your best is always the right move. Those are the best examples of my attempts to provide a strategy for moving forward. Who knows how they’ll feel years from now, when I’m part of their history? Maybe they’ll only remember me walking around quoting “Animal House” saying, “you’re all worthless and weak.” I’d give a lot to see the future, to hear them discuss me and declare, “that’s what she said.” Joining the ancestral noise of the past.