We have, all of us, predicted our deaths. By predicted I mean conjured or imagined, wished for or used as a weapon, a means of manipulation.
Three years ago, for example—before the Delta variant and Omicron came to dominate the news, before the lockdowns and the empty shelves at Duane Reade and Gristedes, and, more recently, the endless lines to get tested—my mother emerged from a swimming pool in Southern California with dead bugs floating on the surface and told me she was having a stroke. “I’m dying” she said, defiantly. We were in the mobile home park where she lives, and she was wearing an electric orange bikini. “Will that make you happy?”
We’d been squabbling because I’d refused to eat the bacon she prepared. She loves bacon and sour cream and cream cheese and other foods I avoid. She’s 85 years old and still wire thin, plays tennis three times a week and chases dogs on the beach. She’s never spent the night in a hospital, never had a stroke or an aneurysm or any health problems more significant than a precancerous mole, yet we have, for as long as I can remember, discussed her death endlessly. “I’m going to drive off a cliff and end it all,” she’s threatened. “I’m going to slit my wrists. Then you won’t have to visit me anymore and you can get your inheritance.”
I used to cry when she talked about dying. I’d tell her I loved her, and sometimes my reassurance calmed her down. Usually, however, it backfired. “You don’t love me,” she said—says. “You despise me.” She lists the ways I’ve disappointed her: moving to the East Coast for college; settling in New York; complaining about the foods she cooks, always high in saturated fat; criticizing her for not washing her hands after she changes the cat litter; wanting to stay in a hotel when I visit.
When I’m with her, there are endless things she tries to get me to do: play tennis and ping pong, put flowers on graves, have coffee and cake with people she barely knows, haul sodden carpets and piles of rotting wood to the enormous dumpsters down the block, steal oranges from groves with no trespassing signs. I want to be a good son, want to be helpful and accommodating, but sometimes—often—forces within me take control, and I find it hard to comply.
Last June, as vaccination rates were rising, I purchased a ticket from JFK to LAX to spend five days with her. It had been seventeen months since we’d seen each other, and I missed her. I love her. I wanted to see her, but, as the trip approached, anxiety took hold of me.
Sometimes it got so bad I imagined myself taking the elevator to the roof of my apartment building in lower Manhattan and climbing the paint-chipped railing overlooking the city. I pictured my body tumbling through the air, twenty-eight stories in all, then colliding full-force with the pavement below.
I pictured pedestrians eyeing my gruesome corpse, then crossing the street on their way to work, police cordoning off the scene with yellow tape. I imagined my mother receiving a call while she was still in her robe, eating a bagel with cream cheese and raspberry jam. “What do you mean he’s dead? He’s due here tomorrow afternoon. I’m expecting him. I made him a beautiful strawberry pie.”
People with medical degrees tell me they think my mother probably suffers from undiagnosed borderline personality disorder, but this essay isn’t about her mood swings or her impulsiveness or her fear of being alone. It’s about me, my anxiety in her midst, my neuroses and hang-ups. My fear that she won’t wash her hands before she handles food she wants me to eat, my fear she’ll complain no one loves her, my fear that, when I’m with her, I’ll lose my composure and lash out—that my life will somehow unravel. I picture a black hole swallowing everything in its midst: asteroids, spacecraft, planets, stars larger than our sun, nothing beyond the reach of its gravitational pull.
Over time, I’ve developed strategies to keep myself anchored. I do my best to stand up to her when she tries to bulldoze me. I strive to establish clear boundaries. Usually when I visit her I stay in a hotel, a neutral space that allows me to recharge and find my equilibrium. When I went home last June, however, I agreed to stay together with her in a 600-square foot condo she recently purchased as a rental property. She’d been talking to me about this condo for a long time. “I can’t wait for you to see it when you finally come here. You won’t believe how gorgeous it is. It’s definitely your cup of tea.”
When I asked whether it was clean, she responded emphatically: Spotless. I wasn’t sure I believed her, however—her primary home, a double-wide trailer with urine-stained carpets, is infested with rats. At the time, it felt like the clouds were lifting and we’d made it through a pandemic that had killed millions of people, and she is—as she often points out—the woman who gave birth to me. I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Like most people who struggle with anxiety, I sometimes give myself pep talks when my thoughts start to spiral. Yes, it’s possible your mother will come into your room in the middle of the night, sobbing and telling you she has nothing to live for, but you’ve been through this before and survived. Hugging her and trying to calm her down may not be your first choice in terms of how to spend your vacation, but it won’t kill you.
Yes, she might try to get you to eat sandwich meat past its prime or cottage cheese that’s been in her fridge since the early days of the pandemic, but if she does, you can simply decline her offer politely. You can go to the grocery store and buy foods you like or take her out to a restaurant downtown.
Yes, it’s possible her bathroom will have mildew on the tiles, grime on the sink, stains on the toilet, but if that’s the case, you can suck it up and help her make things tidier. If you’re really worried about it, bring along a pair of latex gloves and one of your myriad packages of 75% alcohol sanitizing wipes, or when you’re there, pick up a few cleaning supplies!
Sure, you might catch Delta or some other COVID variant on the plane, but you’re vaccinated, and if you do happen to get seriously ill, you can go to a hospital. Your mother isn’t going to lock you in her condo and force you to die a protracted death under her vigilant eye. She won’t barricade the door and insist on feeding you hamburger meat and scrambled eggs full of butter because, finally, you’re too weak to fight back.
I tell myself to get a grip and stop wallowing.
As a freshman in college, during my first winter in New Hampshire—when I was craving sunlight and missing home—I wrote a short story about an apartment I lived in with my mother when I was eight years old. Back then, we moved frequently, in search of lower rent or more space or better plumbing, or a place that felt, somehow, more like what my mother called a “proper home.”
The title of my story was the address of the place we’d lived: 66 Ocean View Avenue. I remember the apartment was more than my mother could comfortably afford, but it was a two-bedroom, and her plan was to rent out the master bedroom to a roommate if necessary. For years, we’d slept in the same bedroom, me in a single bed, her on a foam pad on the floor, but at 66 Ocean View Avenue, she told me I could finally have my own room.
“Now will you stop complaining?” she asked. “Will you stop making a fuss all the time?”
I was a troubled child, and, yes, I sometimes threw tantrums. I threw tantrums when she dated men I didn’t like, and when she drove me down to the airport, twice a year, to visit my father in Colorado, and when she made me wear the lederhosen she’d bought in Germany with Edelweiss embroidered on them.
Our new apartment wasn’t fancy, but the appliances worked and it had a narrow balcony overlooking a decent pool. Best of all, from my mother’s perspective, our new next-door neighbors, an elderly couple named the Herskoviches, told my mother they’d be happy to babysit me free of charge. My mother didn’t have plans every night, but sometimes she went out for dinner with someone she was dating, and on Thursday evenings she drove to Ventura for her weekly orchestra rehearsals. (My father’s child support payments were paltry and often arrived late; to make ends meet, my mother worked as a receptionist at a motel, taught tennis at the public courts near our apartment, and played violin for the Ventura Symphony.)
“66 Ocean View Avenue” wasn’t what people these days would call autofiction, but it was heavily autobiographical. In the opening scene, one of my mother’s boyfriends, a man named Bob Kelly who sold spray-painted thistles on the beach for extra cash, pounded on the door of our apartment late one night, insisting we let him in. The story was maudlin and overwritten, and it ended with the protagonist (Roger) locking himself in the bathroom and refusing to come out when he was at the Herskoviches a few weeks later. Mr. and Mrs. Herskovich pleaded with him to open the door, but he kept shouting that he hated them and wished they would die. In the final scene, Roger’s mother promised him she wouldn’t leave him on Thursday evenings anymore and she’d break up with Bob Kelly. She promised that one day she’d meet a nice man with a good job and a beautiful house and they’d be able to stop moving from apartment to apartment.
At the time, I probably wouldn’t have identified one of the story’s underlying themes as the search for a sense of home, though I think that was the case. Like my mother, the mother in the story had grown up in Germany during World War II and fled Leipzig when she was five to live in a one-room hut in the country. Like my mother, Roger’s mother spent endless hours decorating the places she lived with bathmats and tchotchkes from K-Mart, leaving the price tags on everything so she could later return them for a full refund.
My mother did eventually meet an engineer who worked for Rockwell International and owned a house on a cul-de-sac in a neighborhood in Los Angeles full of towering eucalyptus trees. We ended up moving in with Gerry when I was eleven, and suddenly I had everything I’d always wanted: a home with a garden—a large garden with a beautiful lawn and places to play hide-and-seek—a dog I could take on walks to the beach, and neighbors who didn’t call the police at three a.m.
Over the years, I’ve talked to my therapist about my relationship with my mother endlessly. We’ve talked about the trauma she experienced as a child. We’ve discussed how badly my father treated her, pursuing her doggedly, then divorcing her just three years later and screwing her financially. We’ve talked about the fact that she’s a survivor—that no matter how many obstacles life puts in her path, she perseveres.
“I guess that’s the flip side to her pushiness,” I’ve noted more than once.
I’ve complained that even after Gerry died and my mother inherited more than enough money to live well for the rest of her life, she continues to be stingy. I’ve talked about how she keeps buying and selling properties—selling the house she and Gerry bought together in Ventana Beach after I went to college for another four-bedroom house with a nicer view of the golf course; trading that house for the aging mobile home that ended up having rats; buying and selling an A-frame on the edge of a lake in Idaho; buying her newest one-bedroom condo overlooking the polo field just before the pandemic hit.
“I guess she’s constantly trying to reenact the process of creating a home,” I’ve said. My therapist nods. Neither one of us needs to point out that in some ways—in many ways—this makes sense, given that, as a girl, my mother was displaced from her home during the war and ended up living in a hut in the mountains without electricity or running water.
On the airplane to California in June, I practiced deep breathing. I was wearing an N95 mask, and, as the wheels of the Airbus A320 lifted off the tarmac, I closed my eyes. I imagined a flock of birds getting caught in the engines’ propellers. I imagined the fuselage bursting into flames.
I told myself that, technically, the trip wouldn’t actually last five days, just four and a half. I’d be staying with my mother for five nights, but I’d only be spending four days with her. On the fifth day, I’d return home.
Counting the days of my trips isn’t new for me. It’s something I frequently did as a child when I flew to my father’s house in Colorado to visit him twice a year. Each time my mother drove me down to LAX, I always pleaded with her not to make me get on the plane. “I have no choice, mein Schatz,” she said. “If you don’t visit he won’t send us money to live.”
The summers with my father were worse than my visits in December. The Christmas visits only lasted ten days, but summers with him were endless. He told my mother I needed a man’s influence or I’d grow up to be effeminate, said I needed to toughen up.
He lived on the edge of a national forest, thirty miles from Colorado Springs, and during those interminable weeks, I always spent as much time as possible outside. His house was dark and austere and the smallest thing could infuriate him: a spilled glass of water, a phone call from someone telling him he owed them money, a spelling mistake in a letter he composed on his manual typewriter. Sometimes he came outside and called my name, saying he wanted to teach me how to do something—stuff a sleeping bag into its sack; tie a square knot and a bowline; pry open an oyster with his pocketknife; skin a rattlesnake. Once he took a pistol out of its holster and insisted I fire the gun at a target on a wooden post set up across his gravel road. “Stop being a pissant and pull the trigger,” he shouted when I started sobbing.
Three or four times a week, he told me to get the car, and we’d race into town to make it the post office before it closed. He drove 90 miles an hour, flipping people off and cursing at drivers who didn’t get out of his way. Sometimes, if another driver flashed his lights or made an obscene gesture in return, my father tried to get the guy—it was always a guy—to pull over so they could go at it, fist to fist. He’d call the guy a cocksucker and a motherfucker and, if the driver stopped, my father would put on his leather gloves, the same gloves he used to move rocks and fallen branches. He’d reach into the back seat to grab his club, and then he’d get out of his car and threaten to bash the guy’s head in if he didn’t apologize.
My father told me my mother spoiled me, said she was a bad influence. He hated it when I talked to her on the phone, and he always parceled our calls out parsimoniously, as if talking to her would undo all the work he’d invested in training me to be a man. Each time I talked to her, I did my best not to cry.
“Don’t be sad,” my mother would say. “Soon enough you’ll be home, and we can be together again.”
The first place my mother and I lived after my parents’ divorce was a one-bedroom apartment in Colorado Springs. It was wintertime when we moved there, and I remember the snowbanks outside our apartment. I remember the snow but nothing else. Who knows how long we lived there—a year, maybe two? Then we moved to Germany for six months to live with my grandmother, then we moved to Denver, where we lived with a man who owned a Cadillac with ripped upholstery, then to Ventana Beach where we lived in a government-subsidized apartment complex whose sidewalks were always covered in shattered glass.
Sixty-six Ocean View Avenue was the fourth place we lived in Ventana Beach, after a large Victorian house, owned by a woman who gave us free room and board in exchange for my mother’s services as a maid, cook, babysitter.
Growing up, I hated Ventana Beach, but sometimes when I go back there to visit now, I’m struck by its beauty: the coastline, the beaches, the parks, the mountains in the distance.
Sometimes, when I’m talking to my mother on the phone and she tells me she’s sad I haven’t come home in such a long time, I feel a surge of emotions—sadness, guilt, yearning. Her reference to her house or her condo or wherever she’s living at the time as my home is heartbreaking, because now my home is here, in New York, where I’m writing this. My home is with my partner. Part of me wishes I didn’t feel this way. I wish I felt like I did when I was a child, that home for me was where my mother lived.
Sometimes, when I visit her, the trips go well. She doesn’t cry, or accuse me of being a bad son, or tell me I’m a stranger to her. She thanks me for visiting, and, when I get in my rental car at the end of the visit to drive to the airport, I’m the one who bursts into tears. I cry because I will miss her, and because I’m relieved we didn’t fight, and because I realize that I worried for nothing.
Sometimes, in those moments, I wonder whether I’m the one who’s crazy, whether the stories I tell myself and my partner Stan (and my therapist and anyone else who will listen) are mere fabrications. Is it possible I have a skewed perception of who my mother is? Is it possible my childhood trauma has prevented me from seeing either of my parents with clarity?
Memory is selective of course. I remember the moments from my childhood when my father’s temper flared—when he made me wait outside in the snow at night because I kept mispronouncing simple words while reading to him from a book of fairy tales he’d purchased; and, a decade later, when he tried to teach me to drive a stick shift on an open highway, just outside of Taos, insisting I drive in a figure eight, and yelling each time the engine stalled because I’d failed to use the clutch properly. And when my mother came to me at night, crying and seeking comfort, night after night when I was six, seven, eight years old, and she had no idea how she was going to pay the rent and buy groceries and give me the kind of life she wanted me to have.
I remember the summer when I was seventeen, just before I went to college, when my father threatened to drive to Oklahoma, where a woman he loved had moved not long after they married. This was his fifth marriage, and it had only lasted a few weeks. I remember him calling her on the phone and threatening to kill himself if she didn’t come back. “I’m gonna drive out to your parents' place and call every news station in town and have them watch me blow my fucking brains out on your front lawn. Will that make you happy?”
I remember the Christmases after Gerry died when I flew home to celebrate the holidays with my mother, and she and I fought endlessly. “You have nothing to complain about,” she told me. “You have a good job and friends coming out of your ears. You have Stan. What about me? I have nothing. I have no family. I have no friends. I’m all alone.”
“You have family,” I said. “You have me.”
“Ach, you don’t love me. You’re just waiting for me to die.”
I listed other relatives of hers—her nieces and her brother in Germany.
“They don’t care about me. They have their own lives to lead.”
Nothing I said, could ever say, would be sufficient, and I see now a strange symmetry between my mother and father—different in nearly every respect, but similar in their loneliness: my mother feeling like she has no family; my father convinced no woman would ever give him the love he always craved, no matter how many women he serenaded and married and left for someone else.
In her essay “What Makes a House a Home?” Meghan Daum notes that “a house is not the same as a home. Home is an idea, a social construct, a story we tell ourselves about who we are and who and what we want closest in our midst.”
I like the idea of a home as a story. That feels right to me. It explains why the same space can be a home for one person, but not for another. For my mother, a home isn’t necessarily a place that’s scrubbed and pristine. It’s a place that is cozy and carpeted with a room housing her son’s Little League trophies and the books he read in high school and the desk he sat at when he lived with her in Gerry’s house so long ago. It’s the place where her son stays when he visits.
For me, home is where my books are, and my writing space, and Stan. Most importantly, it’s where I feel safe.
It’s strange to think that of all the places my mother and I have lived over our lives’ many decades, so few of them have probably felt like a proper home to either of us. I wonder if the reason my mother keeps buying and selling properties now, well into her eighties, is that she’s constantly searching for something that still, to this day, eludes her.
I wonder what she would tell me if I asked her which of the many places she’s lived has most felt like a home to her. Is it the house she lived in during the first five years of her life in Leipzig—the villa with the spiral staircase that was destroyed in the war—or the place she and I lived in Los Angeles when we moved in with Gerry, the three-bedroom house with the expansive garden and the ping pong table and the two-car garage, where I had my own room and she no longer had to worry about being evicted? This was what I thought about after I picked up my rental car and got on the 101 North at the beginning of last year’s trip home. The sun was setting over the ocean and my mother was right: California is beautiful. I wondered whether one day I might move back.
Are the details of that particular visit last June worth including here? Not really. As is often the case, it unfolded a bit like Freytag’s Triangle: rising action (her prodding and cajoling, my wariness), climax (her announcement on day three, after I chastised her at Taco Bell for putting Coke in her cup for free water, that she wanted me to leave, to go back to New York), denouement (my packing and her pleading with me to stay, insisting she didn’t mean it).
In the face of conflict, my instinct is often to flee. It’s hard for me to let bygones be bygones and move on. It took a walk on my own, phone calls with Stan and another confidante, and tears from all interested parties to get me to stay.
Not surprisingly, the last day of the trip was the best. Strangely, there was a lightness in the air that had been absent during the first few days. Perhaps because we knew that soon the visit would be over. Perhaps because the thing I’d feared most had occurred but hadn’t left me vanquished. Perhaps because, for whatever reason, my mother and I were both, finally, able to be a bit gentler and tolerant. Who knows why it’s often so hard for us to access the best parts of ourselves when we’re together, the parts of us that are open and kind and nurturing? I suppose we’re too similar—two balls of fire always hurtling towards each other at breakneck speed.
I wish I could end this essay by reporting that I did indeed ask my mother what, for her, constitutes a home—but the fact is I chickened out. I was afraid that asking her this question might lead us into uncomfortable terrain. I was afraid she might end up crying and telling me that you can’t have a home without having a family, and since she was all alone in the world, she’d never have a true home. I guess I was afraid the fragile equilibrium we both hoped for, that we veered toward and away from constantly, might be shattered.