Mom and I had our best conversations in cars. Her father was a used car dealer in Philadelphia; she had access, throughout her life, to as many cars as she needed, none of them particularly well cared for. Cars, to her, were tools, as discardable as three-dollar street umbrellas. She loved driving, and was strong and competent behind the wheel, drove fast and took risks and talked the whole way. She terrified her more staid and waspy friends, who did not grasp the artful dishabille of her control, but I loved driving with her and never felt anything except safe.
Her father Joe was a dapper hustler in his youth who aged into a man of steakhouses and scotch and cigars, unperturbed by any notion that his way of doing things wasn’t the right and correct and only way. He had broken with my grandmother in my mother’s youth; Eleanor had refused him a divorce, and had routinely sent my mother on missions to get money out of him. The humiliations my mother suffered as a consequence of this seriously dreadful dynamic were constant and debilitating, they fused into a chisel opening faults in the architecture of her self-worth and left her fragile in places she would have preferred being strong.
But her inalterably complicated upbringing compensated her with strengths in other arenas: her compassion was mighty, though unevenly dispersed. She could be hell on taxi drivers and capricious towards functionaries behind counters, be they in stores or airports. She was a woman of white-hot temperament, with no patience for incompetence and extraordinary zeal for good people wronged, whether by small issues or large. One of the things she loved about the work of acting was the tight-knit clan, the equality and fraternity of the troupe. She formed strong and fast friendships backstage and on set; these gene fragments of friendship grew quick and deep, and then severed and reconstituted with the next group, the next play, the next movie. The spirit of unity was, no doubt, a balm to the child of a disunited and meretricious couple.
But even with that, the sheer force of her survival allowed her to mature into a woman of great strength. Damaged, but strong.
Mom surprised me, one summer day, car with a blue interior, her driving, me with my feet on the dashboard. Not Rhinebeck, not college or beyond. Some time, I expect, around 1973. Just her and me, and for the first time she tells me her thoughts about the spirit, the soul’s transcendence. Reincarnation: maybe. Better than maybe, even; it made sense to her. And me, slackjawed in wonder, because she’s never told me any of this before.
Interesting: dinner with my father at a restaurant one night when I was 14, just him and me, my father utterly surprised me by telling me his internal truth. It was about the past, about his mother and father, about how he related to them.
Roughly around the same time, driving south, my mother utterly surprised me by telling me her own internal truth. It was about her belief in the soul’s continuing journey.
In both cases, they were telling me the most zealously guarded secrets they knew.