Oh, Ralph, Sweetheart Face!
The face I gaze upon is both familiar and strange. Each etched and chiseled feature intimately recognizable, precursory of my own: The silver gray hairline receding to a widow’s peak above each temple, where a baby blue bandana conceals the rest. The leathery forehead that warps into three distinct creases with the lift of an eyebrow. The long, slightly hooked nose. Thin lips stretched in a flat level line, concealing the turbulent roll and pitch of emotion behind them.
What does the wearer of this stoic mask actually feel?
You’ve been gone all day long, and I missed you something terrible, Sweetums.
The only distinguishable difference between the face before me and my own is a pair of large, round hazelnut eyes, rounder and more protruding than they were in youth, the lingering result of hyperthyroidism.
The eyes themselves are not actually visible at the moment, hidden behind the lidded shelter of sleep. The stuttering vibration of a dream dances across the shielded orbs. Where in the tumbling universe of the subconscious does this dancer dance?
Oh, Ralph. Come on, sit down and let me make you comfortable. That way I can look at my darling boy while I make you supper.
The lidded eyes crack open, slowly focus, take me in. A few moments later, the level line curls upward at each end, and she smiles. The dance is over, for now.
All right, where is she? I know she’s here. She’s either out on that fire escape or hiding in the bathroom. Your mother is here, Alice, but she’s not stayin’!
Mother is here, all right, in a cream-colored bathrobe in a private room in Wroten House, one of the healthcare communities of Meadowlark Hills in Manhattan, Kansas. She is here, and here she will stay, until her own story is finished.
Behind me, a TV screen glows and flickers: black, white, and the same silver gray as our two hairlines. A cable station is showing a “Honeymooners Marathon,” the original 39 episodes of the first and only season, 1955-56, when the classic Jackie Gleason Show skit was presented as a 30-minute independent sitcom.
“You were dozing, Mom.”
She stares back at me from the soft high-backed chair beside her hospital bed with the rails lowered, but does not respond. Who could blame her? She is 83. A tumor in her lung constricts her breath. A tumor in her brain squeezes away memory, shrinking her world into a tighter ball each day. I’ve been informed once again that she is near the end. That’s one reason why I’m here.
“This just came on,” I say, gesturing toward the TV. “We could watch something else.”
Mother’s eyes drift toward the screen, where Alice, with a much-too-sweet smile on her face, is leading a suspicious Ralph toward a wooden chair beside the table covered by a checkered cloth in the middle of the Spartanly furnished living room/dining room/kitchen.
Ralph, mother isn’t here. It’s like I said, I just want to make you comfortable. Come on, now, sit down and I’ll get you a nice cold drink. Come on, Ralphie. What would you like, Ralph? Lemonade? Or milk? Or juice?
Let me have what you’re drinkin’. I want to get loaded too.
My parents rarely drank, and Alice’s ploy to soften up Ralph with fawning attention so he’ll buy them a TV would never have worked for even a second in the Heller house. But there is something about this scene that is familiar, nevertheless. Perhaps it’s simply the fact that, like Mother, I’ve seen it beforeâ€“with her and Dad, on our own snowy black and white Motorola with rabbit ears, when I was six, seven, eight, and older. Or maybe it’s the stark minimalism of the stage set: the humble credenza in the corner with Ralph’s black prairie schooner-shaped lunch bucket resting beside the out-of-place-looking silver candy dish on a pedestal, the only ornament in an otherwise almost unbearably bleak room, with walls so old and washed-out looking I could never tell if they were covered by faded wallpaper or simply stains. Not a single picture or memento relieves the blank gray walls. On the opposite side of the set, the “kitchen,” the deep sink looks like it belongs in a janitor’s closet beside a mop. To its immediate right is the tiny gas-burning stove, and of course the barely 20th century-looking ice box, which Alice will complain about through the entire series.
Maybe what I really recognize is the one-determined-step-above-poverty reflected in the fierce austerity of the Kramdens’ apartment, which Alice labors so relentlessly to keep running, the home that would be so much homier, if only she and Ralph had a TV. Or an electric stove. Or a refrigerator. Or a child.
“I don’t care,” Mother says. “Whatever you want.”
I watch her take a shallow breath. Each breath is noticeable. Planned.
Comfy, Sweetums?. . . By the wayâ€“
Ah ha! I knew there was a “By the way”!
In a few moments, Alice will turn on Ralph, the fawning lilt in her voice dropping to the flat, hard tone of a self-righteous woman defending herselfâ€“Why do you always have to be so cheap?â€“eventually matching Ralph’s empty threatsâ€“You wanna go to the moon, Alice? You wanna go to the moon?â€“with the blunt edge of sarcasm: That would be an improvement. Now let me tell YOU something, Mr. Financial Security: I want a television set and I’m going to get a television set. That’s it. That’s what I really remember about this show: the classic pattern of ongoing arguments in the Heller house. Father’s eyes bulging, the veins in his neck swelling as he bellowed at Mother for some perceived slight. You think you can get away with this? You think you can get away with it? Dressed in the gray khaki of the Oklahoma capitol building maintenance crew, looking like a bald version of Ralph Kramden in his Gotham Bus Company uniform, Father would stalk the room, waving his arms every bit as dramatically as Ralphâ€“though, like Ralph, he never once laid a hand on his wife.
What kind of love was this?
I was still a young boy when I first realized that my parents’ argumentsâ€“their whole relationship, it seemedâ€“was modeled after the Kramdens. I was a little older when I began to wonder if their lives were less an imitation than a reflection of something. The other family shows on TV, the ones with childrenâ€“Ozzie and Harriett, Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, The Donna Reed Showâ€“were very different. These families lived in clean, modern houses with shiny electric appliances and tidy yards. The fathers wore suits and ties, sometimes inside their very own houses at dinner time, and they labored under duress to provide models of calm reason to their sons and daughters. The mothers wore housedresses and didn’t have to work as secretaries or clerks or nurse’s aides. With clever kindness, they tried to conceal their husbands’ stupidities and other imperfections from their children. These other shows, I gradually discerned, were all filmed in a foreign country: a young, ambitious nation somewhere near our own, whose attractive citizens strove heroically for perfection, a place I would hear about repeatedly from teachers and preachers and politicians, but would never have the opportunity to visit.
Among those other shows, only I Love Lucy, which my parents also watched, seemed to bear some relation to the Heller house. But the Ricardos lived in New York City, the Upper East Side of the other Manhattan, a world so far removed from Yukon, Oklahoma, it seemed to orbit a rogue star in another galaxy. Ricky, though emotional like my father, was not a bus driver nor a maintenance man, but a handsome Cuban American band leader who wore sharp-looking Italian suits to the Tropicana Night Club each evening. Lucy was an over-the-top goof who wore prim outfits with perfectly matched accessories while she dusted the lamp shade. Ricky Jr., once he was old enough to speak, resembled no human child I’d ever met. No, only the volatile, hardscrabble Kramdens reflected life in the Heller house, even though in the Kramden’s apartment there was no Ralph Jr. around to help mess things up.
When I was very young, Mother was no Alice. A decade younger than Father, inexperienced and inhibited, she took Father’s verbal abuse in silence, the way I imagine Alice must have taken it at first, in their early years long before the first episode aired, swallowing her anger and letting other feelingsâ€“humiliation, inferiority, injusticeâ€“build up inside her slim body until at last it could no longer contain them, and suddenly all the suppressed emotions burst out in strong words only Mother’s lips could form: Don’t you raise your mad-ass voice at ME, Mr. Big Nothin’!
I turn once again to the old woman in the cream-colored bathrobe, planning her next breath. Where is that hard-won strength now?
“Mom, do you know what day today is?”
Her eyes swing toward me; her brow furrows. She shakes her head.
Her face is blank.
“Do you remember what’s significant about that date?”
Mother’s eyes shift to the TV screen. She raises her hand and scratches what’s left of her hair beneath the blue bandana. There is no room left in her universe for dates.
The day the towers came down, Sheyene and I went for a long run from our duplex on Wildcat Ridge just a few miles from Meadowlark Hills. We’d been married a little over a year, and were in the middle of the reconstruction of the Heller family. Each weekday after school, I picked up Daniel and Rachael from their mother’s house across town, and we cooked dinner, did homework, and hung out. David and Michael came over whenever they felt like it, which was increasingly often. In a few months, Michael would move in with us for the first time. Before Sheyene and I went on our run, I had made a note to call Mother. By the time we returned, it had already happened.
“It’s your anniversary, Mom. You and Dad were married 63 years ago today.”
She turns back to me. The hazelnut eyes, already rounder than the pictures of her when she was Sheyene’s age, grow rounder still.
As I smile and nod, I can’t help but wonder which faded away first: the 49 anniversaries she celebrated with my father before he died, or the reminders of death and destruction she has seen on TV on this same date for the last seven?
I inch my chair closer and squeeze her left hand draped over the end of the armrest of her high-backed recliner. “You remember Dad, don’t you?”
Her chest expands too quickly, and she chops the air trapped in her chest with a series of coughs. I lay my hand on the back of her shoulder until her breath has returned and she looks back up at me.
Now it’s my turn to find my breath.
Behind me rises the rumbling echo of a kettle drum, followed by a fusillade of horns. Another episode has begun. I turn to see fireworks in a night sky. A moment later, an enormous white moon rises above the jagged skyline of the city through a smattering of clouds until Jackie Gleason’s unmistakably buoyant face takes shape on the moon’s surface: the man in the moon, the celestial star of The Honeymooners. An enthusiastic, disembodied voice narrates the scene as Gleason’s face is replaced by his name. On a separate moon orbiting just to the left appears the main title: “The Honeymooners.” The names of other stars follow, stamped on separate moonsâ€“Art Carney, Audrey Meadows, Joyce Randolfâ€“until all the moons dissolve back into fireworks, foreshadowing the explosive but somehow affirmative action to come, as the music reaches its swift crescendo.
I don’t actually observe most of this. I’ve turned back to Mother, whose own gaze has swung toward the screen, watching the Kramdens’ cosmos form into being, as if her own life and the universe itself were rekindling before her eyes.
This, then, is the main reason I am here: To remind, recall, rekindle. To help Mother retain certain images on the shrinking screen of her mind’s eyeâ€“glimpses of Father, me, her five grandchildren and both their mothers, her own parents, George Harrison Hale and Minnie Wilhelmina Hale, her one-armed brother George Jr., sisters Dottie and Eleanor, everyone who has ever loved herâ€“until finally the screen goes dark and there is no room left for anything at all.
I open the drawer of the lamp and withdraw a 3 X 5 inch photograph.
“Remember this, Mom?”
She leans forward to peer at the image I am holding less than a foot in front of her nose. Her brow tightens with concentration.
I decide to help her. “That’s Dad holding David when he was only a baby.”
Her eyes narrow as she studies the image. Father is wearing a white V-neck T-shirt and paint-splattered beige pants. It’s December, 1981. Father is almost 67 as he holds David is his lap, cradling the baby’s head just above his own knees. David lies on his back in baby blue pajamas, smiling up at his grandfather with hands balled into fists, as if ready to box. Father is clearly amused by this pugilistic posture, prompting a smile as luminous as the flashbulb’s reflection off his bare skull. In the picture, I hover just above Father, staring red-eyed at the camera (who took this photoâ€“Mother or Mary?) with a loopy grin and a head of hair so dark brown I can hardly recall the boy-man looking back at me. The reclining chair Father leans forward in is only a year or two old, but its surface is covered by a white thermal blanket. The chair is the last piece of furniture the Hellers will purchase for the house I grew up in. When this picture was taken, my parents really weren’t that poor any more, but they would always behave as if they were. At the bottom left corner of the picture I can see one of Father’s shoes, mummified with gray duct tape.
On screen behind me, Ralph has found a suitcase full of counterfeit money a mobster left on his bus. For two days, the Kramdens are going to be rich. Everything Ralph purchases to surprise Aliceâ€“the gleaming white electric stove, white refrigerator and matching white cabinetry, the tall white chest of drawers replacing the humble credenzaâ€“will look ridiculous in their tiny gray apartment. Just like the raft of shiny tin and steel boyhood fantasiesâ€“an electric train, an erector set, a chemistry and microscope set, dozens of matchbox size automobilesâ€“that shockingly appeared beneath the Hellers’ Christmas tree in 1960, after Father had finally received his injury settlement from the Frisco Railroad. I was the sole beneficiary of the Hellers’ sudden good fortune, for with it Father bought little for Mother and nothing at all for himself. But like Ralph, he dreamed of giving his family much more. And so he invested almost all the money in three projects: a local auto body shop, a local tavern, andâ€“the gamble he would most regretâ€“the motel in Fort Smith. After all his investments failed, Father took a second maintenance job, then a third. Mother went to night school and learned to type, file, and take notes in shorthand. Eventually, she got a full-time job as a secretary at Kerr-McGee. Mostly because of her steady wages and health care benefits, we managed to keep our house.
You did that, Mom, I want to say. You.
The more competent and independent Mother became, the more she resembled Alice, who, unlike impulsive Ralph, does not trust the good fortune of the suitcase and refuses to spend any of the found money.
You know what I think, Ralph? I think you’ve gone crazy. I think you’ve been spending this money like a lunatic. I told you to hang onto the money, Ralph, until you found out what this is all about.
While the Kramdens’ drama plays out behind me in scratchy black and white, Mother continues to examine the color snapshot in my hand. Watching her, I can’t help but wonder: Was her own gray life ever colorized? The answer isn’t clear. In the 70s, after I had moved out, gotten married, and started working my way though graduate school, my parents finally began to pull ahead. Kerr-McGee promoted Mother to Executive Secretary, and Father’s maintenance job at the capitol finally paid enough that he needed no others. Father tried a few more investment schemes, but none of them panned out. It didn’t seem to matter. My parents actually helped Mary and me out when we purchased, then later renovated our house in the Little Apple. Once in a while, when we drove down to Yukon for a visit, I actually caught my parents expressing affection for each other: a touch, a squeeze, a pat on the wristâ€“and, a couple of times that I still remember, a subtle glance that I’ve never seen on any screen. But when Mother complained that she had seen a stranger peeking at her through the French doors looking out onto our backyard patio, Father, who never heard of John Cheever or “The Country Husband,” painted the mullioned glass black and told her to shut up.
What kind of love was this?
Mother lays a finger on the corner of the photograph, as if her touch will bring the scene to life.
“Do you remember the flagstone patio behind our house in Yukon?”
Her hazelnut eyes shift toward me. She nods.
Father laid the flagstone himself. It was left over from one of his failed investments, the Los Angeles Gardens tavern on Route 66 on the east side of Yukon. The tavern’s long formica-topped bar and one of the interior walls were made of flagstone and concrete mortar. In the center of our patio Father anchored a single wide flat stone to a wooden pedestal to serve as a picnic table.
“I remember sitting on the patio with you and Dad in the evening. Remember that? We’d watch the skyline of Oklahoma City begin to glow in the east, especially the old First National Bank. And then, when they finally built it, the McGee Tower where you worked.”
Mother’s eyes soften, and she seems to look beyond me to a place miles and years from this room.
“You’d serve us sweetened ice tea or lemonade. Dad would smoke an El Verso cigar or a Swisher Sweet, and you’d smoke Winston cigarettes.”
Almost imperceptibly, Mother shakes her head.
“Oh yes, you did, Mom. You know you did.”
Is that a smile? When I was growing up, Mother would allow herself two cigarettes each evening. As twilight faded into night, the red tip of Mother’s cigarette would mark the onset of evening like a tiny beacon. In those moments, she looked peaceful, content with her life with Father and me, smoke streaming from her lips, dissipating into the breeze that wrinkled through farmer Bleu’s wheat just beyond our backyard. When I was fourteen, Dr. Enos apprised Mother of the dangers of cigarettes. In response, she pretended to quit. This fooled neither Father nor me. For the next three and four decades, respectively, we would smell cigarette smoke on her clothes and in the bathroom. Sometimes she would forget to flush, and I would find a half-smoked Winston floating on the water or lying waterlogged on porcelain in the center of the bowl, a brown ribbon of drowned smoke trailing sadly through the clear liquid into its open grave.
Be a little careful, Alice, a little careful. Remember, the life you save may be your own.
Is that line from the funny money episode, or a later one? It doesn’t matter. If the shriveled air sacks in Mother’s lungs could still bear the stress, I’d walk over to the employee break room right now and buy her a pack.
Instead, I pull another photograph out of the drawer.
“Who’s this, Mom?”
As she scowls at the new 3 X 5 in my hand, I realize that the question, so easy just a few months ago, is no longer fair.
“That’s your youngest grandson, Truman.”
“Oh!” Her voice is full of wonder. “True . . .man.”
Her careful repetition of the name chokes off my own voice, and we stare at the image together in silence. The picture was taken in Mother’s independent living apartment last May, only a month after she fell. She grins back at the camera while Truman Francis Heller squirms in her lap, his mouth gaping in wide delight, as if he’s trying to swallow the entire world. He’s ten months old at that point, and doesn’t yet have all his hair. Mother still has all of hers, though; the radiation of her brain has just begun. The lung will come later. When Sheyene snapped this picture, we had been married almost eight years. She and Mother have become good friends. I can see why you married her, Mother once told me. She’s real easy to talk to.
“Truman’s fourteen months old now, Mom. He jabbers, he runs, he climbs, he gets into trouble every fifteen seconds.”
Mother looks up at me as if she remembers all these things.
“Sheyene’s real sorry she and Truman couldn’t make it this time. They’ll come with me to see you in December, for Christmas.”
I wait for her to nod, but she doesn’t.
“Can you hear me, Mom?”
She stares straight back into my eyes, but I can tell her gaze has turned inward now. She might be dreaming once again, as her chest rises with the effort of another shallow breath.
As I wait for her head to nod or simply tilt forward beneath the blue bandana, enclosed in the merciful respite of sleep, words well up inside me. I want to shake her awake and shout: Mom! You once told Dad that you wanted me to have a full life. Well, it’s 2008, and I do a have a full life. Sheyene and I live in California now, remember? I have a great job directing a creative writing program, and Sheyene teaches classes online so she can stay home with Truman. We talked about having a child of our own for nearly seven years before deciding to go ahead. We’re glad we did, Mom. Truman is healthy and happy and charmingly unaware his daddy is old enough to be his granddaddy. Your other grandchildren all live in Hawai`i now, my special place. Isn’t that ironic? David is a breakdancer at Cirque Hawai`i. Michael works at the airport. He takes medication to shut the door on the voices that speak to him from the darkest room in his mind. Daniel has exceeded the wildest dreams of all his special ed. teachers. Daniel learned to drive, Mom! He has a Hawai`i driver’s license and works at the Manoa Safeway. He has no trouble relating to adults, and there are no mean children left in his life to taunt him. Rachael just started school at Iolani. She makes stop action movies with her computer. She’s charming and brilliant and beautiful and will scare us all to death when the boys start coming around. Whenever Mary has a conference on the mainland, Sheyene and Truman and I fly to Honolulu and stay at her place to see the kids. The kids all love Sheyene . . . You can’t remember anymore how hard it was to get to this point, Mom, how much pain everyone suffered . . . But pain is not what you need to recall. You can no longer find your way back through the crushed labyrinth of your own recollections. So I must choose for you, Mom, though I lack both the wisdom and the right. Do you remember the world we used to live in, back in Oklahoma? You and Dad and me, we were America, even though we were never on TV. Remember when I used to sit in your lap and you’d read me Wonder Books, until I could finally recite them all back to you? Remember the one about the big blue whale? Remember the day I set the sofa on fire after you and Dad left for workâ€“and burned up the inside of the house without burning down the outside? Remember how Dad tried to call the Fire Department, but the phone had melted into itself? Remember the swimming pool at the Swan Motel in Fort Smith, before the bank took it away? Remember how Dad taught me not to fear the water by jumping into the deep end himself, even though he couldn’t swim? He nearly drowned, but I can swim now. Remember even further back than that? Remember before I was born, when you and Dad lived in that tiny apartment in Fort Scott, Kansas you told me about, where the big freight trains rumbled by and their engines smelled like motor oil burning on an iron skillet, and you worked as a nurse’s aide while Dad rode the rails as a diesel locomotive mechanic, and you both dreamed of the life you would make together? Remember how your sister Eleanor married Dad’s brother Louis, and they had nine children while you had only me? Your dad and I went for quality, not quantity, you said. Remember how you read my first novel aloud to Dad, who had never read any book himself, then had to explain to him that, yes, it was based on his own life. Do you remember what he said to me about it on the phone? I guess some of that could have happenedâ€“and next time you’re home, don’t forget to bring the chainsaw. Do you remember calling me a week or so later and asking: When are you going to write something just for me? I think you were jealous . . . But tell me this, Mom: In your inexorable, inescapable dreams, have you envisioned the history of the future? How, just a few days from now, I’ll visit Yorgenson’s Funeral Home and make advance arrangements to have your body cremated just like Dad’s, your ashes shipped to me in L.A., where they will await the next opportunity for Sheyene and Truman and me to fly to the island of O`ahu, where early one blue morning all the Hellers who are left will gather on Kailua Beach, the same beach where you and I scattered Dad’s remains, and we will each lower a handful of your ashes into the sea, where they will drift into the liquid currents of memory in search of the spirit of the man you lived with for almost half a century, the man who loved you in a way I will never truly comprehend and have never in my conscious life doubted.
To the moon, Alice! To the moon!
There are more photographs in the drawer beside me. In other drawers across the room: clothing, jewelry, papers. Material objects that recapture sensations from the past. What chance that I will come upon the one object of which I have no inkling, the object outside the realm, wherein hides what can never be found?
And after you too are gone, Mom, what am I supposed to do with all the things I feel and remember for you? If I whisper these questions into your ear right now, will they haunt your dreams, the dreams you have left? If so, please listen . . .
You, Mother, are the one who taught me how to read. The words you are leaving behind, the images that are leaving you, are incantatory. But they are too many. I must be selective. I must be relentless.
Once again I reach into the drawer. As I hold up the next photograph like a communion wafer, waiting for you to nod or doze, I have no idea if what I am attempting is working, or even if it truly matters. On this day, in this room, I know only one thing.
Thirty-nine episodes are not enough.