Mom's search for happiness lasted lifetime

True Tales From Everyday Living

April 15, 2007|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun reporter

My mother was a woman in search of a cure. The search led to untold dependencies, each of which fell short: Prescription drugs. Alcohol. Food. Shopping. Dangerous liaisons. The kindness of strangers.

Such drama-tinged cliches became her, and, by extension, us.

One summer at the beach, my mother invited the maid and her family to move into our motel kitchenette. For a while, she went into the antique business with a priest and his boyfriend. Big mistake.

Another time, I returned from college to find a Chinese family occupying our house and the inventory from their grocery store stashed in the basement. At least I never had to leave the house if we ran out of soy sauce.

Once, my mother gave a large sum of money to two women she met at a gem show to go toward a new trailer in Nevada. More recently, she befriended a woman she met by calling a wrong number. She lent money to the woman's son and had difficulty getting it back.

Even as her desperate largesse benefited people I've never met, none of my mother's efforts to heal her illusive malady worked for her. She spent weeks on giddy highs and weeks comatose in bed.

Had there ever been a thorough diagnosis, it probably would have been bipolar disorder. But my mother always outsmarted her doctors and eluded our half-hearted interventions.

She fled to Florida, having sold our home in New Jersey in order to come clean with the IRS. She owed back taxes on alimony. Her rationale had been that her ex-husband had already paid taxes on that money, so why should she? Then, for a muddle of irrational reasons having nothing to do with integrity, she turned herself in.

With money from the house, she bought a condo in Century Village, where, at the time, a statue of comedian Red Buttons, spokesman for the retirement village, stood vigilantly at the gated entrance. By that point, my mother's capricious move so far away made no less sense than anything else she had done.

As my two siblings and I had children of our own, we didn't think too hard about the willful distance she kept from us.

Recently, my sister and I spent a weekend in our mother's Florida condo, determined to comb through 20 years of impulse purchases. Untouched by my mother since she moved to an assisted-living facility several years ago, the condo became an archaeological dig of household items, clothing, notes, books, magazines, photographs, letters and collectibles under a fine patina of dust.

Everywhere, we found evidence that my mother spent many fruitful hours watching QVC and perusing shopping catalogs. One oversized box from the J. Peterman Co. was filled with clothing still sheathed in plastic.

Nestling in baskets, closets, bowls and elsewhere were hundreds of those pretty little glass eggs found in the Lillian Vernon catalog. In my mother's walk-in closet, I found a trove of creepy ceramic clown pins.

Dresser drawers and mystery boxes were crammed with lovely collectibles and costume jewelry, proof of the sharp eye and artistic intellect that dwelled below all that mental commotion.

Magazines and quickie books testified to an obsession with Jackie Kennedy Onassis and John-John. My mother also had a thing about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, whom she had met at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City in 1964. A snapshot of Wallis Simpson with her archaic hairdo and a fastidiously tailored pink suit sat amid family photos.

Having grown up on the poor side in Atlantic City, my mother found vindication in her triumphant return for the convention and its week of sumptuous festivities. The duchess' photo proved that my mother, at one time, was somebody.

As we purged the condo, we made other tragic/comic discoveries: Inspirational clippings dating back four or five decades. Books about dying, surviving, making money, losing weight, thinking positively, learning Korean, the salvation of low-fat rotisserie cooking, living with ADD, coping with depression.

In the kitchen, we found a lifetime supply of Focus Factor, a dietary supplement for improving concentration. Even in bulk, the snake oil failed my mother. (Its promoter was later fined for making false claims.)

Most items came strictly in multiples: three juicers, 25 pairs of sunglasses used by cataract patients, sundry vacuum cleaners, two ionizer air filters. If one of something worked well, then two of something would work that much better.

My mother was big on quantity. On a previous visit to Florida, I filled a shopping bag with drugs, many of them acquired from overlapping prescriptions written by the same doctor.

These appalling relics made me angry. But stuck in "aggrieved mode," I gave up on trying to understand the reasons for her relocation and near-estrangement from family and old friends. Nor did I stop to consider the underlying significance of the latter-day cabinet of curiosities she had amassed.

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