Saturday, July 14, 2012

Bastille Day July 14

You don't have to be French to celebrate Bastille Day. Here is a memory of a Bastille Day past.

“At least, he died with his boots on!” my mother said. Leave it to Mom to find something upbeat to say about a schnook like Frank Rizzo. Mom admired that in a man -the ability to die and be done with it.
We were in line for the loo at Reading Terminal Market with my aunts Jean, Lena and Bessie, when we heard the news that Frank Rizzo had just suffered a massive heart attack and passed away. He was preparing to run for mayor again (this time against newcomer Ed Rendell), and collapsed at his campaign headquarters. Ed Rendell went on to become a two-term mayor of Philadelphia, then Governor of Pennsylvania.
This was after lunch on July 14, 1991, and before our visit to the Museum of American Jewish History. My older aunts were back from Florida. I thought an outing to this museum would speak to them, acknowledging their role in American history as the children of Jewish immigrants from Russia. Aunt Jean had been a toddler, Aunt Lena an infant in 1909, when they crossed the ocean in their mother’s arms, and settled in Philadelphia. Here was an exhibit about their experience, to make them feel acknowledged. My mom and dad, lifelong Philadelphians, always relished a trip downtown, especially when a meal at one of their old haunts was on the agenda.
Mom wore her white-patent go-go boots that day. She and I had matching pairs back in 1967, when I was eleven. Mom’s still fit. I suppose she plucked them from the depths of her closet in a spirit of rugged individualism; despite the hand-knitted sweater and hand-me-down pantsuit she wore to please her older sisters. And despite the fact that go-go boots became passé in 1968. Anyway, it was midsummer, the time for white shoes.
A celebration of Bastille Day was occurring at Reading Terminal Market, delaying our visit to the museum. Mom, Dad, I and my aunts always ready for a party, joined the revilers, as if we knew what we were celebrating. Mom practiced her high school French with actors, sporting berets and ruffled aprons. Having never been to Gay Paris, she was content to make do with a faux French field day in Philly. Aunt Bess kept serenading us with, “Que sera sera...” until I mentioned that she was singing in Spanish, not French. So, she hummed it for the rest of the day. I carried our croissants and cafe au lait to a table across from a woman and man in business attire, rapt in discussion. Aunt Jean sat down and immediately launched into a celebrity sighting. “Gladys Knight! Gladys Knight!” She wouldn’t stop pointing until the woman at the table across from us looked up, and acknowledged her, first with a worried look, and then a smile. I sunk in my chair.
“Thanks for the compliment, although I’m sorry to disappoint you,” the woman responded. “I’m not Gladys Knight.” She returned to her discussion, and we to our croissants. But Aunt Jean kept following people with her eyes as they walked by, half expecting The Pips to show up after a short break.
As we were leaving I heard Gladys confide to her associate, “Y’ know, my family thinks I look like Gladys Knight. She’s not just some crazy, old, white lady saying we all look alike.” I shared this with my family in the car. Aunt Jean beamed.
“See, I’m not just some crazy, old, white lady,” Aunt Jean kept repeating. She felt acknowledged. We hardly needed to visit the museum after that.
At the museum, we procured a wheel chair for Aunt Bess. She tired easily, which we would later find out was due to a growing stomach cancer. But for today, “hmm hmm hmm, hmm hmm...” Aunt Lena forged ahead, accustomed to leading and protecting her clan. Dad, despite his recent knee replacements and cancer surgery, insisted on pushing the wheel chair. He had been a professional boxer in his youth. This formative experience now proved invaluable for fighting his ultimate opponent, prostate cancer. In his zeal to prove his worth, pound for pound in the arena of aging, he sometimes over compensated. Like on this day for instance, when he pushed Bessie’s wheel chair in fits and starts, licking at Lena’s heels, until Lena screeched, “Ouch! Abie, how many times do I have to tell you..”
Lena and my dad harbored a lifetime of resentment toward each other. He resented Lena’s overprotective control of her family. Lena resented that he was never the provider she’d expected for her baby sister. Today they were duking it out in subtle nudgings with a wheelchair.
As usual, none of this dented my mother’s enthusiasm. She approached each display with the exuberance and curiosity of the baby sister and lifelong learner. This was her role in the family. Of ten children, she was the only one to graduate high school and further her education. The older children had to leave school in the eighth grade, to keep the family afloat during the Great Depression. Mom never stopped showing them her gratitude and joie d’ vie.
Returning home to Philadelphia, after ten years away, gave me the opportunity to appreciate days like this with my parents and aunts, before illness and death separated us. Bessie and my dad died the following year in 1992. Aunt Jean died in 1995. Lena and my mother lived on until 2004. Lena forged through the indignities of aging in stoic denial. The only reason she died at the age of 95 was because her favorite doctor was out of town, and she refused to take antibiotics prescribed by a visiting physician.
But Mom did not die with her boots on. Her off-the-cuff response to Rizzo’s death back in 1991 was prescient of her own impending barefoot demise. After ten exuberant years of retirement, she kicked off her go-go boots in 2001 and sunk into the deep depression that camouflaged her demented brain. Nothing she could wear could hide the fact that she wanted to die. Jealous of her friends dropping like flies, “They’re the lucky ones,” she’d say, while her life lingered on in a liminal, living hell.
But, if Mom, like Frank Rizzo, had died on Bastille Day in 1991, in her white-patent go-go boots running around Reading Terminal Market, speaking French and eating pastry, I know that my shock at her swift and untimely loss would have been just as difficult as her slow, painful decline. As her caregiver I learned that we cannot choose how or when we die. However, if given the choice, I’d prefer not to die with my boots on, or to suffer the barefoot descent to oblivion. I’d like to be given time for a clear-headed assessment, time to appreciate what is and what was, and time to hum what will be, will be.

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