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The Gospel According to Mom: Circa 1934

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Four females live together in a postage-stamp size apartment. Mom is the oldest. She is probably somewhere between 50 and 55 years of age and has been a widow for a few years. It's her job to watch the girls while her daughter, Thelma, age 29, works as a mannequin in a department-store window. Thelma has two daughters, Madge who is almost 13 (yes, Thelma was a mother at 16 much to the disgrace of the family and managed to have not just one but two children without the benefit of a husband) and Natalie, who is 6. The girls call their mother Thelma, since she does not want anyone to think she is the mother--after all, she looks young enough to be an older sister. So their Grandmother is "Mom." The girls sleep on the sofa and Mom and Thelma share the bed.

Mom has only two specialties: Complaining and the Morbid. She watches the girls when Thelma is at work. They try to move her conversation to the ghoulish, which she relishes. It causes goose-bumps but they are easier to handle than the personal attacks, which are the "lingua franca" of the family.

Mom is irascibly and cheerfully gruesome. She could have and should have invented the National Enquirer. Her favorite word is "malignant" and her second favorite word is "corpse." Her third favorite word is "womb" and other words that feature strongly in her tales include consumption, leprosy, coffin, cancer, childbirth and caul.

Mom grew up in Mystic, Connecticut, a Whaling town. She never once walked on the beach without finding a bloated corpse.

She went to school with a lot of children who were lepers. In fact, at the end of every day a special janitor had to come in to sweep up all the noses, ears, and digits that had fallen to the floor. And mop up all the blood. See below.

Very few women survived childbirth, and if they did, then they had a "dropped womb" which they needed to pick up at night and reinsert.

There were a lot of girls in her class who were born without vaginas, so when they got their periods, which always happened in school, their mouths, nostrils, ears, and eyes would spurt out copious streams of blood.

Some girls who were stupid enough to go sea-bathing got in big trouble. Because of all the oil from the sperm whales in the ocean that would creep inside their bodies, they would get pregnant. Then they would be ripped in two giving birth to some sort of monster.

Every childbirth was a disaster. No woman ever was in labour for less than a full week; most babies were deformed and still-born, and ALL babies born in Mystic were born with a caul. Mom herself had been born with a caul and since both of her grandaughters had been born with a caul---well, you know what it means and it does not mean well.

Then there was the little boy who ate a stick of licorice and immediately turned pitch black.

Then there was the little boy who ate some "tainted" ice-cream and within just a few minutes, his guts were frozen solid and then his face was frozen and then he turned into a big ice-cube and they could never melt him. So they had to bury him.

The kids in her class who were not lepers or licorice-eaters or born without vaginas, or pregnant via sperm whale always had "elephantitis" or cancer. Mom was the only one who survived Mystic intact.

There were so many deaths in Mystic and since they could only have funerals in the summer time, everyone's house was full of corpses and coffins. They had to pile them up. The still-borns went on the mantle. Some babies were so little that they used cigar-boxes for coffins. There were a lot of women who were pregant to ten full months, blown up enormously, who went through two gruelling weeks of labour only to deliver a still-born no larger than their thumbs.

Almost all men were syphalitic. Also if you were not careful you could get pregnant if you touched a surface that a man had touched. It was like the sperm whales. There was sperm all over the place "malignantly" waiting to jump on little girls.

Every house was haunted.

Thin people were cancerous or had consumption. Anyone who was the least bit plump obviously had a malignant tumor.

Sometimes Madge asked Mom how come she did not see kids with leprosy at her own school. "Just you wait," Mom replied ominously. "It's there. You can't see it now, but it will happen. Just look."

Everyday the girls hear a new story. The ending is always the same, more or less with few variations:

"She died in my arms."

"She was ripped open and died."

"He was washed up on the shore, totally black and bloated."

"My name was on his lips as he died."

"You could hardly smell the fish because all the corpses smelt much worse."

Yet Mom was not morose (except when she was complaining). Death, disease, disposal of corpses, freak fatal accidents seemed to excite her. She related her stories with gusto and always added an admonitory envoy.

Mom died when I was a toddler. Somewhere in my memory I can envision a maroon dress, but that is about as far as my brain will take me. A maroon dress and hearing the stories recycled via my mother and aunt.

I suspect the family sense of drama and melodrama and the morbid came from Mom, but how many generations passed it on to her?

This memory was inspired by Kaseycoff, who has some splendid blogs about her family. They are inspiring and brilliant as is Kaseycoff.

"Mom"--Christine: 1875-ish to 1956
Thelma: 1904-1951
Madge: 1921-1996
Natalie: 1928-2008

This is not a vent at all; it's a fond memory of a memory: Madge and Natalie kept the memory of what "Mom" the Thelma were like so they seem very much alive to me, no matter how many decades pass. Yes, they might have been toxic to each other but to me they are more of a fascinating narrative--almost like a novel with strongly written characters.
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