It wasn't until years after my father died in 1954 that we realized how much he had kept my mother in line.
We hadn't dreamed anybody was keeping her in line, or could. Even when she got together with her best friends, big-boned women given to the scarves and grand gestures of Isadora Duncan, the conversation turned arch and venomous.
A master of the double bind, she told us children that our father was "an easy mark" - the words stick with me - yet insisted that he be the co-trustee of her estate and her business adviser. He was, after all, a retired stockbroker.
In my turn, she made me co-trustee and executor even as she reminded me of my alleged incompetence with money and the realities of the marketplace.
My older sister, adopted as an infant during my mother's Bohemian days - in her Lady Bountiful way she used to talk of adopting a dozen children of all races - became a target once my mother married and had my younger sister and me. She would goad Gioia to door-slamming, screaming rages, responding all the while with icy sarcasm.
Once we gave a backyard circus, and Gioia, age 10, asked her if she wanted "a preserved seat." Most parents would have been mildly amused. My mother snarled, "Preserved in what?"
I must have been 6 at the time, but I can still see the curled mouth and Gioia's hurt bafflement.
"It's something chemical between us," my mother said years later. "All she has to do is come into the room and I bristle."
I suspect it was guilt. My mother knew what it was to feel unwanted. She was an only child, born to a retired New Jersey physican and his wife late in life, a surprise they apparently never got over. The physician spent his last 30 years reading. His idea of punishment for his daughter was to shut her in a dark closet for hours. Otherwise, she remained in the company of a black nurse, a succession of dogs, and her special friends, other genteel little girls in Morristown.
She hated Christmas.
We heard little about her life before we came along. There were only a few disconnected anecdotes. Almost 40 when she married my father, she had never been domestic. She was an instinctive feminist and social rebel, a radical who used to go to dances with John Reed.
She would tell us about: Miss Spence's School; being caught on a hiking trip in Germany when World War I broke out; her aristocratic "Japanese beau"; the Eurhythmics, Theosophy, Coueism, swamis and other enthusiasms of the '20s; her brief marriage to an older man who died; her brittle relationship with my father's large Catholic family and her struggles to be converted; the frosty confrontations with political lowlife my father knew, such as state legislators.
Old friends remember her as a young woman full of deviltry and ideas. As a lark, she arranged an outdoor Christmas display in the center of Morristown with music and lighted trees, surely one of the first of its kind. Once she and her best friend, low on cash, dined at the Plaza - ordering a single poached egg and two forks.
Some of the best stories came from my father, who turned her into a family legend, with her absent-minded driving and assorted eccentricities; the cases of condensed milk we took with us to France (she never having heard of Pasteur), her insistence that we children walk with hands in the air through the grimy Paris Metro, her faith in sleeping with the window open (on one Adirondack visit they woke to find the hot water bottle still in their bed but turned to ice).
After my father died, her avid interest in her children's affairs turned into an obsession. She took to rewriting her will, trying to anticipate what might happen to us and our own children far into the future. She unfailingly asserted her strong opinions about everything we did. A gentle Quaker lady was driven to cry out to her one Sunday at meeting: "Katharine, let your children go!" We were all in our 30s at the time.
For years, my sisters lived near her in Los Angeles, but finally only Gioia remained to absorb the stream of imperious advice, accompany her to court on her traffic offenses (the driving had got worse), and generally shield her from a world she didn't understand as well as she thought.
The fact was, for all her sublime self-assurance, she was really rather foolish, as is sometimes the case with people who have never had to work for a living, never had their sharp edges worn down by the hard give-and-take of the world. And the greatest joke was that she was most foolish of all about money.
The will became a mania. All of us received dozens of handwritten memos about the division of the silver, china, bad paintings and monstrous early Victorian furniture. The eastate wasn't enough to make much difference in our lives, but she brooded over it like a Hetty Green. It got so that Gioia had to drive her to the band every day to pore over the dog-eared papers in her safe deposit box. She was turning into a character from Balzac.
Then she fell down in her favorite restaurant and broke her hip ("Anything I can do?" the manager keened, rubbing his knuckles and estimating the lawsuit which never came. She sat against the wall waiting for the ambulance. "A glass of sherry, please.") - and soon after that she had a stroke.She could probably have recovered completely, the doctors said, but she seems to have decided not to. She seems to have decided, at last, to let the world spin on, untended.
She moved to a nursing home. Then to a nursing hospital and a bed. She was 80. We found her a perfect red-haired nurse who teased her and fixed her still-gray hair with ribbons and kept her in sherry. For the next five years we watched her gradually relax her frantic grip on life. She couldn't talk well because of the stroke, and now she began to stop trying. She laughed a lot.
Sometimes the haze cleared, and we could glimpse a friendly, rational person in there, annoyed with the things that were happening to her, but quite serene. It was as though her whole life had been a bumpy detour and she had only now got back on the even track that was intended for her.
One time we took her for a drive along the Pacific Palisades, where she used to go with my father, and she chatted lucidly enough about the scenery. Several times she turned to look at me in the back seat. I remined her of the times we had come there before, and she smiled.
Suddenly she turned to me and said calmly, "You know, I can't remember your name." Conversationally, as though confiding that she'd lost my phone number. "I don't know who you are," she said, "but I know I like you."
It was the nicest thing she ever said to me.