Mom and Some Unfinished Business

In Columns, Features, Pieces to Peter's Puzzling World by Peter Webster

Thinking back on my mother is kind of like…my family is history is like a wood-pile I once sorted and stacked up. It’s fallen down over the last dozen years. Writing about Mom is an attempt at trying to stack it back up. Every time I turn over a piece of wood, I wonder what I’ll find under it: maybe just more wood, maybe spiders. Writing this is an adventure. There’s always old unfinished business — everywhere.

What can I say about my mother? This: she did the best she could, for as long as she could.

She did an “assisted suicide,” about fifteen years ago. Terminal cancer, congestive heart failure, emphysema, and no desire to stay alive. “All I want to do is be with your father,” she said to me a week before she died. Dad had died three years before.


Mom didn’t raise me, but she was always around my life. Her parents,
Nana and Arch, raised me. There are a couple of things I remember about the early times: one was that when she did come to visit, my dad was rarely along, since he and my grandfather didn’t get along (my grandfather thought Dad had ruined Mom’s career), and she never stayed long; “I’ve got to get back to pick up your father after work.”

She talked to Nana every day on the phone. Sometimes I’d call her. When I hadn’t talked to Mom for a while, Nana always told me to call her. But before noon—”Before she gets…tired.” That meant before she’d started the day’s drinking.

It took me a long time to see Mom in the context of her life; the way she grew up, the pressures she lived with, and the times she lived in. It wasn’t a good scene. Her father came out of a poverty-twisted Mormon family in Salt Lake; Nana’s family had moved to Salt Lake from Illinois—they also were poor and thought they could get ahead in Utah; they were non-Mormon and they couldn’t get anywhere.

Arch went to work when he was eleven, sweeping out the first Cadillac agency in Salt Lake. He became a mechanic and a salesman as a teenager. He was a hustler—today he would be called an entrepeneur.

Nana was working her way through business school; her family lived in a dirt-floored adobe. They both were turn of the 20th-Century poor.

Mom was born while they still lived in Salt Lake City. Soon after, though, they moved to Los Angeles; this was right after World War I, Los Angeles was beginning its roll; people could make money there. Mom was pretty and extremely graceful. Arch decided she would be a movie star. They got her dance lessons. At home, she practiced for hours.

She was very good. By seventeen, she was a chorus girl at Paramount Studios. The photos from back then show her high cheekbones and vaguely Asian eyes…she was a beautiful young woman. Arch was her agent. He knew she was star material. My mom told me she didn’t want to be a star.

“The story was, to get good parts you got under a casting director and worked your way up,” she said. That didn’t seem to bother Arch. Paramount thought she had talent and produced dozens of publicity photos. She worked as a dancing stand-in for some actresses who couldn’t dance. The publicity machine got her dates with celebrities. She dated Cary Grant, once. “Oh god, he was as queer as a three-dollar bill. Awfully nice, though.”

Arch had Mom on the career track—until she met my dad at a party. He was handsome, dark, and intense. Mom believed in love at first sight. Dad was getting a divorce; back then, there was a year’s wait between the filing and the final decree. In that year, Mom got pregnant with me. I was born two months before they got married. I was born with brittle bones. That indicated just how bad my father really was.

He’d ruined Mom’s career—which also meant Arch’s chance to be the father of a movie star, and my brittle bones were the punishment…I know: it’s absolutely crazy. But that was the way things were back in 1938.

I stayed with Nana and Arch when Mom and Dad got married. I’m not sure why—and never will be, really. I know they liked to party; Dad’s father came back from the Alaska mines with a sack of gold, and had invested it well. Dad played football at USC and run track. He became a sort of mid-level playboy.

Eventually, one of his fraternity brothers got him a job as an apprentice film cutter at MGM Studios. That was the start of Dad’s career. Mom didn’t have to work; she stayed home. She was utterly and totally wrapped up in Dad. They went to polo matches, played golf, hunted together; they were in the Blue Book. Dad ended up a superb film editor and got jobs with good directors.

They had two more kids, but raised them, Sharon (who died of weed, valium, and cancer twenty-odd years ago), and Tina (who joined AA and Al-Anon before she was twenty-one—and has gone on to be a functional painter-teacher).

For the last few years of her life, Mom and I got close. She lived with Tina and my brother-in-law; we were all clean and sober—Mom was taking Xanax by then, but it was better than the vodka. I was able to be with what was left of my family. She was a good-hearted woman, who had been married to a good-hearted man.

Tina and her husband had a little girl and Mom was just delighted with her.


But we’re an alcoholic family and the disease ravaged us all. Tina has stories about Mom and Dad screwing in the same hotel room where the girls were sleeping; about Mom flipping out whenever he got sick; dragging him in out of the car when he came home passed-out-drunk.

Sharon ran off at eighteen and got married; before she died at 39, she’d been married more than a half-dozen times. We were all nuts.

So, it’s really hard to know what to say about my mother. It worked out the way it worked out, and I really have nothing to compare it to. I’m here, and if things had been different, I’d probably be somebody else, you know? I’m OK with the way my life is and that’s what matters.

But it’s been really difficult for me to go out to the wood-pile of my family history and re-stack it.
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