Lafitte and other Secrets
Rosalind Kaplan is a physician who writes narrative medical essays and memoir. Her full-length book, The Patient In The White Coat (Kaplan Publishing, 2010), is an account of her own experience navigating the medical system as a physician-patient receiving experimental treatment and how it changed her as a doctor. She has contributed to a variety of academic and medical journals, as well as to the anthologies The Art And Science Of Being A Doctor (Aspatore Books, 2005) and Prompted (PS Books, 2010). Additionally, she has attended the Iowa Summer Writer's Workshop, Creative Nonfiction's Workshop at Goucher College, and still regularly participates in the Greater Philadelphia Writer's Wordshop, an Amherst Writers & Artists Method workshop. Rosalind holds a B.A. Summa Cum Laude from Brandeis University in psychology and biochemistry and an M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania School Of Medicine. She practices Internal Medicine and is married with two children in their 20's.
The envelope arrived in a jumble of bills and junk mail. It was small and thin, and I almost tossed it in the trash with the Acme circular, but the creamy paper caught my eye before I could. I didn't recognize the handwriting, yet it was oddly, eerily, familiar, like a taste or smell I'd experienced but couldn't identify. There was no return address. I opened it to find a three-by-three black and white photo folded inside a scrap of paper, scribbled with a note in that same handwriting: 'A picture of your quite glamorous Mom and her almost-husband Lafitte. The story I told you is yours forever. XOX Donna.'
Donna. Donna Grant, my mother's first cousin. Of course. The handwriting was familiar because it resembled my mother's own script, as well as that of my grandfather and my great aunt Rose, all long dead. Writing a note on a scrap of paper was just like them. The Cannons all had a sort of haphazard way to them. Chances are that Donna had come across this picture accidentally and had tossed it into that envelope, not that she'd been looking for it, planning to send it to me. It was the kind of thing my mother, too, might have done.
I picked up the photo and peered, trying to make sense of it. The young woman in the photo could not have been more than twenty-five. She did look like my mother, but she easily could have been someone else. She could even have been Donna when she was young. I could see my mother in the face, but nothing in the expression or posture was anything like the mother I had known.
She sits in that photo, eyes drawn away from the camera, impassive, aloof, full lips in barely the slightest hint of a half-smile. This woman is in full possession of herself, unlike my mother, who I experienced as distracted and chaotic. The man next to her is smiling at her, attentive, one arm around her shoulder, what appears to be a pipe in the other hand. He is handsome, dark-haired and square-chinned. They both look glamorous, tucked together in a big floral wing chair, in a room I have never seen.
My mother has been dead for twenty-two years. I mark the time by the age of my oldest child. She died suddenly when he was an infant, leaving me to wonder if, had she lived, I might have finally had the relationship I wanted with her, the one in which we actually knew one another.
My enigmatic, mercurial mother. The woman who could be right next to me in a room and yet be light years away, the one who could save me with one sentence and drown me with another.
When I was a young teenager, perhaps thirteen or fourteen, I remember coming home from school on a day my mother had promised to take me shopping for a dress for a school dance. I was excited, looking forward to both the shopping and the time alone with her, having her full attention. That attention was hard to get, as she sometimes worked outside our home, but also had a home office in which she saw private psychotherapy patients. She often sat there, doing paperwork or talking on the phone. She didn't like to be interrupted, and even when she did look up from her work, it was hard to tell if she'd really heard what I'd said to her. When I arrived home that particular day, it was obvious that she'd forgotten her promise.
When I asked her if we were going, she said, angrily, 'I can't believe how selfish you are! You just think about your own needs."
Apparently, something had happened that had upset her while I was at school. Though she hadn't told me directly, she had expected me to realize that she needed to postpone our shopping trip. I never learned what had transpired, but after that I came to associate "selfish" with "bad", and for much of my life, went to great lengths to avoid ever appearing selfish.
Later in my teen years, after my brother, who is two years older than me, left for college, my mother took a mysterious trip after a prolonged telephone argument with him. She disappeared for three or four days. She left me with a friend, since I was too young to drive, and my father's work schedule made it difficult for him to pick me up from various after-school activities. She declined to say where she was going or why. Years later, I learned she had gone to try to work things out with my brother (unsuccessfully) and then to visit a friend to clear her head.
I always felt like there were worlds of secrets inside my mother, but it wasn't until long after her death that I learned much about her at all. In the time since my mother died, I have become close with the three people left who really knew her: her two first cousins, Donna and Arleen, and her closest friend from college, Naida.
My father may have known parts of her, but he clearly never understood the entirety of the woman he married. When he died a decade after she did, he had not shed much light for me. He didn't like to talk about my mother much, but when I asked questions, for instance why she hadn't told me where she was going when she went to see my brother at college, he just shook his head and said, 'I really don't know."
Later, Donna, Arleen and Naida told me things that apparently he, too, had never heard. Arleen told me stories about my grandparents, my mother's parents, and the fact that my grandfather had a mistress in another city through most of their married life. She believed that my mother and her brothers were aware of this, but they never spoke of it. A year or so ago, Naida sent me a book manuscript that my mother had written when I was a teenager, but never submitted for publication. No one in the family had a copy. My mother had mailed Naida the only one. Naida came across it when she was cleaning a closet in her house, and felt it was something I should have. Finally, this year, Donna told me what she remembered about my mother as a girl, and about her relationship with Lafitte.
"Your grandparents always told your mother she wasn't attractive," Donna told me about a year before she sent me the photo.
"I know she thought she was ugly, but I saw pictures of her from when she was young, and she was anything but," I replied.
We were wandering through a special showing of the Stein Collection of Impressionist Works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Donna had made a trip east from her home in Arizona, and I had taken the train up from Philadelphia to spend the day with her in Manhattan. We stopped in front of some Modigliani portraits as we talked.
"Well, when she was a kid, she refused to comb her hair, and it was curly and wild like mine, so she'd look disheveled. And later she was just sort of rebellious. The family looked at her as being a tomboy and a troublemaker. She refused to pay attention to her appearance and to social graces. That drove your grandmother Helen just crazy. You know how obsessed Helen was with appearances, and she made such a show of clothing and jewelry and furniture. All the trappings, you know? So then Helen would never buy your mother any clothes, even though they had plenty of money. It was sort of like a punishment, so that idea that she wasn't attractive just fed on itself."
"I remember my mother saying she only had two dresses when she was in high school. I could never understand that, since I knew her family was wealthy. She said my grandmother told her she didn't need more."
"You know," Donna continued, "Your mom always made sure that you had proper clothes and that you knew you were pretty. She never wanted you to feel how she did when she was a girl."
Really? Then why did she insist I cut off my long hair when I was thirteen? I was so upset: I looked like a boy! But she insisted it was way too much work to take care of. I thought this, but I didn't say it. Because as the thought came to me, I realized it made sense. My mother would have been terribly ambivalent about me and my appearance, even as she was trying to protect me from what happened to her. I wasn't ready to say this aloud to Donna.
We started moving again slowly through the gallery, now gazing at some Frida Kahlo paintings just outside the exhibit as we continued talking.
"I actually didn't know that," I ended up saying. " I was always such a girl; I asked for clothes all the time. I probably drove her crazy with my clothes and hair and makeup. I had no idea that it was even on my mother's radar. I guess there was a lot she didn't tell me."
Here's what I did know. When my mother, who was very smart and clever, graduated high school, my Midwestern Jewish grandparents sent her to Smith, hoping that she would return with a husband from Harvard or Amherst. Instead, she returned with the wish for more education, and began a Master's program at the University of Michigan, a pursuit of which her parents did not particularly approve. At twenty-five, she was under great pressure to get married and start a family, rather than live alone in Ann Arbor and get an advanced degree.
It was over lunch that day in the museum that Donna told me how it was that, at that point, my mother met Lafitte, a debonair, French-speaking man of Lebanese descent. He was handsome and sought-after. Apparently everyone, including her parents, believed her to be very lucky.
"How did she meet him?" I asked Donna.
"I imagine she must have met him in grad school. But to tell you the truth, I don't know. I know it was in Ann Arbor. "
"He wasn't Jewish, though, right? Did my grandparents have a fit about that?"
"Huh, I didn't even think about that! I guess he wouldn't have been, but I think they were just happy she was dating."
But this makes sense, too. While the Cannons identified themselves as Jewish, my mother had snidely referred to the synagogue she attended growing up as "the Jewish church". We never carried out Jewish rituals with my mother's family. Unlike in my father's family, there were no stories of "the old country" or immigration, and there were no photos from Bar Mitzvahs or Jewish holidays. It was as if the Cannon family had simply dropped de novo into Toledo, Ohio, and immediately begun assimilating. It's unlikely that a gentile son-in-law would have been a problem for my grandparents.
Before long, my mother and Lafitte were engaged. But my mother confided in Donna that she felt something to be amiss. While Lafitte paid her plenty of attention and said all the right things, it all just didn't feel right.
My mother was anything but dumb. What she lacked in experience, she made up for in intuition. I always knew her to have keen intuition; as much as she often seemed to be in her own world, paying little attention to my brother or me, she always knew when something was bothering one of us, even when we were grown and living away from home. Often the phone would ring just as I was thinking that I needed to talk to my mother, and I'd pick it up to hear her voice on the other end.
So, according to Donna, she took Lafitte to a hotel one night, with the intent to seduce him, an unheard-of act for a proper unmarried woman in the 1950's. Donna didn't know exactly how it all unfolded, but Lafitte's secret came out: he was gay, and was planning on using his marriage to her as a front of respectability. Meanwhile, he planned to continue his life in the hidden gay world of the 1950's Midwest.
My mother broke off the engagement then and there. She took a cruise to Cuba, in that window of time before Americans could no longer go there as tourists, and used the time away to seal over the hole left in her heart by Lafitte's betrayal.
Once, when I was a child, Cuba came up in some discussion with my parents and brother when we heard something about it on the news or in school. I remember my mother let it slip that she'd been there, but when I wanted to know more, the conversation was abruptly shut down. Now, her refusal to talk about it finally makes sense.
"Donna, do you think she really loved him, or was she going to marry him because everyone was pressuring her to get married?"
We were on the phone, a few weeks after she sent me the photo, now nearly a year after she first told me about Lafitte.
"I don't know. Back then, I didn't think about it. I just assumed she did. When I looked at the picture recently, I thought she looked carefree. It looked erotic to me. I thought she must have loved him."
"That's funny, because I looked at the picture and I thought she looked disengaged and distant. I couldn't tell what it meant., whether she didn't love him, or whether it was an act. Obviously, I didn't know her then. "
In fact, looking at this old but unfamiliar photograph, it seems that the things I knew about my mother when she was alive had very little to do with who she really was. I have always known the stock stories: that she grew up in Toledo, that she taught junior high school in Chicago before she was married, that she was set up with my father on a blind date, and that they married in her mother's rose garden, the same one I admired as a child visiting my grandparents. I've seen the wedding pictures many times. Perhaps had I been more astute, I would have made more of the fact that she wore a short dress to her own wedding, and that it wasn't white.
As a young woman, bored at a family gathering in Toledo, I was poking around one day in my grandparents' house, going through the dresser in the room I slept in, the one originally assigned to my mother. The family called it "Sis's room " (her real name was Marilyn, but her parents and brothers all just called her Sis). Strangely, she had never really inhabited that room, as my grandparents moved in to this particular house, a Frank Lloyd Wright beauty carpeted all in white and coddled in a large piece of corner property in the upscale Toledo suburb of Ottawa Hills, when she was already in college. Still, it was in the dresser in that room that I found her wedding dress, unceremoniously shoved into the back of a drawer. It was not a grand swath of silk or satin, but a mass of cheap synthetic tulle, and it was a faded light blue in color.
I think now that the cheap short blue dress was part of my mother's rebellion, her struggle against all those expectations of her to become the wife and mother, rather than to set her own path. It would seem to be a railing against my grandmother's rules of beauty and etiquette. To my grandmother, looks were everything. The white carpet throughout her house was a challenge to anyone who believed function or comfort trumped beauty. (In my grandmother's house, you did whatever you had to in order to keep that carpet clean, lest you be subjected to her harsh words and icy stare for the rest of your stay.) I guess my mother wasn't buying it.
But this is only my conjecture. I will never know for sure. I wonder, were my mother alive, would she ever have told me about Lafitte, or her novel, or her father's affair? I wonder if I would have, at some point, asked her about her wedding dress and whether she wanted the life she got. Or would I just have accepted the status quo, knowing what little I knew, avoiding the complicated history that made my mother who she was? If she were alive, would I have wanted to know facts that could destroy the pieces of her I idealized but could also allow me to understand and forgive her foibles and limitations?
I remember when my son was first born that my mother urged me to go back to work. Not that there was a question. As a newly-minted physician with an academic job, maternity leave was six weeks, and I had every intention of returning. Many of my friends' mothers urged them to take it easier and stay home longer with their babies, but not mine. She told me to go back as soon as possible and not to "get caught in the kiddie coop."
I didn't say it at the time, but it made me feel rejected, as though she regretted the time she'd spent with us when we were little. She had been a stay-at-home mother, like most of the suburban moms of the early 1960's, until she returned to school for her doctorate when I was around four. After that, she worked part-time as an educational psychologist. I know her career was never as big as she wanted. In fact, that was the subject of her book, a fictionalized account of the politics of the mental health clinic she worked in, and the minefield of being a woman in a primarily male workplace. As I leafed through it, I remembered some of the conversations she and my father had when I was perhaps in junior high school, about her work, and missing out on promotions and other opportunities. I judged her harshly at the time, foolishly believing that the system would be fair, and that had she deserved a promotion she would have gotten one.
I wonder if we would have someday talked about this too, as I became wise to the world of work and parenting, the struggle to strike a balance, finding that, even a generation later, I was stymied by the second shift, realizing that I was the one in my marriage who "chose" to make career sacrifices so that my children had a parent to raise them instead of a nanny.
My children are nearly adults now, my son finishing college, my daughter in the middle of it. I have a much different relationship with my children than my mother had with me. I've made no attempt to keep secrets from them. My photo albums are on the shelf for all to see, and I've told many stories of my pre-marriage, pre-mommy life to my kids. Though I spent time away from home at work when my children were young, when I was with them, I made a conscious attempt to pay close attention to what they said and did. I am not, in the end, sorry about the time I spent raising my kids; in fact, I am grateful that I had the option to at least attempt the balancing act, that I got to try to "have it all", even if it didn't always work out the way I hoped. Despite all this, I don't think my children know me much better than I knew my mother when I was their age.
If I had to say why, I'd guess it's because they don't want to. Right now, no matter what I've done in my life, no matter where I've been, to them, I am simply their mother. They don't want to imagine the crazy summer in Europe before med school, or the man I loved in college and might have married if law school hadn't turned him into a rabid Republican. They don't want to know about the struggle of raising them and building a medical career.
In fact, a few years ago, I wrote a memoir of my serious illness, experimental treatment, and recovery that occurred during their early childhood years, something they have vague knowledge of and that neither has asked many questions about. The book was published and they each have a copy in their bookshelves. They take a theoretical pride in the fact that I wrote a book, but I'm pretty sure neither one of them has opened it, given that the books have never moved from their original spots. Why? Because they don't want to know that much about me. They each have a space for "Mom" in their minds and hearts, and that is where I am currently carried. Leaking out of that space would only be a hindrance to their fledgling autonomy, to their separation and separateness from me right now.
I hope that someday this will change. Perhaps some day they will read my book, or we will talk about some of the parts of me that don't go into the equation that adds up to "Mom." I suspect this will happen when they are pursuing careers or parenting children themselves, or both. I hope that, unlike my mother, I am around to answer their questions. I don't like to think about them staring someday at an unfamiliar image, trying to put the pieces together, the pieces of a life they were so closely tied to but knew so little about.