Goodbye Boys


Leigh Curran

I’m in the bedroom of my mother’s worn, New York apartment pulling yet another hard-sided suitcase from under her great, big bed. This is where, between disintegrating pieces of tissue paper, she stores her summer clothes in winter and winter clothes in summer. Every change of season I listen sort of patiently as she complains about the dreadful business of switching out her wardrobe – but this time is different.

Through a crack in the bedroom door I see my mother in the living room in her flannel nightgown and pearls sorting sweaters into black plastic bags labeled – Trash, Goodwill, and Going With. She’s made it clear she will not move into a managed care facility in Connecticut unless I help her sort through the remains of her life. I drop everything – fly east – she opens her door – looks at me defiantly:

“I’m a pack rat. I’m 86. I don’t know where to start!”

The truth is, my mother hates upheaval – maybe because she’s had so much of it. First as a child when her highly regarded, New York society parents got a bitter, public divorce. Again as a young mother of two widowed when my father’s heart was strangled by rheumatic fever and she was left to flounder with no known job skills. Then, as a single woman in her mid-seventies who, after 40 years of affairs with married and otherwise unavailable men, fell in love with a widower who succumbed to prostate cancer shortly after they began talking marriage.

Then there’s me – her firstborn and not the firstborn she expected. I was an induced baby who refused to arrive until my stars were properly aligned – but when I did arrive I arrived, in my mother’s words, “kicking and screaming.” As a child, I challenged, insulted, demanded honesty. As a teenager I lost my bearings –particularly when men were in the room – like Jacques, the French tennis player who was between us in age. As soon as he turned in my direction my mother would point out some irreversible flaw – my head was too small for my body – then laugh wildly as if her sole purpose for bringing me into this world was to make me the butt of her jokes.

Now I’m on my stomach reaching for the corner of the last box under her bed – a Bonwit Teller box – white with violets on it. My mother took me to Bonwit’s when I first move to New York City to buy a pair of white gloves with tiny pearls on the wrists because “nice girls wear gloves.”

“Mummy, it’s 1962,” I said with the contempt that normally accompanies the great age of eighteen.

My mother bought the gloves anyway. They rattled around in my underwear drawer until the fashion world took a turn toward the tarty and Bonwit’s was forced to close its doors.

Now as I pull the box closer I realize it has my initials on it. Inside are programs from plays I’d written and performed in – reviews from the New York Times, the Post, the Daily News – photos of me as a baby, in boarding school – poems that poured out of me when I was 10 and having a good year … or day … with my mother. You who brought me into this world I cannot even thank – not with money, gifts, nor gold – nothing, yet I yearn to …

But it’s the fact of the box that makes my heart twist. My mother had never been demonstrative where my career was concerned. When I chose a life in the theatre I chose everything she turned from to get married, have children, survive widowhood. Only once, an unexpected thought got the better of her and out tumbled: You’re the hope of this family. I thought I hadn’t heard right but by the time I shook the particles of disbelief to the floor of my brain, the moment had … well, not so much passed as been quietly stashed in the little known Bonwit’s box under her bed.

I look up as my mother turns from a wall of photos of the most-loved men in her life: my father restoring the engine of a Ferdinand LaSalle – the publisher who wouldn’t leave his alcoholic wife because he was Catholic – and the Episcopal minister who split his time between my mother in New York and his wife, children, and parish in the Philippines. My mother holds an electric blue kimono over the black bag marked Trash.

“This is what I used to wear … you know … after,” she says then, steadying herself on the arm of the couch, raises the kimono into the air, opens her fingers and says, “Goodbye boys.”

I turn my eyes toward the Bonwit’s box and burst into tears. My mother equated having a man on her arm with survival. And, unlike her daughter, she enjoyed the game. But in that moment I witnessed everything she was and always had been vanish into thin air.

I wipe my eyes – try to imagine what she went through as age embedded itself in her skin, her bones, her hair. She never talked about it because, in addition to making sure she was the high life of the party, she was also an unsentimental loner.

I pick up the Bonwit’s box – head for the living room hoping to see my mother staring thoughtfully into space, a tear falling in slow motion down her cheek – but she has already moved on – shuffling toward the kitchen her palm drifting from the back of an arm chair to her secretary and finally to the kitchen counter – just in case her legs … well, just in case. I set the Bonwit’s box on the coffee table as if to say: Look what I found! But really wanting to give her a hug and, in so doing, create a safe space where she could unburden herself – mourn the loss of men, beauty, sex then rise from the ashes of despair and find her true self in the eyes of God.

“Wow … no expectations there!” I mutter to myself.

“Seriously – I can help – I just have to find a way in.”

“Well, ask her about something she can relate to at least – like sex.”


“Did she know when she had it last it was the last time? Or was it just another time? Remember the musician who took her to Vegas and the dentist with the smoky eyes? She was seeing them at the same time, you know.”

“And that psychiatrist with an open marriage – what was that all about?”

“I liked the captain of the Italian steamship. He was romantic.”

“I can’t ask if she’s had sex for the last time – we’re moving into a rest home tomorrow morning. That would be – I don’t know – cruel.”

My mother unscrews a jar of peanut butter. For all our differences, there’ve been aberrant moments when she has confided her love affairs in me, her one-man-at-a-time daughter, as if to allow a life of secrecy some fresh air. Maybe, I think, deep inside she wants me to know who she really is underneath the flirting, the wild laughter, the fierce independence. Maybe sex is our point of connection.

My mother breaks off a leaf of endive, spreads peanut butter inside the curl – fingers knotted with arthritis – spirit undaunted. I sit on the couch as she pours a vodka on the rocks – cuts two kumquats in half – throws them in for good measure.

She shuffles toward the couch punching her swizzle straw at the ice cubes as if to hurry them up. I hold her drink as she sits. She pats me on the knee.

“You’re a good daughter.”

“Well, you’re a good mother.”

“Oh, I don’t know …” she says drifting into a private disappointment.

I reach for her hand. She pulls it away.

I lift the program from my first play, The Lunch Girls, out of the Bonwit’s box.

“I didn’t know you saved my programs …”

“Well, they’re yours now,” she says picking up a photo of my father holding me on his lap.

“Do you miss him?” I ask.

“I suppose. I don’t know. It’s been so long.”

“Do you think you’ll see him when you die?”

“Not really,” she says grudgingly.

“What do you think you will see?” I ask tentatively.




She sucks some vodka through her swizzle straw.

“But what about … God? ”

“What about God?”

“Oh, nothing … just … well, you used to take me to listen to Krishnamurti. You kept The Prophet in your bureau drawer. You had me confirmed Episcopalian before shipping me off to a Catholic High School.”

“That was so the nuns couldn’t get their hooks into you.”

“But you taught me to wonder. And now you’re telling me you’ve come to the conclusion all there is is darkness?”

My mother fishes among the ice cubes in her drink for a vodka soaked kumquat – pops it in her mouth – one of life’s remaining pleasures.

“What time are the movers coming?” she asks with an edge.

I get up – feeling clumsy and too big for the room – go into the bathroom – sit on the edge of the tub.

“You were supposed to ask about sex,” I remind myself.

“I know – I blew it. Because, would it kill her – just once – to say I’m scared?”

My mother opens the bathroom door.

“Look what I found in the box.”

She hands me the poem I’d written when I was ten.

“I loved this poem. You gave it to me for Mother’s Day.”

Her fingers move across my words as if moving across my cheek.

“I’m going to put it with my Will so you remember to read it at my funeral.”

A siren wails outside the window.

“We have to separate the twin beds,” she says making her way into the bedroom, “Call the Salvation Army.”

I come up behind her – we stare at her place of connection – hope – belonging.

“The Salvation Army doesn’t take beds,” I say gently, “We have to put them on the street.”

She runs her fingers over the bedspread. And right then I could have asked her about sex but instead I reach for her hand. This time she lets me take it. We drift into silence.

A dog barks.

My mother squeezes my hand. I squeeze back. Pigeons coo on the windowsill in the airshaft. We strip the great, big bed and when the twins have been pulled apart our eyes meet – open, naked, connected … both of us … no matter what.

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