Babette Hughes | The Duchess
May 9, 2011
In the pictures I have of my mother she looks like the Duchess of Windsor. My
husband, who didn't like her, would say, "Uh oh, here comes the Duchess," when
heard her car in the driveway. Raised in an orphanage, how did my mother come
by that royal presence? How could she have been so fragile, and yet accomplish
so much in her young widowhood, raising my brother and me? How can she exist so
powerfully after she is dead? She seems to have left tracks in my brain like
indelible markers that are more than memory, leaking into my present.
She died while I was downstairs in the hospital coffee shop drinking a milkshake
and leafing through Newsweek. I found her on the floor after her last
desperate moment of pride trying to get to the bathroom alone. She was crumpled
at the foot of the bed, a terrifying stranger in a hospital gown. I screamed for
the nurse who came running. It took the two of us to get her back in the bed
where she lay, dignified once again, even in this unbelievable death.
In life she didn't look like anyone's mother. She was too young-looking, too
chic. Back then mothers stayed home, but she went to work every day in high
heels and bracelets. People thought she was my sister. She fascinated my friends
with how unmotherish she was, how charming, vivacious, flirtatious--how much
like a girlfriend. But I wanted her to be like the apron-clad moms who didn't
scare and excite and hypnotize and then slip away like ether. I longed for
safer, plumper arms, the smell of dinner cooking in a warm kitchen. My mother
brought home cardboard cartons of Chinese food for our dinner, smelling of her
office and stale perfume.
In those days the sex life of single women was hidden, but I could always tell
when she had a date with a new boyfriend because she's get in such a high mood.
Once she sent me to live with a relative while she went off to a hotel. To my
vast relief, that one lasted only a couple of months and she came back for me.
Other times I remember hearing from my bed at night, a man's voice, laughter,
the clinking of ice in glasses. The next day my mother would look younger,
prettier. Even then I recognized the signs--the whiskey glasses, the scent of
male mixed with the sort of flowery mannerliness my mother had in those days.
Once there was a whole bouquet in a vase. He was a sport, my mother said. She
was always alone when I got up for school the next morning and I wondered if
maybe her boyfriend was married. But I pretended she didn't let him stay
overnight because of me--for her dignity and mine.
Self-educated in literature, music and art, fluent in the German and Hebrew that
she learned growing up in the Jewish Orphan Home, she had nothing but scorn for
the institutions the rest of the world lives by—school, organized
religion, government, marriage, politics. But anyone who dared label her an
iconoclast, existentialist or feminist or any other "ist" would have been met
with a withering look. Her independence and courage thrilled me because I always
knew how alone and frightened she was. She was my heroine. No book or movie ever
had such a star.
But she was too alone and overwhelmed for mothering, too damaged from her own
orphanhood. Exhausted most of the time, often asthmatic, she shipped me around
to relatives she didn't like. I never rebelled, not even in adolescence. My
girlfriends' complaints about their mothers amused me because when it came to
mothers I was the one with plenty to criticize, but I never did. The way I saw
it the only thing that stood between me and my own total terrifying orphanhood
was my flawed and fragile mother who somehow always managed to be there. Sort
of. More or less. Anyway, I wasn't about to pick on my mother. I felt this kind
of weird loyalty. I had to take care of her. But of course I couldn't. I was too
young for her neediness and fragility.
So I broke away from her grasp on my life and heart and fell into a teenage
marriage. Her unhappiness at my abandonment oozed from her pores, her moist
eyes, her eager misery, blackmailing me into visits I didn't want to make,
sneaking money to her from my grocery allowance. I was a dutiful daughter,
attentive to her complaints and demands for attention, feeling as guilty as if
her frailties were my own.
She could electrify a room with her brilliance and charm, but she didn't know
when or how to stop. People became restless and looked away, or left if they
I was ashamed of her and I was proud of her, but I didn't know what I had
learned from her until my divorce. I discovered within myself the independence
and courage she put there and also the pleasure of learning and the life of the
mind. I learned integrity and compassion from watching her struggle, and even,
from my own unmet needs, how to mother my children.
I was often asked why my attractive youthful mother never remarried. Deprived
from birth of parental love, and then widowed at twenty-eight, she seemed to
demand more love than there was in the world, more than anyone could ever give
her, souring every relationship of her life.
The night before her funeral I dreamed I was the only pallbearer.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Babette Hughes, author
of THE HAT and LOST AND FOUND, and
co-author of WHY COLLEGE STUDENTS FAIL, has also been published in the
Saturday Review; been Contributing Editor of Cleveland
Magazine; a twice-weekly columnist for the Cleveland Press; and
has published articles and book reviews in the Cleveland Plain Dealer
and the Sunday Magazine. She has also written, produced and appeared
in television documentaries and news and feature stories for Cleveland
television stations WKYC-NBC and WNBK-UHF.
In addition to her writing career she has been been National Director of Women’s
Political Action for Hubert Humphrey in his 1972 Presidential campaign, as well
as founder and President of Discover Yourself, Inc., a motivation and self
realization program for women. She has also been Director of Public Relations
for Revco D.S., Inc. in Twinsburg, Ohio, and Account Executive with Frazier
Associates, in Washington, DC. She and her husband live in Austin, Texas, and
are the parents and step-parents of eight children.
She is presently working on a sequel to THE HAT,THE
Tell us your memories of your mother to be entered to win a signed copy of
35 comments posted.
Re: Babette Hughes | The Duchess
Thanks for sharing such a personal memory of your mother!
As for myself, I am still making memories with my Mom (I don't even want to think about her some day not being there anymore). We have always, and still do, love to travel together and those are certainly the best memories of the two of us together.
(Birgit Lehner 2:59am May 9, 2011)
What I remember about my mother is that nothing seemed to fluster her. Once when we walked to the grocery, my brother decided he didn't want to go into the store & threw a fit right in the doorway. Mom just told my sister & me to ignore him and he'd find us. (It was a small store & everyone knew everyone else). He did find us and nothing more was said about the incident. And she always carried out her threats to leave if we misbehaved when we were out with her. She gave us a warning and then it was back to the car; no ifs ands or buts. I don't know how many places we left because one of us kids (and there were seven of us) misbehaved. Mom died 15 years ago and I still get teary when I remember things we did and how she's not around to share my joy and happiness.
Thanks for sharing your memories.
(Sue Klepinger 7:52am May 9, 2011)
What a heart wrenching story of your Mom and such an honor to read something so personal. The most vivid memories I have of my mother are of her valiant struggle with cancer. I was only 13 when she was diagnosed and she fought so hard to live to see me graduate from high school and then go to college and get married.She died when I was 20 years old and I often wonder how my life would have been different if she had lived for at least another 15-20 years. I would have liked my children to have known their grandmother.
(Karen Gervasi 8:11am May 9, 2011)
Interesting interview. Book sounds intriguing. Would love to
(Leanna Morris 8:55am May 9, 2011)
Wow! Such powerful writing! My own mother stayed at home until my father was disabled by a heart attack. Then she went back to school at the same time having a full-time job and taking care of the family. Her strength has always inspired me. Despite what life has thrown at her, she has always been viewed by the world and me as one of the most giving and caring people. Like you, I would never complain about her!
(Renee Brown 9:15am May 9, 2011)
After reading the touching story about your Mother, I noticed bits and pieces of my own Mother flash before my eyes!! The only difference was that I was fortunate to have a Father, although he worked a swing-shift at Ford Motor, so he wasn't around the house much, so my Mother was the disciplinarian. Since she was raised old-school, my 2 Sisters and I were really cracked down on. She also was a good Mom. She would sit on the floor and play with us, or sew dresses for our "fake" Barbie dolls. She also loved to bake her home-made cinnamon raisin bread. I loved to help her with it. She got Alzheimer's, and it was a slow process, but I was there for her every step of the way until her death, unlike my Sisters. She's been gone 9 years now, but it still feels like yesterday. I still feel her presence around me, and know she's watching over me.
(Peggy Roberson 9:52am May 9, 2011)
Wow..such a touching story..Thanks for sharing with us!!
(Dawn Staniszeski 9:59am May 9, 2011)
Being the oldest of eight children my memories of my Mother were always centered around kids and family. Seeing her caring for twins with polio will always stand out in my mind.
(Sheila True 11:30am May 9, 2011)
Thank you for sharing that with us. It is a shame that most of us dont realize how special our mothers are until we are adults. My mother and I had a very shaky relationship during my teenage years (a common story). We are now best friends. I cant imagine my life without her in the center of it.
(Jaime Zalinski 11:35am May 9, 2011)
my mother i am glad to say is and always has been my best friend. and there have been times when i have wondered why she would want to be my friend as i am not an easy person to love. my mother was adopted when she was 2 and although the people that adopted her loved her in their own way they were not the most affectionate of people or maybe they just didn't know how to show it. when she was 18 she became an unwed mother in a small town,in a time when she would still have been an outcast because of it.she never thought about giving him up. a year later she met and married my father and then had 6 more children with a man who was never faithful in all of the time they were married. it was after the death of her youngest son and the birth of the youngest daughter a year later that she finally divorced him and took all of us and moved out on her own. of course he never did pay the $60.00 a month in child support he was ordered to pay. when my dad remarried he asked my mom if we could all come for a visit and when we were there he went to the judge and told him that she had abandon us and didn't know where she was. when she came to get us she was met by a policeman(my dad was a cop) and told she could leave or go to jail,she spent the next 5 years trying to get us back. of course 1 by 1 we got older and did leave dad and move back to mom's but by then most of us had some pretty big problems. didn't matter she stuck it out and got us all the help we needed and loved us right thru the pain and hardness of it all. i personally do not know anyone in the world that deserves more love or respect than my mom but then i'm biased! Mom lives with me today and will until she either wants to leave or dies.she will never have to worry as some older people do about what will happen to her when she is to old to do for herself. she took care of us and so we will take care of her which is as it should be.
(Tammy Ramey 12:46pm May 9, 2011)
I always think of my mother as being the most loving and nonjudgemental person I know.
(Lisa Garrett 1:04pm May 9, 2011)
My Mother was my best friend and mentor. How fortunate and grateful I am.
(Marjorie Carmony 1:42pm May 9, 2011)
My mother and are are best friends. And sometimes we argue like friends too.
(Beth Melito 1:43pm May 9, 2011)
MY MOTHER WASN'T SATISFIED TO ENCOURAGE ME..SHE CALLED ME "COUNSELOR" FROM THE TIME I WAS FIVE. NEEDLESS TO SAY, I HAVE BEEN AN ATTORNEY SINCE THE STONE AGE WHEN WE HAD 12 WOMEN IN A CLASS OF OVER 200.
(Silvana Moscato 1:53pm May 9, 2011)
My mother was OCD but I loved her very much.
(Lisa Diel 2:00pm May 9, 2011)
What lovely memories of your Mom. I lost mine 35 years ago, however, I am
convinced that the spirit of our Moms never leaves us - they stay and protect
us forever. My Mom was left a widow of three children all a year apart and
the youngest under a year old. She worked so hard to care for us and instill
good values in us. I was blessed to have her and will always be thankful.
(Connie Fischer 2:24pm May 9, 2011)
Thanks for the wonderful memories of your mother. So many memories came flooding back about Mamma. She has been gone for almost 25 years and there isn't a day that I wish I could laugh with her and just share my day. She was that kind of woman. I was her youngest and so always considered myself special. I got to see more of her than the others because by the time I came along (14 years after my sister) I had her all to myself. She was a fountain of folk wisdom and folklore. Between her and my grandmamma I had a wonderful country childhood. I know both women will be with as long as I live as I will be for my daughter and her daughters. Hmmm, I see a real daughters of daughters theme here!
(Angela Bartlett 2:28pm May 9, 2011)
What a complex relationship you had with your mother. I wish I could have had a better one with mine, but if I didn't do exactly as she said, or want exactly what she wanted me to want, I was not a good daughter. In order to be anything of myself, I left home very young and never got to know her very well.
(Sue Farrell 2:36pm May 9, 2011)
Unfortunately, the majority of the memories I have of my mother are of her cruelness and abuse. This year marks the first mothers day I didn't call her. She is just too toxic, I couldn't handle it. I have stories from my childhood that would make Oprah blush.
I have made sure to be a very good mother to my son. I have enjoyed being his mother, and in doing so, helped heal myself and break the cycle of abuse.
(Debbie Penny 2:42pm May 9, 2011)
My mother is still a cheerleader in my life and my siblings. She is a superb event planner and connects to people through stories written for the local news, the historical society, a hiking club and, of course, her kids and grands. She fed me soup yesterday on Mother's Day and there's nothing like having food from home.
(Alyson Widen 2:57pm May 9, 2011)
It's very interesting hearing other peoples relationships with their mothers. I love my mother and I wouldn't change our closeness for the world!
(Judith Mor 4:10pm May 9, 2011)
My mother and I basically grew up together - she is just shy of 17 years older than me. We were basically two against the world. She instilled in me a sense of right and wrong, gave me good direction, good instincts, good judgement, taught me to never lie and never be lied to; she taught me to never start a fight, but to finish one if someone else decided to start one. And she gave me strength.
(Kelli Jo Calvert 4:33pm May 9, 2011)
wow i wish my mom was like that but she was like the wicked witch of oz. but your mom sound great and then you all ways have her memiroes
(Desiree Reilly 5:54pm May 9, 2011)
My mother was my best friend. She protected me from my dad, who was very abusive, although he never abused her. They fought like cats and dogs until the day of her death. She was always there for me and my brother, and made a good home, if not a totally happy one, for us while my dad forced her to keep working as an RN so we could have money they didn't have growing up. We were always happiest when dad was at work and not home. Mom taught me by exmaple how to be truthful, honest, happy, loyal, hardworking, loving, giving, and caring. We were always there for each other. She has been gone now for 12 years and I will always miss her.
(Cathy Phillips 5:55pm May 9, 2011)
I had lots of great memories of my mother, glad to hear you did too.
(Frances Namuth 6:36pm May 9, 2011)
My memories of my mother was suffering and the need of the almighty dollar. The dollar could fix everything and was a symbol of her love. My mom was always working, always tired or busy. As I've grown up and learned about how she was raised I have become more understanding of how she treated me. I've also had a frank discussions with her about the constant critisizms (spelling?) and how they were affecting me. We've gotten to a place where I am already dreading the day she dies. I love her deeply.
(TinaMarie R 6:57pm May 9, 2011)
Hi. Please enter me in the contest. Thank you.
(Billie Deese 7:17pm May 9, 2011)
wow, what an all-encompassing recollection of your mother.
My parents are in their 80's and still doing ok.
(Joanne Schultz 8:00pm May 9, 2011)
Thanks for sharing your story about your mother,I lost my mother 43 years ago. I still miss and think about her everyday.She was a wonderful mom. Thank for giving me a chance to win your book.
(Linda Hall 8:06pm May 9, 2011)
I still have my Mom thank goodness and my Grandmother who is 96. They are both fabulous and I love them. Please give me a chance to win your book!
(Brenda Rupp 8:26pm May 9, 2011)
I have learned too many things to count but the best one is how to handle pain. I've been with her to over 25 out of at least 50 surgeries in her life and many were outpatient. I don't think they intended outpatient to mean what she has done. First stop on the way home was for food, usually something that would kill my stomach on my best days, then it was off to the stores between the hospitals and home. My mother used those days to shop like no other. I would tell her I can go and get those things, but no, she wasn't ready to go home and lay in a bed. Lately she has had more complicated surgeries and ended up staying in the hospital long periods of time, but the day after she gets out, it's a trip,200-300 miles with Dad for the pure enjoyment of fresh air and scenery.
I was in a lot of pain Saturday after doing things I shouldn't but my parents asked me if I wanted to go on a trip with them and it was Mother's Day so of course I went. I really needed to see my nieces, who were meeting us in a restraunt 200 miles away just for lunch. I shouldn't have gone because of the pain, but I was exhausted enough that I don't remember the trip there or back because I slept. The girls were shocked to see me there and it was a great time. I slept the whole way home too. In the end, I would have been in pain no matter what I did, but at least I got something from the effort. Something I learned from my mom. (She had the whole day in a ankle halo. Six circles with over 30 pins running through her leg, ankle, and foot bones.)
(Christina Harrison 3:36pm May 10, 2011)
My grandmother mostly raised me. She is still alive, Thank God, and still puts on lipstick to go out the door to check the mail. The picture of glamour and elegance she always has a regal quality about her. Time is ticking and fraility has hit - but hair gets done on Saturday before church and visits to her siblings, flowers on the plots, and Sunday drives.. consistancy and beauty in the grace of her life, age, and wisdom. She suffered many losses, rose above; she had to leave 9th grade to help support her family and got her GED at the age of 76, this is the first year she hasn't worked (due to budget cuts) - she was working in a local high school where kids adored her, came to her for advice, even years later showing they no longer need the detention room. I think her proudest moment was walking that stage, she used to eat with CEOs, and misses the high school lunchroom. She is my inspiration.
(Carla Carlson 11:04pm May 10, 2011)
What a fascinating mother you had and, it seems, still have. I think we never completely lose our mothers. In some ways our mothers were similar: although she was in her 24th year when I was born, some people thought I was her younger sister. However, I was the eldest of 4 and my parents were married over 40 years by the time my father passed away. And now she's been gone for more than 7 and a half years after being a widow for a little over 20. She had found her first crush again and was like a young girl again for a while. Tragically he died while swimming and that, in addition to Alzheimer's, ended her dreams. Until the A we'd gotten along pretty well, but I was having major health problems of my own at that time and I kept thinking I was going crazy until we found out what was really wrong. She also liked to dress finely and always wore something that gave her a little panache. Maybe it was something she learned or breathed in with the Paris air while she was working there. Unfortunately, the Paris air didn't do the same for me. Although I am really a lot more like my father than my mother, we always got along famously until I was older, when she still often treated me like a child. One thing we really didn't agree on was my inordinate love of reading. That definitely came from my father's side.
Many more happy memories.
(Sigrun Schulz 12:36pm May 11, 2011)
My mother was a quiet lady who took pleasure in the simple things. She wasn't a big shopper, didn't need lots of money or want lots of 'stuff'. She was kind and strong and oh so generous. She enjoyed opera and learning Italian, working crossword and online jigsaw puzzles, watching Brit coms and the Food Network channel. I loved my Mom and miss her VERY much!
(Holly Caulfield 5:45pm May 11, 2011)
I have just come back from visiting my Mother. A joy as always.
(Mary Preston 11:03pm May 11, 2011)
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