"The Lady Vanishes and My Absent Mother"
You'll excuse me if l run away?—Miss Froy in The Lady Vanishes
Sometimes I find it easier to remember things by not thinking about them directly. I call this method peripheral memory. The way I can see a star in the sky better by letting my gaze veer to the side of it, I can recall a name only when I turn my mind to something else.
I find myself drawn to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) because of what it might trigger in my peripheral memory about absence, which I lived with my entire childhood, when my mother would periodically disappear from my life. When I attempt to remember these scenes too directly, they stay hidden in the cloudy night sky of childhood memories. So I drift my gaze over to Hitchcock intermittently in order to allow certain early childhood scenes to come into focus.
The enigmatic Miss Froy: Who is she? She writes her name with her finger on the steamy club car window and shortly afterwards she vanishes. In The Lady Vanishes, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), the pretty young brunette, becomes frantic when she realizes that Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), has disappeared. Everyone in her compartment denies having seen her. As Iris goes running through the cars searching for Miss Froy, she bumps into Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), the young folk musicologist she had scuffled with the night before in the inn. Now smitten with Iris, he still does not believe there is a missing Miss Froy, since all the other passengers are in on the cover-up and insist Miss Froy never existed.
Iris had begun to doubt her own sanity until she sees the trace of the letters FROY that Miss Froy had written with her finger on the steamy glass of the club car window. That peculiar name. But as luck would have it, the writing disappears when the train enters the tunnel—before she can show it to Gilbert. Another lady—her name this time—who vanishes!
A summer day in Brooklyn in the late-1940s. A young woman in her twenties boldly leans back against the boardwalk railing, flaunting her body in a provocative two-piece outfit: high-waisted flowered shorts that reveal most of her upper thigh and a matching, flowered cap-sleeved top that shows off her midriff and ties between her voluptuous breasts. Her light-brown hair, parted on the right above her high forehead, is gathered in a rush of waves to the side, highlighting her prominent Polish cheekbones. She has planted her sandaled right foot on the ground, bent the other leg back at the knee to rest on the bottom crossbar of the railing. Joyfully at ease and squinting up into the bright sun of Manhattan Beach, a few blocks from where she grew up on Dover Street, Selma gives Irving a full, toothy smile as he snaps the picture.
Selma snaps the companion photograph of Irving wearing a navy cap, in a pair of loose-fitting khaki shorts that highlight his slender thighs. He is bare-chested with a slim torso he enjoys showing off. Like her, he stands posed, back to the railing, one foot resting on the lower bar as he squints into the sun, grinning at her.
Wintertime. Selma beams with Irving, self-possessed, on the front lawn of her parents’ home on Dover Street in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn. She wears an ankle-length lambs-wool coat, strap-on heels with a peephole at the toe, a sheer scarf thrown over the back of her hat, tied gracefully under the chin. Irving has a winter coat on over a suit and tie and he wears a hat whose large brim shades his face from the sun. He is smiling broadly as he grips her around the waist with his right arm.
Early Spring, 1949. Now they are on their honeymoon, skiing in the Laurentian Mountains in Canada. Wearing a ski sweater, Selma chuckles as she makes a show of rubbing snow into Irving’s bare chest as he leans in toward her, both of them hamming it up for the camera. Selma, so at ease in touching her new husband, and equally at ease in being touched by him.
I study these photographs as though they are movie stills because that is what remains of my mother’s past before I was born. Looking at these snapshots reminds me that my mother was not always as I knew her. By the time I came into the world and throughout my childhood in the 1960s and early Seventies, she was a woman who frequently disappeared, who stopped being Mommy every time she had to enter the psychiatric ward at Kings County Hospital. The label she wore for life was paranoid schizophrenic. She would receive electroshock treatments and high doses of anti-psychotics before she came back home to be Mommy.
She is my lady who vanished.
My First-Grade Portrait
I must be around seven years old the one time my father takes me and my sister to visit my mother in Kings County Hospital’s psychiatric unit, where she often remained for three or four weeks. My father leads us into a large visiting room with grey-green walls. I quickly glance around to see other seated families visiting patients. Oh. So I am not the only one with a mommy they have to take away. He takes us over to a seated woman who looks like Mommy the way a wax figure resembles a live figure, and I sit down opposite her.
Her thin, light-brown hair looks a little greasy and is brushed and parted to the side. She is wearing her hot-pink lipstick and her small blue eyes fix me with a maniacal, moist stare before she comes to life, this usually quiet, slow-moving woman, the words tumbling out of her faster than I have ever heard her speak. “Sharon honey I missed yuh so much, ya know what they did to me tuhday, they stuck something in my tushy so I could go to the bathroom and yestuhday they put electric wires in my head and oh it was terrrrible. You can’t bulieve what goes on here.”
I sit there frozen, not knowing what to do or say. Mommy still sounds like my mommy, but speeded up, like a 45-record played at 78.
She leans in towards me, fishing something out of the pocket of the apron she wears over a green hospital gown. She holds out her right hand, which curves in, as though her fingers have tight webbing between them and are stuck together. “Here, Sharon, I made something for yuh. I wan’cha to have it.”
She puts something in my hand. Cool to the touch, the size of a Benjamin Franklin half-dollar but much thinner. I am too frightened to speak, so I look down. A circular copper pendant with a muddy enamel swirl of greens and pinks fired into it sits in my palm.
“I made it special for you. Yuh know, I wanna get outta here and go home with you.” “All right. That’s enough, Sel.” My dad steps between us. “We all came to visit you. How ya doin’? Say hello to Marla.” He prods my big sister in the back to get her to move forward. “How’s the food? What’re they feeding ya here?”
I get up from the chair and step back, and spend the rest of the time a bit dazed, half-listening and looking at her, as I finger the gift she has just given me. Is this now my mommy? I feel dizzy and nauseous as I turn the pendant over in my hand. Why is she making this kid stuff?
Soon my dad tells us it is time to leave. On the car ride back home, no one says a thing, as the radio wails: “Don’t let the sun catch you cryin’ . . .”
He never takes us back to visit her in the hospital.
For close to fifty years, I have held on to this fired copper medallion, never able to wear it, never able to throw it away. As an artifact from that time, it tells me that at least once, I saw my mother at her most helpless and childlike and I understood, however vaguely, that I could never go back to being the child again. Like the end of “Toyland,” a song my mother liked to play on the piano: Once you pass its borders you can never return again.
I vaguely understood that things with electricity were done to her there. Though no one told me, I knew I had to hide from my friends what had happened to my mother and where she was. That there was shame in it. When the Rolling Stones came on AM radio, It’s just your 19th nervous breakdown, I belted it out along with my friends.
My friends lived in single-family homes their parents owned in Mill Basin and Bergen Beach—middle-class neighborhoods a bus ride away from my working-class one that had no particular name other than being near Canarsie. My parents rented the downstairs apartment of a modest two-family brick home, where my sister and I shared a cramped bedroom. Each night one of us pulled out a high-riser bed and tucked it away each morning.
The Lady Vanishes. Why do I feel compelled to re-watch it? Each time I am doing my own dreamwork of a woman in search of her mother, identifying with Iris and casting off my childhood role of being in on the cover-up.
At the outset of the train journey, Iris briefly loses consciousness because of an accidental blow to the head before boarding the train. When she awakens, she finds Miss Froy sitting opposite her in the train compartment, who soothes her, offering her a handkerchief daubed with eau de cologne to put to her forehead. Miss Froy steadies Iris, who is still quite woozy, and leads her by the arm to the club car for a cup of Miss Froy’s special tea. When they return to their compartment, Miss Froy urges Iris to rest, and the concussed, dizzy Iris dozes off.
When Iris awakens, she finds Miss Froy has vanished, and she becomes frantic. No one says they have seen her—neither the sinister-looking woman in a black headdress by the window, nor the magician. In the club car, the steward is adamant that she took her tea alone. Iris must find Miss Froy. Miss Froy acted like a mother to her before she disappeared. Now Iris is determined to act like her daughter.
Didn’t I spend my entire childhood covering up my mother’s condition? And haven’t I spent my adulthood searching for my mother? Who was she? Where was the lively, playful, glamorous woman I saw in the photographs from before I was born? Who, before she met my father, poses in several shots with different boyfriends. Who hams it up in a bathing suit with her girlfriends. Who sits in the center of a circle of teens, laughing into the camera.
Selma, the nineteen-year-old, stands in Washington Square Park, a young coed at New York University before she had to drop out when she had her first schizophrenic episode. The young married woman who, in 1951, kept a diary and made lists of the books she wanted to read, including Finnegan’s Wake, who also wrote essays such as “The Value of Socialized Medicine to the American Public.” The woman, I discover, who wrote poems in English and in Spanish under a pseudonym before I was born. Who sent a poem called “Patience” to Redbook Magazine and received a typed, one-page rejection letter. Where had she gone?
8 years old
My mother’s breakdowns happened until I was around ten years old. My dad must have worried that my mother might have a breakdown while he was away on one of his month-long sales trips. At the advice of a psychiatrist, my mother took pills daily and her breakdowns ceased.
From then on, I lived with a mother who was no longer hospitalized. She became a zombie. She slept until 11:30 each morning. She would buy some groceries and do a bit of dusting. Sometimes she would pick me up from school in the car, bringing me a hot cocoa. When we got home, she would lay down in bed in the late afternoon, with The New York Post before resting, her right arm bent at the elbow to cover her face.
This was a different kind of vanishing act.
Through my teen years, I sought to hide who my mother was just as she had become hidden from me. She moved slowly through the house like a sleepwalker. She gained a lot of weight, though she continued to wear her bright pink lipstick. When she undressed in her bedroom after dinner, I watched her deflated breasts slump out of her brassiere before she slipped into one of her pastel, cotton nightgowns and into bed once more to watch TV with my dad.
Now my mother moved in slow motion, as though she were walking through water. In her drugged haze she spoke little, and held her hands stiffly at her side with her thumbs lying like spatulate spoons, limp and useless, in the palms of her hands. Her hands always unnerved me, reminding me she was not normal. I was afraid it must be obvious.
My mother took Thorazine (Chlorpromazine) for years. Now I discover that Thorazine was (and still is) routinely given to schizophrenics starting in 1954. French researchers discovered the drug and thought it would be a good sedative for surgery. It was commonly referred to as a chemical lobotomy because the doctors were pleased to find it controlled and sedated patients, producing detachment, relaxation, and indifference, according to clinical trials.
Chlorpromazine (Thorazine) is still the first drug mentioned in a list of Antipsychotic Medications on the National Institute of Mental Health’s online booklet Schizophrenia.
My mother also took Stelazine (trifluoperazine hydrochloride), another strong anti-psychotic, at the same time. The list of side effects characterize my mother perfectly: She was sedated, drowsy, lethargic, emotionally dull, and didn’t have much to say because she probably had difficulty thinking, due to the medications.
I return to Selma in her photo album from before I was born: The woman in a white turtleneck who rode a bicycle. The one who went fishing with Irving on the Dorothy B. from Sheepshead Bay. The woman who occasionally wore her hair up in a turban like a Hollywood starlet. The one who played show tunes like “Some Enchanted Evening” on the piano. A lively, curvaceous woman with a broad smile who had several boyfriends propose to her, she once told me.
This Selma had vanished. I would never catch a glimpse of her again.
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