The world as I knew it didn’t seem any less implausible the evening that mom died. No, I never really questioned what “real” was until about a month later, the day the stranger showed up on our doorstep. That may sound like the beginning of a second-rate cliche, but I prefer to think of it as an homage. The story actually begins a lot earlier though.
It had never occurred to me before to ask what truth was because, frankly, the concept held no weight in my family. And anyway, the truth is simply that which is, right? The truth is malleable, not some obelisk standing sacrosanct in the garden. I say this because the question of reality, never popular among my elders, was held in high regard by guests to the household–or “audiences,” as my family referred to them behind closed doors. I come from a long line of actors, see, only our performances had no beginning or end. The play was ongoing, and rehearsal an interwoven part of my everyday life. I knew that our family was different–I wasn’t a fool–but our way of conducting ourselves was familiar to me. There was a method to it, a pattern that I could rely upon. Our ways were reasonable.
To say that I was an actor aloud would have been gauche, on the level of vulgarity. Our lives were those of implicit performance. And there was no greater performance than the annual dinner party. All the lies that were my life–my relatives–gathered with their friends in our home once every September. It was our cherished annual gala, always a reliable setting for drama. But I looked forward to them as opportunities to witness the craft of master thespians, each of whom had honed their roles to sharp perfection.
The dinner party was my family’s metier, settings of choice because they allowed for exposition on several levels, in a controlled environment. Yet, while these matters of logistics reached an easy consensus, other more basic things kept my family at odds: namely, the application of acting itself.
Mom was a strong proponent of the physical Chekov system of acting, her slight frame contorting like punctuation marks around a flood of words. On this she lost points by my father, who saw her physicality as a liability. Mannerisms were, to him, frivolous wastes of energy. But that’s because he was a Strasberg man.
I remember the last good party our family had, now twenty odd years past. We’d all spent a month prior in focused rehearsal, and we wore tension like wet sweaters. Hours before the arrival of the first guests Mom was already pacing. This was characteristic, and I could forecast that night’s proceedings as accurately as a meteorologist watching a cloud bank pulling in from the sea. “Always late,” she grumbled, and that’s all she would say. The rest was a frenzied blur of arms and elbows, slammed cupboard doors, and a single dropped martini glass, inconspicuously anointed an hour before curtain call.
“Don’t do this to yourself, Margaret,” Dad said, but he knew she wasn’t listening. “You need to relax,” he said toward the kitchen. “You need to think.” He was frustrated with her, but it was something he would use. It wouldn’t be evident until after the guests had left, by which time his blood would have turned to acid, and his words would press drapes to glass.
My grandmother was a purist who didn’t cotton to the “canned techniques,” as she called them. She was a self-taught improvisor, and wielded a particularly keen intuitive sense. Her terse rejoinders were lethal. Where Dad was prone to fishing around in his past to summon the emotions for a given scene, grandma liked to roll into a situation cold. “What’s it going to be today, Waldo?” she would ask, though my father’s name was Walter.
“Resentment,” my father said, and then he looked up at her from the dog-eared pages of his bible. “And I think you’re to blame.”
She flicked her cigarette at him from across the room and belted, “Don’t I know it!” Only it was funny when she did it.
The curtain rose at dusk to the players assembled around the wide oak dinner table. The evening’s proceedings were punctuated regularly by whoops and caterwauls, as little dramatic scenes crescendoed, then subsided. Mom’s authentic coughing fit caught the attention of the Tasks, my aunt and uncle. “Mmm, sounds like it’s working, Aggie,” Robert said to his wife. Aunt Agatha rubbed her fingers together like a mantis. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. I loved them, but the Tasks were purveyors of schtick, which made up for the fact that they were the only ones who weren’t sloppy drunks. “Now be quiet, darling, or the others might hear you!” Aunt Agatha projected in a loud whisper. They were their own best audience.
Gary, my older brother, was a gifted actor in the Meisner tradition, and gave each moment his full attention, whether banal or otherwise. “You okay, mom?” he asked, placing a hand on her arm. I couldn’t help but notice that the skin of his hands seemed thicker than I remembered it, perhaps from his work out in the real world. It made me feel frail. My brother’s concern was utterly convincing, to the point where my neighbors’ attention refocused from Mom to him. People do love a show of worry.
Mom put up her hand, still coughing, and shook her head–the typical mixed signal that made her character so interesting.
“She’s stealing my lines,” said Grandma, lighting a cigarette.
“What about you, kid?” my brother asked when we’d found a corner away from the throng. “How’s school?”
Odd. Who were we playing to? I looked around and spotted my Art teacher with her husband just over by the miniature liquor bottle collection. Of course they were listening to us, and I went with that. “It’s erosive,” I said. “I feel like I’m losing myself. When I do assert myself they just raise the stakes, and I have to start over.” I shrugged.
Gary smiled and gave me a jaded nod. “Hate to say it, friend” he said, “but what you have there is an opportunity. Use it to reinvent yourself. Mold yourself against it.”
“What, just to win their game?” I asked him. I was uncomfortable with my brother’s assumption of authority, but I was willing to concede to his experience if only to have my frustration aired. “I get the distinct impression that they’re testing me on purpose. The system is a conscious facade. I’m a puppet in their play, and I just have to keep acting until I gain access to the rest of the set.”
The sad look on my brother’s face gave me a start, though I wouldn’t have been able to explain why then. I saw my teacher leaning closer so as not to miss Gary’s words. He said, “There’s nothing behind the scenes.”
And that’s when Mom dropped dead, right in front of the punch bowl.
The crowd kept its distance as Dad swept in and lifted her shoulders from the floor. My aunt and uncle, however, gawked with what I can only describe as stunned admiration. Good show, old lass, you’ve finally silenced the clowns.
I could barely hear my father over the rush of blood behind my ears, but he was repeating himself endlessly: “Okay, Margaret? I want you to do that again, only this time pull the punch bowl off the table as you fall. Margaret? Okay.” He held her shoulders bracketed between his hands for another beat before he looked up at his audience like a cur. This is one of my clearest memories. “Oh, god,” he said, “Is there a doctor in the house?”
I played my part and bereaved my mother’s death, bearing one sixth the weight of her casket as the procession wound down through the tidy plot of manicured lawn. I took assurance in the feeling of her weight in my knuckles. I found the reality of it grounding in a way that too few things are, and maybe nothing else is. My aunt and uncle, newly somber, moved into our house temporarily, I guess to help fill up the space. There’s nothing more pitiful than a pair of lachrymose hams though, and I avoided them as best I could. On the other hand, I was pleased that Gary had moved back into his old room. At least until the fall schedule picked up.
There were practical matters to attend to, naturally. Dust waits for no one, particularly in a house as large as ours. Dad immediately pitched himself into the business of finding a maid to help with the household upkeep, but though I was a full-time artist in residence, Dad seldom sought my input in matters mundane. In fact it was only as I was barreling out of the house on my way to school that I opened the door on the latest interviewee.
For a moment I was sure that I was experiencing a lucid dream, but the flurry of emotions that followed were too volatile to exist within a dream’s confines. Yet there she was, standing before me, with not a hair out of place. And all I could think to ask was, “Mom? What have you done?”
She smiled and shook her head politely, “I’m… here to interview? This is 1301?” Just a hint of Georgia twang–a nice touch. I’d been torn from character however, and her coy demur only deepened my determination to shed artifice, if only for a moment. I needed to understand the situation, because it was the first time I’d known what it was like to be on the outside. Here was a plot turn that I’d not been privy to.
From behind me, Dad pulled the door from my hand, and I jumped.
“Gayle, is it?” he asked, beaming. “And right on time too. Come on in,” he said, and swept his arm inward. “You’ve already met my son, I take it.”
She nodded once as she brushed past me. “Yes, I have.”
Just a nod or a wink would have been sufficient, but they were already making small talk, betraying me more assuredly with each step toward the family room. “Dad!” I shouted. “Acknowledge this!” But he didn’t even turn around. All other words failed me, I only knew… what?
What did I think I knew? As my father escorted this all too familiar woman into the other room, as I overheard the interview being conducted in typical methodic pace, I could only wonder: why hadn’t I known? Why had I been left out?
It took years for me to figure it out, specifically because I had to do it on my own. It was easy to reach the conclusion that death was only a segue, but that’s only a partial answer. The true lesson, I think, is that truth is personal, but reality is shared. Reality is an agreement among the many, which is not to say that it’s always acceptable. The occasional violation only serves to raise the stakes, which is what true drama is all about.
That understanding would have come in time, I think, but there was something more, a revelation that surfaced only after I had a family of my own. The death and subsequent reappearance of my mother hadn’t been designed to exclude me at all. To the contrary, it was my family’s way of including me, finally. For once, I’d been offered a seat in their theatre, and when I think back on it now, it’s only with unreserved approval, and the swell of music.