WHAT I LEARNED FROM MY PSYCHOTIC MOTHER
My mother was a paranoid schizophrenic. She was institutionalized when her first marriage failed and her two children were placed in an orphanage. She was released after three months and about a year later met the man who became my father. I knew my mother was different from other mothers because of her strange behavior. She would sometimes get off a subway and wait for another train because she was convinced someone was staring at her or talking about her. She would sometimes pull my brother and me out of a movie before it was over or out of a restaurant before we finished our meals. Sometimes she would punish a waiter by smearing food on the table. She had fights with our neighbors and sometimes the police had to be called. She fought a lot with my father. In today’s world some neighbor would have intervened and I might have ended up in a foster home (the shift from orphanages to foster care took place during the 1930s). This is what I would have missed: When my mother was not in one of her paranoid moods, she was very loving. My older brother was born with a congenital heart defect (inoperable in 1929 when he was born) and given six months to live. He lived because our mother protected him, always having us live on a ground floor and rarely farther than a block or two from a school where we attended. Instead of our being unsupervised in rough and tumble neighborhood play, our mother took us to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or Museum of Natural History almost every week during the summer. When not in museums she would stop at art shops and buy us watercolors or pastels and paper to do artwork at home. She would stop in bookstores and get us books. She took us to Central Park, Prospect Park, the Bronx Zoo, or cooled us off during heat waves by having us ride back and forth on the Staten Island Ferry. Everyday she took out her violin and played an hour of classical music (she was particularly fond of Fritz Kreisler’s renditions). In the 1940s she began to make a supplemental income by becoming a street musician. She took enormous pride in my brother’s and my activities and successes in school. She let us read anything we wanted. She tolerated the messes we made and never scolded us for smearing paint on the walls or scribbling with a pencil as long as we were engaged in creative activities. To protect my brother’s health she saw to it that I never learned to roller skate, to ride a bicycle, or to swim so that I would not tempt him to exert himself.
In my teens my mother would save her change from playing the violin, board a train to California, visit her daughter in San Diego, and return with only a small bag for her clothes and her violin. When she got hungry, she would get off during a rest stop at a station, play her violin, and when she had enough to buy a meal, return to her train. I learned from my mother that not everything in life has to be planned to perfection and that humans, however flawed, have remarkable capacities for survival and for obtaining a satisfaction out of life. I learned that adventure and novelty did not require wealth to experience. I also learned from her that taking risks and failing was more frequently outweighed by the successes coming from taking those risks. Eventually my mother’s paranoia worsened and she became a threat to her survival, refusing to eat because she believed her food was poisoned and I had to go through the horrific experience of committing my own mother. Remarkably, she bore no resentment and blamed my act on her imagined enemies who forced me to commit her.