Monday, May 28, 2012

#35: "My Mother in Tupper Lake" by Joan Potter

~This essay was originally published Stone Canoe (2009)

            My mother moved in with her father when she was fifteen years old.  She traveled alone to his home in the Adirondack village of Tupper Lake on a train from Detroit, where she’d been living with a couple who were strangers to her.
            She and her father shared an apartment over his store; he sold phonographs, musical instruments, and Singer sewing machines. A photograph I found among her papers after she died, a photograph I had never seen, shows her standing next to him on a patch of grass in front of a wooden building. Her glossy black hair is pulled back with a ribbon; she is wearing a loose, light-colored dress with a big floppy collar, dark tights, and high, laced-up boots. Her father, a stocky man with thick dark hair, is dressed in a three-piece suit, white shirt, and tie. His expression is serious but kindly,
I think of this young girl walking home from school one fall afternoon. She sees that her father’s store is closed and a green shade pulled down over the glass on the front door. She climbs the stairs to the apartment, clutching her books to her chest. The rooms are silent.
“Papa, I’m home,” she calls. Not a sound. Her father’s bedroom door is closed. She knocks gently but hears no response. She pounds harder, then rattles the knob. She realizes that the door is fastened from the inside with a metal hook. She runs into the kitchen and grabs a long spoon, then comes back and pushes at the hook until it gives way and the door flies open.
Her father’s body is sprawled on the floor. A torn piece of rope is tied around his neck; the rest dangles from the brass light fixture, its frayed end swaying back and forth in the breeze from an open window.
Fifty years had passed before she told this story to me and my two sisters. It was the first time the three of us had heard it. Even after she married my father, she told us, she couldn’t discuss it with him. “One day he said, ‘Did your father really take his own life?’ and I said, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’”

            My mother, Shirley Jean Wallock, was born in Cohoes, New York, in 1910. Her parents, Joseph and Anna, had settled there after emigrating from Russia ten years earlier. They ran a store that stocked groceries and dry goods. When Joseph was diagnosed with tuberculosis, the couple had six children; three were older than my mother and two were younger. Joseph moved to Tupper Lake to try to cure his TB in the pure, pine-scented air, bringing his family with him, but they couldn’t stand the cold and returned to Cohoes. Then, in the flu epidemic of 1918, Anna took sick and died.
            Joseph, ill himself, couldn’t cope with all those children. The two oldest were teenagers; they would manage, and he could care for the ten-year-old boy. Somehow he found families to adopt the two youngest, a boy and a girl. My mother, only eight years old, was sent to live in an orphanage, then with relatives in Cohoes, and finally with the couple in Detroit. Someone had told Joseph the couple was childless and were looking for a girl.
            But after four years, concerned about my mother’s health, they sent her back to her father. She was very thin, and they thought she was lonely for him. “I didn’t really know my father that well,” she said when she told us the story. “I was just lonely for a normal, happy life, I guess.”
            After her father’s death she left Tupper Lake, lived for a time with an aunt in New Jersey, and then moved to New York City, where she found an office job and shared an apartment with her older sister and brother. She didn’t return to the Adirondacks until she was twenty-one.

            That summer, she and her sister, Esther, decide to take their vacations in Tupper Lake and visit the Caplan family, who’d been friends of their father. My mother is still as slim as a teenager, with pale skin, a sweet smile, blue eyes with gracefully arched brows, and black hair arranged in upswept waves.
On their first day in the Adirondacks, my mother and Esther and the Caplan girls plan a picnic at a campground called the White Birches about twenty miles out of town. Mr. Caplan drives them there and says he’ll be back to pick them up at the end of the afternoon.
            I imagine the four friends in their light cotton dresses, white sandals, and broad-brimmed straw hats. They choose a wooden picnic table in a grove of birch trees at the shore of the lake and bring out bowls of potato salad, crispy golden pieces of fried chicken, and a jug of lemonade.
            By the time they finish eating and strolling around the lake, dark clouds have started to roll in. Soon rain begins to fall. They pack up their things and huddle under a tree by the side of the road, waiting for Mr. Caplan’s Ford to appear around the bend. Instead, along comes a shiny black LaSalle with a man behind the wheel. Hazel Caplan darts forward, waving energetically. The car stops and they all pile in.
            I see my mother sitting on the wide back seat, gazing at the raindrops rolling down the window as the car heads back to town, not paying much attention to the older man at the wheel. He is my father-to-be, thirty-four years old and newly returned from travels around the country to help run his father’s coal-and-feed business. He’s a pleasant-looking man, stocky with wavy brown hair and round, wire-rimmed glasses.
            That evening he makes a phone call to the Caplan home and asks to talk to the younger Wallock girl. He doesn’t even know her name. “This is Jesse Propp,” he says, “from this afternoon. I’d like to spend the evening with you tomorrow, if you’re free.”
            Every day for the rest of the week he picks her up in his LaSalle. Perhaps they drive to Lake Placid for dinner, or go dancing at the Tupper Lake Country Club. They met at the end of August. They are married the sixth day of October.
I didn’t know the date of their marriage until my mother told this story, soon after my father died in 1976. They never celebrated their anniversary, or even mentioned it. I have never seen a photograph of their wedding; I don’t know where it was held or who was there. Maybe they were married in Tupper Lake’s small wooden synagogue, standing before a grey-bearded rabbi, breathing the room’s musky odor. Perhaps the pews were filled with women in little veiled hats and crinkly taffeta dresses and men with white prayer shawls draped over their dark suits.
            But that doesn’t seem right. It’s easier to picture them at a hurried ceremony in the stuffy parlor of a justice of the peace in some nearby village, with the LaSalle parked out front, ready to take them to a shadowy room in the local hotel. Because no joyous family or friends were moved to take a wedding picture, I can only believe that it was a hurried affair, not an event to be celebrated.
            After they were married, my parents chose to start their new life in a brown-shingled bungalow on Water Street in downtown Tupper Lake, a block away from my father’s parents’ house and the coal-and-feed business. The bungalow wasn’t quite ready for them – it needed some painting and a few repairs – so they moved in temporarily with his parents.
            While they were living there my father left. He ran off with a Tupper Lake woman he’d been involved with before he met my mother. How could he have done such a thing?  Did he tell her he was leaving or just sneak out in the night? We didn’t ask my mother when she was alive, and after she died we wished we had.
            She packed up the coats and dresses and nightgowns she’d chosen for married life and went back to the New York apartment she’d shared with her brother and sister, back to her office job. My father and the woman traveled around the country, and somewhere along the way they parted. The woman returned to Tupper Lake and my father went to Albany, where he rented a room.
            He managed to send my mother a little money each week to add to her stenographer’s salary. Finally she took a train to Albany to meet him, and they went back to Tupper Lake and the brown bungalow.
            “We knew that everybody in town knew about what happened,” she told us. “He didn’t want to go to certain places. And I didn’t even know who she was for the longest time.”
            She yearned to go out and have some fun. “I was still a kid,” she said, “but he’d been all over and he didn’t want to go.” A few times they had dinner at the country club, and one evening she persuaded him to take her to the Waukesha, a favorite Tupper Lake nightspot. It was a low, dark-brown log building by the side of a road leading south out of town. Inside, the walls of the long room were painted with murals of woodland scenes; there was a bar at one end, a bandstand at the other, and booths surrounding a dance floor.
            My mother was probably wearing one of her New York City dresses, something silky and clinging. They settled in a booth and I imagine they ordered one of the Italian dishes the Waukesha was known for. But they were not halfway through their meal when my father glanced toward the door. There she was: the other woman. He put down his fork. “We’ve got to go, we’ve got to get out of here,” he said.
            “This always hung over us,” my mother recalled. “You always felt that people were whispering and talking. We should never have come back to Tupper Lake and we might have had a chance to have some kind of a life.”

            Before I was born, it was my mother’s duty to take my grandmother and my father’s two sisters for a car ride every afternoon. First she’d head for the narrow wooden house on Cedar Street. I can see my short, squat grandmother bustling out the front door followed by Hazel, her sharp-featured, red-haired, unmarried daughter, who must have been around thirty at the time. They’d ease themselves into the car, probably grumbling about some mistreatment by a storekeeper or a neighbor.
            My mother would continue uptown to pick up the other sister, Leah, who lived in a large house on a leafy residential street. Leah was a big woman with plump white arms and legs and huge breasts that loomed above her cinched-in waist. She had a fluting voice, usually raised in complaint about her husband, Frank, a jovial, cigar-smoking man who owned a hardware store and spent most evenings playing poker at the Knights of Columbus Hall.
            Three roads led out of Tupper Lake. Every day my mother steered her car along one of them, while the three women gossiped, occasionally glancing out the window and commenting on familiar sights. One afternoon on the road to Moody my grandmother lit into my mother for some reason, maybe something to do with her driving or her housekeeping. My mother pulled the car off the road and stopped it on the shoulder. She felt so desperate she wanted to take off running into the woods.
            That evening after supper she told my father what had happened. “Jess, those people are driving me crazy. I can’t stand it anymore.”
            He shrugged his shoulders and looked away. “I don’t know what to do about them. They drive me crazy, too.”

            By the time I start grade school, my mother has given up the daily excursions. She has three children now, and we are living around the corner from the brown bungalow in a two-story white house with a wide front porch that faces the road that runs through town. My father has a new business, too; he has opened a bakery a block from our house.
Along with her other errands, my mother is still expected to pay a daily visit to my grandmother’s house. I remember climbing the wooden front steps and waiting by her side as she taps on the glass of the front door. I see the chunky shape of my grandmother shuffling along the dark hallway. She always kisses me wetly on the lips and runs her papery fingers over my face. She wears glasses with thick lenses – cataract glasses, they are called; my mother says touching our faces helps her to recognize us.
            We never sit on the prickly upholstered furniture in the front room. Instead, we gather in a smaller room, where my grandmother sinks into the corner of a couch. I can see the lamplight reflecting from the row of scars on her arm, the result of burns from years of stuffing sticks of firewood into her black iron cook stove.
            Sometimes she feels her way to the mahogany sideboard in the dining room and brings back a box of Barricini candy, holding it out to us. The candy has a musty, mothball taste; the pieces that remain seem to be chocolate-covered cherries, most with their tops dented by the fingers of previous visitors.
            My aunts sit upright in two chairs on either side of a round lamp table. My mother’s chair is placed slightly away from them, and I am on my stomach on the rug, leafing through my aunt’s fashion magazines. I hear Aunt Leah say, in her piping voice, “Shirley, you look so tired, poor girl.” I glance up at my mother. She doesn’t speak, but her lips tighten and pink blotches appear on her neck.
            Back at our own house, she starts dinner and I settle down in the cozy sitting room next to the kitchen, doing my homework or reading. My father hasn’t come home yet, and looking out the sitting room window, I can see down the street to the window of the bakery’s office, where he works at a big roll top desk.
            When it’s starting to get dark outside and dinner is almost ready, my mother comes into the sitting room from time to time and peers out the window, looking to see if the office light is on or off. Sometimes she asks me to take a look. Even then I could feel her anxiety.
            After he finally arrives we sit in the dining room around the long mahogany table.  My father is a distant figure in our household; he spends evenings reclining in a living-room chair, the newspaper he’s reading hiding his face. But at the dinner table he’s a threatening presence. He has a cruel sense of humor, often taunting my mother and us children, especially me, the eldest.
My mother rushes back and forth with platters and bowls. She serves us appetizers, half a pear with a dollop of cream cheese in the center, or a half grapefruit sprinkled with sugar and decorated with a maraschino cherry. She always prepares roasted meat or chicken, potatoes, and green vegetables, and ends the dinner with homemade pie or cake.
But despite her carefully planned meals, the dining room table is often the scene of disagreements and tension, provoked by my father’s sarcasm and impatience. More than once it gets so bad that my mother jumps up, grabs her pocketbook, and runs out of the house. I hear the car start and zoom away.  I’m terrified, afraid she will never come back.
            Many years later my mother says: “I never liked quarreling. But every once in a while I’d blow up. I’d just have to scream and let off steam or else I would explode. I’d get in the car and drive away alone, as fast as I could go. People used to say to Dad, ‘Your wife sure has a heavy foot on the gas pedal.’”
My mother was trapped in Tupper Lake with her difficult husband, his unpleasant family, a house and three daughters to take care of, and no way out. She did her best for us children, though, and tried to find some satisfaction in her own life. But she later said she was lonely in our backwoods town; there was no one she was really close to.
There were a few other Jewish women in Tupper Lake – Esther Futterman, whose husband owned a furniture store, and Estelle Clifford, who had a gift shop. My mother occasionally joined them for mah-jongg games, and sometimes they gathered at our house. I loved hearing the click of tiles and the murmur of exotic phrases as they sat around the card table my mother had set up in our living room. But after the women left, my father mocked them, making fun of their appearance and mannerisms, and the games finally ended.

When I think about my teenage years, my mother is somewhere on the periphery of my memories. I was engrossed in high-school life – boyfriends, cheerleading, sneaking cigarettes behind the school. Then in 1950 I left for college, and as far as I knew my mother’s life went on as always. In her letters she told me news of my sisters, and mailed me a box of homemade brownies for my birthday.
 During my four years in college, my grandmother died; Hazel married a traveling lamp salesman and moved to Manhattan; Leah’s husband died, and my father had a heart attack but survived. I graduated, found a job in New York City, got married, and had a baby. In 1958, soon after my second daughter was born, my parents decided it was time to escape the long, depressing Adirondack winters. My mother’s brother and his wife lived in Southern California, and encouraged them to head west.
My father sold his baking business to one of his employees, and they began clearing out the family home. They said I should collect whatever I wanted: the small yellow chest full of high-school memorabilia, my collection of Frank Sinatra records, even the baby grand piano where I’d played romantic ballads while my mother sang. But I declined, so involved in my own life that I thought I needed nothing from the past.
They made reservations on a nonstop flight from New York to Los Angeles. It took them more time to travel from Tupper Lake to Idlewild airport than it did to reach California. Once there, they rented a Spanish-style house in Santa Monica, a few blocks from the ocean, and my mother found an office job with the General Telephone Company.
She now called herself Jean; she told me she’d always hated her name, Shirley. She walked miles along the oceanfront promenade every day before work, enjoying the sun and the early morning breezes. On these walks she made many interesting new friends – writers, artists, and people who’d been involved in the movie business.
My father settled into a yellow leather Barcalounger, where he spent his days reading, watching television, and taking naps. My mother did everything for him, even coming home at to fix his lunch. Although he was physically able to get around, he seldom left the house. Even during my twice-yearly visits, he never joined my mother and me on our outings. I don’t know if he chose to be so isolated, or if she felt he didn’t fit into her new life.
He was seventy-nine years old when he died; my mother was vague about the cause, but I think it was a combination of heart problems and emphysema. She was sixty-six, and had retired a year earlier from the telephone company, where she’d become secretary to a vice-president. Now she was free to go to restaurants, movies, and concerts with her friends, to volunteer for Meals on Wheels and at Santa Monica Hospital, to spend Sunday mornings relaxing at home, listening to music and talking to her daughters on the phone.
On my visits, she seemed both relaxed and energetic; she loved taking me to her favorite restaurants, driving us to the best ocean-viewing spots, and introducing me to her friends. We always had a lot to talk about: books and movies, politics, what all the grandchildren were doing. We rarely mentioned her life in Tupper Lake.


My mother died in 1995, when she was eighty-five years old. For several years afterward I tried to write about her. I wanted to tell the story of her life: the tragic events of her youth, the isolation of the years she spent with my father in a small Adirondack village, and how she reinvented her life in California, even going so far as to change her first name. But my attempts were unsuccessful and I eventually put the material in a folder, which stayed in my desk drawer for many years. In 2006, I joined with four other women writers to form a writing group in which we would meet weekly to read and critique one another’s work. As it turned out, we each had an urge to write about our mother. I eventually finished ten pieces, one of which is “My Mother in Tupper Lake.”

Joan Potter’s nonfiction writing has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Westchester County Times, Woman’s Day, Family Circle, and Adirondack Life. She is the author or coauthor of several books, most recently African American Firsts: Famous, Little-Known and Unsung Triumphs of Blacks in America (Kensington Publishing, December 2009). Her personal essays have appeared in the anthologies Rooted in Rock, Living North Country, and Illness & Grace, Terror & Transformation, and in the Syracuse University journal Stone Canoe and the online journals Perigee and The Living Room. She has led memoir writing workshops at the Mount Kisco Public Library in Mount Kisco, NY, the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY, the Northern Westchester Center for the Arts in Mount Kisco, NY, the Essex County Historical Society in Elizabethtown, NY, and the Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility in Moriah, NY.

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