The Family Epic, Part One: As She Lay Dying

A photograph is the process of giving rather than taking.

I learned this from the tragic comedy that encircled my family. It was as if the sins of Adam were passed from husband to wife, and hopefully with the knowledge that came with eating this apple as a young man, the family’s tragedy ends here with me.

The question is whether knowledge is enough. Am I strong enough to stop it all from occurring again? Will wisdom triumph over greed?

This is a long story, probably taking a few weeks to tell, but I can assure you that at the end of this tale there is much to learn. The history of this story is embedded in every sinew and fiber of my being. It is now part of the force that drives this peculiar soul.

As it is painfully obvious to many, I both adored and hated my father. He was The Father and I was his son. He, to this day is omnipresent in my life.

But unfortunately, I must leave my father and proceed to this story’s End, my mother, and then slowly bring myself back to its beginnings, to the father.

The End began in the early Fall of 1982. I was living in Connecticut, my mother who had remarried twice since my father’s sudden death in 1972, was living in New York City. She had recently married a doctor, and had sold her lavish apartment, and was spending all of her remaining funds on refurbishing his large, uninteresting Park Avenue apartment to bring it up to the style and elegance that my mother required. This was no small achievement. It cost her all of her money to do this, but I understand this was her life. My mother was 62 at the time. Her new husband was at least 17 years her elder.

All of the sudden as if the sun had exploded, I found my mother, who had gone from her very healthy, extremely strong willed and powerful self, to being in the hospital, dying with only three weeks passing from diagnosis till death.

My mother was my father’s equal in every way. She came from a humble, middle class family, but with great ease (as if it was made for her) took on the position of Grand Dame with enormous style and opinion. She was a force to reckon with. Like my father I have very mixed feelings about my mother. She gave me my critical eye by being so critical of me. She found nothing but fault with me, yet somewhere deep down inside I knew she must have loved me.

As she lay dying in her hospital bed, unaware of her true dire condition, her new husband told my sister and myself that he would like to talk with us.

We proceeded back to their apartment where he told us he needed to get power of attorney to pay the bills my mother was responsible for. I told him this was fine, and then he proceeded to take out my mother’s will and show it to us. I guess this was his way of preparing us for the inevitable.

It was fairly straightforward. Whoever died first, the apartment (which was now by far, my mother’s main asset) would revert to the survivor. We left the apartment, and my sister, her husband and myself had dinner. And I proclaimed at age 34, “It’s happened again. It is all gone. She has given whatever is left of dad’s resources away. There is nothing left.” Not that I expected there to be anything left after what had happened ten years prior.

We all went home and at 4 A.M. that same night, I got a frantic phone call from my brother-in-law, yelling into the phone “You’re right. She has given it all away.” It took them a few hours but everyone got it. The saga was continuing, the legacy that was supposedly ours was mostly lost ten years earlier and now whatever was left was completely evaporating.

Everything must be understood in context. You must understand, my family, after my father’s death and the demise of most of his fortune, whatever remaining assets went to my mother. These assets did not provide her with proper income to live in the style in which she was accustomed. It would have probably been more than sufficient (more than plentiful in fact) for a starving, struggling photographer like myself. But my mother felt impoverished and in total despair. For a woman who never touched a drop of alcohol in her entire life, swearing it gave her terrible headaches; she began to drink as if she had to make up for lost time. It was her intention, her focus, and her purpose after my father’s death to find another rich man to take care of her. I understand how frightened she was. My father took care of all of us. He made us feel that his power, his money would provide for us, and without it we were nothing. Now she was alone and in desperate need of a new man.

So on a direct line she proceeded. Her second husband died of a heart attack and left her without much, so in this case, she was marrying a man many years her elder, who she was sure would die before her. She had made sure in a prenuptial agreement that she would be well provided for in case of death. My mother was making sure (without being too sure) that her life would continue no matter what happened. She signed papers that took care of her, but was unaware of what she was signing away.

Unfortunately, this desire to take care of herself, like my father before (as the sins of Abel) turned this story on itself. In looking to provide for herself, in making sure she was well taken care of, she in fact was giving it all away. It seemed as if the more she wanted it, the more she lost it.

According to this agreement, upon my mother’s death there was nothing for her children or her grandchildren.

You might ask, and rightly so, why should she care about any legacy to her grown children. To this I have no answer. In fact having received so little from them has made me stronger, self-reliant and hopefully productive. I should be thanking them. So perhaps this irony was a gift of God.

But at that point I wasn’t quite ready to let my father go. His money (or so I thought) would help sustain me, give me some of his power, support my son’s education, and help this struggling photographer remain somewhat solvent. I wanted something for all the dreams and promises he made. I was so afraid of being alone with no money, no power, and no legacy. I was a nothing, struggling underwater to find a way to come to the surface to breathe, to find my own breath while struggling to hold onto my father’s hand.

So as I mentioned, I had hoped for more but had expected nothing less, and was trying to prepare to accept this fate, but my sister would not, and with this the story begins to get very interesting.

Until next week.