“I really liked quaaludes,” my mother volunteers, describing the Reagan-era Manhattan party scene. Before there was a husband and a daughter and a woodworking business in rural Oregon, there was a young curly-haired modeling agent who took quaaludes “only on weekends” and received diamond earrings from grateful clients.
Asking my mother about her experience in the ’80s is a bit like asking my dog about his former life as a stock broker—so far removed from my reality that I find it difficult to comprehend. I’ve heard mumblings from this other realm, my mother pointing to a television credit and noting that she once dated said actor or producer. “Whitney Houston was a junkie,” she told me as I blasted “How Will I Know” from my bedroom. “She bought cocaine from my messenger—it wasn’t even the good stuff.” I’d receive scraps from Mom, obscure bits and pieces that I hardly knew how to take.
But more jarring than the anecdotes my mother let slip were those she didn’t. I’d always regarded the sapphire, diamond-set ring she wore on her left ring finger as an engagement ring, somehow purchased by my father, the struggling artist. It wasn’t until I left for college that I was told the ring was a gift from the agency, not my father. My mother had the stone reset for my 21st birthday and I now wear the same sapphire on my left pointer finger. It was only yesterday that I was made privy to the true origin of the ring—not an ambiguous client gift, but an anniversary present from an ex-boyfriend. It seems that I’ve carried a bit of my mother’s past back to its rightful place, New York City.
“Lisa—er, um Eliza Jones?”
“No, Liza, like Liza Minnelli.”
Mom has carried the burden of being a “Liza” for the past 59 years. The Oregon folk have been struggling to make sense of that uncanny “z” since the early nineties. Lisa Frank, Eliza Doolittle—much easier namesakes for the Oregonians to accept. Like both my mother and Miss Minnelli, Liza simply breaks the mold.
Her middle name Dee, as in Sandra, invokes quite a ruckus as well. “D., like the letter? What does it stand for, Lisa?” It was confusing for me, too, especially since my father led me to believe that his middle name actually was the letter L. It wasn’t until middle school that I convinced my mother to tell me the truth, a truth she prefaced with “Never tell your father that I told you!” L for Laverne. Kenton Laverne Jones—the big family secret.
Neither of my parents chose to abandon the tradition of middle name oddity when it came time to name their own child. Unable to decide on a middle name, they agreed to give me two. Scarlett Gether. I’d be Isabel Scarlett Gether Jones, a title which NYU administrators and consulate employees alike would come to resent.
Whereas floral-print Betsey Johnson dresses and suede stilettos were once the norm, oversized overalls and messy up-dos now characterize my mother’s day-to-day. Journeying to the opposite coast was more than a decrease in sales tax for Liza, it was a purge of the superficial. Bougie cocktail outings have been replaced by garden-grown salads and leisurely strolls through town; the frequent trips to Bloomingdale’s upstaged by her recent history of yard sale going.
“You make me sound like a hillbilly!” my mother says, responding to the first page of this very essay. I assure her that wasn’t the intent. “Do you really see me this way?” she asks. I tell her that I don’t judge her decisions, but I don’t quite understand them either. “You will,” she says, “Give it a few more years.”
Comfortable as she is, Mom still feels the urge to experiment every once in a while. In Colorado last November, she found a particular fascination with my boyfriend Jesse’s marijuana use. “Don’t you feel tired? Do you get really hungry? How do you focus? Do you feel paranoid? Is it stronger than it was in the ’70s?” I call this rapid-fire line of questioning The Interrogation. It was the same low-stakes interview tactic my mother had habitually used to ask me about my school day—How are your friends? Is Maggie still dating Derek? Is Tessa still anorexic? Did you like your turkey sandwich? How was History? How was English? Do you have a lot of homework? What do you think of strawberry yogurt? Can you write Grandma a thank you note? Do you like the pants you just bought? Do we need to return them?” After three years away from home, I find her unrelenting sense of curiosity oddly comforting.
This time, though, simple answers could not sate her interest. “Let’s buy some pot,” she suggested. My boyfriend bristled at her terminology, and even more so at the idea of my mother buying him drugs. But Liza isn’t one to abandon a project. She found the little yellow-shingled dispensary in Breckenridge and texted Jesse all of her questions and concerns. I guessed that Mom was living by her “When in Rome…” principles.
Later that night as the rest of our party watched an early Tarantino film, Mom, Jesse, and I cracked a few windows in the lodge’s rugged “Bear Room” and did as the Coloradans do. It took one hit of Maui Wowie for my mother to recount why she’d left Manhattan twenty-some years prior.
“It was an ugly time,” she said. Mom had suffered the death of friends and lovers as the AIDS epidemic swept Manhattan. She’d been mugged while walking with a colleague in Chelsea. She’d been surrounded by plastic people whose sparkling veneers and exciting lifestyles had led her astray more often than not. Sick of status, sick of sophistication, sick of money and its many strings, my mother finally found the one thing she hadn’t grown sick of just yet: love.
“Your father was so different from anyone I’d ever been with,” she said, catching her breath from the last hit.
This piqued my boyfriend’s interest, “Why’s that?”
“He was so . . .” She took a moment, struggling to draw the line between honesty and marijuana-induced over-share.
“So . . . what?” I asked.
“He was so . . . unsophisticated.” With this admission my mother begins to laugh, the hearty deep-rooted sort of laughter that’s only heard from those who are truly happy—or truly stoned. I figured it was a little bit of both.
I begin to laugh too. So does Jesse. We laugh until it hurts, until tears stream down our faces and each breath becomes a battle.
My mother, in her pink-striped nightgown and cardigan, leaves the bear-adorned bedroom and joins my relatives on the couch. She snuggles up next to my father, reaching for his hand as he revels in the absurd violence of the Tarantino film. He squeezes her hand as it meets his, a loving reflex to her touch. They watch quietly, as they have through many years and many movies, side by side, enjoying their lack of sophistication.