In order to picture my mother before she had me, I have to go back in time. It’s 1947, and she has newly arrived in New York from Steubenville, Ohio. She’s living at the Barbizon, a hotel for single women on the Upper East Side. Her next-door neighbor is a young acting student, Grace Kelly. The two women become close friends. While Grace goes to acting classes, my mother looks for work as a model. She signs with Eileen Ford, and soon enough, her face is on the cover of magazines.
Growing up, the mother I knew wasn’t glamorous or social. By the time I was born in 1959, she had left Manhattan, her social life and her career behind her. My advertising-executive father had insisted my mother and two older sisters move to a remote corner of Long Island by the water, far away from her beloved Upper East Side.
As a child, I remember running my fingers over the beautiful furs and gowns in her closet, including the pale-yellow chiffon dress she had worn as a bridesmaid to Princess Grace at her wedding in Monaco. My mother never wore her pretty dresses anymore, and she didn’t see her friend Grace. But they still wrote to one another, the letters from Monaco arriving in creamy envelopes with a red-and-gold wax seal.
During my childhood, I was just as isolated as my mother. While other children boarded the school bus in the mornings, I mostly stayed at home. My days were filled with watching TV in my bed or playing on the small inlet beach at the back of our house. My mother, the person who was supposed to protect me, raise me, and encourage me, instead kept me home from school for the majority of my childhood. She was convinced I was sick, taking me to doctor after doctor. She told me I had rheumatic fever, anemia, a weak heart, or internal bleeding. The reality was that I was fine, but my mother was not.
She was so distant and sad, completely closed off from the world. My father did nothing to help. He was almost always absent, consumed with his work and social life in Manhattan. He remained oblivious to his wife and children, except for those times when he showed his frustration by yelling at us. I left home when I was 14, moving in with my older sister in New York, finally going to school and getting the education I knew I deserved. Not long after I left home, my parents divorced.
In the years to come, my mother struggled financially and with her fragile mental health. In 1979, my sister Robin died in a car accident. Three years later, Grace also died in a car accident. These two events in quick succession devastated my mother. After many years of trying and failing to stay in stable housing, she gave up on her attempts to live a “normal” life. She began living at a homeless shelter on the Upper East Side, only a few blocks from the Barbizon Hotel, where she had first met Grace and where she spent her happiest years.
During this time, she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Finally, I had some explanation for why she had behaved the way she did, why she’d kept me home from school all those years. She was sick, suffering from delusions. Her diagnosis brought me insight, but it didn’t bring much peace. We tried to get help for my mother, to find her a place to live, to get her treatment. She refused all offers. In the coming years, she continued to live at the shelter. She spent her days sitting in Central Park or going to Bergdorf Goodman, where she used the basins in the ladies’ lounge to wash.