Wednesday, May 2, 2012

My Mother, R.I.P.

In Memory:
Marilyn Marc Mattson (1938-2012)

Kevin Mattson

Mother liked her white wine; she’d have a glass or three; and we’d sit out on the screen porch, white winos mom and me.  We’d talk about her childhood and recap my career.  When we got to my father, that was when I switched to beer.
                                         --Loudon Wainwright, III 
Marilyn Marc was born 7:44 a.m. on February 13, 1938 in Hamilton County, Ohio, at Cincinnati’s Jewish Hospital.  Her mother, Laura Marlier Marc, and father, Henri Michel Marc, lived then at 7342 Parkdale Avenue, north and east of downtown Cincinnati.  These facts were read from her birth certificate.

On April 26, 2012, before 7:44 am, Marilyn Mattson died at the Laurels Assisted Living Center in Athens, Ohio.  She was survived by her sister, Lauri Holmes, her son Kevin Marc Mattson, her daughter-in-law, Vicky Stone Mattson, and her grandson, Jay Mattson.  These facts are known, first hand or nearly, by her son.

I am going to try to write about her life with what I have.  I no longer face a living, breathing person who moved through rooms at an increasingly slow pace towards the end of her life.  I face instead random possessions, disordered scrap books, scarce letters, and undated photos.  My mother was always the sort who hated funerals where people recalled only the good things about the person being remembered.  She never talked about “prayers” and didn’t seem to believe in God.  But she always wanted us to hold her in our memory.  She once sent me a card that she insisted I keep (I did).  It depicted Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin.  “Promise you won’t forget about me, ever.  Not even when I’m a hundred,” the card read. 

So start from the beginning: Marilyn’s father, Henri Michel Marc, immigrated from France at age fourteen and eventually turned himself into an upstanding bourgeois citizen in the greater Cincinnati area.  He had come to the States in the first year of World War I.  As his children got older and after he completed his education in chemical engineering, Henri Michel Marc developed a managerial acumen that facilitated a rise in the business world.  He eventually became President and General Manager of Tapatco, a camping, hunting, and fishing equipment supplier that operated out of Greenfield, Ohio.  I have in front of me pictures of the top execs of the company, an array of white male faces stuffed into stiff suits.  My grandfather sits with his hands extended on his thighs, while the other men clutch their hands together.  He looks like a man projecting honesty and forthrightness.  Or a man who was ready to get up from the sitting position and get onto real business.

Henri Marc resembled a Sinclair Lewis character.  He became a member of the Rotary Club and the Masonic Lodge (I assume, though don’t know for certain, that he was a Republican).  He held disdain for those immigrants who didn’t immediately assimilate.  A heavy French accent could drive him to distraction.  He thought eating cheese without bread or cracker a profligate crime.  But Marilyn remembered a warmth to his personality, and the one letter I have from her father to her (dated 1961) reflected a kind and caring tone.

Marilyn’s relation with her mother, Laura Marlier Marc, was best described as unhealthy.  Marilyn remembered receiving the silent treatment for days on end and for reasons she couldn’t comprehend.  Only in her adult years did she start to come to terms with her relation to her mother.  She always expressed surprise that Laura Marlier Marc was such a kind and proud grandmother to her own son.

Marilyn turned into a quiet and shy kid who started to have an interest in music and books.  She attended Walnut Hills High School, a public high school with a focus on college preparation, where she was classmates with Jerry Rubin, co-founder of the Youth International Party (Yippies).  From there it was onto Oberlin College, where she benefited from a superb music conservatory and excellent liberal arts education.  Her tastes in music ranged from classical compositions to contemporary jazz (she remembered seeing Miles Davis perform).  To her last day, she recalled being trained by a Wagnerian soprano teacher who had a huge chest and capacity to hold notes for what seemed like minutes.  She also studied sociology and social research, much to her later benefit.

She moved to New York City after graduating from Oberlin in 1959.  She remembered living in a small apartment where turning on a small fan killed the lights.  From what I can reconstruct, she met my father in New York City at some sort of occasion.  Any memory about my father was hard to tease out of my mom.  In any case, Marilyn, like many women of her day and age, rushed into marriage.  She became a bride on December 31, 1960.

She married Roger Alan (“Skip”) Mattson, a young man training to become an engineer who had a peculiar liking of classical music and William Faulkner and who had gone to high school with the wacky postmodern novelist, Thomas Pynchon.  That Roger (“Skip”) came from a family of depressed Swedish engineers who lived for the technical nature of their work didn’t set off any warnings in Marilyn’s mind, from what I can tell.  It only does now looking back.  They married and followed their routes where his career took them – from stints in the Air Force (fortunately enough before Vietnam heated up) and then finally to the Washington, D.C. area where he became an engineer for the Godard Space Flight Center (NASA). 

They first moved to a small house in Bethesda, Maryland, right behind Bethesda Chevy Chase High School.  Then they moved to Chevy Chase, Maryland, now one of the plushest suburbs of the Washington, D.C area but not quite that when they moved there.  They bought a broken down house on the cheap.  Skip spent a great deal of time fixing the thing up.  Marilyn sewed curtains and painted.

In 1966, on Christmas day, Marilyn gave birth to her only son, Kevin.  The family lived in Chevy Chase, with a veneer of normality – a happy family on a tree-lined suburban street.  Except there was something wrong with Skip.  Around 1976, Skip left the home and then over the next three years drifted back and forth from the family.  Then came the divorce, and Skip admitted to having lied about having another woman in his life and three kids.  To say that this was a turning point in Marilyn’s life is a grotesque understatement.

Marilyn became what they called in her world of social research a “displaced homemaker.”  She suddenly had to rush into the workday world, along with many other “shucked” wives (to use Tom Wolfe’s term) desperately trying to find work to support their kids.  She went through an array of jobs, and I remember becoming a latch-key kid who would sometimes come to her office after school was out (the location of which changed, as she learned the pleasures of “temp” work).  I also remember her being a superb mother, rising to the occasion and finding a way to balance work and her obligations towards me.  Her biggest break came when she landed a job at Westat, Inc. in Rockville, Maryland, a company dedicated to survey research.  Here she built her own career, gradually moving up the ladder in management (the company had a numbered step system that I remember celebrating with her: “and now a 12!” or something like that).  Her biggest accomplishment, that she remembered long after retirement, was working on the research project that linked baby aspirin to Reye’s Syndrome.

The thing she always complained about was driving home in the dark of evening.  She had sold her townhouse in Bethesda for a pretty profit.  She moved further away from D.C. towards the exurbs of Rockville, Maryland, eventually to Kentlands.  This small developed town, an experiment in “new urbanism,” could never rescue her from the sprawling hell of what was called euphemistically “the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area,” a great gaggle of suburbs strung together by monstrous highways.  She watched as the highway near her home went from being a four-lane to a twelve-lane behemoth.  She hated to drive and enter that world.  She started talking about early retirement to me a lot.

Marilyn decided she wanted to be closer to her small family and moved to Athens, Ohio in 2003.  She bought a nice small house on Arden Place.  She did some volunteer work for the Red Cross and our local Head Start.  She read a lot, but she never seemed to adjust to the restlessness of retirement.  And then after about three years she suffered her first mishap – a broken ankle that came from falling down the stairs in her house.  After crashing to the bottom, she propped herself into her guest bed and waited until morning to call us and take her to the hospital.  She had developed osteoporosis, due, in large part, to her habit of heavy smoking. 

Her big injury came in the spring of 2007.  We had gone to Cincinnati for a gymnastics event that her grandson Jay competed in.  Some time during the evening after her return, she had a series of mini-strokes and then one major one that caused her to fall and break her hip.  She was in recovery – and a state of dementia – for over a year.  She then moved to the Marietta Inn, where she began to gain some stability.  She went through a series of operations for the hip and then eventually moved to the Glenwood Retirement Center (Marietta) in 2009.  She gained a certain level of independence and lived there until she tried a move back to a small apartment in Athens, realizing soon that she had made a mistake.  She finally moved from Glenwood to the Laurels of Athens in February 2012.  She was happy to be near her family again but was also upset about her level of mental engagement and her general inability to get around.

On April 24, Marilyn went to a track event to watch Jay perform.  She complained about being tired, to an extent that was worrisome.  We went to dinner, and she seemed more wobbly than usual.  The next day, Vicky took her to the doctor to have some stitches from a biopsy taken out.  The last memory Vicky had of Marilyn was her enjoying an ice cream cone as they returned to the Laurels.  That evening when she went to bed, Marilyn had written on a notepad next to her bed: “Bed – Blood.  Headache.  Bed 11:00.”  We figure she must have had a headache from a stroke and then gotten out of bed some time in the evening, had another stroke, and then fell to her death.  She was discovered by a nurse around 7:45 am lying on the floor.  They put her body into bed and called Vicky and me.

Marilyn had her body dedicated to the local school of medicine.  They will cremate her body, but she made no request for the family to take possession of her remains.  She did not want a memorial service.  Those who would like to remember her can make a contribution to UNICEF or the Alzheimer’s Research Project.  Those were the two biggest causes she listed in her last will and testament.