It is 5,263 miles from Mt. Olympus to West Hartford, Connecticut, but Cupid’s arrows pierced my parents’ hearts—daily, it seemed—throughout their 50-year marriage.
Caroline Fox and Saul Weber met in a hospital; her father, Nathan, and his brother, Mel, were cardiac roommates. “You never know where you’re going to meet the one,” my mother loved telling me, “so your hair should always look good.”
They married in 1939; Caroline wore lisle stockings on her great legs rather than Japanese silk. Her hair was gorgeously waved back and shoulder-length, like Lauren Bacall’s.
By 1950, the main themes of their lives had been established. Caroline was a painter, with a studio on the third floor of the white Colonial we shared with my maternal grandmother, Rosalie, whom we all adored passionately. Saul ran the fine-printing business founded by Nathan, who’d died when I was three.
They read four or five novels a week, played competitive bridge and golf, piped in jazz and opera on an early stereo with huge speakers, and made life as rich as possible for my younger brother, Nick, and me. On my eighth birthday, for wonderful instance, I saw Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza in South Pacific, while my brother got to order room service back at the Hotel Pierre with my mother.
Even everyday life had a romantic gloss. Whiting Lane Florists brought countless boxes of the monochromatic assortments my mother liked to paint. “If you have only yellow flowers, you really see the nuances of color.”
Once, in my lumpy teen-hood, I asked, a little sullenly, how come Daddy always seemed to know when she especially needed flowers. She flashed her devilish grin. “He’s the most wonderful man in the world, but they all need help. We have a deal: I call Whiting’s, he pays the bills.”
She bought him a Patek Phillipe watch for his 40th birthday, so tenderly engraved that I’d feel cheap revealing the words. He gave her a sexy red sports car for her 38th birthday, in 1957. It would be eight years before Elliott Jaques coined “midlife crisis,” but that’s what was going on—her painting life solid but no New York gallery, Rosalie stricken with Alzheimer’s—and my father did his utmost to battle the gloom.
You’d imagine that Valentine’s Day was over-the-top between them. No. Let cheating husbands beguile their wives with heart-shaped truffles on February 14. Instead, my parents winked at Cupid and dedicated the day to family love.
My brother and I got presents: red socks, books cynical and sentimental (The Devil’s Dictionary, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets). We made valentines for our housekeeper, Clara, and, above all others, Rosalie.
We celebrated Rosalie’s birthday on February 14 because her real birthday was unknown—papers lost in the flight from wartime Germany. Anyway, the suitable birthday for a bosomy, cushiony, forgiving, embracing woman who embodied love.
On a Florida jaunt, Rosalie sent Nick and me coconut monkey sock puppets in a package marked “Please rush, it’s from a grandmother.” And when Nick and I grew up, married, and had children—two daughters for him, a daughter and a son for me—my parents made Valentine’s Day about them.
We were, and are, a family of the word. My mother edited her high school paper, my father long dreamed of being a football coach and poet. My brother, an extraordinary biographer of artists, is married to a literary novelist whom my parents embraced as a second daughter.
We had maybe the first Scrabble set in West Hartford, and when Boggle was invented it became a nightly staple, fiercely competitive, dubbing the winner world champion. Listen in when my grown-up kids visit me now in New York, and you’ll hear the enticing clatter of tiles being shaken.
I tell you this because, looking back, I realize that Valentine’s Day was an explosion of words that didn’t get said on other days.
The culture was different then, for sure; “I love you” hadn’t yet become the universal sign-off at the end of phone calls. (How did that happen, anyway?) My parents and brother and I had tender nicknames for each other, but we had some rude ones, too. I was Pep and Nunch . . . and Chunky and Tard. Ouch.
Valentine’s Day excepted, my parents despised sentimentality. Saul would mime a fiddler’s bowing if anyone started plucking at heartstrings.
Harsh words were equally unwelcome. “The blunt truth can be a blunt weapon,” Daddy said. Often.
In 1983, my mother was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. She snarled at me—snarled!—for crying when we got the word in her hospital room after a liver biopsy. Didn’t I know she was world champion at cancer, too?
She lived for seven years. Glum looks and deep questions were outlawed. Her endurance defied grim odds, so it’s hard to gainsay her approach. But there were things I longed to say and hear. I didn’t want my kids to have to pretend.
January 22, 1990, and she was nearing the end. I remember my father’s Old-Fashioned glass—Dewar’s and water—trembling in his hand because he couldn’t get her to grasp that it was my birthday.
She gave me a present of a sort: When she got up off the couch to walk down the hall to the bathroom, she allowed me to take her arm.
“I’m not getting any better, you know,” she said.
At last my chance to talk from the heart, but I was my mother’s daughter and instead I played the family game, I offered a quip. “You don’t have to get better,” I said to the champ of champs. “You’re perfect as you are.”
I zig-zagged between New York and West Hartford for the next weeks. Then Caroline slid into a coma, and I returned to my childhood home for the duration.
The afternoon of February 13, her adoring oncologist visited. “Soon,” he said. “You never know, but it could be tomorrow.”
Saul, Nick, and I exchanged glances. “Not tomorrow,” one of us said. “Valentine’s Day. Her mother’s birthday. She wouldn’t screw it up.”
After a glum dinner, the men settled into the den, playing distracted cribbage, helping each other bear the unbearable.
I got into my parents’ bed and put my arms around Caroline. She seemed peaceful, but I fretted that she was cold.
She died at ten to eleven.
There are so many ways to say “I love you.”