My Mother Annie
by Gabriel Bradford Millar
My Mother Annie was the craziest cook in Connecticut. All the years of my unmarried youth I remember her going remote at the stove, blank as a cow. If you asked her how long it took to make the meat loaf, she stared at you as though you had two heads. And you made a mental note (two mental notes?) never to ask her again. It was as if she washed her wits with the grinds down the sink. She once put garlic salt in my birthday cake because she’d run out.
Nothing ever came out of the oven the way God intended it to: the cookies were black with burnt molasses, once an eggless cake went splat because the hen was broody (it was against my Mother’s religion to steal eggs from a broody hen). And she was a housekeeper only in the most literal sense of the word, in that she didn’t give the house away but kept it - dirty, dishevelled, and wide open to anyone who needed a roof in the rain and a burnt cookie.
She wore her heart on both sleeves. She took in strays – cats and motherless men. One was Dolph – she found him in New York with nowhere to go at Christmas. So when I woke up on Christmas morning there was Dolph at the breakfast table. She had even filled a stocking for him. But if she was born soft and sentimental, she was also born with both sleeves rolled up for a fight. She cried if someone else was crying, and if they said they had friend whose uncle had died she cried. But she was a tigress if there was any injustice. She feuded with the neighbors and with politicians.
But I liked her. I liked her a lot. Even though I learned very early not to depend on her for anything. She was volcanic and contradictory. I remember the morning Alan Kallmann shot me in the eye with a pea shooter through the picket fence. My instinct told me not to run to my Mother in the kitchen, so I hid behind the compost heap for hours. If I’d told her she would have rung the police and they would have taken him away to a reform school. My buddy! I used to play with his rabbit. In fact, when she put me to bed at seven in the summer, I used to climb down the apple tree by the window and go over to Alan’s and play with the rabbit until dark, then I’d climb back up the tree and go to bed. My parents never knew – they were in the living room at the front of the house listening to Tallulah Bankhead on the radio.
One day when I was about four I put on my galoshes and went out in the rain. I can hear my Mother calling after me ”Write when you get work!” When I came in, after a hard morning in the sandpit, she said “Take off your hat and stay a minute!” In my own house, I felt, hrumph! She wasn’t a cozy mother, she was crazy.
Men in our town fell in love with her. She had flashing Irish eyes. She wasn't overtly sexy, rather animated, zany and fun. And very pretty in an innocent way. Her charm was her pixilated Irishness. One man in particular she divorced my Father for, and when he waltzed off with Fletcher Newton – I never liked that name, it made me think of a newt shooting an arrow – she invited my Father back home. And they lived in sin until he died at the age of eighty-two. He was always more like a grandfather – sixty-eight when I was born. They had a checkered rapport, full of fury and affection.
When there was nothing dramatic happening, my Mother had the deplorable habit of saying “Answer the telephone!” I would then say “But it’s not ringing.” And she would say “Why do you always wait till the last minute?!” Then she’d snort as if she’d never said it before. She only did this with me – she must have thought I had her gene for ridiculousness. But I was nine and I didn’t want to be singled out.
When I sneezed my Mother would say “Stop that!” And when she drove me to school in her green Dodge and we passed a sign saying “Watch out for children!” - “Yes,” she would say, “they bite!” She told me once she wanted three children “one of each.”
She saved me for special excruciation and lathered me with her volatile love. One day I licked the icing off a cupcake and when she insisted I eat the whole thing I threw it on the floor. Then I ran for it. She gave chase up the four flights of stairs and cornered me by the attic. I was scrunched up on the floor with my hand over my bottom because I knew what was coming. She yanked my hand away and my pinky dangled down at 90 degrees. She cried harder than I did all the way to the hospital. She was sure I’d never play the piano again, which was a crying shame since I’d already played Mozart’s Sonata in C on the Stamford radio (age five and a half). As it turned out, I did play the piano again, but not on the radio. I stopped when I was twelve because my piano teacher killed herself. Not, I think, because of my playing. No, my mother said it was because she’d just had a baby boy. “Did she want a girl?” I asked.
One thing my Mother was always doing was fussing with my hair with a brush. One day I flipped. It was the day I was nearly half-nelsoned to death by Dickie Caravetta. My Mother advanced with the hairbrush and attacked my fringe, cooing some inanity to soften the assault. I leapt back a mile and shouted “Stop breathing all over me!” She was terribly hurt and confirmed in her motherdom. I felt sorry for her. It was an awful moment for a twelve year old. After that she treated me like a hedgehog, with respect, and we got along fine.
When I was seventeen I won a scholarship to Barnard and went to New York. This was a shocking change from Old Greenwich. Claws out, Mother then pounced on my history professor who, she said, was probably a Commie who had cell meetings in his apartment. She fought phantom Communists under the bed. She was a patriot with red, white and blue blood. But I had to disagree with her to keep my adolescent dignity.
My Mother had so many elfin virtues I kept forgiving her for all her deficiencies. She never taught me to cook or sew, but she did teach me to laugh. I grew up all illogical, but at least she was juicy and fun. And somehow I got raised up, her help in the matter being more incidental than deliberate. Bless her soul in heaven!
© Gabriel Bradford Millar
Gabriel Bradford Millar is a renegade American, born in 1944. She slimly survived 5 years of university in New York and Edinburgh, where she read with The Heretics, had poems in Lines Review and Scottish International,read her work on BBC TV and was interviewed by George Bruce on BBC Radio Scotland. Mid-Day was published by Outposts in 1977. She married an Englishman and raised children and chickens for 20 years in Gloucestershire, where she taught English A-level at a Steiner School and published The Brook Runs and The Bloom on the Stone. Hawthorn Press published Thresholds – Near Life Experiences in 1995. Thirty years of writing poetry were distilled in The Saving Flame in 2001. Gabriel has given scores of readings, sharing the stage several times with Kathleen Raine and George Trevelyan. She has given over 100 playshops (‘Down from the Ivory Tower’) and co-founded Poetry Stroud and Celebration of the Word as forums for other poets. She believes that poems, like love-talk, should go from mouth to ear, without any paper in between.