I pull into the narrow driveway leading to the entrance of the Westwood Memorial Cemetery. They’d been closed to visitors during the height of the pandemic but had recently re-opened. What’s with the locked gate?
I slip on my face-mask, grab the flowers I’d picked from our garden and step out of the car. In life, she only appreciated flowers when they came from a man. Well, these would have to do.
I check to see if the gate is really locked and not just shut. Despite my pushing, it doesn’t budge. The posted sign reads: Due to Covid 19, restricted hours…So that’s why it’s locked. Still, according to the sign, the place should be open.
I stand in front of the gate masked with flowers in hand and I can’t get inside to my mother’s slot in the wall of the “Garden Gated Estates.” I feel like the character in the 1937 film “Stella Dallas,” where Stella’s peering through the window of her daughter’s wedding that she cannot attend.
Today is my mother’s birthday. She’d have been 93.
For Mom, birthdays were a big deal, planned way in advance. “I’m celebration-oriented,” she’d say. It was understood. You showed up for the birthday.
Now what am I supposed to do? I can honor her anywhere on this day, but I feel closest to her here. Back when she and her last husband, Dougie, the love of her life, got their plots, she was so excited. “It’s the best!” she said. “I’ll be among the movie stars! I always wanted to be one, but I was too lazy to trot the boards. Now, at least I’ll be among ‘em! Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemon, Natalie Wood! Did I mention Fannie Brice is around the corner? Not only her, but I hear Carol Burnett reserved a whole section for her family near us.”
Who gets this excited about a final resting place and their “neighbors?”
“I can’t wait for you to see it,” she said. “That’s our next field trip!”
“The mortuary? To look at your empty slot?”
“Better when it’s empty, right?”
After Dougie passed away, I took her to visit his slot in the wall. She always placed a manicured hand on his plaque, her signature long, orange-painted fingernails a sharp contrast to the somber brass plaque. “Love you,” she said.
Noting her reserved spot beside him, she once turned to me. “Remember, I want ‘Ciao Bello’ inscribed on my plaque.”
“Talking about death doesn’t freak you out, does it?” I asked.
“Hell no. When you’re my age and your number’s up, your number’s up.”
Mom was such a larger-than-life character, such a huge part of my life that I started writing a memoir about her, about us, more than ten years ago.
“Mom, you have a minute?” I asked, back when I was writing the first draft. “I need to read these pages to you.”
She dropped everything. It was crucial for me to have her ear. After I finished each chapter, she said: “Hurry up and write the next one. I need to know what happens next?”
Now, I head back to my car. What happens next? I send a picture of the locked gate to my grown children and husband, Hank. “I tried…”
I lean back against the headrest, staring at the gate. These are challenging times. Covid, so many deaths, unrest, job losses. My frustration today is nothing compared to what others are dealing with, but I’m still sad. I’d wanted to just stand and reflect with Mom close by, which is nothing, but it was my something on this day. To just show up for her on her birthday like I always have. Now I can’t. Tears well.
My phone lights up. It’s Allan, my oldest. “Mom, I’m so sorry that you can’t go in, but it’s so Nana! The irony of it.”
I dab at my damp cheeks.
“I mean, Mom, they’re opening restaurants after this epic shutdown and here, the cemetery, that’s outside, is closed! It’s outside! Certainly, a lot of social distancing going on there,” he laughs.
“And, no chance of catching Covid-19,” I smile, looking down at the facemask in my hand. “Because everyone’s dead!” We both laugh. Mom would have loved that. “Always find the humor,” she told me.
“Don’t worry, Mom. You can still connect with Nana. Go to her favorite newsstand on San Vicente. She loved that place.”
“Oh my God, Allan. That guy who ran it loved Mom. He knew each tabloid she read and always, always, the two packs of Virginia Slim Menthols she ordered. As soon as I pulled in, he’d see me, and grab the cigarettes and begin snapping up the magazines for her.”
“She made us all take her there.” Allan’s smile radiated through the phone line.
The newsstand, though, shut down some time ago. I tell Allan this.
“You could go the Hank’s Liquor Store in Santa Monica,” he suggests, “that place on the corner where she’d sneak out of Sunrise Senior Living with her walker to get Advil and wine.”
I’m laughing so hard it takes two tries to click the seatbelt in place. I’m going to drive away and find some other way to connect with Mom. “I was at a business dinner in New York,” I tell him, “when I got the call. ‘Your mother escaped to the liquor store with another resident.’”
“She’d run off with a man, of course. There was always a man.”
“You could go to her old house on Chalon Road,” Allan suggests.
“Naw, it’s all been redone. Nothing left of Mom there.”
“How about El Cholo, her favorite. You can saddle up to the bar, speak broken Spanish to all the waiters, and drink a marguerita.”
I turn left onto Wilshire just like I’d do after I’d take Mom to visit Dougie in the wall. Next, the plan would be to have lunch in Brentwood and take a trip to Vicente Foods.
“I know. I can do Vicente Foods, another of her haunts. And,” I add, “I’ll tip and compliment everybody like she did.”
“Good enough.” he says, upbeat. His voice turns somber. “I remember when I called her on her last birthday.”
“She was pretty sick by then,” I say. “She died a month later.”
“Yeah,” he says. “I asked her how she was feeling, and she’d said: ‘Compared to what?’ God, she was something.”
“The one-liners, Al.”
“Always. Mom, Nana was the best.”
Later that evening, after an unsatisfying visit to Vicente Foods, an email pings in my in-box. I’ve been trying to find a publisher for my memoir for two years. Talked with agents and experts but little traction. Now, a publisher is writing to me. They want my book.
I’d stare in disbelief then, run into the den holding my laptop. “Hank, my book’s going to be published!”
I don’t scream, I don’t cry tears of joy. It’s more disbelief. Is this real?
It’s was real, alright. On this day, her birthday, my mother shows me what happens next.