My mother was born in New York City in November 1931, as the Great Depression deepened. Her father was a construction worker on the Empire State Building, which was completed in 1931. That same year the George Washington Bridge opened for traffic.
Both of my mother’s parents came from Pennsylvania. Her father’s family lived in Mount Carmel, coal country, and her mother was the youngest of fourteen children in Butler.
My mother’s father was badly injured in an accident and hospitalized. The family was wiped out financially. Her mother ran off to Boston with a man and died in her late thirties. My mother, who was a toddler, her three older sisters and baby brother were left alone in their New York City apartment for a week with only mustard and water, after which neighbors called police. The children grew up in a Catholic orphanage, and I just learned its name: St. Dominic’s Home in Blauvelt, N.Y. I long thought the orphanage of my mother’s childhood no longer existed, but I discovered it is still there. It has a modern web page that states: “Saint Dominic’s Home is a Catholic agency founded in 1878 by the Blauvelt Dominican Sisters as a home for immigrant children abandoned on the streets of New York City.” I must now visit this place to the east, and a 94 year-old aunt to the west in Butler, made known to me by my cousin Paul, the son of my mother’s oldest and last surviving sister Catherine, who went to be with the Lord three weeks to the day before my mother. Catherine had known her mother, but my mother never did, and the resulting emptiness tormented my mother her entire life.
My mother said the nuns were mean, and maybe they were. But I also know my mother was clever and a prankster. In the middle of World War II, when my mother was twelve, she was a ringleader in a great escape from the orphanage, leading a band of girls across the Hudson River, to freedom. Halfway across a bridge, they were met by military police who brought them back to the orphanage. My mother also spent time in foster homes. My cousin Paul recently revealed that my mother had a child at the time, and my father said he believes this to be true, apparently by one of her doctors. No one has any idea who the child was, or if the child survived. Manic depression affected my mother her entire life, and it is easy for me to understand why.
As a young woman, she eventually made her way to Manhattan, where she established herself with fellow writers and artists living in a colony. To earn money, she worked as a legal secretary in my grandfather’s law office, which is how she met my father.
My parents were married for ten years. My mother took courses at Columbia University and Hunter College. My father did his best; I remember how hard he tried to help my mother. Those years saw many highs and lows, as my mother went through frequent hospitalizations for her depression, often emerging in manic high periods to produce amazing pieces of poetry, short stories, sculpture, paintings and collages. She endured repeated electric shock therapy, which she hated, and over her lifetime was prescribed every drug that psychiatrists have tried. Over the years, I often visited my mother in hospitals, so that when I saw the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in the 1970s, it seemed very familiar. Hospital stays were often helpful, and sometimes fun for my mother. During one, for example, she got to know Marilyn Monroe.
I think the worst month in her life must have been August 1969. In that month, she lost both her father and her little brother Billy, both of whom she loved dearly. Billy used to come to our apartment with his guitar and sing folk songs. I can still hear him singing “If I Had A Hammer” and “This Land Is Your Land.” Billy was all sunlight and cheer, but he was born with a hole in his heart. In one month, Billy was gone, her father was dead, and my parents’ divorce was finalized. My mother had attempted suicide before, but in September I came home from school one day and found a terrible scene. The police, her doctor, her psychiatrist and my father’s mother came right away. My sister and I lived in many places for a few years, and then we were both adopted by different loving families, cousins of ours.
My mother loved classical music and played it all the time when I was growing up. She taught me how to tell time and how to read when I was two. My sister Susan recently gave me a picture of me as a toddler, standing next to a bookshelf of my father’s law books. What stood out for me was the edition of Gray’s Anatomy on the shelf. I remember that book very well. It is a part of my childhood. My mother taught me all the Latin names for the bones in our bodies as well as the names of many diseases, and she thought I could become a doctor. It was my mother who suggested to me, as a child, that I think about Harvard. She put that thought there, and even though there were other factors, that is a big reason I went to Harvard. It was my mother who gave me a plastic toy computer I put together when I was nine, that I only discovered in my forties was a recreation of Charles Babbage’s 19th century Difference Engine, which could tabulate polynomial functions and paved the way for modern computers a century later. My computer scientist friends are amazed that I had such a toy as a child, because such things are almost non-existent today. My mother read me poetry, from Emily Dickinson to Rainer Maria Rilke to Shakespeare, many of whose works she knew by heart. Her favorite play was King Lear. My mother really tried to be a good mother. That is the one thing she wanted to be more than anything else. It drove her to despair sometimes when she worried she had failed by signing our adoption papers, that she hadn’t been able to fulfill her duty as well as she’d hoped. But I know she tried, and I remember all the times she tried to be a good mother. Thank you, Mom.
Some people have told me I was a good son to my mother. I tried. I could have done some things better. But I have to say that after many people in my family had given up on my mother, with the admirable exception of my adopted parents Percy and Behri Knauth, who understood my mother with great compassion, there are two people who put me on track to keep my mother in my thoughts and provide for her. One was John Joseph, my housemaster at Choate, who met my mother in 1977. He immediately took me aside and said, “You must take care of your mother.” Generally we students understood that if John Joseph said you had to do something, it was more than a good idea. The universe might collapse if you did not follow his advice. Another was Jimmy Moore, my mother’s brother-in-law, a simple doorman and devoted Catholic who had served in the Navy in World War II, who kept after me in my twenties, reminding me weekly, “Call your mother.” Then there was the example of Elizabeth Jenks, my mother’s psychiatrist for thirty years, who treated her for free, was her friend, and enthusiastically encouraged my mother’s artistic endeavors.
I noticed as I grew older that my mother had a quality of attracting wonderful and loving people to her. Countless times at hospitals nurses would tell me my mother was sweet and they loved taking care of her. Scores of great social workers, doctors, landlords and home health aides helped my mother. They did this for decades. I learned that New York City really takes care of its poor, more than any other place in the United States. The only bad actor was the greedy corporation from Kentucky that bought her building and then harassed her repeatedly, which I believe precipitated the stroke she suffered in 2008. But then again, Susan’s adopted sister Sarah stepped in as a lawyer working pro bono to help me help my mother out of her predicament.
My mother’s most recent caregivers, the wonderful nurses at Sycamore Manor, are tops. They delighted in her nature, humor and even in her occasional pranks. Many times when I visited my mother at the nursing home, she told me, “I’m so happy here,” or “I’m sleeping so well.”
My mother loved her grandchildren and I saw a noticeable mellowing and cheerfulness in her once Susan and I were married to our spouses and grandchildren arrived.
The end came for my mother on October 21, as it must for all of us some day, but it was not the end that she once feared forty years ago. She did not die alone, and she was not unclaimed and brought to a landfill to be picked at by seagulls, which had been her worst nightmare. No, the nurses and doctors at Sycamore, once they knew she would be leaving this Earth, prepared us. We visited for our last times together. My mother had Last Rites. Robin and I were with her in those final, quiet and most sacred moments, when a most loved one looks us in the eye, giving and receiving comfort, and then crosses a bridge into God’s care.
My mother always asked me as a child, “Do you love me?” And I answered, “Yes, Mom.” “How much?” I answered, “As wide as the universe.” And then she would smile and be happy.
Read by Geoffrey S. Knauth
Trinity Episcopal Church
November 13, 2010