Wednesday, January 21, 2015

column: "Reflections on my mother's life"

Monthly column appearing in the local Hampshire Gazette today.

Reflections on my mother’s life

Tuesday, January 20, 2015
(Published in print: Wednesday, January 21, 2015)

NORTHAMPTON — I suppose that since she was graduated from Smith College here in Northampton and because she married one of her Smith College professors, there is some local relevance to the death of my mother, Helen White Eustis, on Jan. 11. She was 98 and died at 8:11 p.m.

Shall I write an obituary? Obituaries “close the book” and give those who use words like “closure” a warm, unexamined satisfaction. No, I can’t write an obituary and wouldn’t even if I could. From where I sit, it’s too disrespectful, not to mention being untrue. As my Zen teacher’s teacher once put it, she has “joined the majority.”

My mother died one day after having been moved from her Manhattan apartment to a hospice where she could receive 24/7 morphine if needed for her apparent pain. She was largely unresponsive to the people around her and so her desire to die at home was not honored, but she didn’t complain, even if she knew. As agreed, her ashes will go to Ashfield and there will be no service.

Others may be wracked and riven and saddened by the death of a mother, but I am not yet sure what I feel. A piece of my whole cloth has been revised and perhaps the emotional shift will hit me harder as time passes.

I would like to think of her as whole and contradictory. Like a lot of self-aware people, she could be astoundingly unaware. But my point of view is just my point of view, fractured and half-told at best. She taught me to drive. She was a good writer. She thought sins of commission were more informative than sins of omission. She was the only “den mother” who organized a spitball-shooting contest for the Cub Scouts I belonged to. She ....

At the moment, I remember her anti-intellectual intellectualism — a courageous and sometimes searing capacity that led her to decline an invitation to join Mensa, a coalition of very bright people whose brightness dimmed my mother’s expansive and curiosity-driven view of the human experience. Likewise she dropped out of an attempt to get a Ph.D. in English after she realized that the love she felt for tale-telling was being segmented and freeze-dried and ... well, grad school was sort of like dissecting laughter and she was a person who preferred to laugh.

She was born Dec. 31, 1916. Her mother died in the flu epidemic of 1918 and her father, who had joined World War I by enlisting in Canada before the United States joined the fray, later committed suicide. The strangulation of the white, well-to-do WASP-dom that surrounded him in Cincinnati, where my mother was born and likewise felt strangled, was too damned much. My mother adored her father and wished unendingly for the Good Mother who died when she was 2.

Like going to college in the East, marrying my father, Alfred Young Fisher, one of her English professors, was yet another step away from Cincinnati. I was their only child. My mother married and divorced twice — once to my father, who worked and basked in an academic world that drove my mother nuts, and once to Martin Harris, a more loose-limbed fellow who helped photograph World War II. She joined the Communist Party when it was fashionable, but found soon enough that its strictures were another narrow enclosure.

And after college, she wrote. “The Horizontal Man” and won an Edgar award for that distinguished bit of mystery writing. Later she would write “The Fool Killer” and “Mr. Death and the Red-Headed Woman” and a book of short works entitled “The Captains and the Kings Depart.” She wrote for the then upscale magazine, The New Yorker, and once withdrew a submitted story in which she had used a word like “scrunch.” The New Yorker said it was not a dictionary word and she replied she didn’t give a (uhhh) hoot — it was her word. She gave up writing magazine articles when it became fashionable — or agreeably sissified — to make no assertion without adducing “expert” support.

During her writing years, she hobnobbed with the likes of Truman Capote and Carson McCullers and a collection of other wingnuts who were also very good writers. She also hung out with cops.

It was during her writing years that she sent me to a boarding school. From the fourth-and-a-half grade until grade eight, I went to North Country School in Lake Placid, N.Y.

On the first night there, realizing I would not “go home” in any literal sense, I cried and cried as any child might when his worst nightmare — the nightmare of abandonment — had been realized.

North Country, which a shrink would later tell me had “saved your ass,” was a progressive school filled with organic farming, hiking on weekends and kids with daily chores. My mother was appalled by my spelling. By the sixth grade, she asked me if I wanted to quit North Country to come home and live with her. I didn’t have to think twice and replied: “No.” This was a woman who, when I was little, once told me “I should have had an abortion.”

Shortly after I left North Country and lived at home, she began to drink and pop pills addictively. Living with an addict was no picnic. She drank and sent me to pick up her “prescriptions.” It was only after I joined the compulsory army of the time and went to a Europe that she hit the addict’s bottom and joined Alcoholics Anonymous.

Through it all, her mind was her playground. She remained intellectually gutsy. It was she who introduced me first to Hindu Vedanta and later Zen Buddhism. She was not beyond exploring the god or gods she could not, in the end, embrace. The fact that I got involved in Zen was not beyond her understanding, but it was not compelling enough for put her bets on: There were always hills in the distance.

All of this, and a host of other minutiae, cluster and whisper in my mind. It is arrogant and unfair to mention them, in one sense. Too limited. Too limiting. Descriptions of anyone living or dead are convenient to the one doing the describing. They are vastly incomplete as far as the one being described.

No doubt there is so much more to say, but I cannot, at the moment, say it. Maybe I should add, “the apple never falls far from the tree,” but I’m not sure.

People aren’t books and there is no closing them.

I do wish her a loving and peaceful journey.

Adam Fisher lives in Northampton. His column appears on the third Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at


  1. Adam, that was a wonderful piece of writing. Sorry about your mother. "Descriptions of anyone living or dead are convenient to the one doing the describing. They are vastly incomplete as far as the one being described." Perfect.

  2. I've always said i liked her for some of the things she taught you. But that was before i learned of the abortion statement, and hadn't put together the abandonment involved in going to the boarding school. I was a member of mensa for a month or so, but am still a dim bulb.

    I'm having trouble forgiving her for those things. And am angry with myself for not realizing the pain she caused a child. I can't wish a hell for her, but do wish her finding a kindness that will eliminate her selfishness.

    My anger with myself i'll just have to live with. I never expected to have such a personal relationship with someone else's mother, never met. Oh well.

  3. Hello Adam; it's your step-cousin Seth. I just learned of your Mother's passing today and wanted to send my condolences.I only met my "Aunt Biddy" - as my Dad called her - once, during the 80's, when she visited him in Cincinnati.

  4. Given your Zen background, I imagine you're well on your way to processing this and healing. Still I'd like to share a few words that have I hope will have meaning for you.:

    "Bear in mind, O Chela, that within the known spheres naught is but light responsive to the WORD. Know that that light descends and concentrates itself; know that from its point of chosen focus, it lightens its own sphere; know too that light ascends and leaves in darkness that which it - in time and space - illumined. This descending and ascension men call life, existence, and decease; this We Who tread the Lighted Way call death, experience, and life.

    Light which descends anchors itself upon the plane of temporary appearance. Seven threads it outward puts, and seven rays of light pulsate along these threads. Behold! A man is born.

    As life proceeds, the quality of life appears; dim and murky it may be, or radiant, bright, and shining. Thus do the points of light within the Flame cyclically pass and repass; they come and go. This men call life; they call it true existence. They thus delude themselves yet serve the purpose of their souls and fit into the greater Plan.

    And then a Word sounds forth. The descended, radiating point of light ascends, responsive to the dimly heard recalling note, attracted to its emanating source. This man calls death and this the soul calls life.

    The Word retains the light in life; the Word abstracts the light, and only that is left which is the Word itself."
    - Alice Bailey (for Djwal Kuhl), Esoteric Healing.

  5. Dear Seth -- If I had an email, I'd use it to say thank you for your considerate words. There were no real surprises in my mother's death. She was 98 after all and had told me more than once as her faculties diminished that "I'd die if I knew how but I don't know how." No doubt there will be a surprise or two in the future as 'processing' proceeds but just now I can't do better than to wish her -- and you -- well.