Monday, January 12, 2015

Helen Eustis, my mother, dies at 98

A day after being admitted to the hospice care unit of Beth Israel Hospital in New York on Saturday, my mother, Helen White Eustis, 98, died at 8:22 p.m. yesterday (Jan. 11, 2015). She was transferred from her Manhattan apartment to hospital as a means of assuring that she could receive morphine as needed for pain. Previously, she had said she wanted to die at home, but the issue of pain was too pressing, and besides, she was largely unresponsive to her environment -- meaning she did not really recognize those around her.

There was little to call surprising about her death. It was time and she died and, as my Zen teacher's teacher used to say, she "joined the majority."

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

Some voice within would like me to be more upset, but that's not what is on the menu at the moment. I do find myself trying to define her life, obituary-fashion, and yet am reluctant to do so, partly because my knowledge is spotty and partly because there is something untrue about the 1-2-3 recitations that slip off tongue or pen when someone dies.

I would like to think of her as whole and contradictory, just like any other human being. No doubt that will fade and there will be a pigeon hole in which to remember and laugh and be amazed and grieve.

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 gave meaning to their organization. Likewise she dropped out of a graduate attempt to get a Ph.D. in English after she realized that the love she felt for tale-telling was being segmented and bagged and ... well, it was sort of like trying to explain 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 because the United States had not yet made up its mind, later committed suicide: The strangulation of the white, well-to-do WASP-dom surrounding him in Cincinnati, where my mother was born, was too damned much ... or anyway, that's what I suspect.

All that Downton Abbey politesse and 'breeding' (American style) killed him and led my mother to run away from home by going to Smith College, a de rigeur and approved institution that, thank God, was far from her well-heeled and diffident surroundings and seemed to be an escape from the sere constrictions of the comme-il-faut.

Marrying my father, 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, Alfred Young Fisher, who worked in a scholar's world that drove my mother nuts, and once to Martin Harris, a more loose-limbed fellow who helped photograph World War II and had, if I had to guess, admiration for intellect without pecking and clawing to enter its groves and the pretensions that scented them. 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" won an Edgar for a 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 up-scale magazine The New Yorker and once declined to allow publication of a story in which she had used a word like "scrunch" ... the New Yorker said it was not a word and she said she didn't give a shit -- it was her word. She wrote articles for all sorts of magazines, giving it up only when it went out of fashion to offer a well-argued thesis (called thinking) ... later, as now, an argument could not be cemented without the adducing of "expert" opinion, a sissy's world that demeaned both reader and writer.

During her writing years, she hob-nobbed with the likes of Truman Capote and Carson McCullers and a collection of other nut jobs who were very good writers.

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 say had "saved your ass," was a progressive school filled with organic farming, hiking on weekends, kids with daily chores, may of them centered on a barn full of horses and attended by chickens, pigs and sundry cattle ... all of which showed up on the dinner table. By the sixth grade, my mother asked me if I wanted to quit North Country to come home and live with her. I didn't have to think about it and the word left my tongue without difficulty: "No." This was a woman who, when I was little, once told me "I should have had an abortion."

She kept on writing even when I did go home and begin taking classes at the de rigeur Collegiate School. Where North Country was loosey-goosey, Collegiate was academically rigorous. And it was at about this time that my mother began to drink and pop pills addictively. Living with an alcoholic was no picnic. She sent me to dancing school and she was once so insistent that I went out and bought a tuxedo ... which I disliked and never wore.

She drank and sent me to pick up her "prescriptions." It was only after I quit college for the second time and joined the compulsory army of the time and went to a Europe that was further from home than she had been from Cincinnati 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 her to accept: There were always hills in the distance.

All of this, and a host of other minutia, cluster and whisper in my mind. It is arrogant and unfair to mention them, in one sense. Too limited. Too limiting ... just as descriptions of anyone who is dead are convenient to the one doing the describing but full of holes as far as the one being described.

No doubt there is so much more to say, but I cannot, at the moment, say it. And when I do muster the memory and inclination to mention it, that too will be full of smoke and mirrors and a long way from the truth.

So it goes. I do wish her a peaceful and loving journey.


  1. My dad had itchy feet and was always setting a standard that the organizations he banged into failed to reach. Being from farm stock, the intellectual/achievement strictures that seems to dominate the New England upper classes wasn't a problem. The only stricture in his world was xtianity, not to achieve individualism but to protect and include the self with the community. It was impossible for him to abandon me.

    But he found xtianity didn't meet the bar he'd set and his spiritual interests moved on through a variety of positions that also failed him. Before his death he'd said that he was probably more Buddhist than anything. At the time i knew nothing about it and didn't bang into it until after his death. He was a well fount of understanding things and i wish i could have talked to him about Buddhism as i'd talked to him about everything else i could think of.

    From everything i hear about it, i'm grateful i was a hillbilly and not a New England intellectual. I don't envy you your childhood, but am grateful for who you are, however difficult it was to get there. The sins of my parents were small and easy to forgive.

  2. Adam,
    One of the nicest obituaries I've ever read. First person real story of a person's life. Your parents gave you one clear gift -- a love of language. Peace to all.

  3. I am so sorry to hear of the death of your mother, the last living member of the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone list of essential mysteries. I urge everyone to read _The Horizontal Man_; it is a terrific book.

  4. Understanding ones parent is often quite difficult to achieve. You are an amazing and forgiving man. I appreciate, especially, the last 2 paragraphs. . . quite right. Blessings, Janet

  5. Adam,

    I came across this because I have just re-read The Horizontal Man and wanted to find out 1) if Helen Eustis was still living and 2) if, as I suspected, Smith College lurked in the background. And now I discover that she was your mother!

    A splendid tribute to a remarkable woman, and I have discovered a splendid blog as well.

    Thank you.

  6. Well-done. Thanks. Just wanted to know a bit about her, and your informative remarks did it. This may be the only good biographical data available, though I haven't looked extensively.

  7. Jim -- The NYTimes did the formalities. I, as you may imagine, was more selective according to what came to mind in its twisty-turny fashion. Those contemporaries who might have added personal meat to the formality bone are pretty much all dead.