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My Mother, Marilyn Monroe

She said, “It's about time you get off your knees and learn how to fly.”

My mother was always speaking nonsense.

Another time she told my sister to stop hiding behind her auto-tuned words. How she came up with this stuff, I'll never know. Or maybe I do.

Mother started dressing in cheerleading outfits at dinner. Once a pompom caught on fire when it got too close to the stove. Rather than put it out right away, Mom's regret was that we were out of marshmallows. “We could have had S'mores,” she said.

Dad had been an alcoholic surgeon who hung himself after botching a surgery while tipsy. He never got the chance to see this new side of mom--nutty but fun. Maybe it would have made him less uptight, more hopeful.

My sister kept saying we should do something, put her in a home. “She could really hurt herself,” she said. That was the night Mom did three cartwheels successively but crashed on top of the coffee table while trying a handstand.

Another time I found Mom in the laundry room folding towels while wearing a safari outfit. Another time she was a policewoman. Then Snow White, Lucille Ball and Cleopatra.

“I don't think it's Alzheimer's,” I said. “I think this is Mom trying to find herself, the moth getting out of the jar, so to speak.”

“You and your ‘so to speak',” my sister said, sounding a bit like Mother herself.

But Sis had always been more like Dad. I was most like Mother. Instead of being a teacher, like I'd always wanted, I became an attorney because the money was better. I led a trapped existence, yet, seeing Mom having so much fun had started to make me rethink my choice, made me take an honest appraisal of my life.

“Can you imagine what the neighbors say?” my sister asked. “It's a wonder they haven't called the police or the men with white uniforms.”

I do admit that I got a little worried when Mom started dressing as Marilyn Monroe, replete with the white wig, fake face mole, glittery dresses and airhead speech. She enjoyed being MM so much that it became the sole identity she maintained until the end.

In front of the oval mirror in the living room she'd pout her cherry lips and practice singing, “Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” a hundred times a day. She read Arthur Miller plays and kept claiming Joe DiMaggio would be over for dinner. She beamed when she said it.

My sister labeled me an enabler, said that by not intervening I was actually encouraging Mom to stay crazy.

I said she should try to lighten up, have a little fun, where's the harm? She said that was my problem right there-other people's happiness was my drug.

Once Mom said she had a secret to share. “It's a little naughty.” The secret was a man named Hugh Hefner was starting a men's magazine and he wanted her to pose nude for the inaugural issue.

“This is going to end badly,” my sister said. “Just watch.”

Sis could not have known how correct she'd be, even though it wasn't for the reasons she'd predicted. Mom got hit by a train late one night while I was at a concert (I'd moved into the old place when Mom started to get wacky.) We'll never know if that was Mom's way of committing suicide. I doubt it. Once Dad was gone, she'd started enjoying life far too much, even if it hers was mostly make-believe.

Against my sister's wishes, we buried Mom in one of the Marilyn costumes. The train had hit her car from the passenger side, and except for some minor wear and tear, her body had been left in reasonably good condition.

At the funeral, I blew her coffin a kiss and quoted Simon and Garfunkel: “Here's to you, Joe DiMaggio,” thinking she'd get a kick out of that.

My sister scowled at me and said, maybe what Mom had was contagious and I'd caught it.

Now what I teach my students is this: don't lose yourself to life. Don't choke on life's hard edges. Instead, hold on loosely.

Each new year I see their strained expressions when I start out this way. But then I tell them zany stories about a wonderful woman who waited until the last years of her life to actually enjoy it. They always think I'm making the stories up, even as they cackle and hoot. “If she's a real person,” someone eventually says, “bring her in as guest lecturer so we can meet her.”

I don't want them to know she's dead because to me, she's still very much alive.

I've been putting together a video slide show of some of Mom's different identities and was surprised to see she'd donned twenty-nine different personas during those last two years. I showed it to my daughter last night for a preview. She made me replay it a half dozen times, crying and laughing in the same spots with each viewing.

“Is that why you named me Marilyn?” she asked.

“Of course.”

She tugged my earlobe, our code for “I love you.” We were quiet for a while. We could be that way with each other and not have to worry. I thought she'd fallen asleep, but then she said, “Dad?”


“I want to be just like her.”

“The costumes you mean?”

“No,” she said, yawning in my ear. “Happy.”


words: Len Kuntz, Washington (blog)
image: 'mm' - Jeff Crouch, Texas (more)


another dressing: Tessa in the Mirror (#11)


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BluePrintReview - issue 26 - identity