A Rose is a Rose is a Rose — a Rosy Nose?, or: Last Year at My Bad
“I’ll wait in this place where the sun never shines,
Wait in this place where the shadows run from themselves”
She’d remind you she was raised by a governess and most definitely not a nanny, the word itself deemed lower-class and uttered with contempt. There are photos fading away in a drawer somewhere showing her dolled-up for who knows what, the hands in dainty white gloves, a netted veil over eyes which always revealed anxiety. Indeed, how can you relax, coming from the Great Depression through a World War, communism and atom bombs threatening your White Picket Fence complacency and that pesky conflict in Vietnam taking up so much time on the television? It’s no wonder that generation spent a fortune on valium.
A Roosevelt Democrat, she split from the party the day she hatched an inebriated plan to assassinate LBJ with two lady friends over cocktails. (Rose formally defected to the GOP in ‘72 upon recognizing George McGovern as “a jerkwater ass.”) She was an avid reader of both classics and bestsellers, a book always on her nightstand, and when I was a child I remember her quoting passages by Swift, Hawthorne and Byron from memory. That last figure is prominent in the story of Rose, as she declared lineage to Claire Clairmont, mother of Byron’s illegitimate daughter Allegra, a claim that may be rooted in one too many martinis. Musically she was a puzzle, favoring Mahler and Victor Herbert, but dismissed Beethoven and Mozart as overrated. She hated rock and roll but felt sad when Elvis died. She loathed The Beatles but giggled at the comedy in their film, Help!, and laughed out loud over the surreal humor of Bob Dylan’s mid-‘60s Playboy interview, perhaps the only time in her life she ever touched a ‘dirty magazine.’
The men she found attractive formed an odd lot. Hot for the oily beefcake of Victor Mature, she’d also swoon over Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, her idea of deep thinkers. She’d tell you her husband looked like Gregory Peck, but I never saw the resemblance except in photos of him from before the war when he was lean and chiseled, before the post-war excess of fat and cholesterol reshaped him into a human doughnut. From my vantage point theirs seemed a tumultuous marriage, Rose the drama queen perhaps swayed a tad too much by Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as she spat venom with Oscar-worthy precision. Gin usually turned her into a pontificating, argumentative bitch, and, to the dismay of anyone within earshot, she positively loved the stuff. After one drink she’d feign a slur (when martinis became ‘martoonies’), but two or three would unleash a lofty ‘anyone for tennis?’ inflection one perceptive blogger termed “mid-Atlantic,” wherein the letter r is pronounced ‘ah’ (when martinis became ‘mahteenies’), some kind of weird Barbara Stanwyck trip.
Before their rocky demise, Rose would recall a bucolic past of two young marrieds thriving in Levittown on the GI Bill, she taking full credit for his ascension in what could’ve been a lucrative career with a golden parachute retirement. Oh, she worked like a dog, she’d tell you, straightening him out with grit and pluck, ever so resourceful, a great cook and tidy homemaker. She’d take on certain mannerisms and facial tics as the tale would unfold, clucking her tongue every so often, cocking her head, her eyes fixed on some bright imaginary future. It was only until I was in my late thirties and finally got around to seeing The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit that I realized Rose spent most of her adult years lifting parts of Jennifer Jones’s character for her own everyday visage.
From a family of devout Christmas and Easter Catholics, she was quietly shunned after the divorce. Taking the scented air out of her lilywhite suburban bubble, she was mortified when she found out her husband had been having an affair with his African-American secretary, interracial relations still grossly taboo in the ‘70s. While she could talk a good game about equality, Rose was an old school bigot who likened his dalliance with bestiality. Twenty-seven years down the drain.
Her mother, the frail, petite Rowie (who, at ninety pounds soaking wet, never traveled without a loaded .38 in her purse) occasionally extended the obligatory olive branch, but calls and invitations from the rest of the clan dwindled to nothing. The black homewrecker was one thing, but losing touch with the Clairmonts put the kibosh on Rose’s Champaign wishes and caviar dreams. The connections she once worked so diligently to maintain — an aunt married to a Supreme Court judge who hobnobbed with Harry Truman; an uncle who owned two hospitals, a small estate near the Canadian border, a retreat in Florida and a villa in Spain; a grandfather who held the original patent on what later became the Otis Elevator, a man with close ties to Joe Kennedy who established his fortune selling cars to crime syndicates during Prohibition — all fell by the wayside. They had little use for a divorced Long Island homemaker with a dwindling bank account, a mortgage, limited employable skills, an unruly son and an ex-husband in the throes of jungle fever who was months behind in child support.
Off to work she went, manning a now-extinct calculating device called a comptometer, chin up as she passed the neighbors who also frowned on the divorce, joining Parents Without Partners, a lonely hearts club promising a dazzling array of weekend activities but merely netting a bunch of horny married dudes looking to get laid. She snagged one by the name of Artie and bought his bullshit about him leaving his wife, but the lies eventually fried her circuits to where isolation and sexual abstinence seemed preferable to anything the outside world had to offer. She sold the house, a lifetime of trinkets, furniture and memories strewn out along the driveway for a sad little garage sale. With the son there were two older daughters, strained relations all. Moving away first to New Jersey, Rose spent her last years alone in a small apartment in a rural backwater called Snow Hill, Maryland. When she died I believed I saw her ascend the heavens, a vision that came precisely at the time of death even though I was hundreds of miles away, stone cold sober, driving down from New York after discovering she’d been admitted to the hospital. I never got to say goodbye, which is alright. Had she been alive to hear it, she probably would’ve told me I was going about it all wrong.