Category Archives: Family

The Obituary of an Extraordinary Woman, My Mother…plus

IMG_0029SPIRO, Marian Wagner, 89, of Madison, CT and Amherst, MA died on June 18, 2017 at the Hospice of the Fisher Home after a lengthy illness. Marian was born in Fall River, MA on February 16, 1928 to Oliver and Carolyn Wagner. She was raised in Fall River during the Depression and graduated from BMC Durfee High School. She then earned a two-year degree from Vermont Junior College that enabled her to work as a lab technician. It was at a lab at Harvard Medical School that she met her husband Howard Spiro. They were married in 1951, made a home in New Haven, CT and quickly had four children: Pammy, Lynnie, Martha, and Philip. In the meantime, she returned to school, received her undergraduate degree and in 1970 began a twenty-year career as a renowned teacher of science and math at The Foote School in New Haven. She introduced computers to her students long before they ended up in their back pockets and once built a solar-heated oven to bake the Thanksgiving turkey. She helped to revive the school newspaper, which was later renamed the “SPI” in her honor. Her dogs were frequent guests in her classroom, and when she wasn’t helping to train her friends’ dogs or hosting canine pool parties in her backyard, Marian was taking her own retrievers to local hospitals or mental health facilities to hang out with patients. Throughout her life, she was known for expert woodworking skills, her intuitive ability at navigating a sailboat, her competitiveness on the tennis court or in a game of bridge or scrabble, her love of golden retrievers, her lasting friendships, and her deep devotion to her family. She never let the social conventions of her day block her dreams: she embarked on a lifetime avocation of woodworking despite being told it was not for girls, she became a teacher of science before most scientists would accept women as their peers, and she even made the phone call to Howard for a date that led to their eventual marriage. She will be sorely missed by her four children: Pamela Spiro Wagner, Carolyn Spiro Silvestri, Philip Spiro and Martha Spiro; her six grandchildren: Allison Spiro-Winn, Jeremy Spiro-Winn, Hannah Spiro, Claire Spiro, Oliver Spiro and Adriane Spiro; and her many friends and students. She follows the passing of her parents Oliver and Carolyn, her husband Howard of 61 years, her sister Barbara, and her brother Oliver. A memorial service will be scheduled at a later time. In lieu of flowers donations may be made to the Marian W. Spiro Fund for Science Enrichment at The Foote School in New Haven, CT or the Hospice of the Fisher Home in Amherst, MA.

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The obituary above was written by my wonderful “cousin in law,” Jere Nash, who is Holly Wagner’s husband, my uncle’s daughter (who was my mother’s late brother, Oliver who died many years ago of malignant melanoma).

All that follows is my interpretation of things, as all observation is of course but in my case you have to understand that I speak largely as an outsider, not knowing very much since I was not “in” the family for so many years…

Although I lost many years with my mother as an adult, due to my father’s “exxing” me out of the family in anger and a profound lack of understanding of “mental illness” and what was going on for me at the time, I still remember her in my childhood, how when there were still trolleys in New Haven Connecticut (oh, how young I must have been then!) she would either bravely or completely nonchalantly wear jeans  to go shopping downtown at Malleys or whatever the stores were there at the time. For anyone else this would have been extremely difficult, disregarding all the social mores of the 50s dictating that women had to wear skirts and heels and make-up to go out presentably in public. I do not know how my mom felt about it, only that she did it and did not seem to care what others thought. She cared only that she was more comfortable in pants, and low- heeled  “girl scout” shoes, the same kind I wear to this day, and she saw no sense in getting all dressed up just to bring 2 very young children out to go on a stressful shopping expedition.  As for that, my mother to my knowledge never wore more make-up in her life than a dash of lipstick, though I do remember her applying that with care every morning and blotting her red lips on a fold of toilet paper, thinking both how beautiful she looked (though she never  in her life agreed with me or anyone else on this, even though when she was younger  — when we lived in England — my friends thought she looked like a “movie star”) and how I never wanted to have to put “that stuff” on my own lips.

Unlike her children, who suffered from oily skin and troublesome largely untreated acne as adolescents, my mother’s bane of existence was her dry skin  and its tendency to wrinkle  so her one vanity, if you could call it that, was moisturizers and trying to deal with skin that aged earlier than she might have wished. She was also a outdoors lover, a sailor and a tennis player in the days well before the publicized benefits of sun screen, which may or may not have played a role in this (I am not completely convinced of the safety of sunscreens with their nano chemicals nonetheless)…Whatever is the case, it seemed true that her skin did show the effects of being out in the weather early on, but this to me only gave her face character and the true beauty of an older woman…though I know that as I was growing up it may have caused her more regret than I knew.

We are all of us subject to society’s images and social pressures, and my mother was not immune to these, no matter how iconoclastic and “her own person” she may have been in so many ways. For example, as a result of having been a self-described  “chunky athletic tomboy with a tiny petite older sister” — and feeling rejected for this all her life,  she fought a poor self-image, body hatred, and deep conflict on that account, such that I have always felt that in some sense while she loved food and eating, she also never took a single bite that she did not simultaneously regret and chide herself for. This was painfully obvious to us children, I think, at least it was to me, and it continued throughout her life. Even after nearly forty years of not seeing her, I would go out to lunch with her when she was in her 80s, and hear her criticize herself  about what she was eating. How I wished she could simply enjoy food for once, without the concomitant agonies of needing to punish herself for it.

Maybe she got some peace at some point, perhaps dementia granted it to her, but at what a terrible price.

I think that for my mother, one of the sad consequences of being married to a man like my father was that she never felt that he took her intellect or her creativity seriously or even  consequentially. True, he got her to go back to college and finish a four-year degree, and take up teaching, but he never truly treated her with the same esteem he granted an equal, and we all felt it and knew it, and what is more, she did too. No doubt this was largely behind all her words of abuse and rage in later years when she could scarcely speak to him civilly even when  he had himself ceased to be abusive.  It was hard to listen to her snark and scorn him, when he was trying his best…But by then it was much to late to undo the damage his lack of care and cold abusiveness had wrought for so many years beforehand. It seemed to me that she just could not forgive him, especially not for “changing” on her so unaccountably in his latter decades…

 

This is the rather in-expert poem I wrote for my mother’s birthday in 2007 about all that she gave us growing up…

 

YOUR OWN OCCASIONAL POEM 2/16/07

 

You push the wood under the saw,

the sawdust scent is sharp and familiar.

First time in months, you’re in the woodshop;

at the end of the day, you’re sorry to stop.

 

 

It’s mid-February, the pale wintry light

has long ago left. You look up. It’s night

and you haven’t appeased yet your hands’ appetite,

their urge to create. I know as I write

 

 

that hunger of hands to handle and make,

your children all feel it, the pleasure, the ache.

You taught us love, gave us skills that you knew

copper enameling, pen and ink, too,

 

 

the weaving of baskets and papier maché

antiquing desks and working with clay,

sand casting, knitting (you couldn’t crochet).

 

 

You fired up a hunger that’s better than food

a hunger that drives us, the right attitude

to make things of beauty, for need and for use.

With paper pulp, wood, fabric, clay, we produce

 

 

unique objets d’art not entirely planned.

We make them with care and the love they demand

and when they are finished, we give them away.

(The joy’s in creating; they’re not meant to stay.).

 

 

You gave us the spirit, this need and the drive

this hunger, this feeling of being alive.

I don’t know if knowing, you planted the seed

but the plant it grew gives us all that we need.

 

 

(A mother like you is so rare you’re worth pay,

which conveniently rhymes with this:

Happy Birthday!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Mother, Marian W Spiro, Died a Week ago…

fullsizeoutput_343bMy drawing of my mother, Marian Wagner Spiro, suffering from the effects of dementia,  wearing the iPod and headphones I gave her. (from a photo taken by my sister, Martha, in the last weeks of mom’s life…)

There is so much to say, and so little that I find myself capable of saying at this time. The loss of one’s mother, no matter how fraught the relationship, is always incalculable, quite literally unable to be calculated. Because of the divorce from much of my family, included the extended network of cousins and so forth, imposed by my father for nearly forty years, I lost many years and many memories I might have made with my mother, and needless to say with the rest of my native family. However, because of this, along the way I learned the value of friendship, not just the emotional support and love from some one significant other, since I had none, but the kind of friendship about which it has been written:  Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. I learned what true friends are, and that they can love a person and care about a person perhaps with deeper love and kinder regard even than one’s family of origin.

 

This is not to say that I do not love and care about my family, of course, but it is my friends to whom I dedicated my newest book of poems and art, my friends both old and new. And they know who they are, I am sure they do. Because I feel it and I know it.

 

But that much said, I loved my mother, and what is more, I know she loved me and would have wanted me to have these loving friends in my life,  especially once she understood that having a nuclear family of my own was not in the picture for me.  I do not believe that she cared about whether I ever became a doctor or even a successful poet or artist, but only that I found contentment and love in my life, somewhere, somehow, and that she would be proud of me now, not for my achievements but for all these wonderful friends whom I love and who I know love me in return ( and in return for nothing except being me).

 

I love you, Mom, and I wish you well on your journey, wherever that takes you…Be at peace and know that all is well.

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I wrote this poem, or started it the night of my last visit to my mother, after weeks of not being able to put pen or pencil to paper. My younger sister, Martha and I had been splitting up the time and watch at the Hospice, though Martha had done the lion’s share of everything, living as it were just around the corner, while I needed a driver to get me first to Agawam and then to from Vermont to Amherst each day. In any event, just as I was finishing it, Martha called me with tears in her voice telling me that mom had passed away more suddenly than expected, no time to call me to come down to the hospice to be with her at the end.

 

HIATUS – June 18, 2017

“Just letting you know I am taking a hiatus because my mother is in the process of passing away and I need to give that my full focus.”

 

In the snapshot I take, you are almost not there,

barely stitched to your body by broken breathing,

those strands of beads upon which none of us pray

to keep you here, still here, still here…

the seeming years of days and nights

of your going having frayed the long wick of your life

till it seems impossible your heart pulses and breath

still clings to the flesh that clings to your bones.

 

 

In the stillness like stopped breath,

as the clock duties our days, from your morphine remove,

you can’t know how we mark a terrible time

while we wait for what is to come,

the inexorable exit-gong sounding: It is done.

 

 

All the same, they say life starts over, Mother,

if there is ever any life on earth without you,

as if we believed this day would come, or any other,

as if anything without you can ever be the same.

 

 

 

 

A Poem for My Aging Mother

My poor mother is suffering from dementia at 87 and it is very sad and difficult to watch her decline. I will write more if I can at some later time about it but for now I want just to post a poem I wrote for her years ago and then rewrote completely recently.

 

Over the years we have had some troubled times. Because my father disowned me for some thirty-five years, she had to make a choice between him and me, essentially, and the one she made was obvious. I was out of the house by then and I am not sure it ever really occurred to her to make any other choice, but who knows? I do not. In any event, I bear her no bad feelings for this, I do not think. Though had I been “her son” with schizophrenia i believe the outcome and her choices might well have been very different, as they always were when it came to my brother.

 

But that is water under the bridge. The choice was made and I was sacrificed. That said, perhaps it is a good thing, I dunno. If she had given up her life for me,  I might never have developed any independence at all, or written the poems and books I have.  I might never have discovered my art abilities. Who knows? No one knows, of course, what their “alternate futures” might have  held. We can only work with what we have and the cards we are dealt. We can’t make others choose on our behalf. Much as we might wish them to.

 

I never wanted my mother to give up her life for me. I felt guilty enough, just for being the way I was. The worst thing in the world would have been for her to make any sacrifice for me at all. For anyone to have done so would have been damaging to me. So I am glad that everyone went on their way, because otherwise I would have had to kill myself in apology.

 

I could say much more but I am sleepy so without further fanfare, the poem:

 

PHONE CALL TO MY MOTHER AT SIXTY

 

I have not thought of you all day.

A March wind rattles the wires,

wishing you a belated happy birthday.

You are sixty, my grandfather ninety,

my younger sister thirty,

but if there is significance in that,

a syzygy, some conjunction in the heavens

I have yet to figure it out.

Your husband answers, my father,

aligned against me north-north,

between us implacable silence.

So we sidestep confidences,

suspecting he is listening in

until in the distance the line clicks

like a playing card in the spokes.

But even so, how carefully we speak,

expelling words of fragile allegiance

each of us pretending not to know

what the other is thinking.

 

Suddenly you confide, you feel old:

the baby is thirty, you don’t like

your new job, you miss teaching,

the exuberant children, their bright

and lazy charm. There is so much to do,

so little time. Before it is too late

 

you want to captain a boat to the Azores,

learn cabinet-making — you have the tools,

a lathe, a power saw, inherited from your deaf father

who never heard you speak

but built you a fabulous dollhouse

and taught you, at ten, to sink the eight ball.

 

Could I ever confide that I, too, feel old? At thirty-five

you had a husband, four children,

a career in the wings. Older by a decade, I rent

a single room and have no prospects

beyond the next day’s waking.

Instead I carefully quote Joseph Campbell’s

advice: follow your bliss.

And I remind you Aquarians always step

to a different drum’s thunder.

You like these clichés,

and laugh, repeating them, then you say

with a sudden spontaneous sincerity

that moves me how good it is to talk with me.

I think of all the times we have not spoken,

how at sixty it would be nice

to have a daughter to talk with

instead of friends wakened in the night,

reaching over husbands or wives,

to answer the phone, “Hello? Hello?”

their wary voices expecting

death or disaster.

 

You are tired, you say now,

you have an early appointment.

We promise each other a date for lunch.

But I will not call for a long time.

Or perhaps I will call the next day.

Before you hang up, you let slip

it’s your wedding anniversary, one

marked by some mundane substance —

stone, carbon, foil, rope.

Should I congratulate you, I wonder,

or console you? Finally, we say good-bye.

Across the wires I think I hear

your voice crack, but it could be the wind

or a bad connection.

iPad Art, also Portrait and Poem: In Memoriam Howard M Spiro, MD

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IMG_0771 IMG_0030 IMG_0739

The first three pieces here were done with my finger using the app, Art Set, on an iPad 2. I had never used any digital means to do art before, and in fact had just started drawing a few months before. So when I did the window curtains drawing, it was really among my earliest drawings anyway. The “hand with pencil” was just for fun, because I had nothing else in front of me to draw, and I used my right hand to draw my left, I think, though I could have reversed it. Not sure, as I was doing either one in those days. Now I tend to strictly draw with my right hand and write with my left hand… Anyhow, I must have drawn my feet in flip flops last summer, since it is more sophisticated than the other two and I don’t think I would have been able to do that sort of thing until last year.

The pencil sketch, which I took from a movie of Athol Fugard’s play “Boesman and Lena” (staring Danny Glover and Angela Bassett), I drew off the television, stopping and starting it until I couldn’t bear to not know what was going to happen any longer, and gave up and simply watched the movie…It was a terrific if also very dark play. I watched it twice in a row, one night and then again the next night. Then I even went so far as to look for the text of it, which is apparently difficult to find…I did get a study guide though, which may have the text embedded in it. At any rate I hope so.  Anyhow, I had planned to do other studies from that movie but I got so engrossed in the actual play, that I failed to stop the action long enough to do so. I guess that speaks volumes for how good a playwright Fugard is (was?). In fact, I watched yet another of his plays/movies and even sent for a third, “Tsotsi,” that was unavailable any other way the following night. “Master Harold and the Boys” was incredibly difficult, yes painful, to watch,  and should not have been easy anyway, not for anyone with a light skin in this country and any conscience. We are ALL implicated, we are ALL guilty…

Finally, the picture, at the bottom, is of my father. Oddly, my first title of this post (edited out) called him “my dad”; I usually refer to him as my father, but always, always, always called him Daddy..When I did this portrait  a couple of days ago, it scared me: the eyes began to move and the mouth made sounds, as if he were trying to tell me something, and I was afraid, so terribly afraid he wanted to say that he didn’t want to be “there,” wherever he is…I was so scared in fact that I left the painting room and said I wouldn’t listen to him. But then my cat, Eemie, who died not too long after he did, also came around. Literally, or as literal as a dead cat can be. Visual and audible! I dunno how that can be, because she was NOT a ghost, but a real cat, really Eemie..which only adds to my consternation. Finally I decided to take a teensy bit of Zyprexa to stave off any potential disaster. This is a bad time of year for me, 5-6 months along after “the last time” and after last summer I know I have nowhere I can trust to turn to, no place that is safe for me (Natchaug Hospital is too dangerous, and they wouldn’t even take me back if I needed it, if I even agreed to go should I need to).  I frankly dunno that such a tiny dose of Zyprexa makes any difference, but I had to do something…

Oh, I have a lot to say about Natchaug still, but that would take another post, and a lot of thinking. I just might post it as another open letter to Natchaug’s CMO…Because she is the one to whom I wish to speak, and who really needs to hear what I have to say. But we will see. In the meantime, I want finally to post the poem that I wrote for my father after he died. A lot of people have asked me for it. I read it at the memorial service at the Unitarian Church in Hamden, CT.  Alas, I see that it won’t paste in single spaced lines nor will it preserve the proper large blank spacing where it belongs, so you should know that it ought to look a bit different on the page than it does. The only other words of explanation you might want are these: when Martha, my younger sister, read her own eulogy, her major metaphor was water and the ocean and waves, because our father, was so very fond of swimming, especially the breast stroke, or a weird kind of what seemed to me a modified-dogpaddle-cum-crawl, his head more out of the water than in. We were shocked to discover that water and swimming were the governing metaphors in my poem as well.

(You might not need this information, but in case you do,  Tir Na N’Og is a mythical Irish “Land of Youth.” Island of the Seven Moons is meant to stand for much the same thing…)

This is for you, Dad.

BUOYANT

The dead cross the river, swimming.

Past drowning now,

some crawl,

some leisurely sidestroke,

some float on their backs,

toes pointing toward the sky.

Who knows what lies ahead:

Tír na nÓg, Valhalla,

Island of the Seven Moons?

No one can say for sure

if there’s any shore, far or near.

Some have cracked their teeth

on bitterness, believing

that to die is to lose all.

Others say there is only light

shining on the best of what used to be.

We dream, we dream and wake,

we wake and hope our dreams

mean something,

that the dead know more

than just the river

and that they must swim.

Daddy, keep your head up,

kick your feet, push the water

away.