Mama died on December 22nd, a month short of her 87th birthday. We never did find out the specific cause. According to our cousin Ginny, a skilled physician, it may have been stomach cancer. Mama did finally, after much family pressure, consent to go to the hospital, but only long enough to be treated for dehydration. For all practical purposes she stopped eating sometime in the fall and wasted away, reduced to skin and bones by the time of her death. Olaf knew that something was badly wrong when Mama refused even a bite from one of Cora’s home-baked muffins, which she usually devoured with relish. She was determined to die in her own bed with a minimum of intervention, and that’s what she did. She showed us how to die.
Although Mama had been looking forward to the long-planned Emmet family get-together in Ireland in June in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the failed uprising against the British in 1798, when the time came she was too weak to go. Olaf delivered the verdict, “For her the trip comes too late.”
I saw her for the last time in July 1998 on our return from Ireland and a brief follow-on trip to Germany. Sally, remained in Germany to teach a summer course at the Fachhochschule [University of Applied Science] in Lübeck, still one of Spokane’s sister cities at the time. Parting from his mother was quite traumatic for six-year-old Emmet who dissolved in tears as he waved good-bye to his mother on the station platform as our train pulled away. He was soon distracted, however, by the thrill of riding in the Inter-City Express. Later, back in Spokane, he bravely told Sally over the phone, “I’m getting over my fear of missing you.” I recorded some impressions from our visit to Mama in my journal in July 1998:
Insights from my visit to Vermont. Two paradigmatic clashes between Betsy and Mama in which, despite my overall condemnation of how Mama has treated Betsy over the years, I found myself far more in agreement with Mama: one was Betsy’s typically clumsy (and condescending) attempt to be “nice” to Mama by telling Emmet that the presents she had bought for him also came from Mama. “I can give my own gifts, thank you,” was Mama’s sharp and predictable response. The second clash came after Emmet described how Louise had yelled at her daughter Sherry and told her to “get out of here.” Mama rebuked Emmet for revealing this embarrassing family dispute. This provoked Betsy into rising to Emmet’s defense. “I think it’s perfectly all right for him to talk about it. Do you want him to lie?” It was only after I twice defended Mama’s censure as perfectly appropriate that Betsy gradually gave in.
I managed to deflect most direct clashes of my own with Mama, two of which stick out in my mind. One was over the remark I made when Emmet was chasing after Mama’s half-wild kittens who always fled at his approach. In a facetious tone I said, “He likes to feel the power,” and was unpleasantly surprised when Mama took my remark seriously. “Oh no,” she said, “that’s so wrong. That view is imposed on children by grown-ups. Children want to get close to animals.” Her contorted face showed how strongly she felt about this, as if she had struck at the very source of our civilizational malaise. I did not feel that it was worth it to try to explain that I had meant my remark facetiously. Advice to visitors to Mama: know when not to make small talk.
The other run-in came on the subject of Berlin. I knew that she had not liked Berlin when she lived there (her marriage was dissolving), so I did not want to give her occasion to contradict me by expressing a positive judgment. Deliberately non-committal, I said, “Berlin has really changed.” Predictably, however, that did not stop her at all. “I detest Berlin. It’s an awful, narrow-minded, self-important city.”
I did not think this was the last time I would see Mama, although she tried to persuade me to stay longer by saying that maybe next year at this time she might no longer be alive. I told her we had to get back to tend to our dogs, an argument she found difficult to counter, since all her life she had used the same excuse to justify not budging from her place.
After returning from Vermont, I reflected on what turned out to be (although I did not yet know it) our final parting.
The peculiar implications of Mama’s mumbled “you’re a good boy” at our parting in Vermont. It was quite unexpected—and unpleasant—to me. For one thing, expressing a “judgment” like that suggested that she was not at all emotionally involved (at the brink of tears, for instance) by our going away. For another thing, it was said in a way that seemed to refute a previously held conviction (such as that I was not a good boy). Even the way it was said, hardly audible, seemed to suggest that she was talking to herself, revising an earlier opinion. Or if it was said to me, as it must have been given the pronoun “you,” it singularly lacked conviction. Aside from the fact that the whole phrase was rather patronizing to begin with, suggesting that its main aim was simply to once again establish the mother-son relationship (like straightening my tie years ago, or asking me to run a trivial errand, to which Aunt Temple had objected almost thirty years ago.)
Mama was not defeated by old age. She told Maureen Dyer, “I can’t see anything, I can’t hear anything, and I can’t remember anything, and I’ve never been so happy in my life.” Maureen told Mama about her mother’s Alzheimer’s. “She’s in a nursing home, but for all she knows about it, she could just as well be in Hoboken.” Mama: “How awful! I’d much rather be in Hoboken and think I was in a nursing home.” Mama gave us instructions for her funeral. “I want all four of you to get drunk. I want my body cremated and the ashes thrown out on the dump behind the house.” At the time of her death, three of her children were over sixty years of age and the fourth one turned sixty the following day.
12/22/1998 Mama’s death. Notified by Trina by phone at 5 a.m.(Ruth Lawrence had phoned her mother) shortly after I had woken from a remarkable dream of Mama, thin, even skeletal, but active and moving, on her farm, which was, however, more abundant and comfortable than in reality. What made the dream extraordinary was that residing as a rather unwanted guest on the outskirts of her property were Hitler and a number of his aides, all rather ridiculous as they had no power, which also made them seem uncharacteristically moderate, since their words were empty threats (a reflection, perhaps, of my dismissal in class of the Aryan Nation as too insignificant to be the quintessential form of American fascism—it was the Ku Klux Klan that I had hoped to elicit from my students). Hitler’s minions dutifully went to pick up their grub at the main house, so many tamed monsters.
The pain of Mama’s death lies in the sudden realization of all those missed years when I barely saw her or talked to her, as if they would never end. I truly took her for granted. The pain of knowing at the end of her life how lonely she was. Although I never saw her more than once a year for the past twenty years, her death pulls the ground from under me. Her death also takes much of the pleasure from writing my book [Hitler’s Germany]. I now realize how much I was writing it for her.
As Mama had predicted, her funeral provided the first occasion in years for her four children, now all over sixty years in age, to gather together in one place. It seemed to me that Olaf, who inherited the role of “top dog” in the family, unconsciously adopted many of Mama’s mannerisms. But he was critical of her ready acceptance of violence and predation in the natural world. Mama understood that her love of nature was a corollary of her dislike of human society. “I’m anti-social,” she once told me; “I love living at the end of the world.” As the second-oldest living Emmet (among the more than four-hundred living direct descendants of Thomas Addis Emmet—the founding father of the American branch of the Emmet family), Mama would have loved to have been able to attend the week-long family reunion in Ireland in June 1998. It was indeed a most enjoyable celebration, well-organized by our cousins, Susanna Doyle, Grenville (“Jeremy”) Emmet, and Katie Emmet.
Emmet finished Kindergarten and entered first grade shortly before his seventh birthday in September 1998.
His Kindergarten teacher Linda Lentz gave him a glowing report:
Emmet expresses himself well and can easily talk to both children and adults. He enjoys interacting with literature and is eager to answer questions and join in group discussions. Emmet is well-liked by all his classmates. He uses words to handle conflicts that arise. Even though he chooses to spend much of his time with Lucas [Brown], he is able to easily work and play with any of the other children.
Emmet enjoys success in using scissors, pencils, paint, glue, etc. He is printing his name nicely using lower-case letters. He works hard to do quality work. One of Emmet’s favorite free time activities is to build a stage using blocks and sing and “play” his block guitar. He also enjoys the computers. Emmet is a good listener during circle. We enjoy him immensely.
On a much higher level, Trina was also adding to her academic achievements.
1998 was the year of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment (and eventual acquittal) for having lied when he denied having had sexual relations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, based on Clinton’s dubious claim that oral sex did not constitute sexual relations. My view was that while Clinton’s actions may have been morally reprehensible and politically misguided, they did not constitute sufficient grounds for impeachment. The exploitation of the case by Republicans for political advantage seemed to me to outweigh Clinton’s misdeeds. I noted a resemblance between the prosecution of Clinton and the prosecution of informers in the former East Germany.
[Joachim] Gauck, the man in charge of investigation of the [former] East German STASI (the state security service), reminds me of Kenneth Starr, special prosecutors. Both men have grown into their jobs to such an extent that they can’t seem to face any other employment. Both have developed elaborate, passionate rationales for the importance, indeed the necessity, of their jobs. In both men one gets the impression that their jobs have affected all their attitudes, indeed their personalities. Their self-serving motives are so obvious as to make it very difficult to take seriously their vilification of the objects of their investigations. If they weren’t right-wingers before, they would have to become right-wingers now. Thus does the material base determine tne superstructure of values and ideas with unusual directness. Rarely do we have such unmediated examples of economic determinism.
The other big event of 1998 was Ursula and Gordon’s wedding.