My mother made two things clear: that she wanted to die, and that I should get her pearls

In a heartbreaking new memoir, Toronto author Karen von Hahn reflects on her glamorous mother — and their exquisitely fraught relationship. Here's an excerpt from What Remains.

What remains by Karen von Hahn

Me at two years of age, playing with the bracelets on her mother’s wrist.

The last word I ever heard from my mother was “pearls.” Though I didn’t actually hear it; rather, the letters P-E-A-R-L-S were slowly spelled out, with much effort, by pointing her index finger at the letters on a white card printed with the alphabet that was supplied for this purpose by the nursing staff in the ICU. My mother had a giant clear blue plastic tube attached to a breathing machine stuck down her throat and couldn’t speak.

Which didn’t in any way prevent her from making herself understood. Always one for the grand gesture, the sly brow, the dark look, the giant sweep of a hand, the point- ing finger — hers, now, crooked like a witch’s on a hand so swollen the skin looked tightly stuffed, like a sausage — our mother made, to the three of us kids standing around her bed at Mount Sinai Hospital next to the deafening suck-and-whoosh of the ventilator heaving her chest up and down, two things perfectly clear. First, that she, Susan May Lambert Young, wanted to die, and that I, her eldest, was the one who should get her pearls.

To be perfectly honest, I had always admired them. Unlike those graduated sweetheart necklaces that make you look like a college co-ed circa 1956 (kind of uptight, even if in a Mary McCarthy sort of way), or those comically gumball-sized Barbara Bush chokers with the jewelled clasps everyone wore in the ’80s courtesy of Kenneth Jay Lane, my mother’s pearls are fabulously, perfectly, art deco soigné. Fat and creamy, but elegantly flapper-length and so evenly sized, they always looked like Chanel fakes on my mother’s tall, slim, square-shouldered, and small-chested frame.

In pictures as a girl, my mother was almost impossibly beautiful. Dark hair, long nose, high cheekbones, hazel eyes that would brighten when she smiled her wide, white smile. With her sporty, square-shouldered build, long limbs, martini-glass tits, and perfect calves, American sportswear was made for her. Once, in my teens on a girls’ weekend in New York, just the two of us, the designer Bill Blass — a complete stranger — actually stopped us at a street corner to tell her how terrific she looked. I remember, even when I was little, admiring her tan, bony feet in thong sandals, her braless nipples through deep-cut jersey and silk, wishing one day I too would have elegant veins on my child’s feet and hands, that my laugh would sound as throaty and chic as hers.

Of course, I never could smoke, no matter how much I tried, wheezing over a stale, stolen cigarette of my mother’s at thirteen, trying to blow the smoke out the window of my Flower Power-wallpapered third-floor bedroom. After taking it up in her teens, my mother never could really quit. Years after she had supposedly given it up, the inside seam of her handbag would be lined with shreds of tobacco, and you might surprise her in the kitchen of my parents’ condo sneaking a quick one, blowing the incriminating smoke into the oven vent hood.

After her death, the word my father used, over and over, pulling the now-yellow laminated picture of my mother as a teenager from the front pocket of his jeans, was “captivating.” As in, “Your mother was the most captivating woman I ever met.”

The art of being captivating is one that I observed from childhood and yet, perhaps as a result, is one that has always remained beyond my grasp. Should you want to leave everyone awestruck long after you are gone, I highly recommend uttering each and every statement you make during your lifetime — whether right or simply wrong — with total and complete conviction, like a cross between Stalin and Diana Vreeland. It also helps to be eerily psychic and working on a different, more intuitive level than most other people, whether or not such gifts might occasionally lead to being misunderstood.

Once, when I was in high school, I came home to find the family room sofa oddly deconstructed. “Home” at that point in our lives was a grandly overblown faux-Tudor chateau in fancy Forest Hill that even my mother thought was in terrible taste. My father had gone ahead and bought it anyway in a fit of macho pique after its extremely wealthy owner, the builder of the haut-bourgeois monstrosity, told him that we would never be able to afford it (hence its appellation as our “F-ck-You Forest Hill House”). In her appointment of the interior, however, which involved the liberal application of dark woods and louche velvets in the manner of a ’70s Milanese palazzo, my mother certainly rose to the occasion.

What Remains by Karen von Hahn

Photo, House of Anansi

What passed for our “family room” was a sunken, heavily panelled enclave, each panel of which my mother had mirrored for an infinitely reflective effect like the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. To enter, you had to step down from the vast empty foyer as if you were entering a nightclub, which in a way it was, most afternoons, for a party of one. The one being my mother, who, dressed in her uniform of that era — a cowl-neck cashmere sweater over grey flannel trousers, accessorized with multiple ropes of gold chains, her hair blown out into the tousled mane of a lioness — would be fully ensconced in the depths of one massively overstuffed velvet sofa, smoking and drinking red wine while on the phone.

I remember coming home from school one dark weekday afternoon in winter. “Hi, Mum,” I yell from the mudroom by the side door, dropping my backpack and slipping off my slushy boots onto the rustic Spanish-tile floor. (Nobody in the house ever uses the actual front entrance, preferring the less daunting trek from the side door to navigating the formidable foyer, which was covered in so much travertine it was about as welcoming as an Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb.)

Entering the nightclub/family room where my mother is, as usual, admiring her reflection from the depths of the velvet, I had a vague sense of something being a bit off. This slight, subconscious impression must somehow have registered on my face because my mother, hanging up the phone and leaping off the sofa, suddenly declares, with a bold sweep of one arm as if she were Catherine the Great astride a rearing horse on the palace steps liberating St. Petersburg for the Russian people, “Back pillows are out!”

So alarmingly emphatic is this statement, and so strange the after-school greeting, with its lack of an introductory article and odd emphasis on “out,” that I actually think for a moment that what she is saying is that current fashions in interiors now demand the immediate, and potentially permanent, removal of all back sofa cushions.

Momentarily speechless, I stand there in my damp socks on the fur rug, a picture of confusion reflected endlessly in the cruel mirrored panels, trying to come up with the appropriate response. It is true that the pillows on the back of the sofa do seem to be missing. But what does this somewhat unremarkable situation, which my captivating mother has remarked on so very emphatically, actually mean? Maybe this is one of her famous pronouncements, most of which have to do with her stylistic “vision”?

“So . . . back pillows are, like, out?”

“Yes, dear,” says Mum, turning back to the phone after eyeing me with what appears to be pity for my hopeless failure to follow even the most basic rules of conversation. “They’re out for dry cleaning.”

These little miscommunications between slow, ordinary me stranded on planet earth with all the other average humans, and the cosmic transmissions that informed my mother’s everyday conversation were common. But such was her style of delivery.

Every time I try anything on in a change room, apply moisturizer, or make myself a pot of tea, I can still hear my mother’s pearls of wisdom, delivered, always, as if she, Susan May Young (née Lambert, an entirely self-invented diva from a nice Anglican family in St. Catharines, Ontario) was some sort of oracle and such proclamations were being delivered from Style’s highest Mount.

“Never underestimate the value of a fashion investment.” A “fashion investment” could be anything from a “really good haircut” to a pair of sunglasses, black pants, or a trench coat (feel free to substitute any classic, really good item here).

“A touch of black can be grounding.”

“Finding the right blue can be difficult.”

“Never say that you ‘hate’ a colour like orange, because you never know what you will love next.”

While watching someone try on clothes in front of a mirror, my mother might instruct: “Wear it! Don’t let an item of clothing wear you.” Or, “She’s just jealous”— about anyone who failed to include us or seemed ill-disposed. Her trademark riposte, after hearing from anyone on the mend from the flu or an unfortunate bout of food poisoning, was: “No matter how sick you are, there isn’t a woman alive who doesn’t think, for just a moment, ‘Well, at least I might have lost a little weight.’”

What Remains by Karen von Hahn

Flanked by my two beautiful parents at age nine. I’m in chiffon and daisy eyelet as a flower girl for an aunt’s wedding.

And her very favourite, typically delivered with a sidelong, withering glance for raised-in-the-’70s, flannel-shirted, free-to-be me: “Try to maintain a sense of mystery.”

I swear that my mother — who lived for beauty and surrounded all of us in such an exquisitely curated envelope of it, as if its talismanic power could shield us from all the ugliness in the world — once actually said at the mere mention of someone, “I hate her, she’s ugly.”

Which is not to suggest that her penchant for overemphasis was always entirely negative. She was also immensely generous, almost overly so, loading us down with every imaginable gift and superlative, which always made me suspicious of her praise.

She was almost never dull or uninteresting, and she was fabulously indulgent with everyone, most of all herself. And she loved us big, and boldly. Her kisses were loud and wet. Her laughter came easily and was as uninhibited as her fury. And her signature signoff, whether whispered loudly in one’s ear following a kiss, before hanging up the phone, or quickly scribbled on a written note or letter — always near-impossible to read in her looping scrawl — was “Love, love, love you.”

My mother was made up entirely of estrogen: intuitive and mercurial, witchy and dark, earthy and glamorous, manipulative and beautiful, childlike and wise, loving, and harsh, messy and gorgeous, emphatic, dramatic, operatic, and terrifying. And, yes, captivating. There was no room she entered that did not feel her presence. And no scarf, glove, coat, book, umbrella, sweater, or handbag that failed to exude her perfume long after she had gone.

It is hard for me now to wear her pearls. Not just because I miss her — and I do, still, every day — just as much as I am grateful that for her, the pain, the suffering, and most of all, the terrible indignity of growing old and sick is finally over and done. No, it’s literally hard for me to wear the pearls because, unlike my mother, I am no Gatsby girl. I emerged from my own shell a woman with big round Russian Jewish breasts. Breasts I immediately loathed, that made me the object of an unwanted kind of attention, and insistently defied with their protuberance all efforts at a chic silhouette. And so her legacy, the subject of her last words on earth, these precious fetishes of the woman who nursed me, just slide around like marbles across my own generous bosom and refuse to hang just so, the way they always did on her tan, bony chest.

What remains by Karen von Hahn

My mom and I, making an entrance, back in the ’80s.

Every time I slip them on, I feel like an impostor. Despite being the same age now as my mother was when she became a grandmother, I still don’t feel grown-up enough to wear them. A perplexing state of affairs that only confirms that, despite being her daughter — or, perhaps, because of it — I am, in so many ways, not the woman she was.

Almost five years now after her death, the tragic-comic scene in which we finally managed to convince the authorities that she desperately wanted off the machine is still vivid. It took so long after the unplugging for her to finally stop breathing on her own (although they gave her morphine, they wouldn’t remove that bloody tube down her throat till after she died — a failure on my part to have negotiated her full release from being pinned to the bed like a dying butterfly that still haunts me) . . . so long that the four of us gathered around her bedside began to lose focus. So freaking long that out of sheer exhaustion and boredom my father and brother started idly snacking on the Melba toasts in the official family care package the nurses had left us, dropping crumbs over the terrible baby blue polyester bed sheets as she lay there dying.

Almost five years later and every time I pull out her pearls I’m still left wondering whether this means I don’t measure up, or whether I should be eternally grateful.

This text has been abridged from What Remains: Object Lessons in Love and Loss, copyright (c) 2017 by Karen von Hahn. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press, Toronto.

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