Thursday, September 15, 2011
9/12 Jean Doris Congreve Knox: 1920-2011
(This is a flower from the Garden of Final Appreciation, which is to say an obituary with attitude. I’ll supply the attitude.)
Jean Doris Congreve Knox was a child of the 20th century. Born at the start of the roaring, expansive, liberated twenties, her early life went up and down like a roller-coaster. Her father died when she was seven. Her family lost the business the entrepreneur, restaurateur, and muscle man John Congreve had begun, called Congreve’s Tea Room. So mom’s childhood visited some temporary addresses before the roller coaster went up again when her mother remarried to a successful recording engineer, known to the family as Dad Cheney, who moved the family back to easy street, a big house in the leafy Long Island town of Baldwin, where Mom grew up and graduated from high school.
Before that happened, however, the crash of 1929 wiped out Dad Cheney’s business and life was once more shadowed by worry over money. These facts are the origin of the house drama in Mom’s early life. Her twice-widowed mom eventually lost “Dad Cheney’s big, beautiful house,” as Mom described it, and the family moved back to the Flushing brownstone where she was born, and Mom took a job in an office to support the household.
What she wanted from there on in was a house of her own. That took a war, the arrival of Dad, Alva Knox, whom she married in 1946, surviving the postwar housing crisis in Flushing where the married couple lived with her mother, her older brother Mark, and whoever else helped pay the rent – and her first born, me – until dad’s income and the postwar building boom on Long Island succeeded in providing one, at 54 Downs Road, Hempstead.
What did Mom want in her life? She wanted a house. A house meant security, stability, the banishment of anxiety – who among us doesn’t understand that?
She wanted other things, of course. She wanted to go to college after earning a regents scholarship to a teachers college, but her family needed her to work. Every life has regrets and sacrifices. Mom looked back some, but she didn’t let it spoil today.
Mom had an easy touch as a mother, no heavy guilt trips, no ill-concealed surrogate ambitions for her children, no intrusive hands-on management style. As her son, I honor her motherhood. She kept the show going at home and did a fair amount of getting out of the way. Mom was also looking to have some fun. So we went to the beach, we stopped for Carvel, we were encouraged to throw ourselves in the ocean and learn how to jump the waves. We got an endless series of chocolate cakes, Mom refining her style over the years to arrive at the heralded chocolate chip, Saturday night special. We ate supper on tray tables in front of the TV when Dad was working late or going to his bowling league. We had had spaghetti with meat sauce on Saturday nights and melted cheese sandwiches with bacon on Sunday nights.
We played games. Mom was a devoted card player for the fun of it. Mom liked people, like socializing, liked having fun, laughed easily over little things. She taught us rummy and kissena. She played cards on the beach with her children and their friends, wind blowing sand through the game and into her plastic bags of beach snacks.
Mom had a gentle way with people. Her daughters-in-law, a set of two, bless the skies for a mother-in-law without a forbidding command presence. In our little way, her kids were going multicultural. Jews, Catholics? Mom was cool. Mom would have been polite if we’d brought home a gorilla, but in the event she was loving and accommodating to new family members as she was with the old ones. It takes some of us more demanding types a good many years to appreciate these qualities.
Mom didn’t want to be the life of the party. What she wanted was the party. People came to her house because it was an easy place to be. She never liked the quarter-mastering and food prep side of the hosting business, but she had her chops down to make you feel welcome.
Sonya, her first grandchild, who’s not here because she lives in Lebanon, recalled these routines from childhood visits: “All sorts of memories keep surfacing, but the ones hitting me most clearly are watching her set up the Ritz crackers and Triscuits and slices of orange cheddar cheese on the wooden cutting boards (carefully all layered up on each other) any time any guest arrived to the house on Downs Road…. And watching her charge out of the surf at Jones Beach.”
Mom loved the ocean so much we went to Jones Beach during a hurricane, rather ironically named Bob.
Mom’s memories, when we pulled them out of her, were of little pleasurable things – pet rabbits and cats in Baldwin (and more cats, plus a few dogs, later in Hempstead), visits to the farms of her older relatives, boat rides in the waters off Queens, the uncle who woke up visitors by playing “heigh-ho heigh-ho, it’s off to work we go!” on his record player at dawn when she stayed at his farm; flowers, and childhood friends, family visits, and bowling leagues with Dad. In my dreams I plant flower gardens at 54 Downs Road – didn’t happen, but Mom planted flowers there and planted the seed of growing things in me.
She took us to church, where the elegantly metaphysical language of the Episcopalian liturgy still rings through my thoughts. And she played the piano like the gifted student she always was – “practicing” as she called it on Tchaikovksy, and Debussy and Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, looking at musical scores that turned the pages black with crowds of flying notes and after a while getting tired and saying, “Oh well, it’s really too hard for me.” A lot of that music stayed inside of us as well.
And you could be the life of the party on the piano, as she was for uncountable family gatherings. We stood around the piano and sang songs because mom could actually play them. She played old songs and new ones, read sheet music at first glance, played background numbers for church fundraisers, accompanied prima donnas, banged out “The 12 Days of Christmas” for yearly gatherings at John’s house so we knew it really was Christmas, entertained at the Hertlin independent senior living center and the Nesconset nursing home, and eventually at age 90 whittled her repertoire down to her swan song, “It had to be you.”
She never made anyone feel bad. She wouldn’t have known how if she wanted to. She rolled with the punches, took what came, found reasons to feel good, found the right thing to say.
We die old, if we’re fortunate. But we live all our ages. We remember the mom, the grandma, the mother-in-law, the neighbor, the friend who mattered to us. I see her laughing and exclaiming how lucky she is to scoop up a pot of pennies by going out in a Michigan Rummy Game. Maybe they were pennies from heaven.
The poem of Mom’s Last Days goes something like this:
Near the end
Mom becomes an angel
Or perhaps merely a weightless, ethereal figure
Quiet, gentle, easy to please
Forgetting all the stress and character acting of mortal existence
Give me wings to fly, her final phase seemed to say,
And I will leave you all behind
Between the Labor Day weekend
And the 10th anniversary of nine-eleven
Mom let go
Picking her spot, not bothering anyone,
Leaving quickly by a side door
Known only to one who covered the ground carefully
And did not take up too much room