Mom: ‘Is He Jewish?’ Me: ‘No.’ Mom: ‘Is He Smart?’

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Modern Love

After I first met John on a Manhattan dance floor, I called my mother, Selma, and told her that I’d begun seeing the most wonderful man. Selma was delighted and when I mentioned that John was a doctor, the phone all but glowed.

“Is he Jewish?” Selma asked. When I said no, there was a distinct pause. Then she asked, “Is he smart?”

Selma justifiably hated being labeled a Jewish mother, a cliché she found tiresome and demeaning. Jewish mothers are supposedly overprotective, demanding and obsessed with cleanliness, higher education and worldly success. While my mother dabbled in these areas, she was also an extraordinary individual, a woman devoted to poetry, dance, vigorous optimism, boldly patterned Marimekko dresses and a nice glass of vodka after dinner.

On occasion my mother could exhibit a healthy dose of, well, let’s call it idiosyncratic common sense. When I was growing up, long before gay marriage was even remotely possible, my mother’s friend Sue came out to her. Selma was thrilled on Sue’s behalf but still worried about future security. “Couldn’t Sue be a lesbian,” my mother had wondered aloud, “but still marry a rich man?”

She was radically progressive and accepting of gay lives. She worked as a publicist for a ballet company in Philadelphia and had more gay friends than I did. She once tormented me by asking if I’d hand deliver an envelope filled with photos of the company’s handsome male dancers. I was to carry this sealed parcel on the train from New York. Just before I left town, Selma called and casually mentioned, “Some of the photos are nudes.” And no, I didn’t open the envelope but I certainly cursed her.

She quickly came to adore John, both because he’s a terrific person and because she hoped to enlist him as a spy, supplying her with confidential data on my personal life. John, in the most good-natured manner possible, sidestepped Selma’s incredibly transparent espionage, by refusing to answer such questions as “What is Paul eating?” “What is Paul working on?” and, inevitably, “Why won’t Paul tell me anything? What’s wrong with him?”

And yes, Selma would frequently ask me, on all occasions, “Do you need to use the bathroom?” She persisted, even after I started saying things like “Why yes I do. To take heroin.”

My mother had no trouble with my being gay or, more impressively, with my desire to become a playwright. Gay people can still earn a living; the playwrighting deal, though, is more dicey. Selma tried to control her anxiety, but her joy overflowed one day when we were shopping together at Crate and Barrel, browsing for an armchair for her apartment. I’d had some success by this point, and the gay salesman recognized me.

Selma’s grin was pure sunshine. As we left the store, she whispered, “Did he give you a discount?”

He hadn’t, but I fully support the concept of an L.G.B.T.Q. discount or rebate, especially at Barneys. As my mother might have said, with regard to centuries of discrimination, “It would be a nice gesture.”

Some years ago I had a play being produced in London, and John and I invited Selma to accompany us. She was excited but wary, fretting about, as she put it, “cramping your style.” My mother had read far too many articles on the rowdier nature of certain gay lives, and she would sometimes picture John and me enjoying a nonstop whirlwind of leather dungeons, masturbation societies and drug-fueled circuit parties (and to be honest, my plays, if not my life, occasionally included these activities).

Our London hotel installed my mother in a room right next door to ours, with a connecting door. This terrified Selma, both out of a concern for everyone’s privacy and a fear of what she might accidentally witness. “I will never use that door,” she vowed. “Even if I knock, you don’t have to open it. And I won’t listen!”

Selma’s imagination could get the better of her. John, Selma and I shared a cleaning person, and through a miscommunication Selma decided that John and I had headed off for a week in Cancun, Mexico, a place I’ve still never been to.

My mother mysteriously refused to speak to either John or me for quite a while, until I asked her what was going on. Barely suppressing her outrage, she asked: “So how was Cancun? Why couldn’t you tell me? What were you doing there?”

Despite constant reassurances to the contrary, she still insisted that John and I had fled to Cancun to avoid having lunch with her, or maybe to attend some forbidden international orgy. (I’m not sure how Mexico became implicated, but I should also mention that Selma hated Donald Trump before anyone, rolling her eyes at the news of each of his weddings.)

When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, she called in the big guns. She’d bring along me and John to her appointments with her oncologist, and sometimes my cousin Carl, who is also a doctor, came as well.

Selma was fiercely proud of having not only a doctor nephew but also a doctor son-in-law. She used this platoon to intimidate her more-than-accomplished oncologist, informing the poor man that “John and Carl are both doctors” as I could feel her rising urge to declare me at least a registered nurse.

John and Selma were devoted to each other, and he was especially comforting during her illness. As she began chemotherapy, I asked a theatrical hairdresser (and no, that’s not redundant) to drop by Selma’s apartment and shave her head, since her hair had begun falling out in clumps.

John and I watched as this generous and sensitive stylist made Selma feel safe and attended to. Months later, Selma’s hair grew back as a cap of thick, steel gray curls. She’d had waist-length hair for her entire life, secured until bedtime in a neat bun, just like her mother and sisters. Their hairpins often set off airport metal detectors.

She’d never been to a salon, firmly believing that such frills were vain, unnecessary and somehow gentile. (This was also why she avoided wearing fur, pearls and slacks.) She was unsure of her new pixie cut until John gushed, “You look fabulous! You should’ve cut your hair years ago!”

Selma beamed, because she knew she looked good and because she trusted John, even if he was Christian and from Spokane.

John had lost his own mother at a fairly early age, and while Selma wasn’t a surrogate parent, he loved her dearly. I loved Selma as well, but I’d sometimes — O.K., often — use John as a human shield to deflect or at least filter her interrogations. My mother had relocated to Manhattan following my father’s death, just as I was getting to know John. As with the parents of many gay children, my mother’s foremost fear was that I’d be alone, so John was an answered prayer.

John and I have now been together for almost 25 years, and my mother died eight years ago. Just before her death, she demanded a private conversation with John. I’m not sure exactly what was said, but they both seemed satisfied.

When I asked about this session, Selma, for the first time in her life, used the following phrase: “That’s none of your business.”

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