“Ladies and Gentleman, My Mother is Dying”

Ms., November, 1974

Susan Braudy

I have thought the cancer was in my control.
If I decide she will recover, it will go away—

From Mourning Pictures, a play by Honor Moore

After six months of vitamin cures and grief. Jenny McKean Moore died last year at the age of 50 of cancer of the liver and colon. She’d spent 30 years nurturing her nine children and her husband Paul Moore, the Episcopal Bishop of New York. Ms. Moore had taken time off only to write one excellent book in 1968, The People on Second Street, about her family’s eight—year residence in a Jersey City slum church.

“Everything was just starting.” she said on her deathbed, with only a trace of bitterness, to her oldest daughter, Honor Moore. Indeed, after an automobile accident and then a partial nervous breakdown, Jenny Moore had just decided to live a new life, to devote herself to her writing. When she learned she was dying, she willed her unfinished manuscripts to Honor and told her. ‘‘I’ve had enough children for both of us. You must write.”

Honor, a poet who at 28 has roundish cheeks and still wears her dark hair long and straight. was unable to write during her mothers last months. But she kept a journal, Honor smiles, “It said things like. ‘Got up this morning. Pancakes for breakfast. Call the Indian healer for Mother.’” Honor couldn’t tell people about her mother. She’d say only. “I’m going to visit my mother because she is not well.” She recalls, “I thought I’d sound like a freak if I laid my grief on anyone. I thought they didn’t want to hear.”

After her mother died, Honor began to write poems again, based on her journal entries. Then in January she toll I an audience at a poetry reading in New York that she was going to read from a work in progress about her mother. She began.

Ladies and Gentlemen, my mother is
dying. You say ‘everyone’s mother
I bow to you, smile, Ladies, gentle-
my mother is dying. She has cancer.
You say many people die of cancer.
I scratch my head. Gentle ladies,
men, my mother has cancer, and,
short of
a miracle, will die. You say ‘This
happened many times before.’ You
say ‘Death
is something which repeats itself.’ I
Ladies and gentleman, my mother has
all through her. She will die unless
there’s a
miracle. You shrug. You gave up
years ago, Marxism too. You don’t
in anything. I step forward. My
is dying. I don’t believe in miracles.
Ladies and gentleman, one last time:
mother is dying. I haven’t got another.

When Honor’s controlled soprano voice stopped, the room was silent. Some of the audience, including theater producer Mary Silverman, was crying. Mary Silverman recalls the moment. “I was stunned. I knew Honor was making theater. We were responding like a theater audience.”

The next day Mary Silverman told her boss, producer Lyn Austin, what had happened. and they agreed to commission Honor to adapt her poems about her mother into a play to be produced at the Lenox Art Center in Massachusetts the following summer. Lyn Austin, who runs the Lenox Arts Center—a leading summer stock company—has produced many Broadway shows, including Arthur Kopit’s Indians. She and Mary Silverman produced Dr. Selavy’s Magic Theatre at Lenox a few summers back and then brought it to New York for a long run.

“I listened to Mary’s opinion about Honor’s work,” says Lyn Austin proudly. “She goes like an arrow toward quality. I hadn’t heard the poems, but I heard Mary’s excitement.”

The play, Mourning Pictures, was written in part that winter and completed during the rehearsals for its summer production at Lenox. It was a solid hit, and before its two-week run was finished, an enthusiastic investor had agreed to put up the $50,000 necessary to give it a fall opening off Broadway. Critics agreed it is a stunning first play about the exploration of what a daughter and a mother say to each other and to themselves when the mother is dying.

Honor is played by her best friend, actress Kathryn Walker. In fact, the production company constitutes something close to a women’s theater group, with Kay Carney as director and Lindsay Borden, a first-year Yale student, as stage manager. Though Lyn Austin maintains that everyone was chosen for merit, not for feminist ideology. Mary Silverman jokes, “Don’t think we didn’t try to find a woman to play Honor’s father.”

At sundown, this past summer, apprentices sprayed mosquito repellent into the Lenox Art Theater’s coral and white circus tent, surrounded by green mountains. Then the audience of 70 people trooped into the tent and settled down to watch the play. The mother’s bed is the main piece of furniture of the set. Since she is the centerpiece for the family’s trauma, Leora Dana, who plays Honor’s mother, lies or sits on the bed throughout most of the play. “Everything was just starting,” she tells Kathryn Walker with a sob behind her voice. “Would you give me a Kleenex?”

Formally, Honor’s play is a long. poignant poem interspersed with music and songs sung by an offstage performer. But it is also a scrapbook of the real events surrounding her mother’s death. Kathryn Walker’s lines include interior monologues, conversations with doctors and family members, and stage directions. The play begins as she says, “The telephone rings, I answer. I hear
nothing. It frightens me.” She goes on to tell us that a week before shed written her mother to tell her that she loved tier. “Not the perfunctory I love you we always used. but a real one. The real one.” Ironically, the telephone caller is her mother an- flouncing that she is entering the hospital for cancer tests.

The heroine’s lines are not all not all noble. When her father calls her late at night to report that the cancer tests are positive, she thinks. “I don’t want to wake up. I can’t comfort him. I want to go back to sleep….” Her poetic dialogue is interspersed with the prosaic data of daily living. Sitting by the mother’s hospital bed the daughter listens to her talking about her will. Her mind wanders. And so the song. “What will she leave me?”

A ring or two.
Her turquoise beads
The green-striped chair
What will she leave me
Except alone…
The antique quilt
I bought for her—
Will I get it back?

In Mourning Pictures, Honor Moore uses her sizable poetic gift to create a life-loving portrait of a motherr and her daughter. ‘‘She’s not cold, the daughter insists hysterically after her kissing her dead mother at the plays end. For Kathryn Walker. Honor’s play is just one part of the legacy Jenny Moore left to her family and friends. Duringg the funeral at the National Cathedral in Washington. Kathryn Walker kept forgetting that Jenny Moore wasn’t there supervising, making sure everyone was okay. “Maybe it was looking at all those children, all that flesh, but I felt she was there.”

For Honor Moore, the creation of this nonfiction poem—play is a major artistic step. For us it also functions, as art often does, as instruction for life. It gives us a deep sounding of one woman’s development as a daughter, a woman, and a writer.

Susan Brandy is a contributing editor to “Ms.” and is writing an autobiographical book about divorce to be published by David McKay.