“Whew-whew! Whew-Whew!” I looked past my mother through the half open taxi window. An old man in a grey flecked, tweed jacket was walking a Scotch terrier on a leash. With much effort she cranked the window down another turn and stuck her head out. “Whew-whew!” she whistled again. The man turned, surprised, though not unpleased, and then the taxi lurched forward and my mother slumped back into her seat. “What a hunk!” she said, and let out a momentous groan. I laughed, but she did not respond. She sank more deeply into her seat, her face turned away.

Eighty-three, and weighing no more than that, she was still capable of such surprises. My sister, Katharine, had called the previous week to tell me that “Noni,” as we called her now, had—with tears in her eyes and all the frustration of a teenager—fought with her for half an hour about wanting to marry Bob, her 41-year-old physical therapist. “Why shouldn’t I?” she’d complained over and over again. “We’re both free.” Recently divorced, her therapist was known to us all for his good looks—the picture on her dresser showed a smiling, wavy-haired Perry Como—for his magic fingers, and for the jokes he told her twice a week, repeated to us as regularly as news bulletins. “Good,” I’d said to Katharine. “Keeps her young.” But I didn’t have to deal with her except on the phone. To me it was just another funny story. My wife and I lived fifty miles away, out on Long Island, and got into New York only occasionally. My sister, in Chappaqua, saw our mother several times each week. My younger brother, Gus, lived with his family only 13 blocks away. More detached, I could enjoy being surprised.

We drove on another few blocks in silence, and then she turned toward me and I saw her tears. “Why shouldn’t I get married again,” she said, her face twisted in misery.

“Mother!” I found myself saying, shocked by the nakedness of her emotion.

“Why shouldn’t I?” she cried out again. “We’re both free!”

My father had died just over nine years before, in 1976, at the age of 79. They had been living at the Amsterdam House, a posh “care facility” with an across-the-street view of St. John the Divine, elegant paintings in the foyer, elaborate wooden puzzles spread out temptingly on card tables, and biweekly sing-alongs. They’d wanted to go home to their apartment on 68th Street the day they’d arrived, but to please us and the doctors, they’d stayed three months—as long as they could. “I don’t give him two weeks,” the doctor told me when at last we agreed to let them go home. My mother had originally gone to be with my father, but the doctors tried to keep her there for psychiatric treatment at the end. She insulted them daily, corrected their grammar—as she always did everyone’s—and could not refrain from telling them to their faces how stupid she thought them. My father, who had been an Episcopalian minister for 51 years, died six weeks later, peacefully, with a smile on his lips. A week before my mother remarked quite casually that he’d lost his belief in the life hereafter. “How do you know that?” I’d said, shocked.

“He told me so. Yesterday.” She said it just as she said everything else—as if she were reading it aloud from the New York Times. It was only later that it occurred to me that she’d probably made it up. Some six months after that she had no memory of having said it, so I will never know whether my father’s almost saintly serenity at the end was based on his sure hope of eternal bliss or on an acceptance of death as nothingness. His life had certainly not been serene, neither within nor outside the bosom of the family—he and my mother having rather famously and vociferously fought for most of their lives—and his ministry had been passionate but frustrating. Why did my mother tell me that about him, if it were not true? Or why, without amplification, if it were? Why didn’t I press her? Why did I not question my father? Why?

My brother is the founder and head of the Manhattan Country School. He has suffered more than the rest of us, probably, from my mother’s delusions. A few years ago when she called to tell us that her good friend so-and-so had just given Gus’s school one million dollars, we bubbled with excitement. But Gus’s voice sounded weary when I spoke to him on the phone. He’d called the woman in question, hopeful yet suspicious. “No,” she’d said, “I wish I could afford to. Poor Jean.”

My mother should have been an actress. That was part of it. We all said that. She had such a capacity for making the unreal real. And for a brief moment she had been an actress, three years before that million-dollar delusionary remark. As a result of a chance encounter between a granddaughter and Woody Allen’s talent scout, Noni had made a cameo appearance in the movie Zelig, and that, I am convinced, is what unhinged her. “Eighty pounds of pepper,” the headline read. She’d prided herself on the fact that they’d had to do only two takes. Playing the mother of the psychiatrist who cures Zelig of his chameleon tendencies, Noni played a part for which she was typecast. Her hair marcelled into sticky 1920 waves, she glared out at the camera—an ax murderer crouched in the dock—and answered the interviewer’s banal questions with caustic aplomb: “No, we weren’t particularly pleased with her. She was what you would call a brat.”

“But your husband. He must have been very proud indeed?”

“Not really. He was from a very old Philadelphia family. And, you see, he drank.” She was fierce, uncompromising, shocking—and hilarious. There was a vicious honesty about her that appealed; “the most memorable thing in the movie,” one critic wrote. She and her friend Mrs. Lloyd Garrison, who portrayed the psychiatrist in old age, were featured in the New York Times, and worse yet the article was picked up by the Paris Herald, among other papers, and a friend called her from Rome to tell her how great she was. That was all that was needed to topple her sanity. From that day on, she lived in a dream world in which extraordinary, marvelous, and disastrous things happened. “There’s-been an earthquake in Hancock [our summer place in Maine]. Call Winnie and find out . . .” And there were deeper repercussions on our own views of reality. When, indeed, there was an earthquake in Chappaqua, and my brother-in-law, Phil, called me about it, I thought he was joking.

“How’s Woody?” I would say to her sometimes on the phone.

“He never paid me, you know. Three hundred measly dollars. You know what that film earned?” She kept a picture of Woody, the cured, prosperous-looking Zelig, in a silver frame on her living room desk next to a favorite one of my father—smiling, youthful, glancing up from the deck of a sailboat. Anyone looking at the overcoated, distinguished-looking gentleman in the fedora, caught for a moment in the bustle of Madison Avenue sidewalk traffic sometime in the 30’s, would have taken it as a picture of her father, or perhaps an uncle. The man grinning up at her from the ship’s deck could have been a son or former lover.

“Go right out and buy some dental floss,” she commanded one night. When I asked if it couldn’t wait until morning, she informed me gaily that she’d just been paid “mints” for doing a dental floss commercial. “Me and me wooden teeth,” she laughed. Speaking in the brogue was always a positive sign. I hadn’t heard her in such a good mood in weeks. The truth was that she’d sat in a waiting room, and then filled out a form—she and some fifty other old ladies. Nothing had ever come of it, except in her mind. She went through a brief stage in which she possessed vast wealth, and we had to curtail her check-writing ability. We needn’t have worried that this would upset her, for she continued to write checks in her mind—dispensing largess, dispelling gloom. We all drew closer to her now. Still physically active, she became younger, more entertaining, almost overflowing with girlish charm.

“Did I ever tell you about my affair with Fred Astaire?” she remarked one day to Sandra, who had gotten her the Zelig job. Her eyesight going, she would sit in her apartment, alone for hours, playing his records, imagining herself in his arms.

“Utter nonsense,” I assured Sandra. “All in her mind.” But when I happened to mention it to “Aunt” Zorka, one of my mother’s oldest, childhood friends, she beamed.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “We were both in love with him.” It turned out that Fred Astaire had spun them around a dance floor at a Brooklyn cotillion when they, and the century, were roughly 18. They had arranged the party—which included an exhibition by Fred Astaire and his sister—and in return, he had danced each one around the room. That was all there was to it. But that was enough to alter both their lives.

One day her maid came in to find Noni lying on the floor entangled in the phonograph wires. Unharmed, she looked up with a bad-girl-caught-in-the-act smile. She had been dancing with Fred Astaire, she explained, and had tripped and fallen. After that we dared not leave her alone.

In the fall of 1985 she was in the hospital with a brain tumor. Dr. Goodrich informed us that nothing could be done. She wasn’t in any pain but couldn’t move around very well, and the radiation treatments made her weak. She hated the hospital, as she hated the fact that she couldn’t stay awake, couldn’t talk, not for long, couldn’t read, couldn’t even watch television. What she did when we came to visit her was play Pat-a-cake and arm wrestle. The muscles of her upper arm were amazingly strong. But she had to be forced up out of bed to walk.

Home from the hospital, in bed most of the time now, she began to sing. “I hear those angel voices singing,” she warbled as I came into her room one day, and I thought, “Good. She has made her peace with God.” I looked over at Bea, her loving, long-suffering, Jamaican nurse for the past half year, and smiled.

“She sing dat piece all the time,” Bea said, “and dat pop tune, what’s its name?” Then I heard the rest of the words, “old, black Joe,” and I sat down next to her on the bed and took her hand. Fooled again, I thought, picking up the song, “I hear those angel voices singing old, black Joe.” Her treble to my bass. We sang the spiritual through together two more times.

My sister had cautioned me not to react to her loss of hair but hadn’t prepared me for the softness its absence gave her features. Her hair had been white and leonine and now what was left of it was soft and silky and flattened to her head like a baby’s. And, like a baby, she seemed defenseless and sweet. She opened her eyes and looked up at me, as if reading my thoughts. And then they narrowed in the old way, and she pointed her finger accusingly, “Bald as you. Bald as you now!”

“Bald as a baby,” I replied and cupped my hand around her head in astonishment and love. She shut her eyes. “You must have been a beautiful baby, you must have been a beautiful child,” she sang, quick as that. I could almost see her dancing.

It was only a few weeks later that she died.