Relationships

Behind the Candelabra

My mother's favorite story was about the time Liberace proposed to her with Elizabeth Taylor's 33-carat diamond ring

My mother (on left) and her sister, waiting for other celebrities to arrive.

In my mother's last months, she often shared a story on how Liberace proposed to her with Elizabeth Taylor's 33-carat diamond ring.

"He bought it for me," she explained, "but when I said no to marrying him, he gave it to Elizabeth Taylor. Then, because she was not a nice woman, she took that ring and gave it to Richard Burton so he could marry her. Richard was a handsome man, but he drank, very much. What kind of man proposes to a woman using her own ring?"

My mother had developed Alzheimer's in the last year of her life. On Sundays, we'd pick her up from hospice so she could spend the day at our house. I grew to love her Liberace story.

Her main reason for not marrying Liberace, she confessed, was us.

"We would've been gone too much," she said, "and I wanted to be home with my children."

On other visits, she'd divulge in a quiet voice that she had heard that marrying him would've just been for "appearances." My mother would then fill us in on the special friendship that she had with Liberace, the shopping they'd do together and how he didn't like the taste of coffee. The thing is, she very well could have met him.

We lived in Milwaukee, Liberace's hometown, and he often came through on tour to visit his family. My mother worked in the executive area of one of Milwaukee's major banks and often met famous people. I never really worried about looking behind the candelabra of her Liberace story. It was enough that it made her happy.

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My husband and children adopted the same reaction. They'd sit nearby as my mother told her tall tale of Liberace and Liz, and because they adored her, they patiently listened.

One Sunday, I came home after running out to pick up my mother's favorite chocolate croissants, to find our neighbors over for a surprise visit. They didn't know about my mother and since I had been out, my husband had not introduced her properly, mainly not saying anything about her Alzheimer's.

As I began to prepare my mother's snack in the kitchen, I heard her begin to tell the Liberace story. We had all grown so used to it by then that it never occurred to me how outsiders might take it in. I noticed the silence in the room and looked up to see my neighbors, who were both wide-eyed, their heads spinning with what they had just heard about Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Liberace and my mother.

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I wiped my hands and started for the living room when I heard my husband jump in without missing a beat. "Alexandra's mother worked for a VIP part of a bank," he explained. "What Leonor is telling you is a story from that time."

I blinked away tears as I heard my sweet husband treat my mother with love, respect and dignity. Our gracious guests immediately picked up on his cue and began to pepper my mother with questions about the famous pianist. I could see on her face how much she relished answering each one.

In the final months before my mother passed, her physician asked me during a visit if her illness was progressing. I sat quietly for a minute as I thought how to answer. Her stories were growing in embellishment, that much was true. I smiled and told him that she was doing great.

"She hasn't lost her appetite for coffee and croissants. She shares stories with us from her past. She has a favorite one ..." I told him and then trailed off for a moment. "My mother is doing well, doctor." We both looked over at her, as she smiled back broadly.

My mother was always a natural storyteller. Growing up, we heard of the great poets, writers and stars of stage and screen she had met when she lived in South America. She worked as a reporter for her country's newspaper, and there was no reason for us to believe that these stories weren't true.

What I loved more than anything on those Sunday afternoons was watching my husband and my children listen to my mother. The belief in their eyes and the way they'd nod their heads along to things they had heard many, many times was the very essence of true love.

"Did you know that I gave Liberace the idea for the candelabra on his piano?" she told us one day. "Yes, I bought him his first one, and he used it for the rest of his career."

My mother has been gone for almost two years now. Sundays will always bring a pinch in my throat as I remember I no longer have her here to ask, "Mama, tell me again about how hurt Liberace was when you told him that you couldn't marry him."

"He was a kind man," she'd say, "but I wanted to be home with you, my children."

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