Mothers anger, loss explored in poems about AIDS

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Charlotte Mayerson is a Jewish mother. An angry one.

Angry enough to threaten to sue a doctor, "or at the very least call her mother." Angry enough to engage in a quarrel with God. "A very Jewish tradition," she said.

Ultimately, Mayerson funneled her emotion through a pen. The result is "The Death Cycle Machine," a collection of poems on the loss of her son to AIDS.

She will read from her book at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, March 5 at the Jewish Community Library, 601-14th Ave., S.F., and at 7:30 p.m., Sunday, March 3 at A Different Light, 489 Castro, S.F.

Mayerson, 68 and a former executive editor at Random House, sought out a Jewish venue to read her first collection of poems. "The Jewish community has gotten better [about AIDS]…but it still has to realize people who shop on Union Street get it too," she said in a phone interview from her home in Manhattan.

"I recently came into contact with a group called Mothers' Voices. It's for parents, mostly mothers, whose children have died of AIDS. There's a lot of middle-class Jews in it," Mayerson said.

"There was this man there whose family owned a department store in the community I grew up in. Our mothers planted trees in Israel together and wore their fur coats to Hadassah meetings. Both their grandchildren are dead from AIDS now."

Mayerson's son Robert Henry died six years ago. He was 35, a former business editor at the South China Morning Post, and "one of those people born adventurous," she said. "He once helicoptered to the top of a mountain in Italy to eat a certain kind of cheese."

Mayerson enjoys recalling funny anecdotes Robert's friends share with her — like the famous scientist who claims she would have been a suburban New Jersey housewife if Robert hadn't encouraged her to hang upside-down out her dorm- room window. Or the time Robert taught his sixth-grade class Esperanto so the teacher wouldn't know what they were saying.

Telling these stories balances her anger, Mayerson said. And "The Death Machine Cycle" is filled with her emotion. Consider the poem "Layout":

I didn't consider/When I chose your name/How it would look/On a tombstone.

"Of course it's angry. There is a lot of anger. The kind of anger a mother has when her son doesn't eat his spinach," Mayerson said. "I was angry when Robert didn't take care of himself to beat the disease. I was angry at AIDS — as if it were a person, a personal enemy. I was furious at the medical establishment.

"And I was angry at the people who just didn't understand."

One so-called friend, upon hearing of Robert's illness, said, "I hope this taught him a lesson."

"I said, `Are you a virgin, dear?'" Mayerson recalled. The friend's comment "wasn't very helpful."

Actually, little was. Not writing. "Painful," she said. Not even her Torah and Talmud study at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

"The stories of David and Absalom and of Abraham resonate. But were they a comfort? No," she said.

Besides, Torah study reminded her of reading the Bible to Robert as a child. Having grown tired of children's favorites, Mayerson took the Bible to her son's bedside each evening. However, fearing she was boring her child, Mayerson never finished the tome.

The irony, she said, was that Robert studied religion in college and told his mother he remembered the stories by heart — but only the ones she read him.

"It just proves mothers can't do anything right," Mayerson said with a laugh. It's a heavy sound rather than a light chuckle. But it's a laugh.

Mayerson seems to have found her solace. It's in reviving Robert's memory. It's in the women of the Holocaust, whom she also wrote about.

Without the women of the Holocaust/Who saw their children ripped asunder/I could not go on

…Who, because they could not/Save their young –/Hide them in a safe place –/Became outlaws,…/Without those women/Before my eye I would die now –/In the right order –/while he's still alive.

"Very often as I thought I was going under, I thought of these women," Mayerson said. "I realized my experience [of not being able to protect my child] wasn't unique. Other women of our tradition have gone through this too."