mom, out of nowhere
Every so often, a particular word or phrase, something that would not normally bother me, becomes as irritating as a credit card robocall. This week’s winner is that old euphemism for dying, when someone says “I lost my mom this week.”
My mom died in 1984, but I most assuredly didn’t lose her. In fact, I’ve felt her presence a lot lately. It’s not the anniversary of her death, or her birthday, or some other significant time that invites her back. She just seems to show up.
So today, for no particular reason, Mom shows up. I’m at my desk ready to write my next book, and out of nowhere I hear “Turn on a light. You’re gonna ruin your eyes.”
I think it’s funny how moms can make such huge leaps from action to consequence. I can’t count the number of times my mom told me that something I was doing would, inexorably, lead to me breaking my neck. “Don’t walk out there without shoes—you’ll fall and break your neck.” “Stop running in the house—you’re gonna trip and break your neck.” “Get off that fence, you’re gonna break your neck!”
Really, mom? Do broken necks run in the family? Are our neighborhood’s lawns littered with the sprawled, misshapen bodies of kids with broken necks? I’m just saying, there have to have been a few times when a kid ran in the house and nothing bad happened. Another one I never understood was “Put on a shirt—you’re making me cold.” And I would dutifully put on a shirt. And that’s the kinda Bizarro World logic that ALWAYS worked with me! Never once did I say, “That’s impossible, Mom. What I’m wearing doesn’t change the temperature!”
With apologies to my more sensitive readers, my mom was a ‘broad,’ in the best sense of the word. You had to work past quite a few layers of gruff to get to the woman who baked sixty dozen cookies for family and friends every Christmas. I truly believe I inherited my love of New York from her: out of Astoria, Queens, working at the Bulova Watch factory at fifteen to support her family, my mom was the genuine article—a New Yorker.
And tough? Until she quit to devote her time to raising me, she was what is sometimes called a Licensed Vocational Nurse. She explained her job description this way: she did the work the doctors felt they were too important to do, and that the RNs didn’t have time to do. If someone from the psych ward broke his restraints and ran naked out of the hospital, she was the one who would tackle him. Great gig.
She wasn’t wild about the whole showbiz thing. But the only career advice I remember getting from her was “I don’t care if you want to be a ditchdigger, as long as you’re the best damn ditchdigger you can be.” Again with the no-middle-ground thing, mom. Just because I don’t want to be a doctor, doesn’t mean the only other option for me is working next to people in orange jumpsuits fulfilling their community service by the side of the freeway!
It’s not like Mom didn’t think I had talent; in fact, she was the biggest booster of my writing aspirations, starting with my first full-length story, written when I was in fourth grade, “The Adventures of Pat P. Pencil.” But performing? I remember her saying, “I just don’t want you to end up working in the chorus your whole life not making any money.” Sometimes I really hate how smart Mom was.
My mother had a bit of a temper. And we fought a lot. She loved saying ‘dammit!’ between drags of her odd-looking More cigarettes (brown paper, exotically thin and long). Yet I don’t think I ever saw her look as crestfallen as she did the first time she heard me swear back. The only other time I remember really feeling her disappointment was the first time I came home in the wee small hours. And she waited up for me.
I closed the grill at the McDonald’s and decided go with a group of kids to a party after work. Now understand, part of Mom’s reaction was due to the fact that I had never been the kind of teenager that did…anything. My only social life was the marching band, and the only time I had been drunk was at a family wedding when my uncle (her brother) kept pouring me Crown Royal and Coke so I could show I was a man at fourteen. Quick—spot the dysfunctional person in this picture!
So, I get to our house around 4AM, and discovered an important law of physics. The more quietly you attempt to turn a key in a lock, the more noise you will make. I get inside, there’s Mom in a bathrobe, and all she says is, “Good night.” But TO THIS DAY I remember the waves of disappointment hitting me, and me getting sucked into a riptide of let-down.
She wouldn’t have been upset by the fact that I’d been drinking, although she was a tee-totaller. Mom only drank on New Year’s Eve. Three vodka stingers. But in a classic example of mom-think, the first time I asked if I could go to a party, that afternoon, when I came home from school, I saw on the kitchen table three bottles of booze. Mom’s reasoning? If you’re gonna drink tonight, you can have as much as you want…here. With Mom watching. Yeah, that’ll be fun. Needless to say, I didn’t go to the party.
I think my mom missed her calling. She should have been in a position of power, because she could have solved a lot of world problems, just by being herself. The only political comment I remember from her was her take on the crisis in Northern Ireland. To which she suggested: “The Pope should just excommunicate all the Catholics who keep fighting.” And maybe the world needs some of my mom’s approach today.
When my cousin and I fought over an Etch-A-Sketch, my mom’s solution was to take it away from both of us. “Now neither of yous get to play with it.” Imagine my mom as a special envoy to the Middle East. She would say “Alright…you Israelis and Palestinians can’t work out a way to play without fighting? Now none of you get to have Gaza. How does that suit ya?”