As kids, we celebrated Mother’s day with goofy gifts that never got used or took Mom out for dinner, us three kids splitting the bill. Even though the gifts were terrible and Mother’s Day dinner was pretty much like any other family night out particularly since the money that bought the meal came from our allowance courtesy of the person we were spending it on. But, it’s the thought that counts. Since my Mom passed away last year around this time, I’ve had more thoughts about those years than ever and in light of the coming holiday decided to use the next few blog posts sharing them (also, because these memories are freshly minted). When stuff like this originally happens, the adolescent brain quickly blocks it out because, at that age, everything your parents do or say is an embarrassment. Plus, you get busy focusing on the future. First college and then the rat race makes us forget as we fight to get our piece of the pie, an ongoing struggle which Mom and everyone else seemed to be preparing us for in our youth. My Mom prepared me for some things while neglecting others but I’m sure that’s the case with any family. As a general rule, when telling stories about real people, rather than follow the marketing formula of Hollywood, focusing on some inciting incident that brought on drama (because drama means conflict which tends to vilify characters, if you’re not careful), the story should focus on the kind of truth that comes from crystallizing the essence of a character which is almost always good, despite any mistakes. It’s counterintuitive for most people who came up in the 20th century because in the modern era, truth is something that can be proven beyond the shadow of a doubt, but in the pre-modern era, stories were always used to tell of a truth that’s not tied directly to any historical “fact” and instead distills history into an essence that people naturally interpret as insight into reality. When the world hits us with bad, this is a nice thought, that we can find the good, defocus our lens from marketable and refocus on relatable.
I don’t mean to pidgeon-hole the modern era. While, it’s no real debate that the 20th century modernism was too polarized, this is mostly true when you push bias towards politics and the natural sciences. The era also had its lighter side that catered to our non-scientific, relational side. Since the technique of animation can exploit any idea the imagination can cook up, cartoons handled it well with a tendency to give us a more human way of seeing things. Though the natural sciences seemed to influence the western mind more than the human sciences, society was not shy about making fun of itself. Just take a look at mainstream cartoons. I’ve said before that Looney tunes was my favorite but there were other great cartoons as well. Hanna-Barbera probably took a close second. These painstakingly hand-drawn stories gave us a daily vacation from reality, a side-trip to an absurd place where taking things too serious was not allowed. Many of the characters taught us that if you try to control things too much, you’d just end up back where you started which is a healthy, family/kid friendly message. My mom didn’t really like TV. She even tried to pay us $500 to go an entire year without it (sounds like a good plan but fundamentally flawed due when using the honor system while dealing with 10 year olds who had friends with TVs. I think one sister made it the whole year, the other made it 6 months. I was done after 3. She thought most of the programming was trash. Mom was a force to be reckoned with but she did let me watch all the cartoons my brain could handle. She was a typical modern era stay-at-home Mom with one hell of a Mom look and Mom voice to back up her strong premonitions, both of which could stop us in our tracks when we only thought about doing something we knew we shouldn’t. The authority figure archetype is probably the way most kids see their Mom because of all the discipline our parents laid down in the early years. But once you get a little older, you start to see evidence of a youthful personality hidden inside. When we get older, I guess we hide it because through the lens of youth, it feels so wrong and inauthentic. We used to get embarrassed and roll our eyes when we were kids. That’s not a criticism of youth because it’s to be expected. It takes years of life experience as well as some reflection on the past to have the capacity to recognize it for what it is. I guess that’s the reverence for parenthood incubating inside, slowly bubbling to the surface. One of the things that my Mom would do to let her inner child out, causing embarrassment (or even a little anger, depending on the circumstances), was her weird habit of falling on the ground. My mom wasn’t very funny (though she thought she was), but she loved to laugh.
Reflecting on the past, I realize now that Mom was right. “About what?”, you ask…. “everything!”. What is it about Mom’s, teenagers and the sage advice that they give and we ignore? Advice about friends, girls, school…..boxer shorts. One of the first memories I have of Mom’s “funny” side was the day one of her warnings came to fruition. I must have been in middle school because I don’t think it had been long since the move. It was maybe the first or second Christmas in the house that would remain Home until leaving for college, and a second home we would visit many times during college breaks and post-college holidays and then gather in at the beginning of April, 2016 a final time for our first family meal without Mom, prepared in her kitchen and eaten on her table. As a middle schooler, it had only been a year or two since I had stopped vegging out on Snagglepuss and the Flinstones. That Christmas, my sisters decided to help my effort to transition into adulthood with a grown-up gift (they were always doing that). Christmas morning, after Dad’s traditional reading of the resurrection story, all the gifts were exchanged. As goofy as it sounds, the sisters gifted me a really nice pair of boxer shorts, silk, featuring a classy paisley pattern. We finished up our annual December ritual by scooping up the torn bits of wrapping paper, cardboard boxes, tape and other pieces of messiness that were beyond salvage so that we could jet off to our rooms and ready ourselves for the main festivities at Mimi’s house where tradition dictated that we meet up with the aunts, uncles and cousins to chow down on chicken n’ dumplins, smoked turkey and ham (courtesy of Uncle Reggie’s back yard smoker), along with various casseroles, vegetable trays, deserts, teas and soft drinks. As we began to break out into our own corners of the house to get ready, Mom pulls me aside and with a smirk on her face, she says, “You know…those shorts have a button on the front. You have be careful with those”. As usual, I though Mom had come up with another piece of ridiculous and irrelevant advice since parents are old and out of touch, so I rolled my eyes, and probably muttered something like, “You’ve got to be kidding me”.
My dad was a neurotically neat early bird. He was in bed by 10 and rose at 5 to go running during the week and hunting or fishing on the weekends. So, he got grumpy if people made too much noise after bedtime. Our first house didn’t have a door that separated the living area from the bedroom hallway. Our second house did, which is good because as we got up into high school, we’d stay up later and later. So, it was a common practice to make sure that the door to the hallway was shut if we stayed up late. Otherwise, Grumpy Dad would pop up out of nowhere in his tightie-whities griping about all the noise. This must have rubbed off on me because one school-night, sporting my new paisley silk boxers (and nothing else), I was trying to sleep (I want to stress…this is not a weekend). I’m sound asleep in bed when I hear laughter coming from the living room. I’m annoyed, but you know how it is when you’re half asleep. Whatever the source of a sleepy-time disturbance, you assume that it’ll go away if you just ignore it, so ignore it I do. And in my manly arrogance, assume that the women will take a break from their girl talk long enough to realize that they’re forgetting a rule and out of respect for the working men of the house, someone will get up and resolve the problem without me having to waste my valuable time by getting up and doing it myself. The laughing continues and I just get more and more annoyed to the point that I start to get mad (In my own defense, the door thing is a known rule). Convention never worked well for my Mom’s family but it did for Dad’s. So, he had his rules and expected everyone to follow them. This also is not a criticism. In a Christian household in the 20th century, it wasn’t an unreasonable expectation. We went to the Big Baptist church every week and learned from Biblical scripture about Men and leadership which offered guidance on how a household should run. While that masculine perspective is legitimate, I think the 20th century may have placed too little emphasis on the feminine one which is identified in scripture as wisdom, A.K.A. “advice”. Growing up with a Mom who loved giving advice to a son who loved ignoring it (I ignored my Dad too), I can say from experience that in traditional western society, the feminine perspective that gives rise to all that advice that we like to ignore is way underrated.
Laying there wide-eyed, I know that a rule has been broken, the offenders are aware of their trespasses and I’ve given ample time for the accused to remedy the situation that I can no longer ignore, so I jump out of bed, all huffy. I throw open my bedroom door and march down the hallway. I hear more laughter. If I were paying attention, I would realize that it’s not usual for my sisters to stay up late chatting away like this, I mean it’s a school night for them too, and it must be close to midnight. With my eyes at half-mast I march swiftly down the hallway. If I weren’t so hot-headed, I would also notice that there are more voices coming from the living room than we have sisters and Moms. But of course my skills of perception aren’t well developed due to my age and so I come through the doorway and round the corner with the words, “What in the world..blah blah blah!!!”, certain that I will find three familiar faces staring back at me. Unfortunately, what I do find, the scene that makes me stop in my tracks, cease and desist all actions, is a room full of girls, both adolescent and grown-up: my sister, two or three of her friends, their MOMS, and my Mom scattered around the living room, all staring, wide eyed, now completely silent. At times like this my brain always goes into panic mode, which for me is not fight or flight. It’s more like freeze or don’t move. It’s like a main power breaker blew, then the brain switches over to the backup generator, and the maintenance crew in my head is trying desperately to locate the bad fuse while the PA system plays the emergency instructions on loop, “1) Everybody keep me calm. 2)Don’t make any sudden moves. 3)Just back away slow”. While I stand there in shock waiting for the signal that the power is back on, my eyes dart around the room from one person to the next and I see that our house guests are all looking right at me, trying to subdue a smirk or a snicker.
This is the point at which I start to babble & stutter, trying to figure out a way to save some face but, it’s too late. My eyes dart over to my mom who’s wearing that signature smirk and I see that her eyes are also bugged out. As I back peddle she’s starting to slide slowly forward. I remember her advice from Christmas morning and look down to verify that, “Oh thank God, I did remember to button the shorts”, but it doesn’t matter. Mom is now sliding towards the edge of her seat and my hopes that she’ll do something to come to my rescue are lost. Instead, she just falls from the couch to her knees and tips over like a felled tree. Mom crashes over onto her side, rolls onto her back and erupts in laughter. Crap! Now all the girls and random Moms have been given carte blanche to respond in kind without feeling the guilt of impropriety. When it just can’t get any worse, the best thing to do is retreat. As my limbs start to regain some animation, I back up a few steps till I’m even with the hallway and then quickly turn and Exit…stage left….while my brain smacks itself in the face mumbling, “Heavens to Murgetroyd”!
Good one Mom.