A few snapshots of my mother, in different light, from different angles, some posed, some candid. If you find some of these stories a little off-color, a little inappropriate, and a little endearing, then I’ve done my job, because that’s who she was!
I’m in the living room with my mother. I am oh, maybe 8 years old. It’s a fairly mellow morning, no loud voices, no crises. Suddenly, she turns to me, affecting a frown, and says, “Sometimes you make me so mad, I could spit buttons!” With that, she amazingly spits a button across the room. I scream with shock and delight, and spend the rest of the day trying to recreate the moment with various siblings.
There was a grocery store two blocks away, and I was Mom’s number one gofer for sudden grocery needs. One day, she comes to me and says, “I need you to go to the store and get one of these.” She holds up a large, empty, bright purple box with the word “Kotex” emblazoned in white on the front. I have not a clue what these things are, but I can certainly accomplish the task. At the grocery store, I wave off the bagger’s offer, for my mother has always told me that if you don’t need a bag, it is wasteful to take one. So here I come toward home, both arms clasped around a big purple box that I can barely see around. Mom apparently happens to glance out the window, and from half a block away, I suddenly hear her yelling, “Get in here! Get in the house! Come on!” I quicken my pace, my mind racing, trying to figure out what I must have done to get myself in such trouble. “Why didn’t you get a bag?” she asks me, exasperated, as I come in the door. I remind her of her admonition regarding unnecessary bagging, and she suddenly becomes very quiet, at a loss for what to say next. My feeling at that moment is one of relief, since it doesn’t appear that I am in any trouble. It was many moons after that day when I thought back and put the pieces together. But I learned my lesson well – I still try to avoid unnecessary bagging.
I’m about 21. Mom comes to see me in a play in downtown
at the Attic Theatre, where I work. After the show, she comes backstage and I ask her how she liked the show. “Oh, you were so good! It was just like you were a real actor!” After a slight pause, I respond, “Uh, I am a real actor, Mom.” “Oh, you know what I mean!” she gushes back. Yeah, I do. Detroit
In a similar vein, there I am in my (to date) one and only opera. It’s a big deal, big budget, professional opera at a 4,000 seat palace. I was one of over 40 voices in the chorus of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila. After the show, I once again (you’d think I would learn) ask my Mom what she thought. She smiles and says, very pridefully, “Oh, I could hear you singing!” – apparently unaware that being singularly identifiable is not a desirable goal for a chorus member. Still, it is meant in the best way, and I accept the compliment graciously.
Mom and I and a brother or sister or two are discussing her feat of bearing 8 children in 10 years. None of her siblings or other relatives have come anywhere near this number, and I wonder aloud what could account for such a difference in her case. She volunteers that “I always get horny when I’m fertile.” Too much information, Mom! Too much information!
I bring a serious girlfriend over to my parents’ house for the first time. We’ve been seeing each other for months, but I have said very little about her to my folks. It’s the day of a major family event, with various members of the extended family scurrying about. She and I sit quietly on the couch in the living room, waiting for the bedlam to die down a little. Suddenly, Mom appears. She walks into the living room, sets a photo album on my girlfriend’s lap, turns, and leaves, all without saying a word. Her conduct seems akin to that of a monk who has taken a vow of silence. It’s an album mostly of photos of me as an infant and a child. I guess Mom wanted her to get the whole picture of what she might be getting herself into.
I’m about to leave town for the better part of 9 months in a national touring company of The Wizard of Oz. As it happens, I am the only straight male in the cast. I stop by my parents’ house to say goodbye, as we will be hitting the road in the morning. My mother playfully asks, “So, any romances brewing in the cast?”
After a slight pause, I hesitatingly answer, “Well, yes.”
“Oh, who? Dorothy and the Scarecrow?”
“Uh, no, the Lion and the Tin Man, actually.”
Dad is keeping up with my meaning, but Mom is running a little behind. I try to spell it out for her. “Mom, I’m the only straight man in the cast.”
This only puzzles her. “But, it’s a comedy, isn’t it?”
Dad finally speaks. His tone bespeaks a weary familiarity with this type of misunderstanding. “Mother, that’s not what he means.” We finally manage to spell out for her the intended nuance in the term, “straight man.”
My brother and his wife have their first son, and I am asked to be the godfather. Given the large pool of potential candidates, I am highly honored. Word of this selection quickly spreads through the family, and a few days later, I receive a phone call from my mother. She has heard of my impending godfatherhood, and feels she has some important information to contribute. “You know, don’t you,” she begins, with just a hint of lecture in her voice, “that as the child’s godfather, you are responsible for his religious upbringing.” Very traditional Catholic attitude there. And she knows darn well that I am not at all religious. I respond, very evenly, “Don’t worry Mom, I take that responsibility very seriously.” We both understand each other in that moment, but she was duty-bound to deliver her message.
I’ve moved to
a few months earlier, but I’m back in Chicago for Thanksgiving. We’ve gathered at the home of my sister and brother-in-law, and the whole family is seated at a long table. Mom is across from me and a few seats to my right. As we’re passing plates of food around, she suddenly states in a clear voice, “Now Chuck, you be careful in Detroit . I don’t want you getting AIDS.” There is a pause that hangs in the air. Well, I think, if you want to say things like that out loud, two can play at that game. “Don’t worry Mother,” I shoot back, “I’m practicing the safest form of sex known to mankind.” She has no comeback for that one, but I don’t think she feels as if she needs one. Chicago
This one happened more than once. I’m living in
, and I haven’t seen Mom for many months. We talk on the phone and get each other caught up on our respective lives. At the end of the call, one of us says, “I love you,” and the other says in response, “I love you too.” We hang up, and we get back to working our way through this world. Wonderful invention, the telephone. Chicago