Mom is the one that always encouraged me to write.
“You should tell about our crazy family,” she’d say, “A book like that would be a best seller!”
It’s true, I’ve always looked at life as a series of stories.
Dis-function can be hilarious if approached in the right way.
Disasters can usually be tempered into an amusing anecdote.
Tragedy and sadness can be eased a bit, when shared.
I certainly had lots of “crazy” family stories.
If Mom knew how many of them she figured predominantly in, she may not have been so encouraging!
When I was about five years old, standing on a stool at the bathroom sink, washing my doll, Mom came in and asked if I had opened the medicine cabinet. She was probably more alert than usual. Just a week before, killing time while waiting for my sister Brenda to get off the pot, I had been rummaging through that cabinet and seriously cut my thumb with a razor blade I found there.
“No, I’m just giving my baby a bath,” I told her.
She insisted she’d heard it open. I stuck to my story.
She whopped me twice: once for getting into the medicine cabinet, and once for lying about it.
In fairness, I’m sure there were one thousand or more times when I committed a major infraction, didn’t get caught, and didn’t get punished. I’ve forgotten every incident…except the one time, fifty-five years ago, when I was unjustly spanked. That one stands out in my memory.
The boys in our family went to the barber shop regularly, to have their heads nearly shaved into what we called a “butch” haircut. The girls took turns sitting on the kitchen stool to have Mom cut their hair. The styles varied, to – in Mom’s opinion – best flatter our features. I, for instance, was cursed with dark, thick rounded brows that met in the center of my face. Mom cut my hair short, then trimmed my bangs to mimic the shape of my eyebrows. A “pixie”, she called it.
To me, combined with my small face, large eyes and pug nose, the cut made me look almost exactly like a spider monkey.
Similarly, our clothes were chosen to flatter our looks and personalities. In Mom’s opinion, and to her taste. I, she thought, looked like a “little Dutch girl”. In clothing, that translates to ruffles at the collar, puffy sleeves, bright colors and rick-rack. Plenty of rick-rack. Today, I wear almost exclusively black.
In the kitchen, Mom would prepare anything that was brought to her: Bluegill and Sunfish we caught in the lake; a whole beef tongue Dad picked up at the slaughterhouse; the raccoon my brother killed with a rock. With Sunday dinners and meatless Fridays and weeknight meals, there are dozens of stories about Mom and her cooking.
My mother always tended toward hypochondria. She had a list of complaints that ranged from backache and headache to “sick and tired”. We grew so accustomed to it that legitimate ailments sometimes got lost in the fray. One Sunday my sisters and I – all young adults – sat around her kitchen table, discussing whether Mom was going to get up from the couch and fix dinner. I finally said, “Mom, if you really feel that bad, maybe I should drive you to the hospital.”
“Yes, maybe you should,” she said. So that’s what we did.
They kept her!
She had emergency gall bladder surgery the next morning!
Bad, lazy and inconsiderate daughter that I was, I had only suggested the hospital to get her up from the sofa!
In any gathering, Mom would be an enthusiastic participant for anywhere from ten minutes to one hour. That was it. Then – to the chagrin of her much more social offspring – would come the toe tapping, impatient looks and directional gestures to whomever she had traveled with. No arguments; no talking her out of it. She wanted to go home. Time to say good-bye.
These stories and others like them are the ones I’d think of when I thought about our “crazy family”.
I don’t think that’s quite what Mom had in mind.
Then my mother got sick. And then she died.
She faced death with so much elegance, bravery and grace, all other stories were chased away.
Everything that was hers, from her old blue fishing shirt to her menthol-camphor ointment, has taken on the importance of a holy relic. I wish I could remember every word she spoke, as it now seems like I should have always listened better. Every quirky habit that used to cause me to roll my eyes has become just one more thing that was special about her. What used to be reason for embarrassment is now cause to be ashamed that I didn’t appreciate her more.
My mother’s death has become the story that defines her.
I don’t think that’s what she wanted, either.
It hasn’t been quite two years since Mom died.
I don’t know that I’m ready, yet, to tell her stories…but I’m beginning to feel like the stories are ready to be told.